Contextualizing “Rethinking Compensatory Education”: The Value of a Temporal Continuity Analysis
by Richard R. Valencia - 2012
A commentary on the Special Issue.
Editor Barbara Beatty and fellow contributorsJohn Spencer, Carlos K. Blanton, Sylvia L. M. Martinez, John L. Rury, and Edward Ziglerin this special issue of Teachers College Record (TCR) provide a valuable collection of essays on historical perspectives in regard to discourse concerning one of the most oppressive social constructs ever invented, the disadvantaged child, also referred to as the culturally deprived child. Given that the contributors do a fine job of covering the historical actors and events of the compensatory education movement, I refrain in this brief commentary from going over the same ground. Rather, my focus is to suggest that any revisitation of compensatory education and its accompanying constructs of alleged cultural deprivation among the poor needs to be contextualized not only within history beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, but, I assert, within a more expansive temporal continuity analysis. My point is that because putative cultural deprivation, and its trumpeted antidote, compensatory education (Hunt, 1964), is guided by deficit thinking,1 which permeates most of the discourse on the poor, we need to be more inclusive of the time frame in this analysis. The concept of deficit thinking has great heuristic value in any discussion in which the poorespecially parents, children, and youths of colorare pathologized and demonized (Valencia, 1997a, 2010). Furthermore, given that deficit thinking has roots spanning several centuries (Menchaca, 1997) and is a paradigm consisting of three variantsgenetic pathology model (Valencia, 1997b, 2010), culture of poverty model (Valencia, 2010), and at-risk model (Valencia, 2010)it is important to be cognizant that discussion of compensatory education and the social construction of the culturally or disadvantaged child can benefit from various temporal perspectives. In the remainder of this commentary, I offer examples of this position.
In their essay, Martinez and Rury (2012) note that the notions of culturally deprived and culturally disadvantaged came into use in the late 1950s and that genetic bases to explain variations in educational achievement among racial/ethnic groups became passé. This is also suggested in the pieces by Beatty (2012) and Spencer (2012), who focus in part on the culture of poverty. Although it is the case that the genetic pathology model (Valencia, 1997b) was debunked and fell into disrepute around 1930 (Foley, 1997; Valencia, 1997b), and alleged dysfunctional cultures among the poor became the new carrier of pathology (Foley),2 hereditarianism was resurrected by the late 1950s (Shuey,1958).3 This revitalized hereditarian thought, which I refer to as neohereditarianism, further underwent three waves from 1958 to 2008 (Valencia, 2010).4 In sum, discourse on the poor, particularly discussion on the explanations of their alleged shortcomings, should not assume that genetic causes to explain the typically lower academic performance of poor children of color have disappeared from the minds of deficit thinkers. Nearly 100 years ago, Lewis M. Termanhereditarian deficit thinker, eugenicist, and father of the intelligence testing movement in the United States proclaimed that because Black, Mexican American, and American Indian children had dullness that was inherent in their family stocks, these children should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction that is concrete and practical. They cannot master abstractions, but they can often be made efficient workers (Terman, 1916, pp. 9192). By no means has this scientific racism and pseudoscience vanished. In 2002, deficit thinkers Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen published IQ and the Wealth of Nations, which can be characterized as The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994) goes international. In their empirical study of 185 nations, Lynn and Vanhanen concluded that differences in national intelligence provide the most powerful and fundamental explanation for the gap between rich and poor nations (p. 195). The authors, in a pessimistic tone, stated, Intelligence differences between nations will be impossible to eradicate because they have a genetic basis [italics added] and have evolved over the course of thousands of years (p. 195). Suffice it to say, within the bounds of rigorous scientific research, this deficit thinking-driven, genetic pathology conclusion of Lynn and Vanhanen can be easily debunked.5
