What's Wrong with a Deficit Perspective?
by Randy Bomer, Joel E. Dworin, Laura May & Peggy Semingson - June 03, 2009
This reply to Ruby Payne’s response to Bomer, et al (2008) begins with a statement of areas of agreement between the authors and Payne. They then state that Payne’s work contains factual inaccuracies and that teachers need higher quality information about economically disadvantaged communities, families, and children. The reply goes on to discuss the disadvantages of educators’ holding deficit perspectives: harm to relationships between teachers and children and to the quality of instruction they receive, as well as harm in the relationships among family members and educators. The authors critique Payne’s use of research findings in her response and they rebut her suggestion that their position is deterministic.
There are several big things about which we agree with Ruby Payne (2009). We agree that poverty and social class are important and that all people, especially educators, should be concerned about the impact of poverty on children. We agree that poverty has a powerful impact on the achievement and life chances of many children. We agree that it is important for teachers to have understandings about that impact, about the lives of families and communities in poverty, about the causes of and reasons for poverty and other class divisions, and about what they as teachers might do, ethically and politically, in response to the inequity they see. And we agree that schools and teachers are often extremely important in the lives of children from low-income families and that they can make a substantial difference for good or ill.
Our critique of Payne's work (Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2008) was in no way an argument that poverty is unimportant or that it has benign effects on students, though in some of her response, Ruby Payne seems to take that to be our position. Our argument, for which we provided much evidence in our article, was that Ruby Payne (2005) is wrong about nearly every factual claim she makes and that she thinks it is acceptable to make things up, especially about people who are too socially vulnerable to contradict her claims. If it is important for teachers to know about the lives of poor children, then it is important for them to know accurately. And as a corollary, it is important that they not be misinformed, because if they are, they will be responding to a fiction dreamed up by a businesswoman, instead of to the actual child in front of them. Like other recent critics of Ruby Payne (Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2006, 2007, 2008a, 2008b; Ng & Rury, 2006a, 2006b), we are eager for teachers to understand children from low-income homes without distortions, though we fear that Payne's work invokes already-existing assumptions and narratives about the causes of poverty and the lives of families in low-income households (Dworin & Bomer, 2008).
So what's wrong with a deficit perspective? Payne argues in her response that it's an airy abstraction derived from some kind of "social determinism." This is incorrect. Deficit perspectives, when educators hold them, have been shown in much research to lower the quality of education for children from low-income households (see e.g., Ansalone, 2003; Anyon, 1980; Connor & Boskin, 2001; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gamoran & Berends, 1987; Oakes, 1985; Moll, 1988; Moll & Ruiz, 2002; Rist, 1970; Valenzuela, 1999). The kinds of conversations available to them are diminished, the scope of the curriculum contracts, the modalities in which they are asked to represent their learning are constricted. Often, when a teacher holds a deficit perspective about students, she or he actually offers them less instruction, spends less time with them, and speaks less frequently to them. In other words, when teachers internalize perspectives like those of Ruby Payne (2005), the quality of their interactions with their students goes way down, even when their conscious intentions are otherwise. Furthermore, a deficit perspective like Payne's, which paints poor people with a very broad and essentializing brush, can create wildly inaccurate assumptions about what a particular child or classroom full of children will be like - and what they can do. The teacher interacts not with a person of dignity and possibility but rather with an instance of a category made up of faults and absences. The student, in turn, learns to fit her own behavior into the patterns that the teacher has established through these expectations. After years of these relationships, the child may have internalized teachers' judgments about her/him, and blaming the victim in the same way her/his teachers did, may believe s/he deserves her/his lack of achievement and her/his later poverty. Examples of such interactions and consequences are well documented in libraries full of research undertaken for the past half a century - on teaching, schools, and education policy. Our article provides many citations as a beginning. In addition, when a deficit perspective is applied in work with families, programs work from assumptions that disadvantage the families further with respect to their own children, insulting their culture or effort rather than helping them with the material realities of their lives and respecting their love and competence with their children (Auerbach, 1989). Parents, like their children, are sensitive about someone who does not share their life circumstances attempting to "fix" them.
