Monday, September 29, 2014

Ruby Payne and Deficit Thinking

First in a series

School districts including mine are looking for ways to combat low achievement among our poorer students. This problem is so intractable that anyone offering wisdom and advice, who appears to have done some serious study on the issue, will be grasped by teachers and administrators for whatever wisdom is available. For ten years, Ruby Payne has been a major voice in guiding teachers and school districts through waters inhabited by poor people.

Ruby Payne’s seminal book, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty”, endeavors to provide educators with strategies for teaching children from poor families. 

But something happens when you try to do that. You take a snapshot of a classroom and you analyze what you see; you figure out what needs to be done to rearrange what is seen in that picture, and you advise people to do those things. But when you try to effect change based on a snapshot, you get it wrong. You get it so wrong that you do damage to kids, families, schools, and communities. 

Just as politicians are taught not to accept the premise of a question, we can't accept the premise of that snapshot. We have to examine it.

On the surface, it’s pretty simple, even if it seems impossible to solve: middle-class and wealthy kids do better on state standardized tests. They must be better equipped for classroom learning than their poor classmates. So let’s fix those poorer kids, make them better. Surely that is part of our job.

However, scholars, educators and public education activists have been attacking Payne’s work for years. There is a term that brings together the opposition to her framework: deficit thinking.

"Deficit thinking is a pseudoscience founded on racial and class bias. It “blames the victim” for school failure instead of examining how schools are structured to prevent poor students and students of color from learning”  -Richard Valencia, Dismantling Contemporary Deficit Thinking

It is important to focus a bright spotlight on deficit thinking now. On a national level, we are seeing an education movement toward learning that is pushed by standards and enforced by testing. This is not a trend; it is a tsunami. It has crashed over public education and left in its wake a horrific disaster.

In my next few posts I’ll try to make sense of America’s attitudes toward poverty and education -- a big subject about which Ruby Payne’s analysis is possibly the most popular, and most wrongheaded.

I'm going to try to tackle these topics:
  •  What is the national narrative about poor students and schools today? Why is the push toward more accountability in schools adversely affecting poor students, when part of its goal was to make sure no child was left behind?
  • What is Ruby Payne saying?
  • What is Deficit Thinking, and how does it respond to Payne’s work?
  • What’s the solution?

I have been collecting articles and research on both deficit thinking and Ruby Payne’s work. These are some of the sources I have found so far:

Miseducating Teachers about the Poor: A Critical Analysis of Ruby Payne’s Claims about Poverty by RANDY BOMER University of Texas at Austin JOEL E. DWORIN University of Texas at El Paso LAURA MAY Georgia State University PEGGY SEMINGSON
University of Texas at Arlington

Assistant Professor, Integrative Studies
George Mason University

That is the result of my first few passes through search engines. If you know of good resources on either deficit thinking, Ruby Payne, or the impact of high-stakes testing on disadvantaged communities, email me or leave a comment here.

Part Two

Friday, September 26, 2014

Why am I on the school board?

Every time I walk through the doors of our schools to attend a meeting of the district Board of Directors, I feel myself start to compromise my beliefs. Sometimes I stick my face in my phone as I walk down the halls toward the meeting room, trying to hold on to those principles, as though the phone was my lifeline to them and not just to the people with whom I share them; a tool to avoid losing sight of what I believe and know to be right, as I sit as one of eleven members of the governing board of my school district.

The status quo of any school system is a powerful thing. Familiar, even comforting, it induces a kind of nostalgic haze over otherwise well-honed minds. Never mind that what we see in classrooms now is the result of a twisted, compromised history of education and not the result of a natural evolution of practices intended to bring out the best in all children.

The status quo in public education -- teachers defining what is to be learned and students endeavoring to learn it -- is what we all know.  Most of us believe it cannot and should not fundamentally change.

So as I feel the warm glow that spreads as I listen to reports by administrators, teachers, even students -- how hard everyone is working, how caring they are about children, how they genuinely want to find a way for all kids to be the best they can -- it’s very simple to start to compromise. It’s not that I don’t believe what they say; it’s all true,  even admirable, so I listen and feel the resolve slipping away. How else could we do it? I ask. This is good. It’s not perfect, but it works.

Here are some of the many things I try to hold on to:

  • Learning is a consequence of experience. We all learn, all the time. What a struggling student is learning is that learning is a struggle. Difficulty, struggle, are not bad things if they lie along a path that students have chosen.
  • The basics are learned more reliably while kids develop their own passions and interests than when they are taught in dry, tasteless and disconnected learning tasks.
  • Kids in higher income or educated households do better in the current learning system. They are more likely to move on to more interesting projects and learning experiences while the strugglers stay behind. This can ultimately be called discriminatory. (This is a result of deficit thinking.)
  • If we truly believe all students have an equal ability to learn, we would design our learning systems so that there is no need for failing grades, repeated years, or summer school to make up for what was not learned. While failure is essential to the learning process, a system should never communicate to kids that they are failures. When you give a kid an F or the equivalent, that is what they hear: I Am A Failure. 
  • Focus on kids' strengths rather than their weaknesses, and all their skills will strengthen.
  • Quality of life right now matters for kids just as much as preparation for their lives later on.
  • The solution is democratic education. The solution is for every child to be in control not only of his or her own learning, but of the environment in which he or she learns. Equal citizenship between adult and child can produce learning environments where all children can find satisfaction and fulfilment in their lives.

