Dec 10, 2009

Vocabulary Test

This post is a long time coming. A term that comes up a lot in my Diversity in Higher Ed class is "deficit thinking." Deficit-minded thinking attributes blame to those experiencing the problems. The term is often used in our class discussions in reference to differential treatment, whether by race, gender, class, religious/faith practice, etc. For the purposes of this blog, let's say an English learner student is having a hard time comprehending a lesson. This frame of mind would result in comments such as, "this kid isn't working hard enough," or "it's not a value for that student/family/racial group."

I feel that deficit thinking is best contrasted by equity minded thinking, which examines institutional or structural issues that could attribute to the shortfalls. Equity minded thinking might point to teacher bias, faulty curriculum or insufficient resources at the school for English learners.

With this in mind, I try not to use the term "achievement gap," opting for "opportunity gap" instead. Inequality of achievement looks past the structures that create inherent inequality in the first place: inequalities in wealth, differences in schools, parents educational attainment, social and cultural capital. These are social realities that make it difficult for underserved students to achieve at the same level as their better-resourced counterparts. I know people sometimes point to the instances where people have "pulled themselves up from their bootstraps" in order to dash the image of inequality. The truth remains though - you can't pull yourself up from the bootstraps without boots (wish I had a citation for that quote, it ain't mine). You just can't have equality of opportunity without equality of condition.

[Disclaimer: I'm going to sound really cynical here] I've joked (kind of) with friends about my plan to provide equity (crap...equality versus equity is a whole new post) of opportunities. Bear in mind, this is a plan that is not thought out and isn't really a plan. So here goes: hold back privileged students and provide little to no resources to them. For those who are still reading, my reasoning goes like this: we need to provide the same resources for all students but if we do so all students are only moving at the same pace. The thing is, the starting point wasn't the same. Inequalities would still exist, but I guess it's nice that they also won't grow. SCORE!

Or maybe not. The truth is that we (teachers, administrators, policymakers, parents, allies) need to find a way to provide resources to communities in need that are above and beyond what privileged students receive now. Students who are already good can keep their good schools but we need to have EXEMPLARY schools (you teachers like that huh? I know my English teachers used that word a lot, I think it means "good"). This needs to happen, and will probably happen before any critical mass even mentions something like what I proposed without breaking into laughter or calling me out to be a commie. I've come across amazing people who work at various levels of education. I'm encouraged to know that people have the goal of eliminating inequity.

In posting this though, I want to pose these questions - can we eliminate this gap by only focusing on one side of the gap? Do my ideas of social redistribution have merit? (Hell, even I'm not sure on this) Do they scare you? (They should) Do I use too many parenthetical statements? (Yes I do). What makes you confident that there will be change?


camille said...

so true how slightly changing the diction and terminology used really changes what it means. PROPS. that blew my mind. people just throw around words of the trade like "achievement gap" without questioning the underlying assumptions.

not sure if you can solve things on just one side of the gap, but i sense you're really thinking holistically.

and what makes me confident that there will be change?
folks like you who are thinking about these issues!

Krizia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Krizia said...

Very nice post Mark. As a teacher in a low income middle school in the Bronx, I can certainly speak from the perspective of striving for achievement (and thus, for opportunity) despite the realities of structures such as zoning, racism, wealth distribution, etc.

Kristine told me about your plan to hold privileged students back, which, honestly, sounds almost as good to me as providing opportunity for those in need (although I'm not serious, I'm also not sure how much I'm joking when I say this). I certainly did NOT come from a place of privilege. My TFA experience has taught me that if I truly had the opportunities that my more affluent peers had (e.g., parents who understood what it meant to grow up going to Kumon every day, attend Harvard, network with bigwigs, etc.), I'd probably be 24 and making a 3 figure salary every year. What constitutes "achievement," I'll assume for this discussion, is something like whatever "white capitalism" is... graduating from an ivy league, a cushy, professional job, a seat in policy making, a 5 or 6 figure yearly bonus, etc.). But nooo, I didn't figure out all that opportunity stuff until it was almost "too late," and that WASN'T my fault! Thinking about my students' futures scares me because, for many of them, they'll never find out that this inequity even exists for them and that if they don't do something about it, well, too bad. Is that just the way the world works? It sure as hell seems like it, and I've been racking my brain to figure out how to fix it. I certainly can't fix it as a teacher... I might be able to improve my students' chances for achieving by increasing their opportunities and raising awareness of their own capabilities and potential (which I work VERY HARD to do every day), but let's face it: my efforts are no match against those moms and dads in upstate New York who put their 3 year-olds in pre-schools that cost $5k a semester, prime them for top-notch high schools, get them into Yale, and then make sure they rub elbows with the CEOs who'll give them those 5-6 figure yearly bonuses...

You're not being cynical. You're just being realistic. Bravo. However, since holding back the privileged in order to create a false sense of equity is probably never going to happen, what more CAN we do? What more should we do?

Here's a list of resources that I really appreciated having in college that I wish I'd had even a mere KNOWLEDGE about sooner, so that I could've taken advantage of them sooner:
-a great career center
-free, quality extracurricular activities
-a mentor who could've given me what my parents were never able to, and that is INSIGHT into exactly what I needed to do to make it to the top

So, what about creating some sort of networking space where people who HAVE achieved, regardless of where they came from, are able to mentor, guide and maybe even provide for those in need. Imagine someone like Steve Jobs acting as a mentor and informational, inspirational and even capital resource for an aspiring middle school entrepreneur in the Bronx? Sounds crazy, but gosh, I really feel like it could work...

That is, instead of taking away from the more privileged, just give the privileged education on how to create equity, and an opportunity to give back more concretely by sharing their experiences and resources with someone who doesn't have boots, instead of just writing a check to whatever charity. It'll require time, money and a big heart, but I'm sure plenty of affluent people have plenty of all three if they only had a place to cross paths to share them with those who needed it.

I know for a fact that a few organizations like these exist in NYC. They're new, but they see a need and are working to satisfy it. Check out If only they had the means to market the way McDonald's or Apple does. I feel that, at the heart of it, it's all about raising awareness and providing resources, man. Unfortunately, it's just easier said than done.