A classroom of students.

How to Improve Education for Immigrant Students by Ending Deficit Thinking

Due to a mindset we call “deficit thinking,” students from immigrant population often leave with the message that they don’t belong. I understand deficit thinking to be the pathologization of minoritized people by blaming them for issues they face within their oppressive contexts. Our schools are more than just places where we teach facts and figures; they are the primary way that we socialize children – and impart powerful messages about culture. When children enter the classroom, they aren’t just learning math or science; they are learning about what culture and knowledge are valued.

Culture in the Classroom

I did not begin my career as an educator; I started out as a biomedical researcher. During my free time, I volunteered to tutor Somali high school students in math and science and worked as a freelance interpreter in the Somali community. During my tutoring sessions, I would listen to my students and their parents, learning about their concerns regarding school and their classroom experience –- often expressing the feeling that their culture was not valued.

They felt as though they did not truly belong. This is the experience of many minority groups, but Somali children, viewed as both black and Muslim – and separated from their peers by language – can be particularly invisible in the classroom and society at large. Of equal concern to me was the fact that, although Somali people have been in the U.S. since the 1990s, there had been very little academic research done on the experiences of Somali immigrants or the experience of their children in school.

I decided to go back to school to further research this topic, attending Michigan State University. During my time there, I conducted studies of Somali and other immigrant groups. Eventually I went to Columbus, Ohio (a city with a significant Somali population), to collect data for my dissertation work. I’m now doing similar work in St. Paul public schools that revolves around Somali families and how they provide and contribute knowledge to schools.

While there has been a lot of work done in education about immigrant language and literacy, I’m more interested in examining larger policies and how they impact the day-to-day lives of children. How do Somali children experience school? What are their day-to-day interactions with their teachers like? How can we better integrate their culture and knowledge into our school curriculums? These are hard questions, but finding the answers are crucial if we want to truly help our Somali students thrive and feel a part of American society.

A Lesson on Identity and Belonging

Schools are perhaps the primary way that our country imparts cultural, political and historical messages to their children. In class, students aren’t just learning history or grammar; they are learning about their relationship to the nation, its values and history, as well as their relationship and situation within structures of power. Everyday classroom interactions can have powerful meaning, imparting intended and unintended lessons about who belongs and who doesn’t.

Somali children are marginalized by race, religion, ethnicity and language. The message they often receive is that they don’t belong. Students report that they often feel marginalized or completely invisible in the classroom. This can happen in ways that are subtle or outright racist. One student I spoke with told me she was referred to as “one of Bin Laden’s people” in front of the class by her teacher. Can you imagine the impact this vile statement had on that student and her relationship with her class? What message does that send the student about her position in school or society?

The Problem of Deficit Thinking

The root of this problem is a concept in education called “deficit thinking.” It’s the idea that children from minority or immigrant groups don’t have the “right culture” to succeed in school. It’s a pernicious mindset, but one that I find all too often when researching the experiences of Somali youth.

I remember an in-class discussion during my studies in Ohio. A fellow student was frustrated with her Somali students. She said, “I can’t teach my Somali students, especially the boys. Everything I teach them gets untaught when they go home. Their culture teaches them not to respect women, so I can’t control them in the classroom.” I asked her which grade she taught, and she replied, “kindergarten.” The teacher of our class didn’t know how to respond. This is another example of how Somali children are marginalized and written off in school as soon as they begin.

This an example of a school culture that reflects the culture of middle-class Caucasian Americans; any group that is outside of that culture is not valued. Therefore, the background and culture that immigrant children bring to school is viewed as “not good enough.” In this particular school culture, if immigrant students are to learn, their culture must be stripped away and they must be taught how to be American.

In the past, we saw this happen with Native Americans. Children were removed from their homes and placed in white families to “save” them and give them a proper education. There was even a saying: “Kill the Indian, save the man.” This is deficit thinking at its core. While progress has been made, it’s still deeply ingrained to the point where I’ve even seen Somali teachers who marginalize Somali girls in the classroom for wearing headscarves.

How to Move Past Deficit Thinking

While I do think that having a more diverse teaching corps is a step in the right direction, it’s not a panacea. As I mentioned, having Somali teachers in the classroom won’t have a positive effect if those teachers are still beholden to deficit thinking. Here at CEHD’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, we’re doing important work in this area, to make sure that our education programs give aspiring teachers an up-to-date understanding of diversity and social justice as they relate to their students.

There are no easy answers. As we continue to study and understand the experience of immigrant children in our school system, we need to make sure that our teachers and administrators make it an integral part of their policies at the school level and beyond. I’m not talking about having events like “culture days.” The difficult work happens in daily engagement. It’s asking questions like “How do we deal with diversity?” and “How do we make students feel like they belong?”

Most importantly, it’s being ready to have honest conversations about these topics. Educators should be ready to talk about issues of identity such as white privilege, Christian privilege, and sexual orientation privilege. We must face those in a serious way to understand people who aren’t in positions of power.

When teachers and school administrators talk about school policy, they must weight to the identity of the people who are making and influencing policy. Students of color, students who come from outside the Christian tradition or students who have the immigrants or refugee experience, everybody should be considered in the conversation. White privilege is not alone; there is also Christian privilege, Western Privilege and other types.

We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go to create a school system where all children are welcome and feel like they belong. Moving beyond our “deficit thinking” mindset and realizing that all cultural knowledge is valuable is an important step towards that goal.

Nimo Abdi

About the Author

Nimo Abdi

  • Post-Doctoral Associate
  • Department of Curriculum and Instruction
  • College of Education and Human Development
  • University of Minnesota

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