As the school year begins, we hear lots of deficit-laden words like “Title I,” “tough,” “low-income,” and “low-achieving” to describe primarily Black and brown students in schools. Where does this language come from? Why are these terms so prevalent as labels used primarily by white teachers? And what might we do to disrupt this?
These deficit-laden labels often evoke imagery of dilapidated school buildings with run-down classrooms and “out of control” students. The terminology and imagery work to perpetuate racial stereotypes that continue to marginalize students, justify carceral pedagogy, and harm students of color.
I have to start with a confession, I have used all of the terms I problematize above, and as a white teacher, they were once central to my vocabulary and views of teaching. I have come to realize that much of it comes from what counts as data and information about students, families, and communities in education. These notions of data and what counts raise questions about why we focus on these data, what they mean, how they are used, and how we need to think about data and information more expansively.
When I was a new teacher, and as a new teacher educator, usually the first place I went to learn about my students were district or state level “report card” type sites, where schools were required to post particular data. I was trained and conditioned that way. California has an entire site dedicated to publicizing this information in the name of transparency. A snippet of the data that comes up about a school is below.
We can see that it begins with enrollment, followed by the percentage of socioeconomically disadvantaged, English learners, and foster youth. This is followed by information like percent of parents with a high school or college degree, percent of students classified as special education, suspension rates, and language like “lowest performing” or “far below basic.” What sort of data is this? What does it highlight? What does it ignore? What message does it send within a racialized school system? And what happens when we base our understanding of students on these data?
I eventually realized that grounding perceptions of school, students, families, and communities in these data was highly problematic, and mostly perpetuated racialized, classist, and abelist ideologies. If this is the primary basis — or the only basis — of thinking about students, even at the classroom level, how do we see students?
If we really want to know our students, we need to learn a whole lot more about them. I grapple with this with aspiring teachers in my current position. We ask teacher candidates to do community walks around their school site.
- We ask candidates to pay attention to where students grab food, where they play, where they congregate.
- We ask them to examine what resources are available and where community centers are located, where their students live, and how their students get to school?
- We ask teacher candidates to examine school policies, procedures, and expectations. What do these policies promote? How do they empower or marginalize students? Who do they privilege? Who do they marginalize?
- We ask teacher candidates to get to know their students, survey them, interview them, ask questions like what they enjoy doing, what qualities they appreciate in their teachers, what they do not like about school, and what these answers mean for their own instruction.
- We ask teacher candidates to engage in many community building activities early in the year with questions like “what is your superpower for change?” and others that highlight students’ assets and strengths.
- We ask teacher candidates to provide open-ended tasks that allow multiple entry points for a wide range of student interests and talents, and a wide range of ways of demonstrating knowledge.
These approaches are a work in progress and a way to humanize students that move beyond stereotypes. We start with individual students and who they are rather than the labels put on them by an inequitable and unjust system. These strategies help position students as knowers, learners, contributors — as part of a classroom community, and they are inspired by the Black women educators who continually fight against these deficit ideologies in schools — often at a significant cost.
Maybe we need to start by just asking our students who they are?