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 contributors—John Spencer, Carlos K. Blanton, Sylvia L. M. Martinez, John L. Rury, and Edward Zigler—in 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 poor—especially parents, children, and youths of color—are 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 variants—genetic 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. Terman—hereditarian 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. 91–92). 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 term—a 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 Lubeck’s 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 Jensen’s (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. 56–61).

6.This section on Swadener and Lubeck (1995) builds on, with revisions, Valencia (2010, p. 114) and Valencia and Solórzano (1997, pp. 196–197). 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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Beatty, B., & Zigler, E. (2012). Reliving the history of compensatory education: Policy choices, bureaucracy, and the politicized role of science in the evolution of Head Start. Teachers College Record, 114(6).

Foley, D. E. (1997). Deficit thinking based on culture: The anthropological protest. In R. R. Valencia (Ed.), The evolution of deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice (pp. 113–131). Stanford Series on Education and Public Policy. London: Falmer Press.

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Hunt, J. M. (1964). The psychological basis for using preschool enrichment as an antidote for cultural deprivation. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly of Behavior Development, 10, 249–264.

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Martinez, S. L. M., & Rury, J. L. (2012). From “culturally deprived” to “at risk”: The politics of popular expression and educational inequality in the United States, 1960–1985. Teachers College Record, 114(6).

Menchaca, M. (1997). Early racist discourses: Roots of deficit thinking. In R. R. Valencia (Ed.), The evolution of deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice (pp. 13–40). Stanford Series on Education and Public Policy. London: Falmer Press.

Noguera, P. A. (2009). The achievement gap: Public crisis in education. New Labor Forum, 18, 61–69.

Reynolds, A. R., Temple, J. A., Ou, S.-R., Arteaga, I. A., & White, B. A. B. (2011, June 9). School-based early childhood education and age-28 well-being: Effects of timing, dosage, and subgroups. Science Express. Retrieved from

Rothstein, R. (2004). Class and schools: Using social, economic, and educational reform to close the Black-White achievement gap. New York: Teachers College Press.

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Spencer, J. P. (2012). From “cultural deprivation” to cultural capital: The roots and continued relevance of compensatory education. Teachers College Record, 114(6).

Swadener, B. B., & Lubeck, S. (Eds.). (1995). Children and families “at promise”: Deconstructing the discourse of risk. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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Valencia, R. R. (Ed.). (1997a). The evolution of deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice. Stanford Series on Education and Public Policy. London: Falmer Press.

Valencia, R. R. (1997b). Genetic pathology model of deficit thinking. In R. R. Valencia (Ed.),  The evolution of deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice (pp. 41–112). Stanford Series on Education and Public Policy. London: Falmer Press.

Valencia, R. R. (2010), Dismantling contemporary  deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice. Critical Educator Series. New York: Routledge.

Valencia, R. R. (2012). Students of color and the achievement gap: Systemic challenges, systemic transformations. Book manuscript in progress.

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. 160–210). Stanford Series on Education and Public Policy. London: Falmer Press

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 6, 2012, p. 1-5 ID Number: 16689, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 1:05:51 PM

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