Understanding the Literate Lives of Borderlands Families #1: Rejecting the Deficit Perspective

By Janine M. Schall and Luz Murillo

The borderlands that we live and work in are located in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas along the Texas/Mexico border. This is one of the poorest areas of the United States, with large numbers of immigrant families. One of the reasons that this area struggles economically is because the population is undereducated, with school dropout rates that approach 40%. The Rio Grande Valley is also one of the most bilingual regions of the United States: while many people speak English at work and/or at home, almost 80% of the residents speak Spanish at home.

Many people look at the facts in the paragraph above and immediately focus on what the children growing up in local families lack. Many don’t have educated parents, they probably don’t have academic English, they don’t have the economic resources that provide travel and books and computers at home. And often people go on to make further assumptions: the parents are uneducated, so they must not be able to help their children with school. The families speak Spanish at home, so the children will struggle with learning English literacy. The families lack financial resources, so they must not be able to care for their children. The deficit perspective is alive and well in public schools in the United States, including in the borderlands. Speaking Spanish is a problem; it gets in the way of learning English. Being poor makes a child “at-risk” for school failure. Uneducated parents don’t care about their children’s school success.

While the deficit perspective is deeply engrained in U.S. schooling, it is misguided at best, and is often deeply damaging to children and their families. When schools and teachers believe that children are deficient—for whatever reason, including their economic status, home language, or cultural background—it leads to lower standards, watering down the curriculum, and accepting poor quality work as ‘the best they can do.’

 And, of course, the deficit perspective is 100% wrong.

 In September 2010 we were named UTPA College of Education C. Bascom Slemp Faculty Fellows. This fellowship funded a year-long research project focused on family literacy in the Rio Grande Valley. Throughout the month of September we will publish  eight blog posts that share some of the findings from this research. We will discuss the rich literacy experiences of borderlands families and show how parents support the education of their children. Finally, we will explore what these findings mean for teachers and schools in the borderlands.

Our thanks to the University of Texas-Pan American and the C. Bascom Slemp Fellowship for supporting this research.

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