Wake up and spill the coffee: How I woke up to deficit ideology

A few years ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop reading through mounds of research on social justice in education when my coffee mug toppled over, spilling onto an article by a leading researcher on deficit ideology, “Unlearning deficit ideology and the scornful gaze: Thoughts on authenticating the class discourse in education.” “Sorry, Dr. Gorski,” I mumbled as I wiped the coffee off the paper.

Fearful that once the pages dried they’d be stuck together forever, I sat back and read through the article. As I processed the text and turned over the sticky pages, I reflected on my years of teaching followed by my years as an educator in organizations like NWEA. Then it hit me: I was 25 years into my career as a passionate educator and I had never been exposed to this research before. I couldn’t help but wonder, how did my unawareness impact my students?

What is deficit ideology?

Deficit ideology is a way of blaming the victim, of justifying outcome inequalities by pointing to “deficiencies” in marginalized communities. It justifies oppression by placing those being oppressed as the problem—and by pointing to the oppressors as the solution. In the words of Paul Gorski himself: “[I]t is […] deeper than individual assumptions and dispositions. [Deficit ideology is] an institutionalized worldview, an ideology woven into the fabric of U.S. society and its socializing institutions, including schools.”

Reflecting on my teaching, I recall a conversation I once had about one of my students. I remarked that he came from a deprived home, where education was not valued. Today I cringe remembering that moment. My comment was problematic for two reasons. First, by referring to his home as “deprived,” I placed the parents or caregivers as the problem, rather than the conditions that created poverty. This illustrates how deficit ideology ignores larger social conditions like systemic racism, embedded stereotypes, inequitable school funding, inequitable access to health care, and more. Second, I carried a stereotype about families who were poor: that they don’t value education. Research shows that this myth was debunked decades ago. Looking back, I recognize that I had unknowingly used deficit language—however couched in polite, common language it may have been—like “remedial,” “culturally deprived,” “culture of poverty,” “escaping their neighborhood,” and “disadvantaged.”

Why does it matter?

The real danger with deficit ideology is that it operates by taking our focus away from social conditions that oppress communities and encouraging us to blame the communities themselves. The impact is that our “solutions” tend to focus on “fixing” oppressed communities rather than fixing the systems that are inequitable. This is particularly destructive when you consider how this practice maintains dominance because it positions the oppressor as the “fixer” of the “broken” or marginalized community.

[Deficit ideology is] an institutionalized worldview, an ideology woven into the fabric of U.S. society and its socializing institutions, including schools.

The consequences in education are simple: Black and Brown students have more negative experiences in school than their white peers. Decades of research point to consistent themes in the experiences of Black and Brown students in school, from unfair discipline practices, assumed guilt, and lower expectations to the perception that white students are more capable. Two particularly good resources documenting these problems are Amanda Lewis and John Diamond’s Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools and Christine Sleeter’s “Preparing teachers for culturally diverse schools: Research and the overwhelming presence of whiteness.”

In 2012, I was fortunate to get to hear Lewis speak, and she posed a question that has stuck with me: If everyone knows about these issues, why do they keep happening? Her research pointed to a critical answer: It’s not about individual racists. It’s the pervasive belief, whether conscious or unconscious, that whites are more competent, as she and Diamond reiterate in their book. It’s about deficit ideology being woven into our society, as Gorski says.

In reflecting on my own teaching experience, I recognize myself as a well-intentioned teacher who wasn’t aware of her own biases, something research shows over and over as commonplace in education. Carrying deficit ideology is one of the big ways we can unknowingly cause our students harm. Keeping this at the front of my mind motivates me to check in with myself and notice deficit ideology when it appears, both in my work and personal life. Here are some suggestions for how to spot it yourself—and what to do about it.

What does it look like—and what can we do about it?

Recently I was reading through some educator professional learning materials and came across an example of deficit ideology in the language. See if you can spot it.

Providing students of color with strategies around grit can help reduce the achievement gap.

Notice how the problem positioned is not about economic, social, political, financial, racial, or other disparities that can cause the achievement gap; it’s about students of color being deficient. Also notice that the intended intervention, “strategies around grit,” intends to “fix” these students, rather than the systems that created the gap in the first place. Here’s a way to keep the focus on supporting students without making them responsible for the social systems in play:

This tool will provide supports for students who have been impacted by inequities in education.

Here’s another example of a sentence laden with deficit ideology:

This workshop will explore how to ensure assessments are developed to be sensitive to multicultural students.

Notice how the problem being positioned isn’t assessment bias, which research shows happens in many assessment systems. Multicultural students are centered as the problem. If only they weren’t multicultural, we wouldn’t have to be “sensitive.” This wording keeps the dominant culture at the center in these conversations, rather than the communities being oppressed. Here’s a more productive option:

This workshop will explore assessment bias and how to reduce it.

Because deficit ideology is so deeply embedded in our culture, it’s very difficult to root out. Here are some specific things Gorski recommends we do:

1. Identify it

Gorski admits that identifying deficit ideology is difficult because it’s so deeply embedded in the world around us. He names three things to look for: 1. stereotypes, 2. believing inequality is something that happens only among low-income families, and 3. failing or refusing to acknowledge that society influences how we see things.

Some questions to ask yourself: What am I defining as the “problem,” a group of people or a system? Who needs to be “fixed” and by whom? What assumptions am I making? What language am I using?

2. Know yourself

Gorski encourages us to think about how we were raised and what shaped us as educators. Recognizing how deficit ideology has shaped us makes us better equipped to combat it.

Some questions to ask yourself: What race, ethnicity, religious group, and gender do I identify with? When I was in school, did my teachers, professors, and other figures of authority look like me? Where did I learn the language I use to talk about students? Do I impose deficit language on myself, instead of looking at my strengths or a larger systemic problem in play? How have I unknowingly contributed to reinforcing deficit ideology—and what commitment am I willing to make to disrupt it?

3. Resist

When deficit ideology comes into plain view, counter it. Above all else, resist, as Gorski says, the temptation “to locate any problem in the ‘cultures’ of disenfranchised communities.” What systemic issue is to blame instead? Separating people from systems can help us develop realistic views of the complex problems we are trying to solve.

Some questions to ask yourself: What systemic issues could be harming my students, like inequitable access to housing or racism? How can I focus equity initiatives on these systems when talking about students with colleagues and when thinking about my practice?

4. Teach

Whatever your discipline, teach about the material conditions that support deficit ideology, like systemic racism. Help your students identify those systems and deficit ideology itself. Empower them to know themselves so that, like you, they can be better prepared to resist, disrupt, and reimagine.

A call to action

Deficit ideology is not new. People of color and scholars have been voicing these issues for decades. Sitting in that coffee shop, if someone told me that I held deficit ideological views, I would have stared back at them blankly. What I understand now is that it is my responsibility to continue to evolve my learning in this space, examine the ways deficit ideology creeps into my own language, and commit to doing better. This learning is never finished.

I like to think of it as a challenge: to catch deficit ideology in myself, in educational materials, in conversations, in the media. I see this as my charge in owning my part in making the education landscape more equitable for all students. Because as Gorski says, “Equity can’t live where deficit ideology lives.”

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