Shifting Our Deficit Gaze, Asking Different Questions about Literacy

Poor Kids and the “Word Gap” opens with an important admission by Jessica Lahey: The Horace Mann ideal that education is the “great equalizer” has not materialized (or at least, has eroded). While the impact of education appears powerful within class and race classifications, educational attainment remains ineffective in overcoming social inequity.

As the article title states, however, Lahey turns to the “word gap”—a compelling and repeated entry point for discussing the educational differences among social classes and races of children. Quoting a Clinton Foundation report, the article equates that “word gap” with childhood hunger and food insecurity before detailing the Obama administration’s initiative to bridge that socioeconomic word gap.

Lahey’s article, the Clinton Foundation, and the Obama initiative are all sincerely grounded in good intentions, and all rightfully highlight the need to address the inequity of education in the U.S. that mirrors the social inequities a rising and high percentage of impoverished children experience.

But, once again, the problem persists that we remain committed to a deficit gaze, one that ultimately blames the parents of children in poverty (often the mother) for the “word gap.”

Looking closely at the Clinton Foundation report, in fact, reveals that Hart and Risley’s 1995 research (see chart on page 10) continues to anchor assumptions that the quantity and quality of words are linked to both the socioeconomic status of a child’s home and then the child’s ability to succeed once in formal schooling.

As Dudley-Marling and Lucas emphasize, the foundational study by Hart and Risley and pathologizing the language of impoverished students are misguided and misleading because of the essential deficit perspectives embedded in each, perspectives reflecting and perpetuating stereotypes. “Pathologizing” language means that the language itself is seen as a “sickness” and thus what must be “treated”—including the concurrent implicating that the host of the language, the child, is also diseased and must be treated.

As well, research in the UK reveals that the dynamic among literacy, social class, and educational attainment is complex, but also powerful. Pleasure reading and even the quality of that reading appear to increase literacy in adults, Sullivan and Brown detail.

Sullivan reaches two important conclusions: the need to protect the library and the importance of books in the child’s home.

This focus—on strategies for enriching the literacy of children born into impoverished homes—offers important ways for shifting our deficit gaze away from blaming the victims of poverty and toward systemic causes for characteristics (“word gap,” for example) so that we can develop policy to prevent the conditions in the first place and also create contexts for alleviating inequity that already exists.

The great challenges facing the U.S. and our disturbingly high percentage of children living in poverty are social inequities linked to classism and racism. We must admit these problems, and then we must address them directly (and not by clinging to idealistic beliefs such as education will be the “great equalizer”).

But we must also address directly the existing inequities reflected in the homes and education of impoverished children.

Let’s not blame high-poverty mothers; instead, let’s develop policies that provide books for children in their homes while we commit to social programs that allow impoverished families the sort of security and opportunities supporting them in their roles as a child’s first teachers.

Let’s not diagnose and then treat impoverished children and their literacy; instead, let’s insure that all children have rich and engaging formal schooling experiences

The deficit gaze fails because it focuses on people and not the conditions within which people find themselves (through no fault of their own).

Regardless of good intentions, we must shift our deficit gaze and begin to ask different questions so we can create new and more humane answers.


2 thoughts on “Shifting Our Deficit Gaze, Asking Different Questions about Literacy

  1. So are you saying that the “word gap” is a proxy for all the stuff (language experiences & interactions with or without books) impoverished children do NOT get that the children of professionals DO get and just fixing the “word gap” is missing the point?

  2. Pingback: THE REAL EDUCATION CRISIS? | EduBloggers

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