Deficit Narratives: How We Can Change Our Perspective

Graphic: Conversation, hands with speech bubbles

Author: Ginger Elliott-Teague
Contributor: Kori Hamilton Biagas

I want to avoid talking about our children and students as the problem we need to fix when I present data. How do I change the perspective of the data story we are trying to tell? –Jane Data Manager

Jane refers here to the common way education problems are framed: disparate outcomes are presented in a way that subtly blames the children for their lack of achievement. How many times have we read: Children with disabilities lag behind their peers in kindergarten readiness. Or, young black boys are expelled from early childhood programs twice as often as young white boys.

These narratives, while accurately representing data, reflect a “deficit” narrative. Deficit narratives imply that the children, not the schools or programs, need to change in order to improve outcomes and experiences. So, Jane wants to know, how can we turn those statements around to place the responsibility on schools and programs to ensure equitable outcomes for all children, regardless of their identity characteristics, geographic location, socioeconomic status, or any other label?

Begin With the Questions You Ask

There are many ways to think and write differently about the disparate outcomes we see in our schools, early childhood programs, and early intervention programs. Heather Krause, founder of We All Count, and others propose that we start with the questions we ask, considering first the system’s effects rather than the children’s differences. This involves using narratives that are systems-based, rather than student/person-based.

Instead of asking “Do children with different backgrounds achieve different outcomes in our programs?”

We should ask “Did our programs produce similar results for children across all backgrounds?”

This “system-based” narrative focuses attention on the hub of the solution: what needs to change instead of who needs to change.

Once we re-orient our question, we can modify our finding statements, too.

Let’s Try Some Changes to Our Language

Initial finding statement: “We found achievement disparities across racial/ethnic lines during the kindergarten school year, with Black students’ school-year gains lagging behind those of White students.”i

Consider why this program evaluation statement is a deficit narrative:

  1. It attributes gains to the groups, rather than a product of the educational intervention.
  2. The phrase “lagging behind” implies inferiority. A “less than” comparison is a key characteristic of deficit narratives.
  3. It refers to “achievement” in general, instead of focusing the analysis on what was actually measured. Students may show great talent and skill in many areas, but this statement suggests they are inadequate in general.
  4. Data equity notes: By using race as an adjective, it hides most students’ reality that their racial group is identified by parents or guardians, and can change based on who makes the identification. It also implies that race is a cause of the disparity in gains. When we imply race is a cause, we ignore the societal factors that produce group differences.ii

Improved finding statement: “The [intervention] produced annual gains in test scores that were 5 points higher, on average, for children identified as White than the gains documented for students identified as Black.”

Yes, it is wordier! However, it correctly pinpoints the source of the disparity in educational gains and does not characterize one group as inferior to the other. It also subtly reminds the reader that children’s racial identification is placed on them by others and is not an inherent trait. Finally, it notes that ‘test scores’ were the achievement measured, highlighting a specific data source rather than referring to “achievement” broadly.

Guiding Principles

  1. Focus on the what and not the who. Avoid implying that differences in findings are driven by differences in race, gender or disability.
  2. Use neutral language. Avoid terms and phrases that highlight deficiencies or hard work, such as gap, trailing behind, and earned.iii
  3. Place responsibility on the systems not the people. Credit the cause of the outcome on the program, the school or the state, rather than on a group of students.
  4. Accentuate the positive. When an intervention is more effective for one group of students compared to others, emphasize the advantage given to those students instead of the disparity in outcomes for other groups. (Example: “The program produced child outcomes that were five points higher on average for girls than for boys.”)
  5. Be specific. Refer directly to the measure or score differences, rather than achievement more broadly or generic “higher/lower” results.

Small Steps

Changing our perspective from a deficit narrative to a systems narrative is not easy or immediate. Yet, it is possible! Consider how we adjust our choices and decisions every day when we receive new information. Using these principles to re-write our work and shift the focus to the systems where change can occur will improve our programs and help us serve our children more equitably.

Resources for Ongoing Learning

Many other resources exist to help us change our thinking and approach to collecting, using and reporting data. Here are few to get you started with your new systems perspective.


IDIO 2023 Session #1: Leadership, Equity, Impact: Federal Programs Supporting Early Care, Education and Well-Being

Using Data to Advance Equity, Family Leadership Conference 2022, by Michelle Lewis and Thomas McGhee


Identifying and Disrupting Deficit Thinking, by Lori Patton Davis and Samuel D. Museus, July 19, 2019

Teacher Practice 1.3 Examine and disrupt dominant and deficit-based narratives in the curriculum and the classroom, Highlander Institute

From deficit-framing to asset-framing: the power of narrative in working toward equity, Reading Partners, June 30, 2021

Deficit thinking in schools is a social justice issue. Here’s why we need to do better. Dr. Kelsie Reed, NCSP, Nov 21, 2020

Articles & Books

Dudley-Marling, C. & Paugh, P. (2010). Confronting the discourse of Deficiencies. Disability Studies Quarterly, 30(2).

Holland, P. W. (2008). Causation and race. In White logic, White methods: Racism and methodology (pp. 93–109).

Russell, M., Oddleifson, C., Russell Kish, M., & Kaplan, L. (2022). Countering Deficit Narratives in Quantitative Educational Research. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 27(14).

Williams, R. D. (Ed.). (2022). Handbook of Research on Challenging Deficit Thinking for Exceptional Education Improvement. IGI Global.

iThis example comes from Russell et al., 2022, p. 14.
iiHolland, 2008.
iiiThis list comes from Russell et al., 2022, p. 15


Published September 2023.