• By Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2007

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.In workshop sessions on family leadership in education, an IDRA trainer has sometimes asked parents and caretakers to take part in a typical graphic arts exercise. They often will draw and say: “I want my child to be bilingual and finish college and have a good job,” and “My drawing shows my children as doctors and lawyers, but really, I want them to be whatever they want.” The drawings and explanations communicate high expectations and positive dreams for their children.


In contrast, some educators at those schools refer to the same children as at-risk, poor English-speakers, and not college material.

Are these families on the good ship lollipop and the educators firmly planted on terra firma? Are we looking for politically correct euphemisms that cover a harsh truth?

“Graduation Guaranteed” vs. “Preventing Dropouts”

Through our Texas IDRA Parent Information and Resource Center (PIRC), we are having a conversation with parents about college readiness and graduation. While IDRA speaks of school holding power to focus on the responsibility of adults in schools to hold on to their students, many schools are having conversations about dropout prevention, remediation, motivation exercises and intensive test practice rooms for drilling on state-mandated test.

All are under the same mandate of the No Child Left Behind Act. But the spirit and letter of the law we each speak and act from is framed very differently.

Where some see assets, others see deficits. The premises that underlie our descriptions are actual filters and selectors of ideas and concepts represented by labels. If the premise is richness, then the terms will be rich, bountiful, promising and hopeful. But if it be deficit, clearly the words will describe what is lacking and distressful: drowning in despair.

Here is a case in point. At our recent Annual IDRA La Semana del Niño Early Childhood Educators Institute, I was conducting a session on six levers parents have in the Title I regulations of NCLB. To illustrate a key point about true parent engagement, I focused on the school-family-student compact. I was presenting the compact as a dialogue, an opportunity for families and students to agree upon what their responsibilities are in the educational process and to list their expectations for the institution.

Some teachers in the audience responded that the compact was well and good, but “How are we to hold the parents responsible for keeping the agreement?” An opportunity for family dialogue was perceived as not useful in forcing a family to be responsible in the eyes of the institution.

One frame is accepting and encouraging; the other is punitive and guilt producing.

We Must Frame It, or They’ll Get Framed, Again!

The spirit of NCLB’s Title I has evolved during the last 40 years to embrace a meaningful and dignified engagement of economically disadvantaged parents. Every iteration of the law has continued to stress the academic achievement of the students and the oversight that parents should have on schooling.

But the parent-friendly spirit is diminished every time we use terminology that frames the conversation in limited expectations and hopelessness. Many children will be left behind if we continue to frame the pedagogical conversation on what they lack, what is broken and what is perceived as inadequate. Such framing is dishonest.

No At-Risk Student Left Out Of Remediation

Many thought the term culturally disadvantaged had gone out with the last century, but it still raises its ugly snout. When research points to the verbal inadequacy of poor and minority families, it does not acknowledge the words and ideas that are present. There is a gap between the verbal and literacy context of poor families with middle-class English speaking families. But teachers can help children make sound-print connections from the many words and ideas they bring from whatever their context is.

More than 50 years ago, Sylvia Ashton Warner told us clearly and artfully that the Maori children brought tremendous resources to the British children in New Zealand (1986).

Paolo Freire uncovered the rich culture and habits of the tribes in the Brazilian jungles as his students were helping them learn Portuguese (1998).

Teachers working with poor White children in rural Appalachia helped their students document the rich culture of the very same families that Al Capp derided in Li’l Abner.

The journal, Foxfire that was sold in mainstream bookstores was replete with the wisdom, lore and crafts of these Appalachian families (1975).

Luis Moll and others facilitated Latino students in Arizona to document the “funds of knowledge” found in their families (2005).

In each of these cases, the frame of the conversation was that there are cultural, linguistic and experiential riches in all families. None is deficient in culture, language or ideas. It takes some work to document and align with current curricular standards, but not because the group is inherently deficient, it is just different.

Typically in research and educational writings, when the paucity of vocabulary in children is documented, there is no parallel documentation of the richness of experience that is expressed in other ways and for which there are many words. Even though those alternative experiences and words might not be useful in preparing for the rigors of the vocabulary norms of the elementary public school, they are nevertheless a rich resource for the teacher.

It is all in the framing. Does the child bring riches or trash? If the assumption is dross, then teachers feel they must sweep it out and replace it. And because the replacing is viewed as catching-up to middle-class linguistic and cognitive standards, it is also rigid, linear and rote-like.

Listen to the patronizing of children and families: “Poor child and family, it’s not their fault they are poor and minority, so we need to give the child an extra dose of catch-up before he or she can participate fully in the wonderful world of learning that the middle-class child is experiencing”!?

Must we return to dreary canned curriculum with adults teaching mechanically by the number like robots drilling the sounds of the alphabet because the test will reveal that the children in fact learned the sounds and the letters? These dastardly frames for failure, paradigms of paralysis, are not the classrooms that have large picture windows facing wide vistas of learning.

Believing Two Points Can Be Bridged

My colleagues at IDRA, Kathryn Brown and Jack Dieckmann, have brought forth another conversation that needs reframing. It involves switching the paradigm from believing that few have the ability to master higher math to understanding that math is for the masses. They talk about making the connections between the natural calculus that a mother with limited resources has to compute to feed and clothe her children to the cold, hard calculus problem in a math textbook.

