Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Journal of Educational Controversy Now on New Website

I am pleased to announce that the Journal of Educational Controversy has migrated to a new website.

Readers can now find the journal at:

Working with the Berkeley Electronic Press, we can now offer more flexibility and options for our authors and readers.  Authors can open an account online and submit their manuscripts through the system.  They will also be able to go back at any time to make revisions. Moreover, the review will be done through the system.

With our 10th Year Anniversary Issue about to be published this fall, we have grown significantly as a voice in education with a special thank you to our great authors and our growing readership.

As we continue to grow, we need even more reviewers.  Thanks to all who responded to our first call for reviewers.  If you are interested in reviewing for the journal, please send an e-mail with areas of expertise and interests along with a vita to:

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Innovative Uses of Technology to Meet the Needs of All Students

Meeting Diverse Needs with Technology
Linda Schleff
Woodring College of Education
Western Washington University

Chelsea confidently swipes through the multiple pages of apps on my iPad until she spots the one she is looking for. Then she calmly, but firmly, guides her little sister's probing fingers away from the 'home' button. This four-year-old, who has been diagnosed with autism, can independently navigate the complexities of iPad technology, but she is unable to verbally communicate her wants and needs to those around her.

This is where the services of the Ershig Assistive Technology Resource Center (E-ATRC) come into the story. Following a meeting in Chelsea's preschool classroom where family, school district team, and E-ATRC director informally brainstorm to consider technology tools that might benefit this young student, the family applies for and is awarded an 'AT Grant to Families' that provides $200 to support them in purchasing technology that they believe will benefit their child at home. Now Chelsea has her own iPad that will travel between home and school to support communication and learning across her customary environments. To hear the center director speak about the benefits of the E-ATRC's AT Grants to Families program watch the brief video clip here: Western Window Episode 23 (start at 15:10).

Assistive Technology (AT) is a term defined in disability law and is, essentially, any item that improves functioning for an individual with a disability. However, time and experience have shown us that many of these tools, when made available as standard tools in general environments, will support others with a wide range of diverse needs, as well, including, but not limited to:

   Those with more commonly occurring disabilities such as learning, behavior or attention challenges,                                                                       

   Young children or aging elders,

   People who are English language learners, and

   Any one of us who doesn't spell well!

Consider, as an example, an FM system that amplifies a teacher's voice making it easier to hear and understand. Our first thought might be that a student with a hearing loss could benefit from this technology. But think of others who might be supported as well from having the teacher's voice highlighted as something critical to attend to in the environment. English language learners, students who struggle to maintain focus and attention, in fact, any of us may 'tune in' better when the person speaking picks up a microphone. See examples here.

 Similarly, software or an app that will read text on the screen out loud (text-to-speech), highlighting each word as it is spoken, can improve access to content for a student with a learning disability or an adult who is learning a language. One of these applications, called Snap and Read can even adjust the readability level of text materials to meet the needs of an individual reader, whether their need is due to a learning disability or to learning a language! You can learn more about these applications at Don Johnstons website.
Other applications can 'predict ahead' and suggest, based on commonly used grammar, the word a person might want to type (word prediction) thereby benefitting an individual with fine motor challenges (by reducing the number of keystrokes required) or anyone who doesn't spell well. Learn more about Co:Writer, also from Don Johnston.
Assistive technology has historically benefitted individuals with disabilities and has been most often considered for those with significant, complex disabilities. It has also frequently been complex and costly, until recent decades as the number of technologies has increased exponentially. As this has occurred, affordable tools have become more available to meet a wider range of needs across an array of increasingly diverse users.

