Failing Still to Address Poverty Directly: Growth Mindset as Deficit Ideology

Reporting in Education Week, Evie Blad explains:

Having a growth mindset may help buffer students from low-income families from the effects of poverty on academic achievement, researchers found in a first-of-its kind, large-scale study of 168,000 10th grade students in Chile.

But poor students in the study were also less likely to have a growth mindset than their higher-income peers, researchers found.

Similar to the popularity of “grit” and “no excuses” policies, growth mindset has gained a great deal of momentum as a school-based inoculation for the negative impact of poverty on children.

The binaries of growth and fixed mindsets are often grounded in the work of Carol Dwek, and others, who defines each as follows:

According to Dweck, “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”…

Alternatively, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” writes Dweck.

However, the media, the public, and educators often fail to acknowledge two significant flaws with growth mindset: (1) the essential deficit ideology that focuses all of the blame (and thus the need for a cure) in the individual child, and (2) the larger failure to see the need to address poverty directly instead of indirectly through formal education.

First, then, let’s consider deficit ideology [1], as examined by Paul Gorksi:

Briefly, deficit ideology is a worldview that explains and justifies outcome inequalities— standardized test scores or levels of educational attainment, for example—by pointing to supposed deficiencies within disenfranchised individuals and communities (Brandon, 2003; Valencia, 1997a; Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005). Simultaneously, and of equal importance, deficit ideology discounts sociopolitical context, such as the systemic conditions (racism, economic injustice, and so on) that grant some people greater social, political, and economic access, such as that to high-quality schooling, than others (Brandon, 2003; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2008a; Hamovitch, 1996). The function of deficit ideology, as I will describe in greater detail later, is to justify existing social conditions by identifying the problem of inequality as located within, rather than as pressing upon, disenfranchised communities so that efforts to redress inequalities focus on “fixing” disenfranchised people rather than the conditions which disenfranchise them (Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005).

Any person’s success or failure can be traced to a number of factors, but in the U.S., our blind faith in the rugged individual defaults to ascribing credit and blame at least initially if not totally to the individual’s character traits such as “grit” and a growth mindset.

Student X is successful because of Quality A, and thus, Student Y’s failure is due to a lack (deficit) of Quality A; therefore, formal education must instill Quality A into Student Y.

This formula is compelling, again, because of our cultural myths, but also because the formula is manageable and seemingly efficient—and since efficiency is at the core of how we design and run schooling, the media, the pubic, and most educators fail to step back critically in order to reimagine how to deal with students holistically and generatively instead of through the traditional deficit model.

As a simple but representative example, most of us have taken a paper-and-pencil test in our schooling, one on which the teacher marks answers wrong with an X and then calculates our grade at the top of our papers—as in “100 – 30 = 70.”

This process is the deficit ideology that starts with every student having 100 and then defines that student’s learning on the test by what is missed, what is lacking.

One way to flip this ideology is to recognize that all students actually begin each assessment with 0 (no work has been done), and then the grade should be built on what learning and understanding the student demonstrates: simply checking the accurate responses and then giving credit for those positives.

The entire traditional approach to formal education in the U.S. is a deficit ideology, but the hyper-emphasis on children living in poverty, and black/brown students and English language learners, has increased the power of deficit approaches through growth mindset, “grit,” and “no excuses.”

Consequently, we routinely demand of children in the worst situations of life—through no fault of their own—that they somehow set aside those lives when they magically walk into school and behave in ways (growth mindset, “grit”) that few adults do who are also burdened by forces more powerful than they are.

Despite the enduring power of the rugged individual and meritocracy myths, the burden of evidence shows that privilege (race, class, and gender) continues to trump effort and even achievement in the real world: less educated whites earn more than more educated blacks, men earn more than equally educated women, and so forth.

But research also refutes the claims of growth mindset and “grit” that achievement is primarily the result of the character of the individual. The same person, in fact, behaves differently when experiencing slack (privilege) or scarcity (poverty).

As Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir detail extensively, living in scarcity (poverty) drains a person of mental capacities the same as being sleep deprived; therefore, the solution to “buffer students from low-income families from the effects of poverty on academic achievement” is to address poverty directly instead of trying to “fix” the students who are victims of that poverty.

In other words, if we relieve children of food insecurity, home transience, etc., we are likely to find that those students in poverty who appeared to lack “grit” and growth mindset would then demonstrate those treasured qualities.

We are currently misdiagnosing growth mindset and “grit” (as deficit ideologies) as causal characteristics instead of recognizing them as outcomes of slack (privilege).

The deficit ideologies of formal schooling—particularly those (growth mindset, “grit”) targeting impoverished and black/brown students—are the entrenched indirect approaches to alleviating poverty criticized by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967:

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect [emphasis added]. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly [emphasis added] by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Ultimately, teaching disenfranchised and struggling students growth mindset and “grit” come from, mostly, good intentions that are tragically trapped in deficit ideologies.

The great and tragic irony of growth mindset advocates is that they are also victims of deficit ideologies—as they focus their “scornful gaze” on poor children and children of color.

And just as we have allowed coded racism such as “thug” to replace the now taboo racial slur “nigger,” we are embracing deficit ideology cloaked as scientism to label students as lacking growth mindset and “grit” to mask the very ugly suggestion that these children are simply lazy.

Let us embrace instead as educators a redirected focus—as Gorski implores:

Hegemony is a difficult thing to break. In order to break it, we must consider our own complicity with it and our socialization for compliance. We must avoid the quick fix and the easy answer. We must bare the price of refusing compliance, knowing that by looking up, by training our gaze toward the top of the power hierarchy, we might strain our necks, not to mention our institutional likeability, more so than we do when we train it downward, where we pose no threat to the myths that power the corporate-capitalist machine. But if we do not break hegemony, if we do not defeat deficit ideology, we have little chance of redressing, in any authentic way, its gross inequities. This, we must realize, is the very point of the redirected gaze: to ensure and justify the maintenance of inequity and to make us— educators—party to that justification and maintenance.

The social and educational inequities in the U.S. must be our targets for repair—not our students. And thus, we are left with a dilemma confronted by Chris Emdin: “The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student.”


[1] See also Dudley-Marling, C. (2007). Return of the deficit. Journal of Educational Controversy, 2(1).

5 comments

  1. Pingback: Failing Still to Address Poverty Directly: Growth Mindset as Deficit Ideology | thinkingaboutkids
  2. Pingback: Equitable Education for Students in Poverty Starts with the Teacher | Getting Smart

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