It does take some work to connect the dots, but they are doing it. You could never connect the dots if you saw no possible way to bridge those two points.

Framing the conversation with the spirit of Title I in NCLB necessitates words such as value, belief, hope and vision: “Every child can graduate,” “Every child is college material,” “Every family wants their children to learn.” Now we are telling the truth.


Ashton-Warner, S. Teacher (New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1986).

Brown, K. “IDRA Math Institutes: Making Mathematics Accessible to All Students and Closing the Achievement Gap,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 2005).

Freire, P. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998).

Gershaw, D.A. Homework Help: Social Studies: Psychology: Framing a Question. Adapted from The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, by Scott Plous (McGraw-Hill, 1993) http://www.jiskha.com/cgi-bin/printer_friendly.cgi?request=/social_studies/psychology/question_frame.html.

Gonzalez, N.E., and L. Moll, and C. Amanti. Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households and Classrooms (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2005).

Goodman, C.L. “Adult Literacy Outreach Innovations: Porque Significa Tanto,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, September 1996).

Robledo Montecel, M. “Graduation for All Students: Dropout Prevention and Student Engagement Strategies and the Reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 2007).

Wittington, E. The Foxfire Books (vols. 1-3) (New York: Doubleday, 1975).

Re-Framing the Conversation for Adult Literacy

Information for Literacy…
IDRA’s Adult Literacy Outreach Innovations project in the mid-1990s was a special project funded by the Texas Education Agency that focused on adult education and literacy in Texas. The goal was to create awareness about the need for literacy and to generate community support for literacy initiatives. Following is a discussion of the project’s frame.

… Choosing Messages of Value

Outreach messages for literacy must be determined carefully. When they convey information and images that people feel connected to and when they encourage action, the effects can be both powerful and positive.

In working through the four steps (see full article), decisions must be made. In the hurry of deadlines and juggling various responsibilities, the easy answers can look attractive. While developing its campaign prototype for literacy, IDRA faced this. Some people we talked to suggested that the only way to get someone’s attention is to focus on how bad illiteracy is for everyone else and to categorize people who cannot read as “lost” and needing “rescue.”

In our analysis of a sampling of past literacy outreach campaigns and their messages, 19 percent contained “deficit” model messages, and only 13 percent contained clearly “valuing” messages.

The deficit model assumes that there is something wrong with a person who cannot read well and that literacy projects exist to fix the problem (Robledo Montecel, et al., 1993). The deficit way of thinking will codify a person as, in this case, an “illiterate.” It uses the word “illiterate” as a noun instead of an adjective as if being illiterate is the sum total of that person’s identity. Deficit-based outreach messages will attempt to appeal to people’s guilt to generate action, or they will use economics to describe “illiterates” as a “drain” on society.

Paul Ilsley and Norman Stahl have studied literacy outreach efforts and have outlined four common deficit metaphors and their effects: “Unfortunately illiteracy is often discussed in relation to such striking notions as war, disease, prison and chronic unemployment both in print media and electronic media campaigns” (1993). Designed to invoke strong connotations in the public’s collective mind, these metaphors portray illiteracy as a function of school language, as a disease, as a national enemy in the military sense, and as a lack of capital in a cultural banking system.

Some people argue that such metaphors are used because they are effective. But, the fact is, while messages that focus on the negative costs of illiteracy to the community, to business and to taxpayers are easy messages to communicate, any positive reactions that result from such messages have been shown to be short-lived. IDRA’s goal is to create community support for literacy efforts – real support, lasting support.

>Others argue that such metaphors are the only choices out there. They have become so accustomed to deficit model messages – whether associated with literacy, lawbreakers or lipstick – that they cannot see any alternatives.

Even when the intentions are good, the means do not justify the ends. The concerns raised by Ilsley and Stahl are similar to concerns raised by IDRA in its work in education. IDRA has known there are alternatives because it has demonstrated them from its inception. Its vision is to work with people to “make schools work for all children” not “make children work for all schools.”

In IDRA’s Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, the stated and underlying philosophy is that all children are valuable, none is expendable. The program works with students that schools were about to give up on. It helps the schools and families see the youths from another perspective – as tutors, as capable of contributing, as valuable.

In a climate that says parents who do not attend school meetings obviously do not care about their children’s education, IDRA chooses an alternative. IDRA works with parents and schools to see each other differently and to work with each other differently in ways that value both.

Adapted from: “Adult Literacy Outreach Innovations: Porque Significa Tanto,” by Christie L. Goodman, APR, IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, September 1996).

Re-framing is Not a Cover-up

Euphemisms (using a more palatable word for some painful or harsh reality) are not the re-framing referred to.

Re-framing means:

  • Shifting the center of the conversation from the student to the institution.
  • Drawing on the rich experiences all human beings bring to whatever the content is to be taught rather than cataloging what they do not know.

Here’s a sample frame (underlying assumptions; paradigm; organizing principle)

Assets vs. Deficits and needs

Graduation guaranteed vs. Dropout prevention

Valued youth vs. At-risk of dropping out

Fair funding of public schools vs. Robin Hood plan

Diversity vs. Culturally disadvantaged

English language learner vs. Limited English proficient

Public schools vs. Government schools

Source: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2007.

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed, is an IDRA senior education associate and director of the Texas IDRA Parent Information and Resource Center. He also serves on the national board of PTA. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2007, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2007 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]