Shove Those Deficits Up Your Assets

I have seen the light!  Praise be the ivory tower, I have seen the light! Enough already with talk of learning loss, achievement gaps, and labels like substantially below proficient. Cast off the cloak of deficits and wrap yourself in the warmth of potential and growth.

I confess that it took me too long to come around to an asset-based mindset, but I had many hills to climb to get here. Thirty years ago, I was lured away from teaching into a career in large-scale, standardized testing by the promise of no more lunch duty. Now 432 days into retirement, I am just beginning to be able to think beyond the bubble. (Note to self: It’s time to delete that Countdown to Retirement app from your iPhone.)

Like most born-again zealots, I am all-in on an asset-based and growth mindset.

You see inexperienced, unproven teachers being assigned to already low-performing schools. I see fresh, young teachers not jaded and hardened by a deficit mindset.

You lament chronic absenteeism, with students missing up to 7 weeks of instruction per year. I see students attending school 4 out of 5 days per week, on average. [Yes, that’s the same number of days in school.]

You focus on food deserts and the 11 meals per week a student might not be getting at home. I see the 10 balanced meals that can be provided at school.

I can stop supporting, through the Donors Choose program, the projects of teachers at the Boston Public Schools elementary school I attended. Principals and superintendents can stop devoting so much of their time to fund raising and seeking grants. Forget inequitable funding and focus on the resources that schools have.

Five textbooks for a class of thirty students – increased opportunities for collaboration.

No access to devices at school and no stable internet connection or cell service at home – lower chance of smartphone addiction.

In the words of the Gene Kranz character in the Apollo 13 movie: “Let’s look at this thing from a… um, from a standpoint of status. What do we got on the spacecraft that’s good?”

[Instrumental interlude to signal a transition. Probably a modulation to a minor key.]

Let’s work the problem, people. Failure Is Not An Option
(also the Gene Kranz character)

Words matter. Let’s be clear about that. It was a serious miscalculation for NCLB to label schools as failing. And everyone involved in state testing should read Francis O’Donnell’s research on the achievement labels that we assign to students based on test scores – and make no mistake, the labels are assigned to students no matter how strongly or how many times we say that they refer to student performance. There are legitimate concerns that terminology such as learning loss and achievement gaps can reflect or can result in a deficit mindset in which poor performance becomes a self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating reality.

We must not fall into the trap, however, of thinking that we can change a few terms and pat ourselves on the back, or think that changing a mindset will be sufficient to foster improvement in student learning (assuming that a deficit mindset actually exists among policymakers, educators, and students and needs to be changed). All of the factors (deficits, if you will) that I referenced facetiously in the opening of this post remain longstanding and serious impediments to student learning.

I recently read a paper that described growth mindset, in simple terms, as the belief that one can improve through practice and hard work. Establishing such an expectation without addressing the environment within which instruction and learning takes place is simply setting teachers and students up for failure. Sure, there will be some extraordinary administrators, teachers, families, and students who succeed with the deck stacked against them, but they will be outliers – and they likely will be held up as existence proofs to support claims that the highly improbable is, in fact, possible.

I Have Seen Enough to Know I Have Seen Too Much
(from a different Tom Hanks movie)

The terms asset-based, growth, and deficit mindset might be new, but we have been down this same road too many times in the fifty-five years since the publication of the Coleman Report – Equality of Educational Opportunity. Education Reform takes the path of least resistance, attempting to treat symptoms while continuing to ignore the root causes of the disease.

We will collect opportunity-to-learn data to explain results, but any efforts to improve students’ opportunity-to-learn will be insufficient. Many of the factors mentioned above will be used to condition outcomes to ensure that schools, educators, and students are not held accountable for factors outside of their control. We will compare the performance of schools and students to similar counterparts in the name of fairness. We will use statistical approaches to establish different standards and expectations for different groups of students while maintaining the semblance of holding all to the same standard. It’s what we know how to do.

If we are truly committed this time around to making structural changes to the system and eliminating systemic inequities in the system then we need to learn a different way of doing things.  Let’s go all-in and do it right this time.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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