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System Justification Theory And the Inertia of School Reform

2012 December 1
by Eric Horowitz

Alexander Russo’s piece on the growing number of racially diverse charter schools has a telling quote from Success Academy’s Jenny Sedlis that gets to the heart of what makes education reform so difficult.

Middle-class communities don’t want to be told that the options they have are not good enough. There’s an unwillingness to accept the fact that their schools are just not excellent.

Change “middle class” to “poor” and “not excellent” to “bad” and the quote still rings true. Though it’s easy to blame this “unwillingness” on some kind of  communication or policy failure, much of it is a result of system justification. Research on system justification theory has shown that people, whether they are rich or poor, will do what they can to avoid the realization that there is something wrong with the systems they are a part of. For example, disadvantaged people will often remember explanations for their powerlessness as being unrealistically legitimate. Similarly, when people are confronted with economic inequality between high and low status groups, they will often use stereotypes to justify the gap. The reason people do this is that you tend to be happier when you believe the world around you is just.

These types of rationalizations ought to be particularly common when the system in question involves the degree to which parents are fulfilling their basic biological need of providing the best possible life for their offspring. It’s one thing to come to terms with the fact that the company you work for might not be all that altruistic. It’s something else to accept that you’re not doing all you can for your kids.

Though research on system justification has not specifically focused on education reform, studies on a piece of the system justification framework called the “depressed entitlement effect” help explain why families may be opposed to certain education reform initiatives. These studies show that people from less-advantaged groups often feel that they deserve less, and that these effects tend to be restricted to things that have happened in the past. For example, in one study women felt they deserved less money than men when they were being paid for past work, but when their salary was framed as a job offer for future work they felt they deserved the same money as men. The study demonstrates the tendency to justify whatever happened in the past — because you were a part of the system — while maintaining that it would be an injustice for that same thing to happen in the future — a belief you can have because you are not yet a part of that system.

This is exactly the dynamic you see in fights over school closings and charter expansion. In the abstract parents and communities demand better educational opportunities for their children, but at the same time there is a desire to maintain that everything about the past performance of their schools was hunky dory. One reason school closings and charter expansion encounter such vehement opposition is that they appear to be indictments of this past performance. That’s not to say there aren’t good reasons for opposing school closings, but a balanced analysis of parental desires must take into the account the psychological difficulty of essentially admitting the system you are a part of is failing in a concrete way.

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Jost, J., Banaji, M., & Nosek, B. (2004). A Decade of System Justification Theory: Accumulated Evidence of Conscious and Unconscious Bolstering of the Status Quo Political Psychology, 25 (6), 881-919 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2004.00402.x

Blanton, H., George, G., & Crocker, J. (2001). Contexts of System Justification and System Evaluation: Exploring the Social Comparison Strategies of the (Not Yet) Contented Female Worker Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 4 (2), 126-137 DOI: 10.1177/1368430201004002004

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