The deficit model of special education defines educational difficulties solely within the child. However, it is no longer the default model for assigning children to special education services. This article describes the disproportionate assignment of minority children to special education services, and explains why the deficit model is being replaced by other paradigms, or ways of thinking about, children's learning abilities. It discusses some alternative perspectives and the benefits of using more holistic views of education.
Keywords At-risk Children; Chapter 1 Programs; Educable Mental Retardation; Cultural Differences; Disability; Disadvantages; Labeling; Learning Deficit; Least Restrictive Environment; Retention; Supplement but not Supplant; Tracking
The deficit model of special education defines educational difficulties solely within the child. For example, a child may enter school with a cultural, social, linguistic, physical, or cognitive disadvantage, but is considered, for one reason or another, less capable of learning than his or her peers. This is sometimes viewed as a "blame the victim" type of thinking, and is discouraged for that reason. In addition, some studies have shown that a deficit model of special education may have encouraged excessive labeling of minority children, and unnecessary placements into expensive, and possibly not helpful, special education programs.
Such labeling of children can be stigmatizing, without necessarily pinpointing the educational experiences that could most help the child progress in school. Since assessment for some conditions requiring special education, such as behavior issues and reading or learning disabilities, can be somewhat ambiguous, there are often errors in classification; yet it can be difficult for children to move away from the original labels. Since providing special education services can be expensive for schools and districts, administrators, educators, and researchers have begun to question the classification of so many children, especially poor and minority children, into special education programs.
Evaluations of such programs, and ongoing research, have raised questions about the efficacy and usefulness of the deficit model as a framework, and other paradigms or models of considering special education have been proposed. Recently, scientists have begun to study children within the greater context of their schools, lives, and families, and to consider how each of those factors might positively contribute to a child's education. Assessment and diagnosis of learning disorders and other special education issues now focus more on what the school and family can do to enhance a child's performance within the most mainstream of school settings, than on how pulling children out of mainstream classrooms can improve their outcomes.
What is a Deficit Model of Special Education?
Harry & Klingner (2007) explain that "the main criterion for eligibility for special education services in schools has been proof of intrinsic deficit" (p. 16). They explain that this is problematic for two reasons. The first is that defining and/or identifying disabilities can be a very subjective process, unless the disabilities can be clearly biologically defined. This means that the decision of the educator assigning a child to special services may vary from child to child and case by case, even within a district.
The second, derived from the first, is that "the focus on disability has become so intertwined with the historical devaluing of minorities in the United States" (Harry & Klingner, 2007, p. 16) that devaluing and subjective choices, which can be rooted in cultural and racial bias on the part of those making labeling decisions lead to problems in special education placement, so that children are sometimes labeled as disabled, when they are possibly merely culturally out of sync with mainstream students (or teachers) in the classroom, or are behind in learning classroom rules and practices.
Harry and Klingner (2007) call this the "disability deficit lens," explaining that many poor children enter school having learned motor and language skills, and the particular skills useful to their home or neighborhood — which may not be the same as skills they need for school. They are therefore labeled disabled, and placed in expensive and possibly redundant, remedial programs.
The end result, say Harry and Klingner (2007), "is a disproportionate placement of some minority groups in special education" (Introduction). They report on a three-year-long study they completed examining special education placement in a large urban school district. Based on conferences, interviews, examining forms, observing classrooms, and interviewing stakeholders, they found that policies could be quite inconsistently and arbitrarily applied across the district, and that students from the poorer districts may have received lower quality schooling, which may in turn have led to their special education labeling and placement. Thus a process designed to assist students in moving ahead, may have been contributing to even greater delays.
Harry and Klingner (2007) cite other evidence that minority groups are more likely to be placed in special education programs, especially when the criteria for placement are more subjective (related to behavior or learning disability, for example) rather than biological, such as deafness or impaired vision. They conclude that "students shouldn't need a false disability label to receive appropriate support. They also shouldn't acquire that label because they had inappropriate or inadequate opportunities to learn. And they shouldn't end up in programs that don't offer the truly specialized instruction they need" (p. 18).
Further, they suggest that following the deficit model, and assigning minority children disproportionately to special education services may have been a method of separating those children from mainstream classrooms and students. "Plagued by ambiguous definitions and subjectivity in clinical judgments," say Harry and Klingner (2007, p. 17), "these categories often have more to do with administrative, curricular, and instructional decisions than with students' inherent abilities."
Emerging from the preceding paragraphs is the understanding that the deficit model is not necessarily restricted to special education paradigms, but is common throughout theories of education (e.g., Kirk & Goon, 1975; Oughton, 2007; Norgaard et al., 2007). Special education labeling and programs have, however, often been based on the deficit model in the past-and served as a kind of mechanism for "fixing" the deficits. Since the disadvantages of this kind of understanding have begun to be understood, however, new models have been proposed, and discussed, and are beginning to be implemented.
Using the Deficit Model in Education
Letgers, McDill, and McPartland (1994) describe the deficit model clearly; noting that differences in culture and experience have been labeled deficits, as diverse groups of students with varied backgrounds and understanding, have tried to fit into an unyielding public education system that has not acknowledged strengths they may bring with them....
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