Deficit thinking, Urban education, Teacher labor, Neoliberalism

Document Type

Article in Response to Controversy


This article examines urban teachers’ critiques—their critical talk—as moments of agency, and as potential, but tenuous, avenues for transformation. The article draws on data from a qualitative interpretive study examining the complexities of urban teachers’ work. This research begins from a perspective that is attentive to and critical of both (a) the racialized deficit discourse, a predominant framework in urban schools—often taken up by urban teachers—that constructs poor urban youth and youth of color as deficient, as objects in need of control and correction; and (b) neoliberal approaches to education, particularly the market-based, audit culture logics and practices that devalue, discipline, and target teachers as workers. This research examines how urban teachers navigated both deficit and neoliberal logics, and it offers a theoretical framework to understand teachers’ critiques to these logics as a kind of agency. Findings suggest that despite urban teachers’ being critical of the neoliberal pressures that constrained their work, the deficit discourse constructed urban students themselves as primary constraints for teachers. Deficit discourse was not all-encompassing, and some teachers resisted it, but deficit thinking seemed to intensify in conjunction with neoliberalism, and it cut short the potential of urban teachers’ critique.



Subjects - Topical (LCSH)

Education, Urban--United States; Minorities--Education--United States; Low-income students--United States; Teachers--Attitudes--United States; School failure--United States; Neoliberalism

Geographic Coverage

United States







Included in

Education Commons