No to Low-tech


High Tech

Pencil grips


Powered Wheelchair

Bar Magnifier

Adapted Keyboard or Mouse

Eye Gaze Hardware/Software

Noise canceling headphones

Specialized software

Speech Generating Device
 These tools range from simple non-digital supports to 'mid-tech' tools to 'high-tech' devices - see above for examples. For more specifics about AT basics, AT decision making, technology tutorials or additional AT resources visit the Assistive Technology Training Online Project (ATTO) website at
The Ershig Assistive Technology Resource Center (E-ATRC) is located on the Bellingham, Washington campus of Western Washington University. It is one of the resource centers of Woodring College of Education (WCE) where next generation teachers, nurses, and human service professionals are trained. The E-ATRC's primary charge is to work with these WCE professionals-in-training to support them as they learn about the technology tools that can benefit their future students, patients and clients.
In addition, the center director is able to collaborate with local families, educators and othersin the community who are interested in learning more about assistive technology. All local users of the E-ATRC are welcome to browse the myriad items on the shelves and are also invited to check items out from the AT lending library to use them with individuals with whom they live and work.

Assistive technology can increase participation and improve performance in school, support equitable access to information, and enhance quality of life for a variety of individuals. To learn more about assistive technology or the E-ATRC and their services visit the center website.
The author, Linda Schleef, is Director of the Ershig Assistive Technology Resource Center. She is a Special Education Teacher, a Senior Instructor at Woodring College of Education, and is credentialed by RESNA (Rehabilitation Engineers and Assistive Technology Society of North America) as an Assistive Technology Professional (ATP). You can contact her at    

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Interview with Michael Karlberg on the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education Resistance to Iranian Oppression

The Bahá’í faith is one that teaches peace, equality between men and women, and supports the validity of all religions. Despite their peaceful messages, members of this faith are targeted and discriminated against fiercely in Iran, the country which saw the birth of this religion. The current Iranian government uses this cultural group as a scapegoat, placing the blame on Bahá’ís for every national misfortune and problem The nature of Bahá’í oppression is government-orchestrated, operating in a system that removes members of the faith from their employment and prevents their education. Despite the direness of the situation, the Bahá’í plight receives precious little media attention.

In his article, “Constructive Resilience: The Bahá’í Response to Oppression,” Dr. Michael Karlberg discusses the resilience of these people. In my interview with him at Western Washington University on April 10th, Dr. Karlberg proposed that the reason for the scarce media coverage is due to the non-violent and non-adversarial way in which Bahá’ís respond to their oppression. Were their response charged with bullets and bombs, media outlets would grant them more attention.

But the Bahá’í situation in Iran has come to the attention of the Journal of Educational Controversy because of a unique and special way they are organizing to resist oppression. The Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education—BIHE—is a network of educators working to give Iranian members of this faith access to higher education. Prevented from attending or ousted from Iran’s universities, Bahá’ís have come together, along with educators from around the world, to share knowledge with those who seek it.

BIHE classes operate mostly online. According to Dr. Karlberg, who himself teaches such courses, BIHE online courses operate nearly identically to standard online courses. Instructors from around the world who are experts in their fields teach online courses. Some classes do meet in-person, but this isn’t as common given its increased risk and complexity.

BIHE set down its commitment in 1987, and since then now offers thirty-two university-level programs in Sceinces, Engineering, Business, Humanities, and in other fields. A strong belief in education has been a longtime commitment of the Iranian Bahá’ís when approximately eighty years ago,  Bahá’ís established the first schools for girls in Iran. Previously none had existed formally. Today, Iranian girls can attend school, Bahá’ís and non- Bahá’ís alike, because of the Bahá’ís’ commitment to education and equality.

Dr. Karlberg has been involved with the institution for about three years now after being approached by BIHE. He teaches his courses in English, with most students being able to understand the language. Students who do not speak English well or at all, receive assistance by their fellows, demonstrating a communal commitment to education. Participating in these online courses does pose risks for the Iranian Bahá’í students, who face imprisonment if caught. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for students to have to drop their courses due to some governmental intervention.

Even though the students of BIHE face constant danger and are obliged to learn under non-traditional conditions, the quality of education is not diminished. As proof, an increasing number of universities are accepting the validity of degrees awarded by BIHE and accept students from BIHE into masters and doctoral programs. Though the pitfalls are many, Iranian Bahá’ís are unwilling to forsake education and remain resilient against the attempts of a regime to bar them from it.