Another example of the need for greater temporal continuity in any discussion of the cultural deprivation social construction is seen in the article by Martinez and Rury (2012). Although the authors implied focus (as noted in the title of their essay) is on the shifting terminology from the use of culturally deprived to at risk, I believe the article could have benefited from a protracted discussion of the links between the 1960s and the 1980s and beyond and by placing this coverage in the context of deficit thinking. An excellent and penetrating example of how the notion of at risk is a resurrected metaphor of the 1960s cultural deprivation is seen in the 1995 edited book, Children and Families At Promise: Deconstructing the Discourse of Risk, by Beth B. Swadener and Sally Lubeck. Swadener and Lubeck noted that the at-risk concept is based on a deficit model, frequently taking the embodiment of blaming the victim in which the systemic societal practices of exclusion and oppression are ignored. That is, the use of the at-risk label is very troublesome because it is a classist, racist, ableist, and sexist terma 1990s rendering of the 1960s cultural and familial deficit framework that locates pathologies in the individual, family, and community rather than focusing on institutional arrangements (e.g., White privilege, political conservatism, class stratification) that generate and perpetuate inequality. As is the case of deficit thinking in general, the notion of at risk fails to acknowledge the strengths, competencies, resiliencies, and promise of low-socioeconomic-status (SES) children and parents. The contributors in Swadener and Lubecks volume speak forcefully to this point of at promise regarding African American, Latino, Asian American, and American Indian children and their families.6
A final point. The contributors of this special issue of TCR do a commendable job in providing a rethinking of the controversial history of compensatory education and the social construction of the culturally deprived child. However, for the edification of the readership of TCR, I would have preferred a more sustained discussion of how we can help realize school success for low-SES children and youths. There is ample evidence to counter Arthur Jensens (1969) claim that Compensatory education has been tried and it apparently has failed (p. 2).7 Yet, preschool education is just one strategy in the multifaceted endeavor to help close, significantly, the persistent and pervasive achievement gap that exists between White students and their peers of color.8 We need to be mindful that the school failure of many students of color can best be realized with an understanding that such achievement problems experienced by Latino/Latina, African American, and American Indian students are inextricably linked to the widespread and profound inequality in practically all facets of U.S. society.9
1.Deficit thinking is an endogenous theory that blames the victim. This theoretical perspective posits that students of color who experience academic achievement problems do so because they, their cultures, and their families have deficits or deficiencies. Such deficits manifest, it is alleged, in limited students intellectual abilities and lack of motivation to achieve, in dysfunctional cultures, and in families in which parents do not value education or socialize their children to succeed in school. Given the parsimonious nature of deficit thinking, it is not unexpected that advocates of this model fail to look for external attributions of why students of color, on the average, experience school failure. Inequalities in society, the hegemonic workings of the political economy of education, and the oppressive policies and practices of local schools are all held exculpatory in understanding the academic difficulties of students of color (Valencia, 2010).
2.See Foley (1997) for a discussion of the forces and events that led to the demise of the genetic pathology model of deficit thinking.
3.See Valencia (2010) for a coverage and critique of Shuey (1958).
4.In Valencia (2010, p. 34), he lists the three waves and accompanying authors and their respective publications.
5.For a discussion and critique of Lynn and Vanhanen (2002), see Valencia (2010, pp. 5661).
6.This section on Swadener and Lubeck (1995) builds on, with revisions, Valencia (2010, p. 114) and Valencia and Solórzano (1997, pp. 196197). For further discussion on the at risk concept, see Valencia (2010).
7.See, for example, Reynolds, Temple, Ou, Arteaga, and White (2011).
8.This issue of the achievement gap and how to help reduce it via comprehensive reform will be explicated in Valencia (2012).
9.See, for example, the writings of Noguera (2009) and Rothstein (2004).
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Valencia, R. R., & Solórzano, D. G. (1997). Contemporary deficit thinking. In R. R. Valencia (Ed.), The evolution of deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice (pp. 160210). Stanford Series on Education and Public Policy. London: Falmer Press