Teachers frequently attribute the academic struggles of English language learners to the students' inability or unwillingness to learn English, but this "deficit thinking" can better be replaced by a focus on what immigrant students bring to the classroom.
Parents, teachers, administrators and policymakers wrestle daily with the fact that thousands of low socioeconomic status students consistently score lower on standardized tests, have higher high school dropout rates and lower college graduation rates than their wealthier classmates. These students are overwhelmingly non-white and often attend schools that are also overwhelmingly non-white, underfunded and poorly managed.
Hoping to explain the lower academic achievement of these students, teachers often cast blame on students’ backgrounds and the challenges they face outside of school. Teachers describe parents who are uncaring, unable to attend school events and unwilling to put forth the effort necessary to get what is best for their children. Teachers and administrators describe the rough neighborhoods they believe many of their students come from, a world outside the “protective” walls of their schools. In the case of students who are non-English speakers, teachers frequently attribute students’ academic struggles to their inability or unwillingness to learn English.
Such thinking has been termed deficit thinking. Deficit thinking accounts for students’ academic and social struggles at school by pointing out those “desirable” attributes a student or student’s family lack. Those attributes are described as being what everybody should want for their children regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Deficit thinking has changed forms over time, but remains distinct from other forms of thinking becauser it places the blame for student failure squarely on the shoulder of the student and student’s lack of the traits necessary for academic success. This type of thinking leads to policies designed to instill those desirable traits/behaviors in students or in students’ parents. But people who practice deficit thinking often fail to pay attention to those aspects of the student’s life experience and family that make him/her unique and resilient.
Deficit thinking today
Contemporary deficit thinking falls into three distinct categories: neohereditarianism, the culture of poverty paradigm and the theses of cultural and environmental deficits. Each category represents a modern form of thought that has roots as far back as the 17th century. Each also has a long history of being suited to a particular historical period’s socially acceptable ways of talking about race, immigration and education. The culture of poverty paradigm and theses of cultural and environmental deficits have been translated into the currently acceptable language of children who are at-risk. Though children who are at-risk are often described as victims of racism, poverty and inferior school conditions, the central focuses of the at-risk rhetoric are family and individual characteristics. Children are at risk of academic failure because they are unable to read English, not because schools are unwilling to teach them English through bilingual education. Children are at risk of becoming unwed parents because they themselves lacked a parent in their own home, not because schools refuse to teach sex education rather than abstinence. In the language of deficit thinking, children who are at-risk suffer because materially, socially and culturally, they lack so much, not because the schools they attend fail to meet them where they are in terms of their language and social skills.
This might also be considered from the perspective of social capital, the combination of economic and cultural capital. Social capital is the set of unspoken assumptions and actions that typify successful people in the mainstream. These might include things as complicated as knowing the ins and outs of applying to colleges and universities, from standardized tests to the standard application, to things as simple as knowing that when your child reaches kindergarten he or she is expected to have some basic preparation for learning to read English. Families that possess large amounts of social capital have access to other people who possess information, assistance and other resources. In concrete terms this can range from friends who work in medicine, social services or education, all of whom have information and can offer informal assistance to their peers. However, the amount of social capital possessed is directly related to the quality of that information, assistance and resources. Mexican-American children and their families may exist in communities full of people who possess information and have the ability to offer assistance and resources, but those people may not possess the cultural capital necessary to make that social capital worth much within the context of a school. The information, assistance and resources they offer might lack value in schools as they are currently constituted. For instance they might know a great deal about where to go or whom to ask about finding employment, but this has little to do with success at school. Children whose parents have succeeded in U.S. schools have the cultural capital necessary to get the social capital to succeed themselves. In other words, they see to it that their children learn the sources of information, assistance and resources necessary to succeed in school and beyond.
Within the specific context of a school, deficit thinking is documented across a wide range of student experiences. Many Mexican-American students perceive their teachers as having lowered expectations for their academic achievement and are therefore less motivated to succeed. These students also are disproportionately retained across grade levels and are frequently tracked into vocational education programs. Even more damaging is the destructive myth that Mexican-American parents lack concern for their children’s education. This generalization not only affects the achievement of the individual student, but serves to make the family feel unwelcome or intimidated when the opportunity for school involvement arises.
Critiques of deficit thinking focus on the fact that it places the blame for school failure on the child and the family. Instead, critics argue, much of the blame for student failure lies in the fact that schools fail to recognize the social capital students and their families possess. Guadeloupe Valdes, a professor at Stanford University, argues that the type of social capital Mexican families bring with them to the United States views education as playing a role in economic and social success, but not necessarily as being the main way of achieving it. She argues that the welfare of the household, not the welfare of the children is the focus of many of the Mexican-American families she studied. A child who misses school because he/she must care for younger siblings could be misinterpreted as a lack of concern for education, but would fail to recognize that rather than being unconcerned with education, his/her parents were more concerned with keeping their family intact.
Teacher responses to deficit thinking
To undo or stop the damage that deficit thinking can inflict is challenging. A first step is to realize that students, because of who they are, have inherent strengths and value. They have been positively and negatively shaped by the lives they have lived before going to school. A second step that follows is to reconsider the relationship between the student and teacher in terms of how the teacher can best draw on those inherent strengths and value to serve the student well. This is different from a relationship that begins with a teacher who wants to rescue a student for whom so much has gone wrong. That approach often involves the teacher hoping to alienate the child from his/her neighborhood, friends and family. Learning is presented as a ticket out of a horrible life. It oversimplifies the relationship between children, their parents and the communities in which they live.
Avoiding deficit thinking
Avoiding deficit thinking requires a willingness to take the time to learn more about the lives of individual students outside of school and celebrating their uniqueness. Luis Moll, a professor at the University of Arizona, has done work with school teachers using an approach called funds of knowledge. This approach involves teachers forming research teams, going out into the communities where their students live and doing ethnographic research to find the funds of knowledge the people in those communities collectively possess. They then return back to their schools, share their findings and incorporate them into the structure and content of lessons they teach in their classes. This is a significant commitment of time and effort, but it makes teachers more knowledgeable about their students’ origins. It is also more respectful of the students and their families than the mere celebration of famous cultural icons, holidays and foods. This approach to multicultural education has been described as being a “tour/detour” approach, where teachers and students “visit” other cultures during appropriate times of the year, November for native Americans/Thanksgiving, February for African Americans/Black History Month. Instead, schools and their curricula should be reshaped by the presence and participation of families from diverse social and economic backgrounds.
At a minimum, teachers can avoid deficit thinking by considering what’s right with the children they teach rather than what’s wrong and needs to be fixed. Pre-service teacher education often emphasizes using diagnostic exercises to assess student need. Teachers might rethink diagnostic tests as assessments of student strength. Teaching might not be considered in terms of correcting all of the things that are wrong with student understanding, but instead building on what it gets right.