Journal of Educational Controversy


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Author Curt Dudley-Marling Continues the Conversation on Deficit Thinking and the Pathologizing of Children, their Parents, and their Community

Author Curt Dudley-Marling’s article, “Return of the Deficit,” published in Volume 2 Issue 1 of the Journal of Educational Controversy, has been one of the most read and quoted of all the articles we have published. In his post below, he responds to our earlier post by Paul Thomas who talks about the ways we blame poor parents for their children’s limited vocabulary. Dudley-Marling comments on the hostile response that Thomas’ article received by readers of the Washington Post. His post below highlights a concern that we have had for a long time at this journal. Our aim in publishing the Journal of Educational Controversy has been to bring scholars as public intellectuals into conversation with the general public, policymakers and legislators. Unfortunately, as Dudley-Marling points out, the most promising and insightful scholarship is typically ignored in the political discussions that influence our policies, laws and practices. Professor Dudley-Marling has one suggestion on how to turn this around. Perhaps our readers have other thoughts.

Reflections from Author Curt Dudley-Marling

I recently retired from 33 years in academia. This life change has given me reason to reflect on my contributions to the field of education. I’d like to think that, at its heart, my scholarly writing stands as a critique of deficit thinking that pathologizes individual students, their families, their language, culture and communities. More seriously, deficit thinking is used as justification for providing students in high-poverty schools – as well as students with disabilities – with curriculum focused on low-level skills, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. This partly explains the so-called achievement gap in which poor children underachieve relative to their more affluent peers. Children in poverty achieve less because they are taught less. Of course, the academic performance of children in poverty is also seriously affected by the material effects of poverty (i.e., poor nutrition and medical care, high exposure to environmental toxins, higher risk of violence and on an on). I summarize most of these arguments in a piece I wrote for this journal in 2007, “The return of the deficit,” in which I use Hart and Risley’s (1995) research on the vocabulary of children living in poverty and Ruby Payne’s “culture of poverty” as illustrations of the pernicious effects of deficit thinking.

There are many other critical educators who have taken aim at deficit thinking. Richard Valencia at the University of Texas, for example, has written extensively on the ills of deficit thinking. A recent critique of deficit thinking by Paul Thomas, "Stop blaming poor parents for their children’s limited vocabulary,” was recently reprinted on the Journal of Educational Controversy blog. Thomas’s piece was originally posted in the Washington Post and the reader responses to Thomas’s piece highlight a painful realization for me. Critics of deficit thinking are widely cited by like-minded scholars but have had little impact on the deficit thinking that is deeply ingrained in popular discourses, a point driven home by the generally hostile responses to Paul Thomas’s piece in the Washington Post. Despite numerous critiques, Hart and Risley’s deficit model of poor children’s vocabulary has been extraordinarily influential cited over 1400 times in scholarly journals. Similarly, fierce critiques of Ruby Payne’s work have done little to diminish the popularity of her program. Deficit thinking is also at the heart of both conservative and liberal programs aimed at “fixing” the problem of poverty. Scholarly arguments have generally been ineffective at stemming the tide of deficit thinking.

I have not lost hope, however, in efforts to counter deficit thinking. I’ve just come to doubt the efficacy of scholarly critiques. A more promising approach has emerged from work I’ve done with Sarah Michaels from Clark University that illustrates the intellectual and linguistic competence of students in high-poverty when challenged to participate in high level, evidence-based discussions of challenging texts. Video recordings and analyses of these discussions have been effective at persuading groups of teachers of the competence of students in high-poverty schools. This experience inspired us to put together an edited collection of illustrations of the effects of what we call high-expectation curriculum in an edited text (High-expectation curricula: Helping all students succeed with powerful learning) published by Teachers College Press. 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.


Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Payne, R.K. (2005). A framework for understanding poverty (4th ed.). Highlands, TX: Aha! Process, Inc.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Author Paul Thomas says: "Stop blaming poor parents for their children’s limited vocabulary"

Author Paul Thomas is well-known to our readers. He has written two earlier articles for the journal as well as a book review.

"Universal Public Education—Our (Contradictory) Missions" Vol. 6 No. 1

"Of Rocks and Hard Places—The Challenge of Maxine Greene’s Mystification in Teacher Education" Vol. 5 No. 1

Review: Police in the Hallways: Confronting the “Culture of Control” Vol. 7 No. 1

In this morning's Washington Post, Professor Thomas published an article entitled: "Stop Blaming poor parents for their children's limited vocabulary: Blaming parents for the language gap in early childhood overlooks one important point."

