The complexity of disadvantage : examining the effects of moral ecology on adolescent educational outcomes.


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Popular methods of addressing educational inequality emphasize structural barriers to educational attainment such as access and affordability, or individual barriers that highlight a lack of character traits such as grit and resilience among traditionally disadvantaged students. I argue that these approaches are insufficient in that they ignore the interactive relationship between a student’s moral culture and their structural circumstances and the effect of this total ecology on student achievement. While cultural approaches to addressing the problem of educational inequality are often avoided due to perceived victim blaming, one’s moral ecology—defined here as both moral worldviews and the social support systems that sustain them—shapes opportunities for success beyond demographic characteristics. This dissertation examines how adolescent moral ecology can moderate factors known to affect academic success by describing how four distinct groups—the Connected, Carefree, Committed, and Constrained—emerge from vastly different moral ecologies made up of families, peers, communities, and the values they disseminate; and by investigating how each group can influence educational outcomes. I find that while most teens are more likely to succeed when embedded in traditional moral frameworks and dense supportive communities, for disadvantaged teens, an achievement ideology and accompanying habitus emerging from an individualistic, relativistic moral worldview may help to mitigate the effect of their social position based on race and socioeconomic status. This study adds to our understanding of the social, moral, and cultural conditions affecting whether students succeed or fail in school using data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, which offers a nationally representative sample of 3,290 dyads of parents and teenagers. This analysis illuminates the complexity of disadvantage and explicates the ways in which a teen’s moral ecology interacts with individual-level factors to influence student success.



Education. Inequality.