Latest NJ Education News – May 1, 2014

Tenure charges filed against custodian whose cigarette lit inferno at James Monroe Elementary
Loyd Nelson,
EDISON – Tenure charges have been filed against the custodian at James Monroe Elementary School in Edison charged with starting the fire that destroyed the building in March.

NJ education officials release 2015 school funding levels for all districts
Peggy McGlone/The Star-Ledger
TRENTON — New Jersey education officials released school aid figures today that show K-12 school funding would need to grow by $1 billion to meet the formulas spelled out in the 2008 School Funding Reform Act.

Students at Newark’s West Side High School protest teacher firing: report
By Star-Ledger Staff
NEWARK — The firing of a popular teacher was met by an afternoon protest by students at West Side High School, News 12 New Jersey is reporting.



School-Aid Formula Numbers Released by State Add Up to $1 Billion Funding Shortfall
John Mooney | May 1, 2014 | Education
Notices sent to districts bolster those who accuse Christie administration of ignoring legal mandate 3 Comments


Another State Task Force, Another Look at Special Education in NJ
John Mooney | April 30, 2014
Governor appoints panel authorized in wake of reports citing lack of consistent quality and standards in programs for kids with disabilities


Against Backdrop of Contention, State Releases Anderson’s Bonus Payments
John Mooney | April 29, 2014
State-appointed superintendent of NJ’s largest school district consistently hits majority of her targets


State Testing Sees Growing Movement of Families Planning to Opt Out
John Mooney | April 21, 2014
Confusion abounds about what happens next for those refusing to take standardized exams


Fine Print: State Lays Out Guidelines for Complying with New Dyslexia Law
John Mooney | April 25, 2014
Memo to school districts gives details of requirements for screening children, training teachers and staff


NJ Charter Schools: A Conversation About Their Place in Our State
John Mooney | April 15, 2014
In a special audio report, NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney discusses some of the problems and possibilities presented by charters


Interview with Dr. Ed Belbruno

In schools, visualization and graphic organizers help students approach math problems. In the world of Dr. Ed Belbruno, techniques taught to young learners expanded to intertwining art and science. The volume of a blank canvas became the vehicle to organize the information of complex chaos math challenges.  A documentary called Painting the Way to the Moon focuses on Dr. Belbruno, and it will be released this month. In this interview, audience can clearly see the complexity of the development of a child into an artist and researcher for Boeing, NASA and Princeton University, who solved the complex problem of leveraging gravitational fields to send rockets to the moon.

Tonight at 7pm – Dr. Ed Belbruno


Today’s show will introduce a guest who is also a friend, Dr. Ed Belbruno, an artist and mathematician researching at NASA, Boeing and Princeton University. Recently, a documentary called Painting the Way to the Moon ( was created to illuminate his career and life. Looking at one of his own paintings, he found a way to the moon that uses less fuel. However, the Ed Belbruno I met goes further than mapping a less expensive route to the moon. He’s entering the field of cosmology, the study of the beginnings of the universe without delving into the existence of God. Princeton’s favorite adopted son, Albert Einstein, looked into cosmology, too. He thought of time in the universe as endless and beginningless, and the universe is eternally oscillating between a rapid expansion and collapse. Ed Belbruno is currently working on the math of a such a universe.

The beauty of my friend’s thoughts clearly expresses itself in his art. As an educator, I could not help but wonder how the poetry started. The story he tells will surprise you. I hope you enjoy today’s show, as we consider how art, freedom and play in childhood form the universe of an artist mathematician.

Tonight at 7pm

Is the Common Core Developmentally Appropriate?

chalkboardTeachers in early education, those with students between birth through age 8, use to the term “developmentally appropriate” to describe teaching approaches and content that align with proven research in child psychology, pediatrics, developmental psychology and neuroscience. The Common Core experienced attack from early educators, because teachers of early education find Common Core standards for young learners to be developmentally inappropriate. The Washington Post stated that the reason lies in the fact that the development of the Common Core did not include teacher participation.

