Cultural and Linguistic Deficit Explanations of School Failure (page 2)
Early writings on “disadvantaged” young people in the 1960s focused on their alleged cultural and educational “deprivation” or deficits. Middle-class education writers and policy advocates created harmful myths of cultural and linguistic deprivation to explain the school failure of some children (Labov, 1970). The cultural- and linguistic-deprivation theses were then incorporated into teacher folk knowledge and curriculum plans (Gorski, 2008; Payne, 2001).
Compensatory education services based on the culture of poverty thesis continue as an important element in the school curriculum through the federal program known as Chapter 1. But three decades of this program have resulted in only marginal improvements in the achievement gap between middle-class students and students living in poverty. The program has never been adequately funded, but an additional problem is conceptual. Compensatory education programs and the culture of poverty thesis—as interpreted by a generation of mainly European American, mainly middle-class education researchers—often worked from the unexamined assumption that there must be something wrong with poor people or they wouldn’t be poor.
In the view of William Julius Wilson, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the government policies that followed resulted mainly in the strengthening of the Black middle class. Wilson’s emphasis on the importance of economics in race relations followed the lead of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early on, King recognized the need for a broad, inclusive movement to promote economic justice as well as racial equality. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), along with others, promoted a multiracial struggle for economic justice with the Poor People’s Campaign of 1967–1968 (Dyson, 2000). According to King: “We’re going to take this movement and ... reach out to poor people in all directions in this country ... into the Southwest after the Indians, into the West after the Chicanos, into Appalachia after the poor whites, and into the ghettos after the Negroes and the Puerto Ricans. And we are going to bring them together into something bigger than just a civil rights movement for Negroes” (quoted in Guinier & Torres, 2002).
King united the struggle for civil rights with union struggles and other efforts to end class oppression. Unfortunately, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, before the Poor People’s Campaign could organize a sustainable movement for economic justice.
Since the 1980s, the economic problems of the poor have increased significantly. Major corporations closed their plants in the industrialized and unionized northeastern United States, depriving hundreds of thousands of working-class African Americans and Latinos of good jobs and steady income. Plants moved to nonunion areas of the South and the Southwest and to Third World nations, devastating the economic base of the African American and Latino communities and the lives of many in the working class. In 1977, General Motors Corporation had 77,000 jobs for hourly workers in Flint, Michigan. By 1998, it only had 33,000. Working-class union families lost their jobs or were pushed into marginal employment in low-paying service industries. The economic crisis in urban industrial areas has devastated many African American families since the 1980s. Sociologist Wilson describes the consequences of this economic shift in urban areas in When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (1996) and The Bridge over the Racial Divide: Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics (1999). Jean Anyon, in Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement (2005), describes how race, class, and the lack of a government policy on economic growth continue to work together to reinforce school failure. Both authors recommend government policies to promote economic growth and change for the entire lower class. In this view, general programs for the poor, such as jobs, housing, and health, are needed to go along with school reform.
Reading about the schools and the very poor in areas like Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles does not tell teachers much about the life experiences of children in midsize cities like Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, and Denver. Nor does the concept of an urban underclass adequately describe their experiences in Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, and the other large cities of the South.
Even in large northern urban ghettos where the economic crisis is most severe and social institutions have often failed and where some communities are dominated by gangs and the drug culture, not all of the families have lost the battle for their children. Most parents love their children and want the best for them. They work long, hard hours, often at demeaning jobs, to feed and clothe their children. It is important that teachers avoid stereotypes about poor and working-class students.
Some ultra-conservative foundations, such as the Ollin Foundation, have generously funded a branch of advocacy writing that purports to demonstrate genetic differences by class and by race. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, is an example of these works. The authors have sought to revalidate the discredited theories of genetic and cultural deprivation from the 1960s. Charles Murray’s previous book, Losing Ground (1984), helped to set the agenda for the current attacks on the welfare system. A wide range of social scientists have demonstrated the flaws in argument and psychological measurement found in The Bell Curve. In spite of the numerous errors, a series of policy organizations continue to promote the ideas of genetic and cultural deprivation.
More recently, the culture of poverty arguments from the 1960s have reemerged in the popularly written teachers’ manuals and workshops of Ruby Payne (2001). Although her writings have encouraged teachers think about issues of poverty and family disruption, the reintroduction of the cultural deficit framework has all of the problems of earlier deficit thinking.
Payne has described some of the interactive manners in which poverty and family disruption contribute to school problems. Indeed, the middle class, to which author Payne claims to belong, has many examples of family disruption, lack of order, and living in the moment—maladies that Payne describes as representative of poverty.
