Friday, December 5, 2014

The Common Core and the Deficit Model

Last night, in my Math and Diversity graduate course, we had the most wonderful discussion about the deficit model of education.  The topic was briefly mentioned in one of the  four articles assigned, The Myth of the Culture of Poverty by Paul Gorski.

I first encountered the deficit model of education many years ago while reading about the ways in which Native Americans teach their children. Apparently, there was never any sense that their children were "below standard", or were deficit in their learning in any way. The development of  their skills, understandings, attitudes and values was seen as a natural progression through which children passed in an orderly, logical manner. If a child couldn't do something it was because they had yet to learn it or develop the prerequisite skills first.

Several years later, I was deep in conversation with Rick Marcotte, a beloved principal in a South Burlington elementary school when he began talking all about the concept of "yet". His whole outlook on the way children learned was based on the idea that if a child couldn't do something or understand something it was because they hadn't learned it yet. In other words he saw only the positives in children, the jewels of their passions and what they knew and could do; he didn't see them as deficit based on some arbitrary grade level standard designed to make all students conform to what someone thinks a 10-year-old should be like.

Our current obsession with testing and with identifying standards at each grade level that all students must achieve is destroying our education system in a way that is turning student away from the joy of learning.As so-called standards are raised, with terms like "high stakes testing", "race to the top" and so on, more and more students will fall by the wayside because they will see themselves as deficit failures, not good enough, sub-par, below standard, incomplete human beings.

How wonderful, in contrast, to celebrate the jewels inside each student, to build upon what they know and understand, think and believe, to allow them to pursue their passions within the epistemological structure of the academic subjects studied in school. That structure exists in the form of the Common Core if we strip away the grade level standards and expectations. The learning sequences and structures  exist so that we know what students need to know or develop an understanding of next, based on what they already know and  understand.

Here are two interesting articles that give one a sense of what it might be like if we were to abandon the deficit model of learning. This article, Ditching the Deficit Model, describes building on students strengths and interests, while this one, Discarding the Deficit Model, focuses on the application of the term to teaching minorities and children with special needs, an area where the application of the deficit model has caused the greatest grief.        

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