Recent critiques of the Common Core Standards by Marion Brady and John T. Spencer have noted that the process for creating the new K-12 standards involved too little research, public dialogue, or input from educators. Nowhere was this more startlingly true than in the case of the early childhood standards—those imposed on kindergarten through grade 3. We reviewed the makeup of the committees that wrote and reviewed the Common Core Standards. In all, there were 135 people on those panels. Not a single one of them was a K-3 classroom teacher or early childhood professional.

One item that received much denouncement from early education experts is the standard for Fluency in English Language Arts in kindergarten: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RFK.4 – Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.

One interpretation of reading “with purpose and understanding” leads educators to think that the writers of the Common Core expect kindergarteners to read like 8 year old children. Research places reading development into stages, and educators find that specific Common Core standard goes against research of kindergarteners’ development.

Table of Stages in Reading Development

Stage 0 (Prereading) Ranges from birth to age 6. Children associate sounds and words and develop phonological awareness.
Stage 1 (Initial Reading or Decoding) Takes place during the beginnings of the first grade. Students learn how sounds correspond to letters. Readers also learn about what it means to read something and the purpose of letters.
Stage 2 (Confirmation and fluency0 Ranges from the end of grade 1 to the end of grade 3. Students learn to decode words fluently. Teachers teach syllable patterns in words.
Stage 3 (Learning the new single viewpoint) Ranges from grades 4 through 8. Children learn to use construct meaning from text.
Stage 4 (Multiple viewpoints) Ranges from high school to early college. Readers critically analyze texts, synthesize information from different texts, acknowledge multiple viewpoints, and continue to expand their interests.
Stage 5 (A World View) Most mature level of reading and ranges from late college to graduate school.

(The table above is an abbreviated version derived from Language Development, copyright 2009, Alejandro Brice, Roanne Brice page 230)

Students still in the process of learning English will  find difficulty in reading with purpose and understanding, when there is great probability that they do not understand English yet. Other standards like CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.K.2.d state kindergarteners need to be able to spell simple words phonetically by drawing on knowledge of sound-letter relationships. Using phonics to spell words will also prove to be  inappropriate for some dual language learners, because not all children acquire English at the same rate . (Language Development, copyright 2009, Alejandro Brice, Roanne Brice)

Alliance for Childhood wrote a statement entitled “Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative.” Signers of the statement included pediatricians, early education researchers and educators and psychologists like Howard Gardner. After providing a list of inappropriate Common Core expectations for early learners, they wrote “We therefore call on the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to suspend their current drafting of standards for children in kindergarten  through grade three.”

The writers also warned lectures and paper-pencil driven teaching will dominate the classroom. “Overuse of didactic instruction and testing cuts off children’s initiative, curiosity, and imagination, limiting their later engagement in school and the workplace, not to mention responsible citizenship. And it interferes with the growth of healthy bodies and essential sensory and motor skills—all best developed through playful and active hands-on learning.”

The National Association for the Education of Early Childhood (NAEYC), a preschool accreditation body, publishes books for early education teaching programs, and NAEYC also emphasizes how classrooms teach. The organization stresses the importance of using developmentally appropriate teaching methods for young learners.

The early childhood field has paid a great deal of attention to pedagogy- the how of teaching and learning – and has identified characteristics of effectiveness that have held up over time, such as meaningful, active learning and individualizing our teaching methods to the learner….Research and student achievement data (especially for the primary grades and beyond), along with common sense, indicate that what we teach and how we teach it both matter in educating young children.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice, Third Edition
copyright 2009 Carol Copple, Sue Bredekamp, page 48

The Common Core does not state how teachers should teach, but it endorses the pedagogy of early educators like those at NAEYC.

The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach. For instance, the use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document.

New Jersey has accentuated the Common Core’s emphasis on play in kindergarten. In the document entitled, Teacher Practices Related To Kindergarten Common Core State Standards For English Language Arts, the DOE states

 In kindergarten, teachers need to capitalize on the active and the social nature of kindergarteners and their instructional needs to include rich demonstrations, interactions, and models of literacy during projects and play activities that make sense to five and six year-old children.

What is play in the classroom? Joan Almon, Co-founder of Alliance for Childhood, shares with us her thoughts.