The tenth year anniversary issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy will feature a special scholarly article on the topic.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

17th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum will Highlight Ways Families and Communities Can be Brought into the Life of the School

The 17th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum will be held on Wednesday, May 6 at 5:30-7:30 pm in the Miller Hall Collaborative Space on the Western Washington University campus.

The forum is free and open to the public and is sponsored by the Journal of Educational Controversy and the Center for Education, Equity and Diversity.

The theme of the forum is: “Bringing Family and Community Strengths into the Life of the School: the Parent Action Team,” and will feature authors of the article, “Everyone Should Feel so Connected and Safe: Using Parent Action Teams to Reach all Families” that was published in our Winter 2015 issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy. The work of the Parent Action Team is a collaborative project between the Woodring College of Education and the Mt. Vernon Washington Elementary School that resulted from a 1.5 million dollar grant by the Washington State Legislature.  The grant, Collaborative Schools for Innovation & Success, aims to de
velop models for enhancing student learning and closing the achievement gap and for better educating teachers who are prepared to teach more effectively in today’s diverse classrooms.

The partnership has been able to create a number of innovative practices.  One such practice is the forming of a Parent Action Team as part of a research project that advised schools on ways to engage often marginalized and hard-to-reach parents  --- parents and families that have often felt alienated in the past and who often face language, poverty and other barriers that prevented them from advocating for their children or feeling a part of the school.

Bringing the strengths and assets of the family and community into the life of school is an extension of the theme of our current issue of the journal that focused on moving us away from thinking in deficits terms and instead seeing the student as a person who brings strengths and resiliency to the learning experience. 

The theme of our current issue is “Challenging the Deficit Model and the Pathologizing of Children: Envisioning Alternative Models,” and so it was just a small leap to start to think about the assets and strengths that families and communities also bring to the life of the school.

The Parent Action Team members that make up the panel include:

John Korsmo is an Associate Professor and Director of Human Services at Western Washington University.
Miguel Camarena is a parent of a Washington School student.

Andrea Clancy is Washington School CSIS co-coordinator and Reading Specialist.

Ann Eco is a parent of a Washington School student.
Ann Jones is the ESL/Family Coordinator for Mt. Vernon School District.

Bill Nutting is the Principal at Washington School.
Basilia Quiroz is a parent of two children at Washington School.

Azucena Ramirez is a Migrant Family Liaison at Washington School.

Veronica Villa-Mondragon is a parent of two children at Washington School.
Stacy Youngquist, is a parent of two children at Washington School.

Panelists will share their experiences and discuss the process and method that was used accompanied by videos, posters, pictures and a powerpoint presentation. A Q&A session with the audience will follow.

Location: Western Washington University, Miller Hall Collaborative Space

Date: Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Time: 5:30-7:30pm

Monday, April 6, 2015

Call for Reviewers

The Journal of Educational Controversy is expanding its pool of reviewers. If you are interested in being considered as a reviewer, e-mail us a letter of interest with a list of areas of expertise and interest along with a vita.

E-mail us at:

The journal is in the process of migrating to a new website managed by the Berkeley Electronic Press. Our 10th Year Anniversary Issue will be published by the end of this year.

Friday, March 20, 2015

New Issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy on "Challenging the Deficit Model and the Pathologizing of Children" now Online

We are pleased to announce the publication of  the Volume 9, Number 1, Winter 2015 issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy.  The theme for this issue is: “Challenging the Deficit Model and the Pathologizing of Children: Envisioning Alternative Models.”

