Going Beyond Challenging the Educational Myth: Using relationships to combat the deficit theory

kl1Scores of books, blogs, and articles have challenged the deficit theory, which was defined by Collins in 1988 as a belief that the poor are poor because of their own moral and intellectual deficiencies. Of course, that hasn’t stopped a far greater number of people from continuing to believe in the myth of the undeserving poor. In today’s school systems, we are more likely to encounter the deficit perspective, or defining students by their weaknesses rather than their strengths (Gorski, 2008).

Jason Finley, 2009 Rowland Fellow, recently called attention to the equity traps in Act 77, arguing convincingly that the gender and income-based stereotypes of educators could negatively impact Personal Learning Plans (PLPs) and Flexible Pathways. Most teachers, staff and school administrators, as well as education policy makers would agree that we need to be cognizant of these stereotypes, but fear of one’s’ own stereotypes can also lead to inaction. The question remains, how can schools overcome their own hidden biases to combat the deficit theory?

Most educators have good intentions. Many educators also reflect on their own practices. Some educators even go so far as to recognize their own biases. Even these top educators, who are already going above and beyond many of their peers to thoughtfully reflect, are left to flounder when it comes to how to combat their own stereotypes. While many have challenged the myths of a ‘poverty mindset’, few have offered solutions. Teachers and administrators feel powerless to address access to education, since it often falls outside of the scope of traditional schools.

kl3Our culture still holds the ideal that education should be the great equalizer, regardless of whether it actually smooths the playing field or not. The first step to challenging the myth of the ‘poverty mindset’ is a recognition that classism exists and ‘the poor’ are not a monolithic group with predictable beliefs, values and behavior (Gorski, 2008). While there is still much to do in this field, my focus is for those who have already asked how schools perpetuate classism, who are stuck in limbo between realizing they have biases, as we all do, and fear of acting on these stereotypes. In this limbo, as in Dr. Seuss’ “Waiting Place”, nothing happens. Education does not become any more of an equalizer simply because we recognize stereotypes in ourselves if we do not act on this knowledge. We need more than recognition of the problem.

kl2 Schools often fall into one of two categories when addressing achievement gaps. The first type, labelled ‘the disbeliever’, does not recognize a problem. This can be based upon a lack of reflection or the belief that they are treating everyone equally by being blind to poverty, gender, etc. Stereotypes are different from facts. It is a fact that not all jobs allow parents the time to show up for parent/teacher conferences. It is a fact that not everyone has access to technology at home. It is a stereotype that parents disvalue education because they do not show up for parent/teacher conferences or provide their children with the technology needed to succeed. Facts must be recognized and accommodations made accordingly. In order for schools to be the great equalizer, educators must use scaffolding to ensure equality of access.

The second type of school is ‘the indulgent’. This type addresses the achievement gap by recognizing the many issues students have at home, whether they are facts or stereotypes, and lowering expectations for these students because they have so many other worries in their lives. There is no ‘scaffolding up’ for these students; instead the standards are lowered. When students from middle class or wealthy households have more difficult standards than those who live in poverty, education perpetuates classism. For ‘the indulgent’ schools, unnecessary fear morphs into mollycoddling.

kl4.jpgScaffolding based on facts, not stereotypes, allows education to remain the ideal equalizer our country desires. In order to sift fact from bias, schools must have relationships with their students. Although the emphasis on relationships isn’t the declared main goal of Personalized Learning Plans or Flexible Pathways, it is the unstated assumption. However, we must do more than state it. We must start shouting it from the rooftops because if it continues to exist only in the back of some people’s minds, it will never be recognized as the foundation of PLPs and will easily be forgotten when it is time to implement school change.

kl5The goal of Vermont’s Department of Education can’t be for every high schooler to have a PLP; a PLP is only the final outcome of a deeper, more difficult to define goal for every student to have a relationship with a trusted adult in their school who knows enough about the student to be working from facts, not stereotypes.


The question each school and each educator must ask is whether relationships are central to their implementation of PLPs and Flexible Pathways.


Kendra LaRoche 2011 Cohort of Fellows

Kendra LaRoche is a Rowland Fellow of the 2011 cohort, and currently teaches at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, VT.

She offers workshops to schools on the areas of differentiated instruction, formative assessments, curriculum design, and student-centered learning.  Additionally, Kendra acts as a consultant for schools, working with them to identify problems related to the achievement gap, develop and implement an action plan, as well as evaluate the effectiveness of the plan.

She resides in Middletown Springs, Vermont with her two children.

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