Spell Gingerbread

Some friends have asked me to step out of objectivity and state my own personal feelings about Common Core and other education related reforms. My opinions are really not what’s important, because the students’ educational experience should be the focus. Nevertheless, here are my opinions. The United States wants to raise the educational standards, and my opinion is, of course it should. Why would anyone want to lower educational standards? The United States wants to raise the educational standards with the Common Core. Will the Common Core raise the educational standards? This question is much more interesting to answer.

When the Common Core first published its standards, there seemed to me 4 major categories of reactions: 1. Yes, this is great 2. No, this is not great 3. I have no opinion 4. I am confused

In 2012, when I first read the standards, I thought to myself, these seem all pretty reasonable. Some of the standards seems a little high, but overall, the standards seem appropriate for a country that wants to raise the educational standards. It was interesting to read that the Common Core tells you what to achieve in teaching, but it does not tell you what to teach or how to teach it. The battle over what to teach never really existed, because schools buy curriculums that set content. Curriculums tell teachers what to teach. Parents are not part of the decision making process of what to teach. The curriculums also tell teachers how to teach. Sometimes, teachers and adminstration gather to decide how to teach the content of the curriculums. However, no publisher, teacher or administrator has ever taught content set to the Common Core standards, and no teacher, publisher or administrator has had experience in how to teach to Common Core standards.

Now, in 2014, after seeing the reactions of teachers and administrators to the implementation of Common Core, I find myself in a fifth category that I did not see two years ago: I see unexpected results. So what appeared like a great idea to me, now worries me, because the situations looks like inventive spelling. A teacher gives a student an unfamiliar word to spell, and the student has to use his knowledge of word roots and phonics to figure out how to spell the word given to him. This is a popular kindergarten spelling activity, and I can honestly say, I have seen some of the most fascinating spellings of the word “gingerbread”. What’s even more fascinating is when I try to pronounce their spellings to prompt students to self correct.

It seems like teachers and administrators feel like they are given an inventive spelling activity. I can almost hear a collective “huh?” come out of them. I am all for the United States wanting to raise the educational experience and outcome of students across this great nation I call home. However, I didn’t expect educators feeling the way kindergartners feel when asked to spell “gingerbread”. Unfortunately, there’s no one to help educators self correct. They just have to wait for the test results.

Little to No Language

Written July 2012


Many different LDTCs, Bilingual, ESL and preschool teachers in New Jersey state they have come across Latino children described as having “Little to No Language.” Educators stated that the children were assessed in Spanish and not English. The children are as young as 3, who have been admitted to either Abbot school districts’ preschool programs or Special Education preschool programs. Others are in elementary school up to age 8. The children are more likely to be placed in Special Education, because they are assessed to have “Little to No Language.” The three top reasons from educators that explain this phenomenon are the following:

1. The parents of the children have to work multiple jobs, so they do not have time to speak to their children.

2. The parents have so little education that there is no language to pass onto their children.

3. The children have learning disabilities.

Analysis for reasons to “Little to No Language”

Getting a better understanding of where New Jersey’s Latino population originate may lend a better understanding to this “Little to No Language” description. The passenger traffic data from the New York New Jersey Port Authority, who runs all the airports in the area including Newark, JFK and Laguardia, indicate that the majority of the passenger traffic (arrivals and departures) involve 2 market groups: 1. Bermuda and Caribbean 2. Latin American (Central and South America).

Figure 1 – JFK International Airport Passenger Traffic by Market Group (Arrivals and Departures) and by Year (data from New York and New Jersey Port Authority July 2012)


Figure 2 – Newark International Airport Passenger Traffic by Market Group (Arrivals and Departures) and by Year (data from New York and New Jersey Port Authority July 2012)


Figure 3 – Laguardia Airport Passenger Traffic (Arrivals and Departures) by Market Group and by Year (data from New York and New Jersey Port Authority July 2012)


There is evidence that the phenomenon of Latinos with “Little to No Language” can be explained that there are indigenous speakers from the Caribbean and Latin America living in New Jersey. Throughout Mexico, Central and South America, there are over 500 indigenous languages and over 2,000 tongues (language and dialects). From 2000 to 2010, there are more Latinos who self-identify as American Indians or some other race1. A comparison of the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census shows there is a approximately 35% increase in the number of Latinos who identify as Asian and approximately a 35% increase in the number of Latinos who identify themselves as Hawiian or Pacific Islander. In addition, there is about 18% increase the number of Latinos who identify as Native American and Alaskan Native. There is growing usage of the term Amerindian to describe all the indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.

