Deficit Theory versus Intercultural Education

Often times, urban school principals blame the background of the students as the source of the school failure. Instead of being optimistic to find solutions to improve school quality, the principals become so frustrated with the condition they have in the buildings.  Blaming the condition of the school (race: black, Latino or Asian, low social economic status of the students) as an inevitable situation that engenders failure is then called deficit theory (Flessa, 2009).  On the other hand, Gorsky (2008) suggest that every teacher and principal need to adopt intercultural education as the way to see the difference at schools. These two different perspectives of how we deal with the diversity in the schools are very relevant with today’s world, which has no more borders for the countries. In this article, I will discuss: deficit theory, intercultural or multicultural education and what are the connections with my experiences.

Deficit Theory

            Rosenblum and Travis (2012), and Flessa (2009) correlated deficit theory with stigmatizing people: by stereotyping black, Latino, Native American, gay, disabled people, and people living in poverty as the source of the problems. Rosenblmum and Travis (2012), and Flessa (2009) see the deficit frameworks as whole ethnics groups; meanwhile some authors that I read in week 3 through week 5 of EAD 822 focus on certain fields. Lucas, Henze, and Donato (1990) for instance, describe the deficit frameworks from the language point of view (that mostly schools failed to meet the need of Latino students who have different language as American students’), McKenzie (2009) depicted the stigma against students color (by questioning why schools in general, were not being successful with students of color), Seifert (2007) has more specific concern on spiritual identities (that Christian students experience formal privilege in the institution’s calendar, physical facilities, and on-campus dining options that non-Christians never get). In addition, the videos (Opportunity is Racialized, People like Us, A Girl Like Me, and 2009 NNOMY Conference), they address deficit theory of the diversity in general. Gorski (2008) made a clear definition about deficit theory, “an approach for justifying inequality that is enjoying resurgence in Western world today” (p.518).  Moreover, deficit theory has been used throughout history to justify imperial pursuits and still be used in similar ways today, for instance to justify imperial US intervention in the Middle East (Gorski, 2008). Delpit (2006) in her book problematized the fact that black teachers and students commonly experienced that they are stereotyped as hinders of the successful of the schools. From all the authors and videos that I reviewed, I can conclude that deficit theory is a stereotype made by certain group to address some groups (race, gender, spiritual identity, economic status, etc) as the sources of problem, or as justifying reason to do certain actions. Deficit theory is very acute illness that needs to be cured because this perception can influence others from generation to generation. I agree with Seifert (2007) that deficit theory also happens on the privilege on certain religion, and it happens almost all part of the world. I also support the idea of Gorski (2008) that deficit theory is now used by certain countries to invade and to intervene other nations.

Intercultural Education

            Intercultural or multicultural education is considered to be one of effective remedies to the deficit theory. Rosenblum and Travis (2012) suggested that “what anthropologist must do is not to make sure that ideas of “ethnicity” and “ethnic identity” do not become perceived as hereditary, permanent, and unalterable, but remain fluid forms of identity that will make us all multicultural” (p.55).  In line with this, Delpit (2006) suggested that all black, white, Indian, Hispanic, or Asian must some way make a one better world until we can see the world as others see it. Further, Seifert (2007) asserted that the education should also address a community in which all students feel safe to practice and share their spiritual beliefs and supported in learning about the spiritual beliefs of others. However, the idea of intercultural education is not enough. We will never be able to overcome the deficit theory with merely discussing and promoting multicultural education without addressing the fulfillment of the social justice in the community (Gorski, 2008). Gorski (2008) contended that to make a significant change to the issue of deficit theory, the first and the foremost need to do is creating the establishment and maintenance of an equitable and just world. In addressing multicultural education issues, I do agree with the Idea of Gorski (2008) that cultural awareness is not enough, but all of us should work together (not just rely on government) to help others create freedom, justice and welfare. As an educator, we need to adopt the idea of Gorski (2008) by making a real action such as: doing home visit to minority students’ parents, making charity action for the poor, making a real action in rejecting deficit theory, etc.  I also agree with the idea of Delpit (2006) that we are not supposed to merely tolerate diversity in the classroom, instead we as teachers or principals need to revel in the diversity of the students and that of the world outside the classroom community.

Connection to my Experiences

I never heard about deficit theory before, yet after reading the definition and examples given by the authors these three weeks, I realize that the deficit theory does exist in my school. I teach in an International Standard School  (SMA 1 Batanghari, Indonesia) in which the students need to pay more for the facilities and resources they get. Not all students can study in this school; because of the high stakes test for the enrolment and the additional fee they need to pay. In addition, since Islam is compulsory to be taught and it is part of the curriculum; as a result, the students non- Muslim need to leave the class and find other times to study and non-Muslim teacher to teach them. The school does not facilitate the time, teacher, or room for students who are not Muslims. I summarize that those two kinds of discrimination (school fee and religion class) can be categorized as deficit theory. Therefore, if I become a principal someday, I will promote intercultural education and make sure that all students get the same right at school. I will make a real action by asking local and central government to subsidize the low SES students in order to enable them to study in the international standard school.  I will also facilitate non-Muslim students to have the religion teachers so that they can study religion at the same time as Muslim students.

All in all, deficit theory can happen anywhere and may become an acute problem that need to be remedied by all of us. We need to have the same perception that diversity is the strong capital to build this globe. Because we share the same earth, we need to have strong tolerance value in this multicultural world. We also need to help others get the same privilege, freedom and justice, in order to be able to see the same world as all people see the world.




Delpit, L. (2006) Other Peoples Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: New Press.

Flessa, J. (2009). Urban school principals, deficit frameworks, and implications for leadership. Journal of School Leadrship.


Gorski, P. (2008). Good intentions are not enough: A decolonizing intercultural education. Intercultural Education, 19(6), 515-525

Lucas, T., Henze, R., & Donato, R. (1990). Promoting the success of latino language minority students. An exploratory study of six high schools. Harvard Educational Review, 60, 315-400.

McKenzie, K.B. (2000). Emotional Abuse of Students of Color: The Hidden Humanity in our Schools. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education.

Rosenblum, K. and Travis, T-M. (2013). The Meaning of Difference: American Constructions of Race, Sex, and Gender, Social Class, Sexual Orientation, and Disability. New York: McGraw-Hill. (6th Edition).

Seifert, T.A. (2007). Understanding Christian privilege: Managing the tensions of spiritual plurality. Educational Administration Quarterly.



Opportunity is Racialized

 People like Us, A Girl Like Me

 2009 NNOMY Conference)


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