Pathologizing Poverty—Family Interactions and Academic Success in Urban Black Communities

Source: The New York Times.

Source: The New York Times.

Article (re)defined by AJ.


The first article was published by the Jamaica Information Service (JIS)—the official news and communication agency of the Jamaican Government—on October 31, 2015. It highlights a study on educational achievement and student behavior and connects both to poor parenting.

The second article is a blog post published on on October 29, 2015. In the article, Nancy Flanagan, a former educator and current consultant, criticizes the tendency to blame parents for student failure. She advocates for mutual responsibility from all adult shareholders.


A recurring thread in educational discourse is the deficitizing of poor and marginalized students of color and their families. Families that do not conform to normative middle-class standards are pathologized and become scapegoats for student underachievement, while broken systems that discriminate against and underserve students are excused. Essentially, it is easier to blame disempowered parents than to admit that supposedly neutral social systems contribute to this very disempowerment.

In a recent blog on, Nancy Flanagan discusses this issue in American education. As an educator, Flanagan is positioned as an insider and critiques the issue of parent blaming from the perspective of someone who “knows”. She notes, for example, that parent blaming often takes place in “the teacher’s lounge”—a private and communal space for educators—as well as at district and policy levels, and she connects this to a collective desire to ignore the “grinding poverty, political corruption, greed, cultural debasement and racism” that shape student experiences and lead, in many ways, to student failure in school. While Flanagan addresses a central issue, she does not explicitly “name” the parents who are thought to contribute to student failure, and the fact that many of these parents live in minority inner-city communities, and could be considered internally colonized or 4th world citizens. These are the parents who are pathologized, and who are positioned as the main if not sole causes of their children’s failure.  

In post-colonial societies, similar trends exist, where marginalized families are blamed for student “failure” in order to absolve failing school systems and failing societal structures. This is evidenced in a JIS news article correlating student failure with their family backgrounds. Because the JIS is the official Jamaican government news agency, this story carries an air of legitimacy, which makes the contents of the report especially problematic. The article addresses the findings from the National Risk Assessment Tool, which was developed to create a framework for analyzing student risk in Jamaica, and is presented as a neutral and objective research instrument. The study focuses on inner-city “ghetto” communities traditionally on the margins of Jamaican society and not unlike black urban communities in America, and initial research findings indicate “problems” within the families studied.

Dr. Charles-Freeman, a policy professional and head of the agency that created the tool,  presents a limited view of what parental involvement “should” look like in order for it to be positive, stating that in the families studied, parents do not “read with their children, hug [their] children and take the time to stay involved”. Flanagan contextualizes this perceived lack of involvement by identifying social and economic barriers to parental participation, but in doing so, does not acknowledge the positive child-parent interactions that already take place, and neither does the JIS article.

One possible cause of student “failure” is not that parents are uninvolved by choice or circumstance, but that educational systems do not value or leverage the funds of knowledge, interactions and literacy practices already present in students’ homes.

Source: Poor Parenting Is To Blame, by Rochelle Williams, Jamaica Information Service, Oct. 31, 2015

Let’s Blame the Parents!, by Nancy Flanagan, Education Week Teacher, on Oct. 29, 2015.

2 thoughts on “Pathologizing Poverty—Family Interactions and Academic Success in Urban Black Communities

  1. This was a fascinating read. Of particular interest to me is the last line of your post, where you claim that student failure may be a result of problems that lie within education systems. For me, the concept of students’ funds of knowledge is an intriguing but problematic one. Christine Rogers Stanton has written a great article called, “Hearing the Story: Critical Indigenous Curriculum Inquiry and Primary Source Representation in Social Studies Education,” which deals with the ways in which indigenous student stories can effectively be made a part of school curriculum and pedagogical approaches.
    My biggest concern, however, is whether teachers and educational systems, as a whole, are prepared to deal with such complex issues within the classroom. I fear that sometimes we place great emphasis on student experiences and grounding education and literacy within cultural contexts, without dealing with the concrete ways in which this can happen. Teachers have the busiest, toughest and most undervalued jobs in the world and I feel like the burden of introducing culture sensitive curricula falls largely on them. How can we shift (at least a part of) that burden onto school administrations and policy makers? Can pre-service teacher education programs, alone, achieve this? Given also that most of our higher education has become about a race to completion and students are primarily occupied with grades, how can we train dynamic and culturally sensitive teachers in such programs?


  2. Hi Neha.

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that finding practical ways to train teachers in cultural sensitivity is difficult, especially in a country like Jamaica where the education system already lacks resources. That said, adopting a social justice stance in education is not impossible, but we first have to recognize the need for it. What’s most disturbing to me is the fact that respected professionals and people who have the ability to sway public opinion (like Dr. Charles-Freeman), choose to support the deficit notions of marginalized students and their families, instead of presenting an alternative narrative.


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