Figure 4 – US Census Bureau Latino Population’s Race Identification

table4  table5

Specific to New Jersey, according the Census Bureau, in 2010 New Jersey has a Latino population of 8,791,894 2. 18.1% or 1,555,144 were Hispanic.3 Latinos in New Jersey have already been identified as speaking various languages. In a single classroom in Trenton, NJ, two children have been identified as indigenous speakers. In the NJ Department of Education database containing language data, 172 languages are listed (see Appendix List 1), and some of them are indigenous languages: Zapotec (indigenous pre-Columbian language largely found in Oaxaca, Mexico), Quechua (Peruvian indigenous language), Nahuatl (indigenous Mesoamerican languages that belong to the Uto-Aztecan language family that is largely spoken in Central Mexico, but originate in South Western United States), and Central American Indian. In Cumberland County, students have been identified to speak Zapotec and what the DOE terms Central American Indian. In Ocean County, there are 40 identified students who speak one of the Nahuatl langauges, which indicate a large number of Mexicans from Oaxaca.4 The 28+ variations of Nahuatl are spoken by an estimated 1.5 million Nahua people, most of whom live in Central Mexico.

Figure 5 – Number of school children in Ocean County’s school districts speaking a Nahuatl language  (Data compiled  from  NJ DOE 2010-2011 RC11 datacase, Language table and NCLB Reports)


The Census Bureau tabulated results of languages spoken across the nation and by individual states. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are just a few hundred Mayan and Arawakian (aka Arawakan) speakers and speakers of unknown languages. However, we know that the numbers presented by the Census Bureau are most likely underestimated, because undocumented Latinos in New Jersey would probably not fill out a census form. While Mayan languages are predominantly in Mexico and Guatemala, Arawakian languages are indigenous to Guatemala and the Caribbean.

Figure 6 –2006- 2008 (U.S. Census on Estimates on  New Jersey Language)



 While the Caribbeans are mostly Spanish speakers, there are French, Spanish creole, and indigenous speaking immigrants.  Three of the indigenous languages are Arawakian languages:  Arawak, Garifuna (which is also found in Guatemala) and Taino. The original form of Taino is currently being revitalized, and the creole form of Taino utilizes Spanish grammar and Taino vocabulary. Statistically, the probability of a child speaking one of these languages in New Jersey is very small. However, the Caribbean population may be contributing significantly to the Arawakian language speakers noted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

TRIBES IN THE CARIBBEAN 5 Geographic  Locations LANGUAGE Number of speakersbullet point   denotes individual language, slash denotes alternative names. parenthesis   denotes dialects of an individual language
Arawak IndianArawakan language   speakers Suriname, Guyana, French   Guiana, and Venezuela Lokono/Arawak  2,500 in    Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, and Venezuela
Caquetio Caquetio (extinct)
Carib IndianCariban language   speakers Venezuela, Suriname,   French Guiana, Guyana, and Brazil Carib 10,000 in  Venezuela, Suriname, French Guiana, Guyana,   and Brazil
GarifunaArawakian language   speakers Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize Garifuna  100,000 speakers in Honduras, Guatemala,   Nicaragua and Belize
Inyeri Indian Inyeri (extinct)
Island Carib Kalipuna (extinct)
Shebayo Indian Shebayo (extinct)
Taino IndianArawakian language   speakers Puerto Rico, Cuba, the   Dominican Republic and the Bahamas Taino (original, and   Spanish-Taino creole) No statistics available


Oaxaca has over 50 tongues, and Mexico overall has over 300 tongues (see Appendix List 2) spoken by over 6.25 million6 out of 115 million7 people in Mexico. The Uto-Aztecan language family includes the 27 or so Nahuatl languages, which has been captured as a language by the NJ DOE. It is spoken by 1.5 million people who are Nuhua. They primarily live in Central Mexico. The map from displays where the major language families are being spoken in Mexico.



