No Need to Catch Up: Teaching without a Deficit Lens

Some jokes work only when spoken aloud, and possibly especially when spoken aloud in certain regions of the country, but this one came to mind recently in the context of the impact of Covid-19 on schooling: “This is the worst use of ‘catch up’ in education since the Reagan administration allowed the condiment to count as a vegetable in school lunches.”

Heinz tomato ketchup bottle in shallow focus photography
Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

As I noted in a Twitter thread, a common response to schools closing during the spring of 2020 because of the pandemic is an editorial (The Post and Courier, Charleston, SC) declaring, Use summer to figure out how to catch up SC students; they’ll need it.

“How do schools help students catch up after the Covid-19 closures?” is the wrong question, grounded in a deficit lens for teaching and learning also found in concepts such as remediation and grade-level reading.

Traditional formal schooling functions under several inter-related ideologies, some of which are contradictory (consider assumptions about the bell-shaped curve and IQ v. the standards movement that seeks to have all students achieve above a normal standard).

Deficit ideologies depend on norms, bureaucratized metrics, against which identified populations (in education, grade levels linked to biological age) can be measured; the result is a formula that labels students in relationship to the norm. Many students, therefore, are positioned as deficient, labeled with what they lack.

The hand wringing about students falling behind with schools moving to remote teaching and learning during the spring exposes this deficit lens, but it has always been pervasive since the early twentieth century (at least) in U.S. education.

Consider the branding of federal education over the past couple decades—No Child Left Behind (George W. Bush) and Race to the Top (Barack Obama)—the first posing an image of falling behind (and thus the need for some to catch up) and the latter framing education as a race with necessary winners and losers (who, of course, were behind, need to catch up).

These deficit views of teaching and learning—and of teachers and students—are essential to the main structures of formal schooling, management and efficiency.

While it is a conservative mantra that all-things-government (such as public schools) are doomed to failure because it is government, the fundamental problem with public education is, in fact, bureaucracy (a weakness found in publicly funded institutions and the free market [read Franz Kafka, of Dilbert, and watch Office Space and The Office]).

Attempting to house and teach large numbers of students as efficiently as possible with constrained public funds is a guiding (if not the guiding) mechanism for how we teach students—students as widget monitored by quality control.

My father, Keith, worked in quality control his entire career. But his work involved machined parts, not human beings.

The manufactured “catch up” dilemma is a subset of that widget/quality control paradigm that can create a perception of efficiency but is antithetical to the complexity of human behaviors such as teaching and learning.

We teachers are tasked daily with a given set of students, traditionally arranged by grade levels that loosely conform to biological ages; however, our schools and our classes also vary significantly by out-of-school factors such as the socioeconomic levels of communities and racial as well as gender demographics that schools house but do not cause.

Putting efficiency and management first often ignores and even works against individual student needs and the corrosive impact of inequity that is embodied by individual and groups of students.

Putting 25-35 students in a classroom, building a highly structured and sequential curriculum, evaluating all students against those standards, and compelling teachers to maintain the same instruction and assessment across every grade level can address the priorities of efficiency and management.

But these deficit-based practices accomplish those goals at the expense of large segments of student populations.

It is counter-intuitive to admit that no such coherent and definable thing really exists as third-grade standards since we have spent forty years determined to create and recreate those standards, to test all students against those standards, and to ignore that “all students will” does not and cannot happen—in this system especially that ignores and perpetuates the inequities our students embody through no fault of their own.

Yet, no such thing as third-grade standards exist as we construct them and as we use them to label and manage students.

Eight- and nine-year-old children are biologically and environmentally incredibly diverse, especially in the ways they learn and respond to the world.

Despite our effort to limit or control human autonomy, even children are compelled to be autonomous; they have some limited ability to want to learn, to choose to comply or not with teacher expectations.

Teaching without a deficit lens is an option, however, possibly even within the system we have; although a new system would be much more preferable.

First, teaching can begin with individual students, focusing on the qualities, strengths, and knowledge they bring to any classroom.

Once a teacher knows the make-up of the abilities among any group of students, the teacher can design new and review material and experiences to provide for all students to incorporate their strengths and interests into acquiring new and better learning. Teachers can accomplish these strength-based lessons around whole-class, small-group, and individualized instruction—concessions to efficiency and management that come after putting students strengths and addressing inequity first.

As a final example of the problem of seeing the Covid-19 impact on education as somehow unique (instead of magnifying existing flaws in the system), consider the concerns raised about inequity in administering the SAT and Advanced Placement (A.P.) tests in modified forms for the remote necessities of the pandemic.

Online and modified SAT and A.P. tests have not created some new inequity; they are the mechanisms of inequity that have always existed and helped drive the deficit lens of public schooling.

Standardized testing has always measured inequity, but that testing has also always perpetuated that inequity by labeling many students as deficient as learners while the metric, in fact, mostly measures disparities in social class, gender, and race.

There is an ugly irony to calling for helping students catch up in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The move to remote teaching and learning is one of the few common experiences among our students, who enjoy or suffer the consequences of privilege and disadvantage whether in school or at home despite a pandemic.

In other words, if we remain trapped in deficit language, students are sharing the same “behindness” of having moved to remote course and having reduced instruction.

Ultimately, trying to help students catch up keeps our judgmental gaze on the student, a deficit lens, in fact. The problem with the impact of the pandemic is the same as before Covid-19 changed our world—inequity.

Pathologizing students further because of the pandemic once again allows the systemic inequities in our communities and schools to be ignored, to remain.

Ketchup was never a valid vegetable in public school lunches, and trying to catch up students in the wake of Covid-19 is yet another way to further malnourish our students.


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