Even when I successfully hold on to those principles, it isn’t easy to know when to speak and when to be quiet at these meetings. I often feel a little like I’m a stranger on Mars. What I know doesn’t seem to apply, doesn’t even seem relevant  to public education; as though I’m sitting in a room full of people who all seem familiar to me, but don’t speak my native language.

We talk about finances. We talk about policies. Some of them affect students directly, and some don’t. We hear about situations arising with the physical plant, usually after a solution has already been found.  Bus problems. School nutrition programs.

I might pick and choose, decide on one or two things at each meeting about which I can make some points, and the rest of the time allow the system to function as it will. I doodle my way through the reports. It helps me focus. Or I take notes if I want to try and formulate a response or a comment.

We spotlight pilot classrooms, we hear from teachers. We hold expulsion and grievance hearings. We talk about our transition to a standards-based system.

It is this last issue that makes my job the hardest. This is the effort my district and districts around Maine are making to change the structure of teaching and learning. The reasons why this effort creates difficulty for me are more than I can articulate here. Suffice it to say that it creates a sea change in how things operate in our classrooms without touching on any of the bullet points above. It takes a neat and legislation-driven end-run around the critical issues of teaching and learning. As long as we accept that learning should be driven by standards and enforced by testing, we can’t hit any of those bullet points. As long as we acquiesce to the questionable custom of adults deciding for children what they should learn and when, we can’t touch the change that kids really need right now.

So why do I continue on the school board?

More important, why should you consider running for your school board?

Friends who have served with me, then gone on to other things, say, “I don’t know how you still do it.” Actually, I have long been resigned to the fact that I do not do my best work at the board table. As long as I believe my audience is drumming their fingers and letting their minds wander; as long as I am aware that while I’m speaking, my superintendent is formulating responses intended to deflect and disprove, I’m going to fumble and falter while getting to the point. I know this about myself. I’m working on it.

Actually, I love it. I’m generally not Ms. Happy Fun Girl by the time the meeting is over (although during the meetings I do crack more jokes than most of my colleagues) but I am fully engaged while I’m there.  

I have been studying issues of learning and the public education system every day for a long time. I’ve collected a group of people from all over the Maine and the US who believe what I believe. Their support gives me confidence; their work shows me that what I dream of for kids is actually possible; their battles are the same as mine. It has taken me ten years to understand what my role in school board meetings is. I’m there to cut through the power of the status quo and bring up the simply and beautiful concept of what can be. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What lessons can be learned from student failure?

(I wrote the following comments for a school board discussion of the high rates of student failure at our high school.)

To understand failure, we have to define what we mean by learning. I’d like to pull back and put learning and failure in a context that may be unfamiliar to you, but bear with me.

If we agree for the moment that learning is a consequence of experience, then we can also see that learning is effortless. In other words, the brain turns on, therefore the brain learns. It doesn’t turn off because teaching has stopped, or because content is difficult. It is simply not learning that which is being taught, or that which is being purposefully “learned.”

“We are learning all the time, so anything we engage in we learn about, provided we are interested and not confused. Anyone reading is learning about reading. Anyone reading an historical book is learning about history. Anyone engaged in a task involving mathematics, geography, astronomy, carpentry or cookery is learning about those things. How much they learn and what exactly they learn depends on whom they are doing those things with and their perception of themselves and of what they are learning about. They are learning through experience.” (Frank Smith, The Book of Learning and Forgetting)

When students “fail,” learning has not has simply gone wrong. What a struggling student is learning is that learning is a struggle. Smith again:

“What is not recognized [in traditional education] is that learning is never absent, and that students who fail to learn what teachers are expected to teach them are nevertheless learning. They learn that they cannot do what is being taught.”

Or put another way,

“If there is no interest or comprehension learning may still take place but with more difficulty and what is also inevitably learned is that the task or subject matter is uninteresting, incomprehensible and not something anyone would normally do.”

The common red flags for learning that has “gone wrong” is confusion, anxiety and boredom.
"Because of the way they are trained and expected to teach, teachers often believe that it is possible for students to learn something even though the students don't understand it or aren't interested in it--provided they try hard enough, of course.  But we can only learn from activities that are interesting and comprehensible to us; in other words, activities that are satisfying. If this is not the case, only inefficient rote-learning, or memorization, is available to us and forgetting is inevitable." 

But with interest comes learning.

