Ending the Deficit Model in the Classroom

Not long ago I was reading a blog post by a New York City teacher. He intended to show the many challenges students in high-poverty schools face by writing a post from the perspective of one of these students. Unfortunately, the result was a caricature. The imaginary student's home life was an amalgamation of some of the worst stereotypes about children living in the Bronx.

Before coming to Harvard I hadn't learned the language to describe this type of thinking, why it bothers me or the ways in which I perpetuated it my own classroom. However, if there is only one lesson I take away from my short time here, it will be identifying and responding to deficit-based thinking.

The idea that children, schools and communities affected by poverty are little more than a collection of ills and deficiencies is pervasive in education today. The teacher blogger from the Bronx sees his students this way, and sadly he's not alone.

I think about my own time in the classroom. In particular, I think of a student I nicknamed The Scowler. Last year The Scowler was one of my most challenging students, but how much of this was because of my deficit-based approach? He didn't have reading comprehension skills. He didn't have basic numeracy skills. He didn't have a strong work ethic. He didn't have strong self-esteem. In my mind, The Scowler was a combination of weaknesses.

But in reality, this boy was much more than that. He was an incredibly sweet, kind and sensitive kid who cared about other students' feelings. He grew a lot socially from an extremely introverted boy who refused to answer yes or no questions to someone willing to share his ideas, even in math his most terrifying subject. He loved our field trips to museums and he loved food. How might I have reached The Scowler more effectively if I had taken a strength-based approach to teaching, and focused on this latter list of his characteristics rather than the former?

I don't think all educators use deficit-thinking in their classrooms, but I think it's a easy trap to fall into when you're working in an neighborhood affected by poverty. Whether it's the way we view the students, or very often their parents, many educators can't see past what they see missing to see what's there. The result is a perspective that undermines the dignity of students and their families. At the same time this view amplifies feelings of isolation and anxiety, because it makes the work of teaching that much more insurmountable.

In my original view of The Scowler, I felt frustrated and overwhelmed. Had I looked at his strengths I would have seen him as an invaluable partner. Imagine the multiplying effect of seeing every student and family in this way?

There are a lot of ways deficit-based thinking affects our overall educational ecosystem. But that isn't to say teachers and schools cannot control our own view of our students, their families and their communities.  Rather than being blinded by inadequacies that weaken our classrooms, we can see the power they have to make our work stronger.


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