As the data from the New York New Jersey Port Authority indicated, there are many Central Americans in New Jersey. There are over 60 groups of languages in Central America.8 The number of tongues is unknown.  Belize’s indigenous language groups include, Belize Kriol, Garifun, and Kekchi  Costa Rica’s language groups other than Spanish include Boruca, Bribri,   Cabécar, Limón Creole English, Maléku Jaíka, Ngäbere, and Teribe. El Salvador has Kekchí, Lenca, and Pipil. Guatemala has the most language groups in Central America: Achi’, Akateko, Awakateko, Chicomuceltec, Ch’orti’ Chuj   Garifuna, , Itza’, Ixil, Jakalteko , Kaqchikel Kaqchikel-K’iche’ Mixed   Language, K’iche’,Mam, Maya,Poqomam Poqomchi’,Q’anjob’al ,Q’eqchi’,   Sakapulteko,Sipakapense, Tacanec,Tektiteko, Tz’utujil ,Uspanteko, and Zinka (according   to some sources, this language is extinct). Honduras has Ch’orti’, Garifuna,   Lenca Mískito, Pech, Sumo,Tawahka, and Tol. Nicaragua has Garifuna, Mískito,   Rama, and Sumo-Mayangna. Panama’s indigenous language groups include Buglere, Emberá,   Emberá-Catío, Epena, Kuna, Ngäbere, Panamanian Creole, Teribe, Woun, and Meu. The bulk of the Latin American population derive from South America. There are over 30 language families and over 1,000 tongues. Brazil alone has over 180 tongues.9


NEWLABOR.ORG and LALDEF.ORG, Latin American support groups in New Jersey, stated that currently most of the Latinos in New Jersey are from Guatemala. These organizations focus on the Hispanic countries, not Brazil. While there has been no accurate accounting on the number of Guatemalans let alone other Latin Americans living in New Jersey, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, New Jersey is ranked fifth highest in number of Guatemalan residents, 48, 86910. Trenton-Ewing, NJ, is ranked the fourteenth highest population of Guatemalans in the nation.11  According to the U.S. Department of State, Guatemala has 24 indigenous language groups<sup12. The map below shows the location of 27 language groups spoken throughout the country of Guatemala. However, some say there are 29 language groups. 40% of Guatemalans speak an indigenous language. 13]


Because there seems to be more Guatemalans than any other Latino group that possess indigenous languages, the Guatemalan population may be contributing to the majority of the phenomenon of “Little to No Language” in New Jersey. Many of the indigenous Guatemalans in New Jersey do not speak Spanish.

While Guatemalans are spread out across Metro New York, they have settled in distinct ethnic communities based on where they came from in Guatemala. “New Jersey’s Guatemalans are mainly Amerindians from rural areas in the north and west of Guatemala. Brooklyn, Queens, Connecticut and Westchester have more Mestizo people from the cities and suburbs in the south and east,” explained Rosita, president of a Guatemalan cultural association. Mestizo Guatemalans in Brooklyn and Queens typically blend in with other Central Americans, while the Amerindians in New Jersey, many of whom do not speak Spanish, are more isolated.14

In Palisades Park, NJ, many Guatemalans speak an indigenous language, not Spanish. Many speak an Indian dialect and rudimentary Spanish. Few can read or write, having left school at age 8 or 9, when most of Guatemala’s indigenous population begin a life of hard labor, tilling the land.15

Because there seems to be more Guatemalans than any other Latino group that possess indigenous languages, the Guatemalan population may be contributing to the majority of the phenomenon of “Little to No Language” in New Jersey. Many of the indigenous Guatemalans in New Jersey do not speak Spanish.

While Guatemalans are spread out across Metro New York, they have settled in distinct ethnic communities based on where they came from in Guatemala. “New Jersey’s Guatemalans are mainly Amerindians from rural areas in the north and west of Guatemala. Brooklyn, Queens, Connecticut and Westchester have more Mestizo people from the cities and suburbs in the south and east,” explained Rosita, president of a Guatemalan cultural association. Mestizo Guatemalans in Brooklyn and Queens typically blend in with other Central Americans, while the Amerindians in New Jersey, many of whom do not speak Spanish, are more isolated.16

In Palisades Park, NJ, many Guatemalans speak an indigenous language, not Spanish.