“Learning is far more likely with an interested student and demands that teachers promote interest are less liable to be reduced to fragmented, decontextualized and testable units than lists of specific knowledge and skills.”

This is just a taste of a different way of thinking about learning. If we believe all children are able to learn, and we create a system based on that belief, then we would not see failure. We wouldn’t see it as a result of assessments and testing; and the children in our schools wouldn’t have the knowledge of themselves as “failures.” We would see the ongoing process of our children, growing and developing, engaging with the world and with knowledge, all on an equal footing despite their differences.  

I once said to an administrator, “There can be a system of education that is based on student strengths.” She responded, “If we do that, how would we find their weaknesses?

This question reveals the administrator’s philosophy and approach to education. It is based on fear. We all feel fear with respect to our students, and our children. If they don’t learn what we tell them to learn, no matter how difficult,

  • They won’t be able to support themselves.
  • They won’t have any “work ethic.”
  • They’ll have to rely on public assistance.
  • They won’t be able to solve the world’s problems.

We need to turn the fear off, for good. I submit that any approach to education that is based on fear or in response to fear be summarily discarded. It’s not doing kids any good; it’s not doing society any good. Because the result of having kids learn stuff they do not value,  they don’t feel connected to, that they don’t comprehend, is that the learning, as explained above, will go wrong. All because adults are afraid of the consequences of them not learning it. So we are in our own way.

I have heard all the stories about teacher-wizards who, when “forcing” kids to learn such arcane subjects as Shakespeare, were able to light a candle in their students’ imaginations. In the end, those children loved the Bard, their whole life long.

My question is, do you really think that is true of all kids in all lessons they are unwilling to learn?

And what is lost when we redirect them away from the interests and passions they may already have?

Public schools are great bastions of something called deficit thinking, in the sense of kids being there to be filled with the knowledge and skills that they lack. My theory is that learning goes better and that more is learned when we build on strengths.

Deficit thinking, however, is also a phrase that has been used since the 60s to define a way of thinking about race and class in school. We are nearly monochromatic in our schools here in Central Maine, but we certainly have class distinctions and lots of poverty in our area.

Richard Valencia, author of Dismantling Contemporary Deficit Thinking, offers this definition:

“Deficit thinking, an endogenous* theory, “blames the victim” for school failure rather than examining how schools are structured to prevent poor students and students of color from learning.”

*Endogenous: having an internal cause or origin.

I am still working on coming to a deeper understanding of deficit thinking.  It is simple enough, however, to be aware that if some students find the learning experiences we provide “more difficult,” then, according to Frank Smith above, it is learning that has gone wrong. We talk often about our poor kids and what they need:

"The dominant theoretical explanation for disproportionate school failure of the poor and the minority was “accumulated environmental deficit”—that is, students entered school with a build-up of handicaps incurred in early formative years that would be irreversible unless significant action was taken when children were very young…. If, however, intervention begins early enough the child can recover from the lack of intellectual stimulation at home and the dearth of language…. The compensation for the deficits that are hypothesized to have occurred before a child enters school results in the leveling of the playing field giving everyone an equal chance at a desirable future."  --  Valencia

If there is a cultural difference between some poor students and better-off ones, is it assumed they have to leave their culture in order to succeed? If some students have experienced financial hardship and stress, is it assumed that nothing was produced in that deprived home that gave the child something worth developing?

A strengths-based learning environment “levels the playing field” in such a way that neither identity nor culture is lost.

When I first started exploring the idea of deficit thinking, I had no idea that it’s most notable detractor (Richard Valencia) had the same solution to public education as I do...but it does make sense! I conclude with his words on what we need to do to fix deficit thinking, put an end to student failure, and give all students the support needed for success:

“...we offer an alternative to deficit thinking in education, namely “democratic education.” We warn that unless schooling can meet the requirements of democratic education , deficit thinking will continue to exist and if anything, grow. We propose four requirements of democratic education: (a) providing that kind of knowledge that will enable every student to engage equally in an informed debate on every generally recognized important social and personal issue; (b) guaranteeing everyone equally the particular rights of freedom of expression (which includes the right to express unpopular political beliefs , and to disagree with constituted authority, including the teacher), specified rights of privacy, due process that includes presumption of innocence, trial by independent tribunal, and protection from cruel and unusual punishment, and freedom of movement; (c) providing everyone the opportunity and the skill to participate with equal power in all the decisions that affect one’s life; (d) providing everyone equal encouragement in all of society’s legitimate activities. Each of these four features of democratic education (knowledge; rights; participation; encouragement ) has specific relevance to different aspects of deficit thinking, which we examine closely."

Frank Smith was a reporter, editor, and novelist before beginning his formal research into language, thinking, and learning. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard and has been a professor at schools in Canada and South Africa. He has published twenty-one books and many articles on topics central to education.

Richard R. Valencia is Professor of Educational Psychology and Faculty Associate of the Center for Mexican American Studies at The University of Texas , Austin.