Certainly, the school killings in Jonesboro, Arkansas (on March 24, 1998); Littleton, Colorado (on April 20, 1999); Santee, California (on March 5, 2001); and Blacksburg, Virginia (on April 16, 2007, when 32 were killed at Virginia Tech)—as well as the ongoing crisis of domestic violence and incidents of extreme violence in middle-class schools—indicate that dysfunctional lives and lack of preparation of children also occur within the middle class.
Talking About Class: Making it Personal
This issue is so central to the thesis of this book that I will change out of textbook style writing and use a personal example to illustrate. I, the author, was raised among the working class. I experienced the way the working people see and experience the world, how they relate to food, money, relationships, education, conflict, and other aspects of life. Both of my parents worked in factories for most of their lives. My cousins, uncles, and grandparents, all worked in the factories. My mother finished high school, but my father did not. I worked in factories for five years myself while going to college.
Today, I have a doctorate and a position as a college professor. In my view, none of the descriptors of generational poverty found in Payne’s writings fits the experiences in my family or the families that I grew up with. And now I have read the research on social class as reviewed in the prior pages of this chapter. Neither my own experience nor the research supports the poverty ideas suggested by Ruby Payne.
And more. My wife (coauthor of Chapter 5) was raised in a Mexican American and Tigua Indian family along the U.S. border. Her father and mother both worked hard all their lives. They had extended families of aunts and cousins. A generation later most of the family has made it distinctly into the middle class; all are English dominant. None of the descriptions of poverty found in Payne’s writings fits the experiences of this family.
Payne, in her writings and her workshops, describes a stereotype of people in poverty. Do these people exist? Certainly. Are they representative of the poor or the working class? No evidence is provided in her writing. Instead, the social science research evidence contradicts the stereotypes and has consistently indicated that a culture of poverty does not exist (Gorski, 2008; Weis, 2004; Wilson, 1996). Poor people do not have one way of thinking or one way of relating to others. These traits all vary across cultures, ethnic groups, and living experiences. It is almost as if you were to say, “All Americans are arrogant.” There are some Americans who are arrogant and others who are not.
Payne’s anecdotes are well received in workshops in part because they support and reinforce stereotypes that many middle class teachers have of the poor as well as stereotypes commonly repeated in the media. They also provide an explanation—albeit a faulty one—of the observable connection between poverty and school failure. Unfortunately, the explanation faults the individual child and the family, while avoiding analysis of how the U.S. economy reproduces poverty and economic inequality. Author Paul Gorski (2006) describes the issue well: “Then I read A Framework. And I was horrified. Instead of a commitment to equity and justice I found a framework for understanding poverty that frames poverty as a deficit among students and parents and draws upon racist and classist stereotypes” (Gorski, 2006).
As an author and a presenter, Ruby Payne describes the important work of Rueven Feuerstein in a manner that projects his ideas far beyond the original research samples (Payne, 2001). Using concepts from mental disability research to describe class differences is an overextension and thus inappropriate. If there is evidence to support the application of mental disability research to poverty, it has not been presented in Payne’s book.
Some middle-class teachers find the interventions suggested by Payne useful, while some scholars (Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingston, 2008; Gorski, 2008) find them insulting. The teaching strategies may work, but they would also be useful with middle-class kids. There is not much evidence of a distinct poverty culture or lifestyle. There is significant evidence that the problems experienced by the unemployed can overwhelm poor families. And when a school has a large number of children from impoverished families, these problems come to school. Payne’s writing and presentations unfortunately add to the students’ problems. Now, in addition to all the problems of poverty, students face a teacher with a stereotype—a faulty explanation—of school behavior.
Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty (2001) is easily written, based upon anecdotes rather than reasoned evidence and accessible without serious consideration of the role of class or the role of racial stereotypes in our society. She reports that it has sold over 1 million copies. While extreme poverty and family disruption due to a severe illness or the incarceration of a parent may explain the lagging achievement of individual students, they do not explain why an entire class of students—the poor—has fewer experienced teachers and fewer resources in their schools. Lack of prepared teachers and lack of resources are the result of political decisions made by taxing authorities and state legislatures.
The conceptual framework used in A Framework for Understanding Poverty opens the doors again to the deficit hypothesis about culture, which has historically proven to be a destructive analysis (Bomer et al., 2008). The presentations and workbooks fit well into a conservative ideology about poverty in which racism and oppression are not significant issues; it is all about individual behavior. Focusing on individual behavior rather than social structural change is the opposite of using a social-class perspective. Clearly, success in our society is dependent on both individual behavior and the social structural opportunities provided to children (Rothstein, 2008). It is precisely these kinds of oversimplifications and stereotypes that Payne offers, wrapped up and presented as if they were research, that contribute to the creation of the compensatory educational policies of drill and more drill encouraged by No Child Left Behind. These conservative ideologues do not understand poverty (and race), so their solutions miss the mark.
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