The article was originally published on The Conversation, that uses a Creative Commons license to republish their articles for free, online or in print. Because we believe the article has relevance to our upcoming issue on the pathologizing of children, we are reprinting Professor Thomas' article below for our readers also.

Stop Blaming Poor Parents for their Children's Limited Vocabulary

Blaming parents for the language gap in early childhood overlooks one important point

While the reading wars in education have raged for decades, most people agree that literacy is crucial for children and that the path to strong reading and writing skills begin in the home. But focusing on poor children’s parents may actually be the real problem when trying to increase their success in school.

In a recent article in the New York Times, journalist Douglas Quenqua looked back 20 years to a “landmark education study which found that by the age of three, children from low-income families have heard 30m fewer words than more affluent children, putting them at an educational disadvantage before they even began school.” He detailed new research by Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology at Temple University, challenging the importance of the quantity of words a child hears and emphasising the quality of language in each child’s home.

That “landmark study” refers to a 1995 study by American psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley. They concluded that the key to children’s language development is quantity of words they hear. And that an important way to evaluate early years child care is the amount of talk actually going on between children and their caregivers.

What the New York Times article fails to mention is that in 2009, education researchers Curt Dudley-Marling and Krista Lucas discredited Hart and Risley’s claims as being biased in favour of middle- and upper-class children. They showed that the study’s research design, limited population studied and biases reflected assumptions about the impoverished. Thus, Dudley-Marling and Lucas argued that Hart and Risley’s claims should not be generalised to the whole population.

Also absent in these debates is the recognition that whether we identify quality or quantity of vocabulary, we remain trapped in a “deficit perspective” of language. Deficit perspectives are those that identify a person or a condition by what is missing – in this case, parents talking to their children in a certain way. That deficit often reflects biases and stereotypes.

Blame the poor

Hirsh-Pasek’s claims about the quality of words children hear complicate a simplified view of language as merely how many words a child knows. But the broader discussion remains trapped in a perspective of blaming impoverished children’s parents.

Ultimately, a shift in focus from the quantity of words a child hears to the quality of those words does not usher in a step-change in policy. This is because the myth persists that the flaws of impoverished parents are passed to their children – and so the impoverished continue to be blamed for their poverty. The deficit must be filled: first it was more words, now it is higher-quality words.

Neither approach turns our attention away from the victims of poverty and toward the social conditions creating it. This results in differences in language among social classes – often related to grammar or vocabulary – that reflect not failed people but an inequitable society.

Such debates simply allow cultural stereotypes to determine what research matters publicly and politically – and how. Whether we argue that impoverished parents fail to share the same number or quality of words with their children when compared to middle-class or affluent parents, we are still blaming those parents and not the social inequity driving poverty.

Giving children more or higher quality vocabulary teaching without addressing the roots of social and educational inequity exposes that simply embracing ongoing research is not enough in education. Without first setting aside our cultural biases, research fails us and our students.

What messages get through

In a recent article on The Conversation, Dennis Hayes lamented that a study in the UK shows education often fails to link practice to research. Back in 1947, American educator and former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, Lou LaBrant expressed a similar concern about the “considerable gap between the research … and the utilisation of that research in school programs and methods.”. This lack of research-driven practice in the classroom spans decades and stretches across national borders.

Further complicating this failure is distortion by media who disproportionately cover think-tank press reports (often not peer-reviewed) compared to more rigorous university-based research.
Psychology professor at Florida State University, K. Anders Ericsson has confronted this problem since journalist Malcolm Gladwell has misrepresented his research and made popular the misleading 10,000 hour rule – that greatness only comes by a defined amount of lengthy practice.

Ericsson has called for not allowing research to remain primarily in the hands of journalists: “At the very least [media coverage of research] should not contain factually incorrect statements and avoid reinforcing existing misconceptions in the popular media.”

As the ongoing concern for the literacy of impoverished children shows, research can be the problem and not the solution, if we view that research through the lens of stereotypes and assumptions.

Yes, we need to link research and practice in education, but we must do so while guarding against oversimplification and biases, especially those perpetuate deficit views of impoverished families and children.