Overcoming the Deficit Model of Public Education

At the start of each school year there is excitement and a renewed commitment from public educators to improve their practices and student outcomes. The smell of brand new composition books, with crisp pages of clean paper, full pencil boxes, and glossy folders brings energy to classrooms across the country. Students, parents, and educators get the luxury of starting over, beginning anew, and trying again.

With an analysis of the previous year’s data, we work to identify those areas where we didn’t fare well the year before. We spend much of our time pin pointing exactly where the failure was, determining which grade level had the deepest deficits, aggregating that by subject, standard, down to student and teacher. We develop our improvement goals to address these areas of shortcoming. We identify strategies to implement, design professional development around the deficit areas, and revise our walk through tools to monitor practices of teachers in this regard.

If there are areas of accomplishment, goals that we met, improvements that were made we celebrate for a few moments with a high five here or there, and then we quickly move on to discuss the deficits and next set of needed improvements. We do this because we are victims of public education’s deficit model. One in which a focus on what is wrong is seen as more valuable than an acknowledgement of what is right.

This deficit model is the premise of public education accountability. It points out all the weak places in our schools. It sorts, sifts, and ranks them. It labels them. It feeds the rhetoric that “pubic schools are failing” and gives the public a confident, yet faulty opinion of our education system. It is designed to do just that. To celebrate the ways in which we’ve improved would mean so much. When we communicate the deficit model of public education, we build onto the negative narrative, we create a space for billion dollar assessment companies to devise the right programs and products to help us improve. We create a cocktail that opens the door for public education to take on the persona of big business, rather than serve its democratic purpose: to educate the masses.

This deficit model doesn’t end with accountability. It is also the premise of professional development in schools and districts across the country. Mandatory professional development sessions where teachers are required to attend sessions that aligned to the weakest areas of district data are an all too common practice. Instead of exploiting our strengths by allowing teachers who are highly effective to share and connect with their colleagues over practices that are working, we focus on the opposite. Bringing in disconnected keynote speakers, highly recommended trainers, who advertise their specialities in popular deficit areas like closing the achievement gap, inquiry based teaching, and more we miss a valuable opportunity to exploit and expand our strengths by focusing on those instead of our weaknesses. Imagine an assets based approach to professional development rather than a deficit one. What might change for educators in practice and perception regarding their professional development experience?

The scariest part of this deficit model is the way in which it impacts educator perception, creating a culture where educators begin to hyper focus on their deficits, with minimal attention given to the things they are getting right. This can manifests itself in a variety of ways as educators internalize the constant experience of trying to fix what’s wrong with their teaching. If we aren’t careful, professional experience begins to overtake personal perception, and the self fulfilling prophecy becomes true: my efforts are never good enough.

Imagine if some of the best corporations around the world spent their energy and time publicizing and focusing on their deficits rather than their strengths. What if Apple’s announcements about their new products were deficit based and they shared all the data on the failures of their products and their strategies to improve them? Imagine every civil engineering firm publicly being ranked based on the number of crumbling roads and fallen bridges and that information being posted on road signs as you cross said bridges and roads for public viewing? Perhaps my perspective is as skewed as it is biased, but I see something different about these corporate counterparts. They build on their strengths. They take what they do well and exploit it, make it better, and share it. Why can’t we do the same thing in public education?

This deficit model creates a false sense of equity as well. We’ve known since 1967 (Coleman Report) the impact of poverty and segregation on student achievement. “With all deliberate speed” schools across the South were instructed to integrate in 1954, yet my mother graduated from an all Black high school in 1967. (That was fast huh?)

We’ve also known the impact of poverty on student achievement, and in recent years we’ve learned more and more about the lifetime effects of trauma and what it does to young people’s brains and bodies. All the while we’ve continued to adhere to the deficit model in public education and spent inordinate amounts of time talking about the achievement gap. Yet, we’ve not addressed the root of such: substandard housing, healthcare, economic development, employment opportunities, all of which are rooted in systemic and institutionalized racism, biased policies and practices, prejudice, and more that have yet to be dismantled.

Disrupting the deficit model will require educators to take an active role in using their voices for change. Leaders can start by creating a true culture of celebration, one where the strengths of educators are valued over the deficits. Creating opportunities for those who are getting it right, so to speak, to share and connect with other educators. Creating their own report cards that highlight points of pride and accomplishments and publicly sharing that with the greater community. This strength based approach may prove to be a more balanced way to improve public education. Giving equal attention to the things that are being done well and the opportunities for growth can create a sense of pride in educators that allows them to push for improvement while also recognizing the positive impact of their practices. Educators can no longer discuss the lingering achievement gap and what they are doing to close it without bringing the causes of it to the table. When we focus on the effects and give little to no credence to the causes of student learning, we inadvertently subscribe to this deficit model.

There is an enormous opportunity in public education right now for us to create a new view. That perspective is one in which we balance our approach with an assets based culture and exploit the strengths of educators in our effort to mitigate our weaknesses. We can begin by creating a structure that makes the celebration of what is going well in our classrooms, schools, and districts routine and expected. We can create a new narrative, one that elevates the profession and encourages educators to continually find ways to improve at the same time.

Let’s do it!

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!


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