Many speak an Indian dialect and rudimentary Spanish. Few can read or write, having left school at age 8 or 9, when most of Guatemala’s indigenous population begin a life of hard labor, tilling the land.17


When schools identify children with “Little to No Language”, school assessments should first identify whether or not the child could be speaking one of the multitude of indigenous languages.   

[1] “More Hispanics in U.S. Calling Themselves Indian,” New York Times, July 3, 2011


[5] Data compiled from Native Languages ( and Ethnologue (

[6] Data compiled from

[7] Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook.

[8] Indiana University Blooming Library

“What These Children Are Like”: Rejecting Deficit Views of Poverty and Language

Posted on The Becoming Radical
by P.L. Thomas, Furman University

“I am an invisible man,” begins Ralph Ellison‘s enduring modern classic Invisible Man, which transforms a science fiction standard into a metaphor for the African American condition in the U.S.

Less recognized, however, is Ellison’s extensive non-fiction work, including a lecture from 1963 at a seminar for teachers—“What These Children Are Like.”

More than 50 years ago, Ellison was asked to speak about “‘these children,’ the difficult thirty percent,” the disproportionate challenges facing African American children in U.S. schools. Ellison’s discussion of language among African Americans, especially in the South, offers a powerful rejection of enduring cultural and racial stereotypes:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church….

But how can we keep the daring and resourcefulness which we often find among the dropouts? I ask this as one whose work depends upon the freshness of language. How can we keep the discord flowing into the mainstream of the language without destroying it? One of the characteristics of a healthy society is its ability to rationalize and contain social chaos. It is the steady filtering of diverse types and cultural influences that keeps us a healthy and growing nation. The American language is a great instrument for poets and novelists precisely because it could absorb the contributions of those Negroes back there saying “dese” and “dose” and forcing the language to sound and bend under the pressure of their need to express their sense of the real. The damage done to formal grammar is frightful, but it isn’t absolutely bad, for here is one of the streams of verbal richness….

I’m fascinated by this whole question of language because when you get people who come from a Southern background, where language is manipulated with great skill and verve, and who upon coming north become inarticulate, then you know that the proper function of language is being frustrated.

The great body of Negro slang–that unorthodox language–exists precisely because Negroes need words which will communicate, which will designate the objects, processes, manners and subtleties of their urban experience with the least amount of distortion from the outside. So the problem is, once again, what do we choose and what do we reject of that which the greater society makes available? These kids with whom we’re concerned, these dropouts, are living critics of their environment, of our society and our educational system, and they are quite savage critics of some of their teachers.

What Ellison is rejecting is a deficit view of language as well as a deficit view of people living in poverty that blurs with racial prejudices. This deficit view is not some remnant of history, however; in fact, a deficit view of language and impoverished people is one of the most resilient and often repeated claims among a wide range of political and educational ideologies [1].

For example, Robert Pondiscio notes in a post for Bridging Differences:

We know that low-SES kids tend to come to school with smaller vocabularies and less ‘schema’ than affluent kids, and both of these are correlated with (and probably caused by) poverty. Low-SES kids have heard far fewer words and enjoyed few to no opportunities for enrichment.

When I posted a challenge to this deficit view, Labor Lawyer added this comment:

How about the seminal research outlined in Hart & Risley’s “Meaningful Differences”? Their research showed that there were significant differences in how low-SES parents and high-SES parents verbally interacted with their children + that the low-SES parents’ interactions were generically inferior, not just reflective of different vocabularies. The low-SES parents spoke less often to their children, used fewer words, used fewer different words, initiated fewer interactions, responded less frequently to the child’s attempt to initiate an interaction, used fewer encouraging words, and used more prohibitive words.

Two important points must be addressed about deficit views of language among impoverished people: (1) Ellison’s argument against a deficit view from 1963 is strongly supported by linguists, anthropologists, and sociologists, but (2) the flawed Hart and Risley study remains compelling, not because the research is credible (it isn’t), but because their claims match cultural assumptions about race and class, assumptions that are rooted in prejudices and stereotypes.

