Stop Deficit-Model Thinking

A few years ago, a vendor for one of the many online tutorial companies was giving a presentation at a principals’ meeting. The vendor was talking about how students could work independently and teachers could get an instant report of all of their deficits.

I raised my hand.

“Does your software have a joy report?”

“Excuse me?”

“How about a passion report? Is there anything in your software that tells me what my students enjoy or are passionate about or are even really good at?”

The conversation didn’t go well from there.

Whether we are talking about students or schools, too much of the conversation about education deals with fixing what is broken. There is article after article about all the weaknesses our students have, where we fall on the international tests, or what schools did not make AYP, or at perhaps the most cruel – which teacher ranked lowest in Los Angeles — an article that may have resulted in a teacher’s suicide. (

And in schools all over America, students are forced to “learn” in a way that befits deficit model thinking. We make sure that students are doubled and tripled up in the subjects they are worst at. Schools are reducing the amount of time students have music and phys-ed and even science so that kids have more time to raise their test scores. It is as if the sole purpose of schooling for many kids is just to make sure that they are slightly less bad at the things they are worst at.

We have created a schooling environment where the sole purpose seems to be to ameliorate the worst of abilities our students have, rather than nurture the best of who they are. We have created a public environment where “reforms” label schools as failing without ever stepping foot in them on the basis of one metric.

This has to stop.

And it has to stop, not because we should accept the current educational landscapes as the best we can hope for, but because the “fix what is broken” model is getting in the way of the evolution we need.

If we want kids to care about their education, we are going to have to encourage their passions.

If we want kids to believe in themselves, we will have to help them build on their strengths, not just mitigate their weaknesses.

If we want parents to believe that we see the best in their children, we have to remember to reach out, not just when something bad happens, but when something good happens too.

And if we are to ask students and teachers and communities to dream big about what they want the future of school to be, we have to ask them to take risks. We have to ask them to see beyond their current structures to envision the possible.

Deficit-model thinking will never get us there.

Yes, we need to make sure that we help kids to mitigate their weaknesses. Yes, we need to make sure that schools are doing right by the kids they teach. But we must do that without creating an environment – in schools and about schools – that makes all of us in school think the worst of ourselves.

5 thoughts on “Stop Deficit-Model Thinking

  1. The good news is that evolution is constant and coded. When my roster had a larger ratio of students with “learning disabilities” than not, I realized that it was not the students who were disabled, but the system. When I told highschool parents that I did not believe in homework after a long day of work at school, they all breathed sighs of relief. It is those people who have no self-esteem, who are in pain and need healing that cling to a system of control and “deficit-thinking”.
    There is change occurring on all levels; yes!, the pendulum has indeed swung. Wisdom needs to be heralded in order to understand that it is a time of raw and powerful energy beginning to take form. It will take time, dedication and persistance, but it will happen. I believe it was Chris Thinnes who posted the planting dates poem (lovely metaphor). We might not see the results, but can live passionately and joyfully building the foundation for them.
    The even better news is that children are programmed to break the system, and they will. They need connected learning (hence all our focus on more doing). They need emotional literacy (I cannot help but think of Adam Lanza as a small elementary boy who could’ve been healed). We have focused way to long on the intellect. As humans we exist on four levels: emotional, spiritual, physical and mental; and life will make sure we attempt to balance them. The Mayan calendar heralded a new era, where we get out of our minds and into our bodies, emotions and spirit to give balance to our existence and give our intellect a much needed rest. Schools will be places of prosperity thinking, I have complete faith in the process. Especially because there are people like you heeding “the call”. Gracias.

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