Cultural Deficit Thinking In Education

Cultural deficit thinking is sometimes offered as another reason for achievement and discipline disparities. In an education context, the cultural deficit model asserts that minority students do not perform as well as their White peers because non-White students are culturally “deficient” in some way, such as underachieving academically, living in a dysfunctional family culture, or not valuing education (Salkind, 2008). Cultural deficit explanations have been strongly challenged, as “there is considerable evidence that deficit explanations for the discipline gap are grossly inaccurate” (Monroe, 2006, p. 104).

Recognizing that the current teaching workforce is largely comprised of White females, a cultural mismatch often emerges between teachers and their increasingly diverse student bodies. A national survey of more than 1,000 public school teachers found that the teaching population in 2011 was both 84% White and 84% female (Feistritzer, 2011). In contrast, data from the 2008–09 academic year indicated that students of color comprise the majority of public primary school students in many schools nationwide (Cárdenas, 2012). Looking across the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, more than 55% of students enrolled in public primary schools were non-White (Cárdenas, 2012).

The cultural mismatch between teachers and students can activate teachers’ implicit racial biases in ways that contribute to achievement and discipline disparities. Culture-based misunderstandings between students and teachers can lead to students being disciplined unnecessarily for perceived unruliness even when their actions were not intended to be inappropriate (C. Weinstein, Curran, & Tomlin- son-Clarke, 2003; C. S. Weinstein, Tomlinson-Clarke, & Curran, 2004). Several examples illustrate this contrast between “mainstream sociocultural norms” and “culturally influenced” student behavior (C. Weinstein, et al., 2003, pp. 269–270).

A lively debate may be interpreted as aggressive and contentious rather than simply verbal sparring common among African American teenagers (C. S. Weinstein, et al., 2004). Differences in discourse models can also signal cultural mismatch. Overlap- ping speech, such as the active “call-response” participatory pattern familiar to African American students, may be perceived as disruptive and/or rude when contrasted with the more “passive-receptive” approach that is likely to be more typical to White teachers’ expectations (Monroe, 2005; C. S. Weinstein, et al., 2004). In other cases, play fighting may be mistakenly regarded as genuine aggression (Monroe, 2005). For Black females in particular, what may be perceived as loud and defiant behavior may actually be the manifestation of important survival qualities that have historically reflected resilience in the face of racism, sexism, and classism (Morris, 2013). Moreover, for Black students, these disconnects are particularly perplexing when teachers sanction them for behavior that may be accepted or even rewarded in their home life (Downey & Pribesh, 2004).

IINII uses a revolutionary Design Thinking process to help your school community gain an understanding of one’s sense of self, as well as developing an understanding of students’ values; having an understanding of one’s values matters because research has shown that it is linked to better well-being, less stress, and increased confidence in one’s ability to succeed.

Understanding students’ values can be developed with culturally responsive practices that reflect a student’s identity and experience. Particularly helpful is focusing efforts on cultural competence and relevance and providing opportunities for students to practice bridging differences between diverse identities in a safe environment. To learn how you can create a dynamic learning environment that honors your student community, visit our website at, or contact us at or 1800-507-2502.

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