One powerful example of the popularity of a deficit view of language and poverty is the success of Ruby Payne’s framework of poverty books and teacher training workshops—despite a strong body of research refuting her claims and despite her entire framework lacking any credible research [2].

To understand the problems associated with deficit views of language and poverty, the Hart and Risley study from 1995 must be examined critically, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas published in 2009 [3].

Hart and Risley: Six African American Families on Welfare in Kansas City

Dudley-Marling and Lucas reject the deficit view of poverty and language, calling instead for an asset view. They note that deficit views place an accusatory gaze on impoverished parents, and thus, blaming those parents reinforces stereotypes of people in poverty and allows more credible sources of disproportionate failure by students in poverty and minority students to be ignored.

Since the political, social, and educational embracing of deficit views is commonly justified by citing Hart and Risley (1995) [4], Dudley-Marling and Lucas carefully detail what the study entails and how the claims made by Hart and Risley lack credibility.

First, Hart and Risley

studied the language interactions of parents and children in the homes of 13 upper-SES (1 Black, 12 White), 10 middle-SES (3 Black, 7 White), 13 lower-SES (7 Black, 6 White), and 6 welfare (all Black) families, all from Kansas City. Families were observed for one hour each month over a period of 2 1/2 years, beginning when children were 7–9 months old. (p. 363)

Dudley-Marling and Lucas stress:

What is particularly striking about Hart and Risley’s data analysis is their willingness to make strong, evaluative claims about the quality of the language parents directed to their children….

Many educational researchers and policy makers have generalized the findings about the language and culture of the 6 welfare families in Hart and Risley’s study to all poor families. Yet, Hart and Risley offer no compelling reason to believe that the poor families they studied have much in common with poor families in other communities, or even in Kansas City for that matter. The primary selection criterion for participation in this study was socioeconomic status; therefore, all the 6 welfare families had in common was income, a willingness to participate in the study, race (all the welfare families were Black), and geography (all lived in the Kansas City area). (pp. 363, 364)

In other words, Hart and Risley make causational claims based on a very limited sample, and those claims are widely embraced because they speak to the dominant culture’s assumptions about race and class, but not because the study’s data or claims are valid. Dudley-Marling and Lucas explain:

Conflating correlation with causation in this way illustrates the “magical thinking” that emerges when researchers separate theory from method (Bloome et al., 2005). Hart and Risley make causal claims based on the co-occurrence of linguistic and academic variables, but what’s missing is an interpretive (theoretical) framework for articulating the relationship between their data and their claims….

The discourse of “scientifically based research,” which equates the scientific method with technique, has led to a body of research that is resistant to meaningful (theoretical) critique. Hart and Risley’s conclusions about the language practices of families living in poverty, for example, are emblematic of a discourse of language deprivation that

seems impervious to counter evidence, stubbornly aligning itself with powerful negative stereotypes of poor and working-class families. It remains the dominant discourse in many arenas, both academic and popular, making it very difficult to see working-class language for what it is . . . or to be heard to be offering a different perspective. (Miller, Cho, & Bracey, 2005b, p. 153)

[T]hey are establishing a norm thoroughly biased in favor of middle- and upper-middle-class children. This common-sense rendering of the data pathologizes the language and culture of poor families, reflecting harmful, long-standing stereotypes that hold the poor primarily responsible for their economic and academic struggles (Nunberg, 2002). (p. 367)

The accusatory blame, then, focusing on impoverished parents is a powerful and detrimental consequence of deficit views of poverty and language, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas add:

Blaming the poor for their poverty in this way leaves no reason to consider alternative, systemic explanations for poverty or school failure. There is, for example, no reason to wonder how impoverished curricula (Gee, 2004; Kozol, 2005; Oakes, 2006), under-resourced schools (Kozol, 1992), and an insufficiency of “high-quality” teachers in high-poverty schools (Olson, 2006) limit the academic performance of many poor students. Nor is there any reason to consider how the conditions of poverty affect children’s physical, emotional, and neurological development and day-to-day performance in school (Books, 2004; Rothstein, 2004). Recent research in neuroscience, for example, indicates that the stresses of living in poverty can impair children’s brain development (Noble, McCandliss, & Farah, 2007). But most Americans do not easily embrace systemic explanations for academic failure. In our highly individualistic, meritocratic society, it is generally assumed that academic underachievement is evidence of personal failure (Mills, 1959). (p. 367)

