One key point about the discourse on education reform that is mentioned repeatedly yet gets very little scrutiny has to do with the way commentators and educators describe low-income urban and immigrant families (this includes NY Times writer Paul Tough, Hartford Courant artist Bob Englehart (week of Feb. 6, 2012), Courant columnist Rick Green (February 8, 2012), Colin McEnroe (Feb. 10, 2012), and even some Hartford school administrators.

Almost from every corner one hears what urban and immigrant families don’t have or don’t do with their children: they don’t have fathers or nuclear families, they don’t read to their kids, they don’t have jobs or a proper work ethic, they don’t speak English and don’t value educational achievement. Accompanying this language of deficits one also hears the language of dysfunction and pathology. Such tropes are widely shared and easily if not always accurately interpretable.

Scholars of education and anthropology for the past four decades have thoroughly debunked “cultural deficit” and “culture of poverty” arguments that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet these deficit arguments continue to hold currency in mainstream discourse. As anthropologist Carol Stack wrote in her 1970 seminal and celebrated work titled All of Our Kin, “The culture of poverty notion explains the persistence of poverty in terms of presumed negative qualities within a culture: family disorganization, group disintegration, personal disorganization, resignation,” etc. Stack argued back then that many studies on poor and black families tended to reinforce pre-existing and deeply ingrained stereotypes held by white middle class individuals (and liberal), namely that black families in poverty were deviant, fatherless, and broken. Dr. Stack’s work demonstrated in fine detail the opposite, that black families, in coping with entrenched poverty and structural racism, actually developed highly effective adaptive strategies, resourcefulness, and resilience. 

Latino families and their children in schools have also been subjected to this historical cultural and class bias. It has been accepted uncritically that Latino families and their culture gets in the way of academic progress, and that Latino families don’t provide rich linguistic and intellectual stimulation in either language.

The research is very clear on what happens when this bias goes unchecked in public schools: higher rates of special education referrals of black children and children who speak another language; lowered academic expectations; tracking; punitive discipline measures, etc.

But there is another way to approach the education of low-income, urban and immigrant children of color. It has to do with starting with what they know as opposed to what they don’t know; finding out what cultural and linguistic practices they’re engaged in as opposed to focusing on the fact that they don’t speak or read English. It has to do with what University of Arizona scholar Norma Gonzalez calls “beginning where the children are.” It’s a very simple proposition but one with huge implications, for it means retraining a teaching workforce (primarily white, middle-class, suburban and monolingual) that is ill prepared to pedagogically build on what urban, multicultural, and multilingual children bring to schools. Much of their training has been technical, not cultural.

Educators have to be cultural learners of their student’s social worlds to be the best teachers for them. Dr. Ernest Morrell (Columbia University) writes, “Little of the research practice in formal pedagogical settings takes into account that students who are labeled by schools as illiterate or semi-literate partake in vibrant and sophisticated language and literacy practices that they learn and utilize in non-school settings.” He argues that “students would be better served to brainstorm how to make meaningful links between their local language and literacy practices” with the literacy and language practices of schools. 

Dr. Luis C. Moll, University of Arizona, also has developed a framework for helping educators find ways to tap into “hidden” family resources of poor, minority families in what he calls the “funds of knowledge” that exist in all families and communities irrespective of their socioeconomic predicament. He contends that “existing classroom practices underestimate and constrain what Latino and other children are able to display intellectually.” He argues that the secret to academic literacy instruction is “for schools to investigate and tap into the ‘hidden’ home and community resources of their students.” But teachers cannot do this bridging between schools and communities if they don’t know the communities and cultures from which their students arrive. Nor can they begin to understand, much less take advantage of, the funds of knowledge of these communities and cultures if teachers fundamentally believe that the languages and cultures of their students are deficient.

Teachers who are attuned to the identities and cultural experiences of people who have been segregated from mainstream society position themselves to provide a more balanced and holistic educational experience for communities who have historically struggled for a better education.

Enrique Sepúlveda is an assistant professor of education at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford.