Thomas points to the deficit thinking that is inescapable with grit and growth mindset-The idea that students who do not demonstrate white, well-resourced definitions of perseverance with curriculum that may or may not be meaningful to them, in a larger system that is often operated with intentional and unintentional bias against their success, and to act upon those perseverance ideals daily are somehow less disciplined than others, diminished in a way, and that teachers must “fix” what’s wrong in them, (i.e., personal character and maturity) and not fix their environments and the controlling narratives of those in power that perpetuate this constant diminished state.
Author and educator Richard Cash agrees, referring to deficit thinking as the, “spoken and unspoken assumptions about a student’s lack of self-regulation, ability, or aptitude. The most devastating impact of deficit thinking is when differences-particularly socio-cultural differences-are perceived as inferior, dysfunctional, or deviant … Typically, schools are designed to ‘fix’ students who are achieving poorly or misbehaving. However, by blaming students, we exonerate ourselves as the possible cause-using the symptom to overlook the source” (June 2018).
Thomas ties it to his critique of grit/growth mindset: “Both growth mindset and grit … mistake growth mindset/grit as the dominant or even exclusive quality causing success in student learning (ignoring the power of systemic influences) and then create an environment in which some students (too often black, brown, and poor) are defined in deficit terms-that they lack growth mindset/grit.” He adds, “[S]tudents are better served by equity practices couched in efforts to alleviate the systemic forces that shape how they live and learn regardless of their character.”
In a separate post, he argues that it is particularly harmful, yet typically American, thinking to assume that students’ success and failure is driven solely by individual character and behavior, when actually, so much of any one individual’s success or failure is driven by social forces, environment of birth, and systemic biases. He recommends Sendhil Mullainathan’s Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much to clarify this point, as do I-It’s a thoughtful read.
Thomas and others claim that growth mindset/grit programs, “disproportionately target racial minorities and impoverished students, reinforcing that most of the struggles within these groups academically are attributable to deficits in those students … linked to race and social class … [which] perpetuate race and class stereotypes, and as a result, work against inclusive pedagogy and culturally relevant pedagogy” (Thomas, 2018).
Thomas promotes author and educator Paul Gorski’s assertion that, “Equity literate educators … reject deficit views that focus on fixing marginalized students rather than fixing the conditions that marginalize students, and understand the structural barriers that cheat some people out of the opportunities enjoyed by other people.”
At the Equity Literacy Institute, Gorski is clear: “We must avoid being lulled by popular ‘diversity’ approaches and frameworks that pose no threat to inequity-that sometimes are popular because they are no real threat to inequity.”