Here is the controversy posed for this issue:
Martin Seligman, founder of the field of positive psychology, has said that, “Modern psychology has been co-opted by the disease model. We've become too preoccupied with repairing damage when our focus should be on building strength and resilience, especially in children.” Is this also true of modern education? Political and pedagogical responses, from the “War on Poverty” through “No Child Left Behind” to address the educational gaps in academic achievement of historically marginalized and neglected groups (the poor, minorities and children with disabilities), were often deeply rooted in a language of cultural deprivation and special needs. Has this deficit model begun to surreptitiously creep into our educational discourse for all children? Have we become too focused on needs and deficiencies and forgotten that children also have capacities and strengths? Does the current emphasis on accountability and standardized testing contribute to the pathologizing of children? We invite authors to respond critically to this argument, envision alternative models, examine historical causes and precedents, analyze political and social ramifications, and share real life stories on the influence these ways of thinking have on the classroom and on the learning as experienced by students.
With Jeb Bush apparently ready to run for the presidency in 2016, our readers might find our look behind the reform movements in Florida intriguing and enlightening.  See the Passero and Jones article.

Here is a complete table of contents for our new issue:
To Patricia F. Carini: A Dedication
 Susan Donnelly, Guest Editor
Resisting the “Single Story”
Ellen Schwartz  
Two examples of the Prospect Descriptive Process:
•Universal Power to Create (A Slide Show), Susan Donnelly
•Children’s Imaginative Communities - Microcosms of Democracy, Susan Donnelly

Link to the Prospect Archive of Children’s Work housed at the University of Vermont, Center for Digital Initiatives


Surpassing Sisyphus: The Tenacious and Promising Struggle to Push and Support a Strengths-Based Ideology and Practice in Education
 Sara Truebridge

How We are Complicit: Challenging the School Discourse of Adolescent Reading
 Andrea Davis,  Teachers College, Columbia University

 Against Rubbish Collecting: Education and Restively Ambivalent Youth
 Tracy Psycher, University of Minnesota
Breaking the Mold: Thinking Beyond Deficits
Elyse Hambacher and Winston C. Thompson,  University of New Hampshire
Urban Teachers Engaging in Critical Talk: Navigating Deficit Discourse and Neoliberal Logics
Heidi K. Pitzer,  St. Lawrence University

 Bottom Line Choices: Effects of Market Ideology in Florida’s Voluntary Preschool Policies
 Angela C. Passero and Roderick J. Jones, University of South Florida
 Precarity and Pedagogical Responsibility
Ann Chinnery,  Simon Fraser University
Building on the Strengths of Families and Communities
The 17th Annual Educational Law and Social Justice Forum
Western Washington University
Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Preview of the Forum’s Upcoming Discussion

“Everyone Should Feel so Connected and Safe”: Using Parent Action Teams to Reach all Families”
--by Members of the Parent Action Team: John Korsmo, Miguel Camerena, Andrea Clancy, Ann Eco, Anne Jones, Bill Nutting, Basilia Quiroz, Azucena Ramirez, Veronica Villa-Mondragon, Stacy Youngquist


Thursday, March 12, 2015

JEC Editorial Board Member to Speak on the 1907 Bellingham Anti-Hindu Riot

Paul Englesberg, an editorial board member at the Journal of Educational Controversy, will be a speaker in a three-part series of lectures sponsored by our local library here in Bellingham, Washington.  The series, "Intolerance & Injustice: Where We've Been, What We've Learned,” will look back at some of the intolerance that occurred in our own community.   Confronting historical memory is the first step to healing and change.  Perhaps, this is an event that should take place in local communities throughout the nation, communities that are trying to confront and reexamine their past in order to move forward to a more just future.  

Below is information on all three lectures that will take place in April at the Bellingham Public Library in Washington State:

 A free lecture series in April will explore issues of injustice and intolerance in our Bellingham and Whatcom County communities.

 The series, titled "Intolerance & Injustice: Where We've Been, What We've Learned," is three presentations in April featuring speakers who will explore examples in local history of intolerance and challenges to opportunity and justice, as well as contemporary events and issues.

The series is being put on by the Bellingham Public Library. All lectures take place at 7 p.m. in the Central Library Lecture Room in Bellingham.

