Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Policy

First Advisor

Mark R. Warren

Second Advisor

Heather MacIndoe

Third Advisor

Zeena Zakharia


There is a continued crisis in public schooling in India’s low-income and socially disadvantaged communities. Schools are supposed to provide a safe and healthy environment conducive to learning that ultimately helps to disrupt the transmission of intergenerational poverty and leads to social and economic mobility among low-income and socially disadvantaged students. In practice, however, schools have served to disproportionately exclude marginalized populations from attaining quality education. Previous research has revealed that less affluent students attend under-resourced schools in buildings with poor infrastructural facilities and fewer or unqualified teachers (India Infrastructure Report, 2012), where they face hidden normative barriers that negatively affect their schooling experiences and result in their exclusion (Kabeer, 2000; Sayed et al., 2007). In this study, I examine the role of schooling practices and processes in reproducing social and educational inequalities in Indian secondary schools. Through an ethnographic study of two secondary schools in Sitapur district, I reveal the factors that shape students’ everyday classroom experiences in their schools. I examine the interplay between teacher-student interactions, peer interactions, student engagement, students’ perceptions of self, and sense of school belonging. I employed multiple methods of data collection – self-administered surveys, participant observations, in-depth interviews with students and teachers, and informal discussions with students and teachers.

Evidence from this study suggests that several factors define students’ experiences in their schools, including the dilapidated and under-resourced physical infrastructure with inadequate facilities, teachers’ deficit views of students from low-income and lower caste backgrounds, and caste-based discrimination by both teachers and peers. Findings also suggest the persistent use of violent disciplinary practices by teachers to punish and reprimand poor and lower caste students. Furthermore, the study’s results indicate that students exercise their agency in response to violent discipline and resist harsh, toxic, and humiliating experiences at school. Students skip school and disengage from school to avoid violence and humiliation and to save face and preserve their dignity, which ultimately contributes to their exclusion from access to education. In conclusion, teachers’ lack of care and deficit thinking creates an exclusionary cycle of learning and inadvertently pushes students out of school, and perpetuates the long-standing social and educational inequalities creating an inequitable school system.

This dissertation contributes to the research literature on the “black box” of secondary schooling by gathering detailed insights into marginalized students’ schooling experiences of social discrimination in large-scale research, whose voices are rarely heard. It supports the need for a bottom-up approach to policymaking, and through an examination of students’ classroom experiences in the two different schools provides a grounded picture of educational processes and practices in secondary schools – in fact, it exposes the disconnect between policy and practice. The findings suggest the need for concepts of self-reflexivity, culturally responsive practices, and Human Rights Education (HRE) to be introduced in teacher training to counter the deficit views and stereotype threats teachers hold and for teacher transformation. Once teacher transformation occurs, several benefits follow, as teachers now become allies to the students and try to focus on the root of the problem rather than using corporal punishment when students make mistakes. In doing so, this study responds to the crucial need to dismantle the systemic inequalities that emerge from unequal access to the good quality education provided in Indian schools.