Deficit Thinking: Something Missing

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.

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2 thoughts on “Deficit Thinking: Something Missing

  1. Todd, I’m glad that I finally found the time to check out your post! You’ve done a great job of articulately discussing a number of internal monologues I’ve run through since doing the reading for Thursday’s class. I was especially intrigued by your ideas as to why teachers buy into to concept of deficit thinking:

    “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).”

    While I certainly agree with you, my current consideration is how (if?) support structures can be put in place so as to help those teachers who may find themselves in uphill battles against students’ exceptionalities (whatever they may be). At my school, there is a contingent of the students who are enrolled in the “Alternative Program,” and it is incredibly alarming just how stigmatized these students are. While I might (unfortunately) expect their “mainstream” peers to look down upon them, I find myself frequently dismayed at close-mindedness coming from faculty members.

    Maybe this is my inner-hippie, but I think that the key to making my coworkers more open to the idea that these students are capable of great triumphs is in providing insight & support. Although some of these teachers probably enjoy the ease of writing off these students via deficit thinking, I have no doubt that other teachers don’t even realize what they’re doing. As such, they should be given the opportunity to learn how to reach these students (and I mean beyond my attempts to break copyright by distributing print-outs). Could this be done through professional development? Isn’t this one of the goal of education programs in the first place? Wouldn’t this require the type of funding that is so noticeably absent from public schools?

    For better or worse, I believe the answer is “Yes.”

  2. Thanks, Todd and Allen, for your thoughtful post and comment. I’m obviously not in the high school classroom anymore, but I remember quite well that inherent conflict between identifying students who have “high needs” or are “at risk” and the impulse to fight what, in my experience, has been the ghettoization of these students. Having taught in two different high schools, one in which students were carefully tracked and funneled into their “appropriate” leveled classrooms and one in which no such tracking took place, I strongly feel that institutional tracking perpetuates “deficit thinking.” I realize that teaching in a classroom in which students are operating at very different levels is a challenge and requires the kind of support system Allen seems to be advocating, but I think teachers need to be trusted to make the kinds of instructional choices that are appropriate for these students. My experience has been that students tend to see themselves as “in this together” more often when they are in the same classroom, not selected out and placed in classrooms that are more “at their level.” So, I say that in addition to embracing our “inner-hippie,” we should embrace opportunities to teach students of varying levels and backgrounds within the same classroom. I think most all students and teachers would benefit from this kind of inclusion model.

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