April 2: Purge & Prejudice: The 1907 Bellingham Anti-Hindu Riot

 University professor Paul Englesberg presents a multi-media exploration of the 1907 riot in Bellingham, which drove away from our community hundreds of Asian immigrant workers, most of whom were Sikhs from India. Includes analysis of the causes and consequences of the riot, illustrations from archival sources, showing of the 15-minute documentary "We're Not Strangers" and opportunity for discussion.

Englesberg is professor of education at Walden University, specializing in adult and higher education and educational research. Previously he was on the education faculty at Western Washington University, where he initiated the Asian American Curriculum and Research Project.

April 8: Free Speech, Free Love & Costly Politics: Bellingham's Own Private Red Scare

 Reporter and university instructor Ron C. Judd describes the virulent political climate in 1930s Bellingham, which was well ahead of its time in "Red-Scare" politics that would sweep the nation during the Cold War. Battling factions of the day, led by The Bellingham Herald on the right, and fledgling KVOS Radio on the left, waged a decade-long media war that ultimately would put the city on the national map for political extremism -- and claim the popular president of the local college, Charles H. Fisher.
Judd is a Bellingham resident and longtime columnist and reporter for The Seattle Times. He is the author of numerous nonfiction books, including works of humor, outdoor guides and a history of the Winter Olympics. He is a journalism instructor at Western Washington University and a 2015 James W. Scott Research Fellow at WWU's Center for Pacific Northwest Studies.

April 15: Mid-Century Dream to Today's Reality: All the Ways that Race Still Matters

 Western Washington University professor and author Vernon Damani Johnson will explore the ideas and expectations set forth at mid-century, when the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action and other initiatives were initially conceived, contrasted with recent events and challenges to equal opportunity and justice for all.

Johnson has been a faculty member in the Department of Political Science at Western Washington University since 1986. He was on the advisory committee to Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Presidential Campaign in 1988 and served on the Steering Committee of the Washington State Rainbow Coalition from 1988-92. When the militia movement swept into the region in the 1990s, Damani helped found the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force, and chaired its board from 1997-2000.

Each presentation is free and open to the public. For more information, contact the Bellingham Public Library at 360-778-7323 or

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Chicago Politics: School Closures, Appointed School Boards and the Upcoming Mayoral Election – a Look at Some New Research

With the tight mayoral runoff election coming up this April in Chicago between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and challenger, Jesús G. Garcia, much of the opposition seems to be coming from a challenge to educational policy decisions that were made by the city’s current administration.  (New York Times, March 3, 2015)  

 A new report by the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education at the University of Illinois in Chicago just went public and we thought our readers would like to read the report with its review of the evidence.

From their website:

The report, “Should Chicago Have an Elected Representative School Board?  A New Review of the Evidence,” assesses the agenda and major policies of Chicago’s current Board and how their decisions have negatively impacted Chicago Public Schools students.  The research found no conclusive evidence suggesting mayor-appointed boards are more effective at governing schools, inequities in schooling have increased under the leadership of the current Board, its major policies including school closures have failed to improve schools, and the unelected Board is largely unresponsive to the complaints and suggestions of parents and community leaders.

To read the entire report published at the University of Illinois at Chicago, go to:

 For other reports, see the one published by the University of Chicago’s  Consortium on Chicago School Research in January of this year, entitled: “School Closings in Chicago: Understanding Families' Choices and Constraints for New School Enrollment.”   An interesting aspect of this report was the finding on the way the families viewed academic quality as something different than simply a schools’ performance policy rating.

 From their website:

The way that many parents defined academic quality was different than the official markers of quality represented by the district’s performance policy rating system. For example, many families defined academic quality as having after-school programs, certain curricula and courses, small class sizes, positive and welcoming school environments, and/or one-on-one attention from teachers in classes. Although some families did talk about their school’s official policy rating, most factored in these other "unofficial" indicators of academic quality when making their school choice decisions.