Ruby Payne (2009), in her response, has provided some research that she believes supports certain points in her book. This research is more recent than Payne's book (2005), which has not changed substantially since its first printing in 1995, and so obviously did not provide the basis for claims she made there. Rather, she is attempting to retrofit evidence to ideas for which she long ago made up her mind with no evidence. This does not work, because the research she cites in her response to our article does not fit the claims of her book. First of all, Ruby Payne misstates the findings of the Hart and Risley study (1995). They did not find that the children in the professional families they studied had larger vocabularies than the adults in the welfare families they studied. Rather, they found that, within the language samples they collected from homes of professional and welfare families, the children in the professional families used a greater number of different words when talking to their professional parents than the welfare parents used when talking to their children. Parents do not use their entire vocabularies when talking to their children; these adults had larger vocabularies, which they used in interacting with welfare agencies, their jobs, their peers, popular culture, and all the other areas of adult life in which their children do not participate. Secondly, the Hart and Risley study (1995) has been criticized for drawing conclusions about poor families from only six cases, all African-American, all in Kansas City, all on welfare (before welfare reform) - among many other criticisms (Dudley-Marling & Lucas, 2009). In Payne's use of this study in her response, she once again shows that she regards "poverty" as a category that makes people all the same, regardless of whether they are black in Kansas City, white in Appalachia, Navajo in New Mexico, or apparently, in China, Australia, or Haiti. However, adult interactions with children are very specific to cultures and are not determined primarily by income. Furthermore, Hart and Risley (1995) are talking about children from birth to three years old, and they have no data on school-age children. Therefore, it is a misuse of these findings to make claims about the linguistic competence of children in school.
The other new studies that Payne cites (Farah, M.J., et al., 2006; Kishiyama, Boyce, Jimenez, Perry, & Knight, 2008; Najman, et al., 2004) are neuroscience studies that focus on neurocognitive differences between children from high SES and low SES households. To address her most direct contradiction of our article, we must point out that the Kishiyama study says nothing about planning; the word "planning" (or "plan") does not appear at all in the article. Executive function, in that framework, consists of working memory, visuomotor attention, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and semantic fluency, as measured on a collection of standardized neuropsychological tasks; it has nothing to do with planning. Payne's claim that poor people cannot plan is still without a basis. In none of these studies, moreover, can the findings reasonably be used to support the existence of a uniform and hermetic "culture of poverty." As studies of individual brains, they have no data pertaining to culture. In fact, these studies are, to our minds, eloquent demonstrations that the consequences of poverty are material and biological, that poor nourishment, stress at all levels of development, and other forms of physical vulnerability for fetuses and young children can contribute to a person being physically and materially less able to take advantage of available social and intellectual resources. Like Ruby Payne, we are ill-equipped to evaluate the quality of these medical studies or fully to speculate on the implications of the findings. Unlike her, we take the findings of these studies to be alarming evidence that something must be done to remedy social inequality that is clearly harming children, not evidence that the children themselves need to be fixed or that their teachers need to be warned of their approach. As we argued in our article, the problem to be addressed is poverty - economic inequality - not its children.
We reject Payne's characterization of our position as deterministic on several grounds. First, we believe, as we have stated, that teachers' interactions with students can make a substantial, qualitative difference in students' life trajectories. No individual child's future need be written by the existence of social structures. Individual people are complicated, they are different from one another, and they engage their social realities imaginatively and with a great, resilient spirit of innovation. Second, we know that teachers all over the world work daily to create spaces of hope and resistance to the larger social givens. No large structure is so overwhelming as to extinguish the counter-narratives it produces even through the exertion of its power, and teachers, when they look at their students as competent, knowledgeable, and capable, make it possible for those students to believe in those new stories, and to compose them. Third, we know well that children, adolescents, and adults improvise new possibilities all the time, making something new out of existing relations and structures, and that they often actively resist the messages they are given by those in authority over them and those who would represent them as less than they are. We value that resistance and those improvisations, and we invest our hopes in them. Further, we believe in social change, and we see it as the responsibility of educators to add their energies to efforts to transform social givens and to reorganize our future shared life to redress present imperfections. Indeed, in our view, it is Payne's active efforts to reproduce social givens by reinforcing prejudices toward those in poverty that would better be termed social determinism. Poverty and its effects should be meliorated, but that will not happen through the continual reproduction of ancient bigotries in explanations of the reasons for poverty.
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