The covert mechanisms of education policy discourse: Unmasking policy insiders’ discourses and discursive strategies in upholding or challenging racism and classism in education


  • Melanie Bertrand Arizona State University
  • Wendy Y. Perez Independent Researcher
  • John Rogers University of California, Los Angeles



policy discourse, educational equity, race, social class


Policy insiders across party lines increasingly acknowledge educational “gaps,” yet they talk about this inequity in very different ways. Though some critique disparities through a structural lens, others use deficit discourse, blaming families of color and working-class families for educational outcomes. This study examines how state policy insiders explain educational inequity, shedding light on the complex relationship between language and the maintenance of systemic racism and classism in education. Drawing upon a unique data set of interviews with 50 policy insiders in one state in the United States, we found three main discourses used to explain inequity in education, each of which cited a different cause: 1) structural inequity, 2) perceived deficits of families and communities, and 3) teachers unions and teacher seniority. Policy insiders used often-veiled discursive strategies to advance their discourses. For instance, those that used deficit discourse: 1) asserted that those most negatively impacted by inequity cause inequity; 2) strengthened deficit discourse by blending it with one or both of the other two discourses; and 3) made inequity appear natural through the use of several substrategies, including obscuring the identity of those harmed by inequity. These strategies allowed some policy insiders to strengthen deficit discourse, divert attention from structural issues, and characterize themselves positively while advancing racist and classist ideas. These findings have compelling implications in terms of possibilities for policy changes supportive of educational equity. 


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Author Biographies

Melanie Bertrand, Arizona State University

Melanie Bertrand is an Assistant Professor at Arizona State University in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She holds a Ph.D. in Education from the University of California, Los Angeles, and served as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Southern California. Her research employs micro- and macro-level lenses to explore the potential of student voice to challenge systemic racism in education.

Wendy Y. Perez, Independent Researcher

Wendy Y. Perez holds a PhD in Education from the University of California, Los Angeles, Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. Her research interests include examining cognitive frames regarding Latinas/os and college; Latinas/os and college access; educational policy in urban education; issues of equity and access in K-16 education; and critical examinations of race and class in urban schooling.  Wendy has conducted research for UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access as well as for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Pomona College and a Master’s Degree in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

John Rogers, University of California, Los Angeles

John Rogers is a Professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and Director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA). He also serves as the Vice Chair of the Department of Education and the faculty co-director of UCLA’s Principal Leadership Institute. Rogers studies the role of civic engagement in equity-focused school reform and civic renewal and the relationship between education and different forms of inequality, as well as  the co-author of Learning Power: Organizing for Education and Justice and co-editor of Public Engagement for Public Education: Joining Forces to Revitalize Democracy and Equalize Schools. He received his Ph.D. in Education from Stanford University and his B.A. in Public Policy and African American Studies from Princeton University.




How to Cite

Bertrand, M., Perez, W. Y., & Rogers, J. (2015). The covert mechanisms of education policy discourse: Unmasking policy insiders’ discourses and discursive strategies in upholding or challenging racism and classism in education. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 23, 93.