Readers can find that report at:

Saturday, February 28, 2015

“Constructive Resilience” as a Different Approach to Social Change: Some Reflections on Viewing the Film, “To Light a Candle”

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to view the film, To Light a Candle, the film that I mentioned in my earlier post below.  It was shown at Western Washington University as well as sites across the globe on February 27th to highlight the campaign “Education is Not a Crime.” 

The documentary by Maziar Bahari is about the denial of education for the largest religious minority in Iran: Bahá’ís.   The film shows in vivid detail the oppression that the Baha’is have undergone with a focus on one of the creative responses they have made to their denial of a university education in Iran unless they are willing to renounce their religion.  Their response was to create an alternative university for their children, the Bala’i Institute for Higher Education, which has begun to be recognized by universities around the world.  It takes place in homes and over the internet, but has met with resistance from a governmental regime that has used ways to stop it including raiding homes and making arrests.  Still it persists. 

The panel that followed the showing of the film provided an interesting context in which to view the film.  Not only did they place the oppression of the Baha’is in an historical context, but Michael Karlberg, a professor at Western Washington University, also placed it within a theoretical model of social change. Essentially, Professor Karlberg argues that the dominant strategies of traditional responses to oppression have not been effective or are limiting.  Violence to oppression often begets more violence.  Even non-violent responses by people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King have often had only limited and short successes.   He points to the violent reactions that followed the British withdrawal from India as well as the persistent institutional racism despite the successes in overthrowing the Jim Crow laws.  What is lacking, argues Michael, is a constructive alternative in the wake of a power vacuum that emerges.  Rather than simply dismantling the systems of oppression, this approach confronts it by building an alternative.  In effect, as Michael put it, we build the world we want to live in.

The creation of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education was offered by Professor Karlberg as an example of a constructive alternative to combating an oppressive regime that he calls a third approach to social change.  Readers can read more about this approach in an article by Professor Karlberg in the journal, PEACE & CHANGE, Vol. 35, No. 2, April 2010, entitled, “Constructive Resilience: The Baha´’ı´ Response to Oppression.”   

Watch for an upcoming interview with Professor Karlberg in a future post.   Our tenth year anniversary issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy will also feature a special scholarly article on the topic.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Education is not a Crime Campaign: The Plight of the Bahá’ís in Iran

A film screening and panel discussion of “To light a candle” will take place on Friday, February 27, 2:30 pm at Western Washington University in the Communication Facility, room 120.  “To Light a Candle,” a new human rights documentary by Maziar Bahari, is about the denial of education for the largest religious minority in Iran: Bahá’ís.  Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker, was himself imprisoned in Iran in 2009. His documentary was the inspiration for a campaign that was started in November of 2014.  The campaign is now showcasing a major event entitled “Education Is Not a Crime Live 2015,” where “To Light a Candle” will be shown at hundreds of screenings to be held around the world on that day. Here are two websites for more information:

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The New Year Continues our Discussion between Authors Paul Thomas and Curt Dudley-Marling

Editor: Welcome back to our blog for 2015.  We will start the new year with a continuation of a discussion that was begun at the end of 2014 on our blog between two authors whose articles were published earlier in our journal.  Readers will recall that Paul Thomas in an earlier post began by criticizing those who blame poor parents for the limited vocabulary of their children.  Curt Dudley-Marling expanded on this deficit thinking in education while also commenting on the hostile responses that Thomas’ article had received in the Washington Post as part of the larger problem.  Below Paul continues the conversation.  The exchange between these two authors is a good introduction to the upcoming issue of the journal that will focus on the theme: “Challenging the Deficit Model and the Pathologizing of Children: Envisioning Alternative Models.”

 By P. L. Thomas

 Soon after The Washington Post reprinted my piece from The Conversation UK, Stop blaming poor parents for their children’s vocabulary, Curt Dudley-Marling emailed. Curt was pleased to see a somewhat mainstream acknowledgement of scholarly challenges to both the often-cited work of Hart and Risley and the deficit perspective inherent in that work and lurking beneath why so many people accept the claims without critique. 

