Educational Leadership


“Just let the worst students go”: A critical case analysis of public discourse about race, merit, and worth

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SAGE Publications


We present a case analysis of the controversy and public debate generated from a school district’s efforts to address racial inequities in educational outcomes by diverting special funds from the highest performing students seeking elite college admissions to the lowest performing students who were struggling to graduate from high school. Widespread arguments against the proposed change emphasized the identification of highly successful students as “worthy” and others as “unworthy” of resources. Through an analysis of print and digital public texts, we identify a narrative cycle that informed public debate: (a) colorblind rhetoric, (b) academic performance is presumed to emerge solely from talent and effort, so (c) academic performance then becomes a measure of worth, and finally, (d) efforts to address racial disparities are “unfair.” We argue that narratives identifying some students as worthy and others unworthy are highly influential in the outcomes of many educational policy and funding debates.