Our Enduring Deficit Gaze: Misreading Poverty (Again)

In Why important education research often gets ignored, Dennis Hayes notes that “[t]eachers’ professional development is ‘fragmented, occasional and insufficiently informed by research'” in the UK, concluding (with some snark), “It will come as no surprise then that this report is likely to be ignored, like much of the research available to teachers.”

“A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods,” wrote Lou LaBrant, although her point was made about education in the U.S.—and in 1947.

Little appears to have changed, then, since LaBrant’s recognition of the “considerable gap” also examined by Hayes, but complicating the failure of research to reach the classroom is how research is distorted by the media, which disproportionately covers think-tank reports (often not peer-reviewed) compared to more rigorous university-based research (see Molnar and Yettick).

One enduring failure of research and reporting on research is the persistent claims about the language deficit among the poor. However, even when that claim is challenged in the mainstream press, the source of that misconception continues to be embraced as credible.

For example, Douglas Quenqua reports in The New York Times:

It has been nearly 20 years since a landmark education study found that by age 3, children from low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than more affluent children, putting them at an educational disadvantage before they even began school. The findings led to increased calls for publicly funded prekindergarten programs and dozens of campaigns urging parents to get chatty with their children.

Now, a growing body of research is challenging the notion that merely exposing poor children to more language is enough to overcome the deficits they face. The quality of the communication between children and their parents and caregivers, the researchers say, is of much greater importance than the number of words a child hears.

That “landmark study” is by Hart and Risley from 1995, but despite the newer research highlighted by Quenqua, this article remains uncritical of Hart and Risley’s claim that children in poverty can be distinguished from the wealthier peers by the quantity of language they are exposed to in their homes.

Two significant problems are revealed in Quenqua’s article: Hart and Risley’s research maintains its credibility and the new research remains within a deficit perspective, one that marginalizes people in poverty while keeping the gaze of judgment on the impoverished.

Absent in Quenqua (or any media consideration of language acquisition by the poor) is that Dudley-Marling and Lucas have discredited Hart and Risley for perpetuating stereotypes and overgeneralizing claims from a skewed perspective.

Inevitably, when the media and educators address language acquisition and children in poverty (and often minority students), Hart and Risley is cited directly, and a deficit view of language and poverty is presented as fact—despite those claims being baseless stereotyping and debunked mischaracterizations of language, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas stress:

[Hart and Risley] are establishing a norm thoroughly biased in favor of middle- and upper-middle-class children. This common-sense rendering of the data pathologizes the language and culture of poor families, reflecting harmful, long-standing stereotypes that hold the poor primarily responsible for their economic and academic struggles (Nunberg, 2002). (p. 367)

This brings us to the second problem with Quenqua’s piece on shifting from quantity to quality of language when teaching children in poverty. While this newer study seems to refute Hart and Risley, the broader assumptions remain trapped in the same deficit gaze that places all the focus and blame on impoverished children’s parents.

We, then, are faced with a shift from “quantity” to “quality” as no real change at all because the message persists that impoverished parents lack something that is thus passed on to their children, who must have that lack filled (once it was more words, now it is higher quality words).

In other words, we are not willing to turn our deficit gaze away from the victims of poverty and toward the systemic conditions creating that poverty—and consequences such as differences in language among social classes that reflect not failed people but a failed society.

Yes, education seems too often implementing practices in the classroom without proper attention to research, but we also must admit that our education system is just as prone to falling for research claims as long as they conform to our stereotypes, those “common-sense renderings” exposed by Dudley-Marling and Lucas—a much more damning concern we must confront if research is ever to matter in the schooling and lives of children.

3 comments

  1. Pingback: Bankrupt Cultural Capital Claims: Beware the Roadbuilders, pt. 3 | the becoming radical
  2. Pingback: No Escape: A Brief Examination into the No Excuses Philosophy of Education – 2nd draft | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes
  3. Pingback: No Escape: A Brief Examination into the No Excuses Philosophy of Education, Peter Anderson | Debunked!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s