But Curt was also deeply concerned, it seemed, about the comments posted—comments that were strongly committed to deficit perspectives of language and of people and children trapped in poverty. 

In his response here, Curt explains that he has “not lost hope,” and then ends with what I believe is an important point: “The enduring lesson here is that we can more effectively counter deficit thinking by showing students’ competence when they are engaged in thoughtful, engaging curricula rather than merely telling about the problems of deficit thinking through scholarly critiques.”

 In fact, Curt’s concluding statement hits on how important public work of scholars and educators is when compared to scholarly work, which remains mostly among the scholars, and how action will always trumps words. 

While we continue the conversation here and even in JEC and other scholarly venues, we must be resolved to act in ways that are counter to deficit narratives and deficit practices.

 Below is a follow-up blog post after Curt emailed me, spurring me to think longer and harder about the comments posted. 

The Good

Middle-class and affluent parents are good because they pass on to their children good cultural capital (such as good literacy).

The Bad

Impoverished parents and working-poor parents are bad because they pass on to their children bad cultural capital (such as bad literacy).

The Ugly

Many, if not most people, in the U.S. embrace the above class- (and race-) based views of parenting and language (vocabulary, grammar, reading, and writing).

This ugly social mythology is identified by Pierre Bourdieu in Acts of Resistance:

I’m thinking of what has been called the “return of individualism,” a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which tends to destroy the philosophical foundations of the welfare state and in particular the notion of collective responsibility….The return to the individual is also what makes it possible to “blame the victim,” who is entirely responsible for his or her own misfortune, and to preach the gospel of self-help, all of this being justified by the endlessly repeated need to reduce costs for companies….

In the United States, the state is splitting into two, with on the one hand a state which provides social guarantees, but only for the privileged, who are sufficiently well-off to provide themselves with insurance, with guarantees, and a repressive, policing state, for the populace. (pp. 7, 32)

But these deficit views that feed an environment of victim blaming also have been echoed in the comment section of a recent piece of mine refuting those very deficit views (see the reposting and comments at The Washington Post's PostEverything).

The ugliness rests on two separate and related issues—parents and language.

Parenting: Good or Bad versus Scarcity or Slack

Within a cultural of individualism, perceptions of good or bad parenting are strongly correlated with social class—as noted above. Unpacking why and how those perceptions exist reveals the ugliness.

Despite evidence to the contrary—evidence that shows class and race are more powerfully correlated with success than effort—impoverished parents are blamed as bad and affluent parents are praised as good when we assume that individual effort of those parents has determined their status.

The focus on the individual also feeds assumptions about whether or not parents can, will, or even want to provide the necessary care and initial teaching for their children. See this comment as one of several such claims:

Being poor is not the problem.....acceptance of poverty and the social position it implies is the problem. When the poor decide that they would like their children to be better off than their parents, efforts will be made in that direction.....but, if the poor decide to instill in their children the idea that being poor is better than being rich, and that the rich are the bad guys in the play, the poor will remain resentful and poor which will define them and their children.

What is often missing in all of this are the tight margins of living in scarcity (poverty) as compared to the slack of living in affluence.

For example, good but impoverished parents may appear to be "bad" when compared to poor or neglectful affluent parents who appear to be "good"—especially when we focus on proxies for the quality of parenting such as a child's vocabulary.

Good and conscientious but impoverished parents, doing the best they can under the stress and within the tight margins of poverty, may be accurately associated with a non-standard home language, and as a result, their children may enter school with measurable literacy that is deemed behind affluent children, whose parents may have been neglectful. However, those affluent children raised in the slack of affluence may have had surrogate people and experiences that mask the weak parenting.

Impoverished parents, on the other hand, have all of their decisions and all of the factors outside of their control amplified negatively by their poverty; while affluent parents have their weaknesses masked or even mitigated by their affluence.

Class-based differences in child rearing are not "good" versus "bad," as much as more affluent children's rearing matches social expectations, ands thus appears "good" in that context.

Annette Lareau, author of Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, explains about the differences in child rearing by class between middle-class and working-class/poor families:

The differences are striking....

