Hi Everyone–it’s not my week to post, but I thought I put this out there. Sorry it’s so close to class time–we had internet issues at school all day.
The concept of “deficit thinking,” in which it is assumed that factors such as “genetics, poverty, culture or language, or home environment” (125) are the root cause of students’ struggles in school, and can essentially not be controlled or improved to any effective extent by a student’s educational experience, is something that has a rather profound relevance in my experience as a teacher. Often, as is mentioned in the chapter, this comes up at my work when discussing students who are considered to be “at risk”: a term which seems to be both ambiguous with regard to what determines if a student is “at risk” and with regard to exactly what students are at risk of. Where I work there is even a unique program provided for freshman students, in which a school day with less transition and more stability seems to be the goal. This is, however, a very small program relative to the student body. There are more explicit representations of this kind of thinking, too: teachers make comments about the intelligence of students as though it is predetermined (even based on what level class the student is placed in), about the indomitable influence of parents, and about the lack of connection with the community, about cultural norms, and so on.
I find that the concept of “deficit thinking,” or rather the kinds of assumptions and resultant actions that constitute it, serves simultaneously as a means of shirking responsibility as a teacher as well as of perpetuating the structures that the concept itself purportedly blames (poverty, inferior genes, inadequate parenting). However, on the other side of the spectrum, I also have issues with the common ideology expressed by the popular mantra, “High expectations, no excuses,” which I have seen lead to overly stringent and destructive responses to real problems and issues that students bring to school—it sometimes lacks sensitivity to the fact that students, like everyone, do have problems in their lives, nor does it work to understand such problems. Thus, while deficit thinking seems to rely on disproven, incorrect, and therefore ignorant assumptions and inferences, the “no excuses” mode also lends itself to similar kinds of thinking about a student’s life outside of school. Likewise, the trajectory of thought that leads to labels of students as “at-risk”, which seems to be a means of euphemistically addressing “deficits” within a “no excuses” system, is in and of itself, deficient of the same kinds of thinking that we would want our students to practice (questioning, seeking evidence, making sound judgments—what exactly does at-risk mean and why does it mean that?).
Perhaps the common issue with both of these approaches is that they continue to focus on what are perceived as negatives of a student’s life and abilities. (This makes me think, again, of how we perceive disabilities.) Both modes of interacting with students focus on what is thought to be wrong: deficit thinking (ignorant, prejudice, and racist) declares these “deficits” in a more outright manner and reacts with a fatalistic response; the “no excuses” philosophy (hasty, close-minded, and impersonal) attempts to eradicate through denial the real problems that students may be facing and that may be interfering with their education. The latter does not contradict the first, because it accepts the idea that students come to school with “excuses”—the difference is, ironically, that it doesn’t care.
That said, I think there is a means to provide what both sides of the argument—deficit thinking versus “high expectations, no excuses”—in their most flattering light (however bent it may need to be), are aiming for—an education system that takes note of, tries to understand, and makes adaptations to the needs of its students. To be honest, it makes me cringe to push myself to see anything positive in deficit thinking. To see something such as neohereditarianism, or the concept of the “culture of poverty,” as having been derived from what is initially a positive force is rather difficult. But perhaps in doing so, one can both model and make an argument for the kind of thinking that might provide a balance that acknowledges students’ backgrounds, appreciates their experiences, and helps students learn to use their strengths to work through problems when they do arise. I am not exactly sure how this would physically or systematically appear, how it would manifest itself as does deficit thinking.
Valencia and Solorzana state that “the public continues to set policy with ‘little knowledge and understanding of the many problems the poor and certain racial/ethnic minority groups have in attaining equitable and useful schooling.” Perhaps with a more positive approach to understanding the backgrounds of our students as well as their abilities, we can enable them to become the problem solvers that we all need to be.