Do the Labels We Assign Students Inhibit Success?

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA

The use of deficit language and terminology in education has an effect on students. Is it time for new labels that promote students success and options? By Byron P. White, EdD.

When I graduated high school, I was branded with the what have become in education circles the three universal labels of expected academic trouble: minority, low-income and first-generation. These adjectives are freely tossed around in education research, grant proposals and conference presentations as the most surefire indicators of determining whether a student is unlikely to succeed. Education professionals all understand that students who fit this profile are, above all else, “disadvantaged.”

Certainly, the data bear out that this population academically underperforms more affluent, white students. However, for those who wear these labels, their primary use as markers of deficiency overwhelms their influence as sources of pride and resolve.

Over the past month, I have attended three public events where young people who fit these descriptions shared their stories of achievement. Each time, they were introduced as “at-risk” because they wore one or more of these labels rather than as exceptional and promising because of them. Each time, I cringed.

In an article I wrote for Insider Higher Ed about a year ago titled “Beyond a Deficit View,” I propose that education professionals who proclaim to be focused on “student success” commit ourselves to revising the deficit language and terminology we use to casually describe these students and the programs we assign to assist them. In the article, which I wrote when I was employed as a university vice president, I write:

“As long as being a person of color or of modest economic means, or the child of parents who did not go to college, is deemed to be, first and foremost, an indicator of potential failure, the integrity of our proclaimed expectation of success is undermined.”

If you’re interested in learning more of my thinking on this topic, read my complete article, “Beyond a Deficit View” on Insight Higher Ed.