Neither the approach of concerted cultivation or the accomplishment of natural growth is without flaws. Both have strengths and weaknesses [emphasis added]. Middle-class children, for example, are often exhausted, have vicious fights with siblings, and do not have as much contact with their extended families as working-class and poor children. But when children enter institutions such as schools and health care settings, the strategy of middle-class child rearing of concerted cultivation is far more in compliance with the current standards of professionals than is the approach of the accomplishment of natural growth. There are signs that middle-class children gain advantages, including potentially in the world of work, from the experience of concerted cultivation. Working-class and poor children do not gain this benefit.

Poverty creates reduced circumstances, razor-thin margins, and relentless stress; as Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir note, people cannot take vacations from poverty.

Affluence, however, allows slack, an abundance of time and money that buffers mistakes, carelessness, and behaviors that would otherwise be considered "bad."

Whether parents are "good" or "bad" is profoundly impacted by status (class and race)—more so than by individual qualities alone.

The Lingering, but Flawed, Connection Between Language and Character

The related ugly is our lingering, but flawed, connection between language and character. Many in the U.S. remain convinced that vocabulary, grammar, and even pronunciation are signals of not just intelligence but the "good" or "bad" in a person.

Non-standard English is associated with race and class, revealing more about our classism and racism than about linguistics or individual character (again, read the comments section linked above).

Deficit views of language perpetuate beliefs that the poor and racial minorities speak broken or inferior forms of English; that their language is not merely different, but inferior.

Alice Walker's The Color Purple is an epistolary novel, a story told in letters. As impoverished, black women, Celie and Nettie create a rich tapestry of using language to confront and recreate their worlds. Walker's novel, then, is a powerful rebuking of the belief that poverty and racial minorities are the provinces of flawed or deficient language.

The impoverished do not pass on "bad," but socially marginalized language to their children; we must admit that non-standard forms of language trigger the dual ugliness of classism and racism in the U.S.

In 1963, novelist Ralph Ellison confronted this language stereotype directly:

“Language is equipment for living,” to quote Kenneth Burke. One uses the language which helps to preserve one’s life, which helps to make one feel at peace in the world, and which screens out the greatest amount of chaos. All human beings do this.

Further, Ellison rejects the deficit view held about the language of poor blacks:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church.

Also unmasking deficit views of language related to class and race, in 1979, James Baldwin asked, "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?":

The argument concerning the use, or the status, or the reality, of black English is rooted in American history and has absolutely nothing to do with the question the argument supposes itself to be posing. The argument has nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language. Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other–and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.

Like Ellison, Baldwin recognizes poetry where others see deficit:

Now, I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States, but they would not sound the way they sound. Jazz, for example, is a very specific sexual term, as in jazz me, baby, but white people purified it into the Jazz Age. Sock it to me, which means, roughly, the same thing, has been adopted by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s descendants with no qualms or hesitations at all, along with let it all hang out and right on! Beat to his socks which was once the black’s most total and despairing image of poverty, was transformed into a thing called the Beat Generation, which phenomenon was, largely, composed of uptight, middle-class white people, imitating poverty, trying to get down, to get with it, doing their thing, doing their despairing best to be funky, which we, the blacks, never dreamed of doing–we were funky, baby, like funk was going out of style.

Ultimately, then, Baldwin states boldly his own recognition of the ugly:

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

And now we are still confronted with "the brutal truth," as Baldwin puts it. Why do we cling to deficit views of poverty and language, and why are so many angry and bitter toward people—families and children—who find themselves in poverty—while simultaneously praising the affluent?

It may well be that neither the quantity or quality of words children bring to school nor that both are strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of those children's parents matters as much as our cultural bitterness, callousness.

More important is how adults use words to demonize the marginalized and create an Other so that they do not have to confront themselves. [1] Again, if you doubt me, return to those comments that suggest to me that if we wish to judge parents by their children, there we have ample evidence to draw some pretty harsh conclusions.