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.

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