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Stop Describing This Year With Deficit Language

When we look back on this school year, we often think - hmm that was hard and so much was missed. This is a deficit way of thinking and that is dangerous for both ourselves and our students. Though we have been in the midst of a global pandemic, we often fail to remember that we ARE IN THE MIDST OF A GLOBAL PANDEMIC. Of course, life is harder and different. FOR EVERYONE. Not only can’t we socialize in the ways we were used to - our students didn’t even get to go to school anymore. For many students, that school building was where they spent most of their waking hours.

While it is definitely appropriate to consider how to address the things that we lost access to with our COVID year, we can’t just assume that it was all bad and negative all the way around. When we do that, deficit thinking takes away the progress that we made this year.

Deficit thinking refers to the connotation that the problems we see are characterized by internal deficits we observe in individuals. You might recognize deficit thinking as a “blame the victim” orientation. While somewhat different from previously understood examples of deficit thinking (like labeling a student as “at-risk” because they share characteristics with others that often fail at school), educational professionals, systems, and organizations are now using negative words to describe students.

Here are some pervasive examples of those words.

Our students have so much unfinished learning.

There is so much learning loss.

Our students are so behind this year.

The connotation is that the students are the ones that have these deficits, not the schools. These connotations are a result of comparisons related to the benchmarks we set for students based on standards or a school calendar or between this year and previous years. Either way, using these kinds of words do not actually reflect any characterizations based on anything inherent to any of our students. That’s where the problem lies in speaking about students this way. And if we think and speak this way, then our actions are misinformed - possibly continuing to further our failure to give every student what they deserve.

To a certain extent, yes - this year’s educational experience will result in students starting the next school year with a different set of skills and knowledge than what we could reasonably expect from other groups of students in the past at the start of each school year. But this doesn’t mean that students themselves are somehow worse than students in years previous. Instead this means that the system we have used to educate students has failed (even more) in multiple ways to serve the wider student population. Ignoring that these are characteristics of a system highlight the privilege and power that adults have over the students, specifically that these systems can cause harm without taking accountability for the actions and decisions that resulted in the harm.


Our students don’t embody these things.

If anything, our school systems have these things.

Let’s look at those three examples again: learning loss, unfinished learning, and behind.


Learning loss

Learning loss refers to any loss of knowledge and skills or to reversals in academic progress, most commonly due to extended gaps or discontinuities in a student’s education. The discontinuity, some claim, is because students were not in the school building to learn. True, BUT students did learn. They learned how to use an LMS to access their work, and Zoom or Google Meets to participate in class. They learned how to manage their home-life balance. They learned how to advocate for themselves when they needed something. If your students didn’t learn this, it is simply because you didn’t teach it to them. So, Tommy Thompson published an opinion piece in Education Week that explores this expertly. I don’t think I could say it better.

“First, comparing one group of students in one year with another group of students in a past year is like comparing apples and oranges... Different players naturally influence (different) results.


A better way of measuring learning gains is to use a preassessment... This method will help teachers understand their impact and will show student progress and achievement… For example, referring back to the basketball analogy, if a coach determined from the preassessment that the team met the standard for passing a basketball, there wouldn’t be any need to spend time teaching passing. Does that make it a loss? It was not a loss because the players already arrived knowing how to perform the skill. This is precisely why not having an opportunity to teach something is not necessarily a loss.


... the biggest learning loss will not be from students but from educators who do not learn the lessons of the pandemic and use them as opportunities to grow.”

Unfinished learning

Unfinished learning refers to the learning that students started but haven’t finished, as in they started to learn about fractions but didn’t finish. Not accurate at all. Even if we say that students didn’t “finish” learning based on their grade level standards, we have to realize that the standards were created as a best case scenario for building on previous concepts in a “normal” year. Especially as states adopted the Common Core State Standards (and eventually changed them on a state by state basis), the best research regarding a correlation between the adoption of Common Core standards and student achievement showed that there were no statistically significant effects on student achievement growth across years either way. And in the worst case scenario, especially with classrooms and schools shifting back and forth between virtual and in-person learning due to localized outbreaks, the calendars and schedules didn’t allow for ANY teaching of certain concepts at all.

Instead of using ‘unfinished’ to describe the amount of knowledge and skill students didn’t master, how about we discuss the aspects of the curricula we ask students and teachers to engage in learning with. Much instruction was not concept based, relying solely on the standards that even in “normal” years students and teachers struggle to even “cover.” Even end of year assessments cannot possibly test for measures of learning like social studies, history, science, art, vocational education, and music. And too many teachers wait to consider student progress until a formal assessment is given and scored. Realizing that informal data is just as valid as evidence of learning will help us have a much more accurate view of what our students have actually learned even if (and especially because) it was learned outside of the four walls of a school building.


Behind who? It was a GLOBAL pandemic. If some of us are behind because of COVID, all of us are behind! We all experienced this together!

Instead of using ‘behind’ to describe the amount of learning students accomplished, how about we start talking about ineffective teaching. Yes, of course, the vast majority of teachers in the United States of America didn’t know how to teach effectively virtually when COVID hit. That doesn’t mean that their teaching can be automatically considered effective. Even if there was slower academic progress for more students than ever before, that doesn’t negate the fact that there was ineffective teaching happening across the country starting in March 2020. It was not great as a whole. I can name a few aspects that increased inequity in educational opportunity for individual and groups of students - like lecture style synchronous teaching, a lack of flexible assignments and assessments, mismanagement of tech tools for collaborative learning, etc. Let’s face that fact so that we can move forward in addressing the policies and practices that hindered efficient academic progress as the country shifted to virtual learning.


As you start to take advantage of the mental space you now have that the school year is coming to an end, how will you plan for the next year?

Will you blame students?

Or will you adjust your mindset, adults, and fix your mistakes?

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