Communications, Equity, Trust

Asset Framing: Students Aren’t Empty Cups

Asset Framing: Students Aren’t Empty Cups

This blog is the first in a three-part series on asset framing – and how it can impact student success. Check back next week for our second post.

The way we talk about students – and student success – can have a major impact on how we think about improving student achievement. If we think about children, particularly children of color, as empty vessels ready to be molded and shaped into scholars, we incorrectly assume that these students have little or nothing to offer when they enter school. This approach can lead to the belief that black and brown students are starting at a deficit that must be overcome in order to find academic success. But there’s a better way.

Instead of placing students in the deficit camp, asset framing looks at student success through the lens of strengths, or assets, and acknowledges that black and brown children arrive to school with banks of knowledge. This way of viewing student success allows those closest to students to focus on the strengths that students bring with them to school – and reinforce them. Slowly but surely, practitioners are moving in a direction that not only recognizes and counts these assets but also builds on them.

Black and brown students walk into school buildings with a richness of language and communication skills; so, pouring out their existing knowledge to fill them up with English language arts competencies is a missed opportunity to build on an already strong foundation. Practitioners in Chicago have embraced meeting students where they are by tailoring curriculums to their assets:

  • Instead of only offering services that would force bilingual learners to abandon their native language – a deficit approach – Chicago Public Schools (CPS) provides dual language immersion programs for bilingual learners to strengthen not only their native language but also their second and developing one.
  • CPS also partners with Young Chicago Authors (YCA) for a fifteen-week literary arts residency where students can build on their native dialects and storytelling skills through the mediums of creative writing, poetry and rap – with notable alums including Eve Ewing, writer of Marvel’s Ironheart, and musical artists Noname and Chance the Rapper.

For a more traditional college-bound pathway, Chicago educators have also used asset framing to better understand college aspirations of Latinx students. A quick glance at postsecondary outcomes for CPS has shown that Latinx students were not heading to four-year universities at the same rate as their peers. A deficit perspective would lay the burden entirely at the feet of those students. However, despite the systemic barriers that create lower levels of formal education within Latinx community, Chicago practitioners realized that the college aspirations of Latinx students were no different than their peers. After providing more built-in college access supports as well as injecting more of a college prep culture in local high schools, CPS has since seen an uptick in college enrollment rates.

Maximizing the potential of students of color calls for an asset-based approach. Those making critical decisions for students – caregivers, educators, researchers and policymakers – should honor and nourish the pre-existing abilities and gifts of these students. When these adults are equipped with the right information – in this case, the full picture of students’ knowledge and abilities, alongside appropriate services – it will lead to improved outcomes. Because no student, including students of color, enters a school building as an empty cup.

When you shift how you frame the data, it changes how you solve the problem. Tune in next week for the second blog to learn how asset framing impacts approaches to data work.


This blog post is also available as a story on Medium.