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the classroom is how research is distorted by the media, which disproportionately covers think-tank reports (often not peer-reviewed) compared to more rigorous university-based research (see Molnar and Yettick).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.

The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement

Poverty is a trap children are born into:

No child has ever chosen to be poor. Children have never caused the poverty that defines their lives, and their education.

Yet, the adults with political, corporate, and educational wealth and power—who demand “no excuses” from schools and teachers serving the new majority of impoverished children in public schools and “grit” from children living in poverty and attending increasingly segregated schools that offer primarily test-prep—embrace a very odd stance themselves: Their “no excuses” and “grit” mottos stand on an excuse that there is nothing they can do about out-of-school factors such as poverty.

Living in poverty is a bear trap (and it is), and education is a race, a 100-meter dash.

“No excuses” advocates calling for grit, then, are facing this fact:

Children in poverty line up at the starting line with a bear trap on one leg; middle-class children start at the 20-, 30-, and 40-meter marks; and the affluent stand at the 70-, 80-, and 90-meter marks.

And while gazing at education as a stratified sprint, “no excuses” reformers shout to the children in poverty: “Run twice as fast! Ignore the bear trap! And if you have real grit, gnaw off your foot, and run twice as fast with one leg!”

These “no excuses” advocates turn to the public and shrug, “There’s nothing we can do about the trap, sorry.”

What is also revealed in this staggered 100-meter race is that all the children living and learning in relative affluence are afforded slack by the accidents of their birth: “Slack” is the term identified by Mullainathan and Shafir as the space created by abundance that allows any person access to more of her/his cognitive and emotional resources.

In the race to the top that public education has become, affluent children starting at the 90-meter line can jog, walk, lie down, and even quit before the finish line. They have the slack necessary to fail, to quit, and to try again—the sort of slack all children deserve.

Children in relative affluence do not have to wrestle with hunger, worry about where they’ll sleep, feel shame for needing medical treatment when they know their family has no insurance and a tight budget, or watch their families live every moment of their lives in the grip of poverty’s trap.

As Mullainathan and Shafir explain: “Scarcity captures the mind.” And thus, children in poverty do not have such slack, and as a result, their cognitive and emotional resources are drained, preoccupied.

The ugly little secret behind calls for “no excuses” and “grit” is that achievement is the result of slack, not grit.

Children living and learning in abundance are not inherently smarter and they do not work harder than children living and learning in poverty. Again, abundance and slack actually allow children to work slower, to make more mistakes, to quit, and to start again (and again).

Quite possibly, an even uglier secret behind the “no excuses” claim that there is nothing the rich and powerful can do about poverty is that this excuses is also a lie.

David Berliner (2013) carefully details, “To those who say that poverty will always exist, it is important to remember that many Northern European countries such as Norway and Finland have virtually wiped out childhood poverty” (p. 208).

More children are being born into the trap of poverty in the U.S., and as a result, public schools are now serving impoverished students as the typical student.

The “no excuses” and “grit” mantras driving the accountability era have been exposed as ineffective, but have yet to be acknowledged as dehumanizing.

Instead of allowing some children to remain in lives they didn’t choose or create and then condemning them also to schools unlike the schools affluent children enjoy, our first obligation as free people must be to remove the trap of poverty from every leg of every child.


David C. Berliner (2013) Inequality, Poverty, and the Socialization of America’s Youth for the Responsibilities of Citizenship, Theory Into Practice, 52:3, 203-209, DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2013.804314