Posted in Miscellaneous

Deficit Theory

During my time as an education major, I have had the opportunity to associate with many other future teachers studying a variety of subject matters. In discussing our future plans in education, some of these students–particularly those who are still young in their respective programs–have explained to me that they hope to one day teach advanced classes in high school such as AP Government, AP Literature, or AP Physics. When I ask why they hope to only teach advanced classes, they usually tell me that they want to avoid the ‘troublemakers’ that are notorious for ruining classrooms. These future teachers simply assume that the advanced classes have smarter students who are better behaved and more likely to succeed in life.The automatic assumtion that some students are more prone to academic success than others is known as the ‘deficit theory.’ Some teachers have in mind a picture of the perfect student.  When students who do not fit that picture enter the classroom, these teachers might have lower expectation of that student’s ability to achieve. The deficit theory is not just a teacher problem; it is a problem that we all have to deal with. To some extent we all make hasty first impressions. Sadly, students who are learning English as a second language, those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, or others whose ethnicity has been portrayed poorly by the media are the primary targets for the deficit theory.

The deficit theory is a danger in education because teacher expectation can have a large influence on how a student performs. If a teacher believes that only students of higher socioeconomic status families can succeed in advanced classes, then that teacher will likely teach in a way so that only these students will succeed. For example, a teacher might inadvertently give more attention, effective instruction, and better grades to the students who are expected to perform well. Conversely, if teachers expect a student to do poorly, they’ll probably deliver instruction of lower quality in response to the lowered expectation.

Other than poor student performance, the deficit theory also encourages student delinquency. Students can tell when teachers have a low level of expectation. They also know when they are seen as ‘remedial’ by their teachers. When teachers hold deficit theory attitudes and judgements, they believe it is impossible for students to improve. Students can perceive their teachers’ apathy, and begin to feel as if nothing they do will improve their academic performance.  A feeling of helplessness settles in. That feeling in turn leads students to become apathetic toward their own learning.  Eventually they lose interest in school and end up causing problems in the classroom or dropping out entirely.

Who is to blame for this problem? The teacher. If the teacher had a higher expectation and a greater desire to see all students succeed–regardless of ethnic or socioeconomic background–the problem of student delinquency could have been avoided.

As future teachers, it is vital that we avoid the deficit theory.  This happens only when we hold all students to high standards of success. Since many of you future teachers who read this blog have also learned about the deficit theory, I would like hear from you.  What are your thoughts on the deficit theory? How do you plan on showing students your high expectation of them?


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