That deficit views of language and poverty remain compelling is yet another example of a research base being discounted because cultural beliefs offer pacifying blinders:

Rolstad (2004) laments that “linguistically baseless language prejudices often underlie [even] well-designed, well-conducted studies” (p. 5). Linguistic research conducted within theoretical and anthropological linguistics and sociolinguistics that demonstrates the language strengths of children from non-dominant groups “has had virtually no impact on language-related research elsewhere” (Rolstad, 2004, p. 5). The deficit-based research of Hart and Risley, with all of its methodological and theoretical shortcomings, has been more persuasive than linguistic research that considers the language of poor families on its own terms (e.g., Labov, 1970; Heath, 1983; Michaels, 1981; Gee; 1996; see also Michaels, 2005), perhaps because Hart and Risley’s findings comport with long-standing prejudices about the language of people living in poverty (Nunberg, 2002). (pp. 367-368)

Continuing, then, to cherry-pick one significantly flawed study in order to confirm cultural stereotypes reveals far more about society and education in the U.S. than it does about children living and learning in poverty.

Despite many well-meaning educators embracing this deficit view as well as Hart and Risley’s flawed study, seeking to help students from impoverished backgrounds acquire the cultural capital associated with the dominant grammar, usage, and vocabulary is actually inhibited by that deficit view:

Finally, Hart and Risley draw attention to a real problem that teachers encounter every day in their classrooms: children enter school with more or less of the linguistic, social, and cultural capital required for school success. However, we take exception to the characterization of this situation in terms of linguistic or cultural deficiencies. Through the lens of deficit thinking, linguistic differences among poor parents and children are transformed into deficiencies that are the cause of high levels of academic failure among poor children. In this formulation, the ultimate responsibility for this failure lies with parents who pass on to their children inadequate language and flawed culture. But, in our view, the language differences Hart and Risley reported are just that—differences. All children come to school with extraordinary linguistic, cultural, and intellectual resources, just not the same resources. (p. 369)

A larger point we must confront as well is that all efforts to describe and address any social class as monolithic is flawed: Neither all affluent nor all impoverished children are easily described by what they have and don’t have. In fact, social classifications and claims about a culture of poverty are equally problematic as deficit views of poverty and language [5].

Just as Ellison confronted, U.S. society and schools remain places where minority and impoverished children too often fail. Much is left to be done to correct those inequities—both in society and in our schools—but blaming impoverished and minority parents as well as seeing impoverished and minority children (no longer invisible) as deficient stereotypes behind a false justification of research has never been and is not now the path we should take.

“I don’t know what intelligence is,” concludes Ellison in his lecture:

But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, “I don’t give a damn.” You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.

Continuing to embrace a deficit view of poverty and language is to embrace a desert that will never bear fruit.

[1] The source of this blog post is a comment on a post at Education Week, but deficit views of language by social class, notably the standard claim that children in poverty speak fewer words than children in middle-class and affluent homes, are common and not unique to the blog post identified here.

[2] Please see this bibliography of scholarship discrediting Payne’s framework. See also:

Thomas, P.L. (2010, July). The Payne of addressing race and poverty in public education: Utopian accountability and deficit assumptions of middle class AmericaSouls, 12(3), 262-283.

[3] See Dudley-Marling, C., & Lucas, K. (2009, May).Pathologizing the language and culture of poor children.Language Arts, 86(5), 362-370.

[4] Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Brookes.

[5] Please consider the following works in order to confront a wide range of problems associated with class and poverty:

Return of the Deficit, Curt Dudley-Marling

The Myth of the Culture of Poverty, Paul Gorski

Poor Teaching for Poor Children … in the Name of Reform, Alfie Kohn

The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching, Martin Haberman