The Dangers of a Deficit Mindset
Disruptions to learning are not new in education. Each year, students face extended illnesses, relocations, or natural disasters, making the normal routine of school impossible and causing students to miss valuable days of learning. While teachers and schools have worked through these challenges on a smaller scale in the past, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified these challenges, introducing academic disruptions at an unprecedented scale and impacting nearly every student, teacher, and family in some way.
This widespread effect has understandably raised the level of concern about how to successfully move forward with the learning process. In many conversations, people have used the label “learning loss” to describe the academic impact on students. However, this description is problematic because it originates from a deficit mindset that implies students have somehow “lost” knowledge and skills during this past year and, perhaps, have even gone backwards in their learning.
While it is true that many students had fewer, or different, “opportunities” to learn this past year, and some may not have learned as much academic content as they would have in a normal school year, nearly all students did make gains and grow. Some of these areas of growth were academic, while others included the development of self-agency, digital communication skills, time management, and effective study habits. Although they presented academic hurdles for many learners, remote and hybrid learning did provide an authentic environment for students to develop these types of life skills. It’s also important to acknowledge that some students thrived academically during remote and hybrid learning, discovering that these virtual environments were better suited to their personal learning styles.
While we must continue to assess students’ academic progress as we determine the best path forward, we must also avoid using words like “learning loss,” which overlook the gains that students have made and color their experiences with an overall negative, deficit mentality. Ken Shelton, in his 2021 keynote presentation at the Sourcewell Impact Education Conference, reminded his audience, “The more you get inundated with deficit-based language, the more that becomes your focus.” In other words, continually reminding students that they have failed can have a negative impact on their confidence, self-worth, and motivation. It can lead to a negative stigma with an alarming ability to tear away students’ pride, desire to learn, and belief that they can achieve high standards.
If we are to inspire and motivate our students to move forward, we must build upon their assets and provide all students with meaningful, rigorous learning experiences. But, we can’t stop there. We must also celebrate their successes, build them up, partner with them, and help them believe that they can and will succeed. As AVID founder Mary Catherine Swanson stated, “Rigor without support is a prescription for failure. Support without rigor is a tragic waste of potential.” To reach their full potential, all of our students need both rigor and support.
Rigor without support is a prescription for failure. Support without rigor is a tragic waste of potential.
Mary Catherine Swanson, Founder of AVID Center
Accelerate Rather Than Remediate
One way to reframe a deficit mindset and effectively move students ahead is to focus on acceleration rather than remediation. While it’s true that some skills and concepts may not have been learned last year due to disrupted schedules and learning environments—and some standards may need to be relearned to ensure future success on new grade-level standards—we can’t go back and “redo” last year. If we do that, our students are unlikely to catch up, and they will be even less likely to accelerate their learning.
Because the time that we have with our students is limited, we need to find ways to target the core learning that students will need to be successful moving forward. Sharon Kramer, co-author of School Improvement for All: A How-To Guide for Doing the Right Work, estimates that students missed about one-third of their traditional learning opportunities last year. Still, she adamantly says, “We cannot continue to go backwards to go forward.” Instead, she insists that we must be more strategic and efficient in how we move forward. We must target essential standards; identify prerequisite skills; provide necessary scaffolds and support for students who need to develop prerequisite skills; and embed essential, prior learning into core instruction. In a Forbes article, “Accelerating Learning as We Build Back Better,” Linda Darling-Hammond reinforces this, stating, “If we focus only on ‘learning loss,’ we will walk down a familiar road, one paved with repetitive remediation, disengaged students, and reluctant families who are disillusioned with impersonal, inauthentic learning.” This perspective is reinforced by Uri Treisman’s research, which illustrates the unintended consequences of remediation: “…when students interested in pursuing mathematics were assigned remedial work, it was essentially a dead end for those students’ future in math.” Although well intended, this approach caused student interest and excitement for math to wane—the opposite result to what was desired. While necessary prerequisite information must be learned to set students up for future success, it is more important to strategically move ahead by focusing on core concepts and prerequisites rather than by trying to patch every hole or gap in previous learning.
Research consistently supports this position and recommends forward-thinking instructional strategies. For instance, in their EdResearch for Recovery brief, “School Practices to Address Student Learning Loss,” Elain Allensworth from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and Nate Schwartz from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University examine insights and interventions for “students who have fallen out of typical grade range.” Their research indicates that “compressed content, grade retention, and enhanced Response to Intervention (RTI) show less evidence that they substantially shift learning outcomes for struggling students, and some have potential adverse long-term consequences.” Therefore, rather than focusing on traditional remediation strategies, their research suggests several approaches that are more effective:
- Develop strong relationships with supportive school environments.
- Provide “high-dosage tutoring” that is directly tied to classroom content, especially in the areas of math and reading.
