Date of Award

December 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Dalia Rodriguez


Deficit thinking, Neoliberalism, Teacher labor, Urban education

Subject Categories



This dissertation explores how urban public school teachers navigate the contradictory social position of having little power over their work and considerable power over their students. This qualitative interpretive study begins from a perspective that is attentive to and critical of both (a) neoliberal approaches to education, particularly the market-based, audit culture logics and practices that devalue, discipline and target teachers as workers, and (b) the racialized deficit discourse, a predominant framework in urban schools--often taken up by urban teachers--that blames poor urban youth and youth of color for school problems, constructs them as objects in need of control and correction, and misrepresents their families and communities. Rather than study urban teachers as simply figures worthy of defense from neoliberal effects or as objects worthy of blame for their deficit-inspired perspectives on urban students, this dissertation examines how urban teachers negotiate both of these powerful, complicated and often interrelated forces in their teaching. This research shines a light on urban teachers, not to add to their hypervisibility as problems, but to explore the complexities of urban teachers' work which are largely invisible. This multi-sited ethnography traces how teachers make sense of these blaming discourses in two urban educational contexts: Teach For America (TFA), a national program that recruits college graduates to teach in poor schools, and Project Voice, a small, university-based research project that aimed to develop a model for adults to collaborate with urban students to improve their schools. Findings indicate that despite that urban teachers were often 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.


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