Cultural Deficit Model

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

In attempting to explain the widespread underachieve-ment among students of color and students from lower socioeconomic strata in schools, many teachers, administrators, school agents and others locate the problem within the students, their families and communities. This cultural deficit model attributes students' lack of educational success to characteristics often rooted in their cultures and communities. That is, research grounded in a deficit perspective blames the victims of institutional oppression for their own victimization by referring to negative stereotypes and assumptions regarding certain groups or communities. This perspective overlooks the root causes of oppression by localizing the issue within individuals and/or their communities. Because this model frames the problem as one of students and families, the remedies informed by deficit perspectives created to ameliorate student underachievement and failure often fail meaningfully to address problems within schools or society at large that combine to depress the performance of certain groups of students. Under the cultural deficit model, schools are, at least in part, absolved from their responsibilities to educate all students appropriately, and this charge is shifted almost entirely to students and their families.


The cultural deficit model stems from negative beliefs and assumptions regarding the ability, aspirations, and work ethic of systematically marginalized peoples. It asserts that students of color and low-income students often fail to do well in school because of perceived “cultural deprivation” or lack of exposure to cultural models more obviously congruent with school success. Consequently, according to this perspective students of color and poor students often enter school with a lack of “cultural capital” (Bourdieu, 1997), cultural assets that are affirmed by schools and often shared by school agents and therefore considered valuable. In addition, there is a popular assumption that the families of students of color and socioeconomically disadvantaged students do not value education in the same ways that their middle- and upper-class White counterparts do. Conversely, upper and middle-class students, according to the theory, are more likely to do well in school because they possess more cultural capital. Much of the deficit-centered literature also suggests that a lack of involvement among families living in poverty is in part responsible for the educational outcomes of this community.

Deeply embedded in the fabric of schools, the deficit perspective is often disseminated through educational research and within teacher training programs (Trueba 1988; Valencia, 1997; González, 2005). For example, Ruby Payne's 2001 Framework for Understanding Poverty, a widely disseminated text with significant popularity within school districts, has been critiqued for promoting classist, deficit-centered theories to explain the underach-ievement of youth in poverty (Gorski, 2006). The results of the deficit perspective can be devastating and are manifested in multiple forms, making school a “subtractive” experience for many youth (Valenzuela, 1999). One of the most deleterious impacts is supported by research which suggests that students of color continue to be overrepresented in special education and in the less academically rigorous, non college-prep tracks of their schools (Russo & Talbert-Johnson, 1997; Patton, 1998; Coutinho & Oswald, 2000; Noguera, 2001; Oakes, 2005; Conchas, 2006). The negative impact of deficit perspectives is also evidenced by disproportionately high drop out or “push out” rates among students of color and poor students. Moreover, the negative beliefs regarding students of color and poor students can also result in stereotype threat (Steele, 1997), resulting in depressed academic performance.


In spite of its pervasive influence, deficit perspective research has been discredited by an emerging body of literature. One area of critique notes that deficit perspectives fail to consider the fact that traditional avenues for parental participation in schools are closed off to many low income families and families of color. In a 2001 ethnographic study of Latino/a families, Concha Delgado-Gaitán (2001) found that almost all the teachers in her study believed parental involvement was extremely important, yet they also asserted that the majority of Latino/a parents were not sufficiently involved in their children's education. Nitza Hidalgo (1997, 2000) explored the contributions Latino/a parents make to the educational experiences of their children. The findings from her study suggest that Latino/a parents, and the extended familial social networks that they develop, contribute to the educational experiences of their children in meaningful ways that often remain unrecognized by schools. In their study of academically successful Puerto Rican students in the mid-western United States, René Antrop-Gonzalez, William Vélez and Tomás Garrett (2005) found that students' families, and particularly their mothers, played a large role in fostering academic success, helping their children with schoolwork, locating resources to help support their learning, serving as mentors, and guiding them through the learning process. Similarly, research examining the role of parental involvement among African Americans demonstrates that parents have high participation in school programs when program themes emphasize empowerment, outreach, and valuing community resources (Abdul-Adil & Farmer, 2006).

Also contributing to debunking the myth that low-income families and families of racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds are apathetic about education, Gerardo Lopez's 2001 study cogently argues that the Latino low-income family in his study was highly involved in what he refers to as the “transmission of sociocultural values” (p. 430). That is, the family taught their children the value of hard work and underscored the importance of getting an education in part by taking their children with them to do physically demanding agricultural work, explicitly “giving their children the ‘choice’ to work hard at school or work hard in the fields” (p. 420).

By locating the causes for student underachievement within students and communities, the cultural deficit model fails to examine institutional barriers (i.e., school funding, racial and ethnic segregation) that can also potentially influence student achievement. It also fails to acknowledge the relationships between school practices, the sociopolitical factors that shape these efforts, and student outcomes. Much of the deficit-centered literature fails to explain or account for students who come from families and communities with the same alleged limitations yet succeed in school. The 2006 work of Gilberto Conchas highlights the voices of successful students of color in urban schools and examines the support structures that facilitated their success. In an effort to counter deficit perspectives and “RicanStruct” the discourse regarding urban Latino students, research by Jason Iri-zarry and René Antrop-González (2007) critically examines the characteristics of a group of exemplary teachers and academically successful students and puts forward a theory for culturally responsive pedagogy for this group. Similarly, Katie Haycock summarizes research that documents how entire schools that serve so-called culturally deprived students are as successful as many high-achieving schools in more affluent communities (Haycock, 2001).

This growing body of research urges schools to acknowledge the social and cultural capital present in communities of color and poor communities (Moll & Greenberg, 1990; Gonzalez, 2005; Yosso, 2005). Tara Yosso (2005), for example, critiques static notions of cultural capital that fail to recognize what she refers to as “community cultural wealth”—characteristics, such as resiliency, that students of color and poor students often bring to school that should be recognized and built upon. Similar research by Wenfan Yan (1999) suggests that academically successful African American students bring unique forms of social capital with them into the classroom that are distinct from white, middle-class cultural models and that African American parents tended to contact their children's schools regarding their teens' future career aspirations and experiences in schools more than White parents. As this body of research continues to develop, schools and school agents may abandon deficit perspectives, affirm the cultural richness present in these communities, and implement more culturally responsive approaches aimed at improving the educational experiences and outcomes for students of color and students from lower socioeconomic strata.


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