- Provide extended interventions, like “week-long acceleration academies” that are staffed with highly effective teachers.
- Develop strong norms and routines to provide stability.
- Implement strong monitoring systems to facilitate prompt and timely interventions.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities provides their own list of research-based strategies in “Part 1: Research-Based Approaches to Accelerate Learning.” While reinforcing the positive impact of tutoring, they include some additional approaches:
- Streamline the focus to grade-level “power standards.”
- Focus on student strengths while addressing prerequisite skill gaps based on short, formative assessments.
- Align coursework to student interests and strive for learning that is culturally responsive.
- Apply Universal Design for Learning and Multiple Tier Support Systems (MTSS).
- Prioritize executive function skills.
The research again points to the importance of moving forward rather than trying to redo the previous year of learning. For students to accelerate their learning, they must move forward with grade-level learning and outcomes. To accomplish this, we must identify key academic gaps and then provide instruction, scaffolds, and support for necessary prerequisite skills where they are needed. In this way, we can maximize success and accelerate grade-level learning.
As we plan, we must be cognizant that disruptions to learning do not impact all learners equally. Historically disadvantaged groups of students are often more negatively impacted than others. In this sense, acceleration becomes an equity issue as well as an academic one. In Darling-Hammond’s previously mentioned article, she points out that “many low-income communities and communities of color have been especially hard hit by COVID-19,” leading to “a growing and ever more visible divide between the haves and the have-nots, with many students encountering barriers to keeping up in school and others disengaging from school altogether.” The EdResearch for Recovery article, “Accelerating Student Learning With High-Dosage Tutoring,” echoes this, stating, “New research consistently finds evidence that the pandemic and initial school closures increased inequality in educational outcomes across racial and socioeconomic lines…”
Though there are many variables and each case is unique, a few common reasons have been identified for this disparity. In some cases, students of color or low-socioeconomic status do not have equitable access to necessary technology, like computers or Wi-Fi. Some home environments are not conducive to learning, and older siblings may be tasked with caring for their younger siblings. In other cases, these students do not have access to the same quality of remote or hybrid learning because their schools either do not have adequate resources or their teachers have not had training opportunities in remote- and digital-learning models. Most students also do not have access to private tutors like wealthier families may, and this scenario has further widened achievement and opportunity gaps.
Despite the unique differences among school districts, families, teachers, and students, there are some common areas in which we can begin to champion equity for all. Some approaches require additional funding, while others focus more on revised instructional practices:
- Provide access to necessary resources. This includes technology, curriculum, classroom consumables, and more.
- Provide access to quality learning experiences and instruction. Every child deserves a highly qualified teacher and a robust learning environment.
- Provide access to grade-level learning. Relegating students to rote remediation often holds them back. We must provide them with the same robust, grade-level learning opportunities as their peers by embedding prerequisite skills, so they can continue to move forward.
- Provide rigorous learning opportunities with accompanying support. All students (not just those who excel academically) deserve to be challenged with complex academic work that allows them to develop higher-order thinking skills. They also deserve differentiated support based on their individual needs. Rigor and support must be offered in tandem.
- Provide opportunities to develop future-ready skills. The World Economic Forum defines skills that students need to be future-ready. They state, “The need for manual and physical skills, as well as basic cognitive ones, will decline, but demand for technological, social and emotional, and higher cognitive skills will grow.” This further reinforces the need to accelerate learning that focuses on higher-order skills and not to relegate less advantaged students to low-level remediation.
All of our students deserve the benefits of accelerated learning. In future articles, we’ll explore specific strategies that you can use to accelerate learning in your classroom through preparation, prioritization, and learner support.
- Allensworth, E., & Schwartz, N. (2020, June). School practices to address student learning loss. EdResearch for Recovery.
- Darling-Hammond, L. (2021, April 5). Accelerating learning as we build back better. Forbes.
- Dondi, M., Klier, J., Panier, F., & Schubert, J. (2021, June 28). McKinsey: These are the skills you will need for the future of work. World Economic Forum.
- Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2020, June 1). COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey.
- Kramer, S. V. (2021, April 29). Learning loss is real! Now what? Solution Tree Blog.
- National Center for Learning Disabilities. (2021, February 19). Part 1: Research-based approaches to accelerate learning.
- Robinson, C. D., Kraft, M. A., Loeb, S., & Schueler, B. E. (2021, February). Accelerating student learning with high-dosage tutoring. EdResearch for Recovery.
- Shelton, K. (2021, January 13). Keynote [Conference session]. 2021 Sourcewell Impact Education Conference, Virtual.
- Treisman, U. (1992). Studying students studying calculus: A look at the lives of minority mathematics students in college. The College Mathematics Journal, 23(5), 362–372.