Asset Framing: The Harder (Data) Work

Strong Teachers and Leaders
Asset Framing: The Harder (Data) Work

This blog is the third in a three-part series on asset framing – and how it can impact student success. Read the first and second posts here.

A common DQC phrase is: when educators and partners have the right information to make decisions, students excel. But what does the right information look like?

Ultimately, people craft data and also communicate to others about what that data means. Those people – whether researchers, state education leaders, administrators, etc. – are not immune to harmful bias that bleed into objectivity. Deficit framing has been often reflected in the education space, because it’s easier to hold students, and their families, entirely responsible for underperformance and inequities. It’s easier for researchers and state education agencies to not engage and investigate the full experiences of subgroups, and leave them as a data point or a number.

Because data doesn’t frame itself, the hard work is unpacking the narrative in a way that allows those closest to students to make real change. By weeding out the harmful narratives and approaching challenges with an acknowledgment of students’ assets, perspectives can shift.

Accomplished scholar and educator Gloria Ladson-Billings has urged educators and other practitioners to move away from deficit thinking that assumes underperformers are solely responsible for their outcomes. She has advocated for the retiring of “achievement gap” and shift to “education debt.” As she contends, “achievement gap” is such a mainstream phrase that few have truly wrestled with its meaning. The unspoken interpretation typically lands at whites students are the standard while non-white students lagging behind represent the “gap.” However, “gap” is a present tense word suggesting a short-term solution to a short-term problem. Education debt, on the other hand, acknowledges the intergenerational denial of quality educational resources with black and brown communities juxtaposed to intergenerational investment of resources with white communities. Ladson-Billing notes that this difference in opportunity largely contributes to the difference in academic outcomes, especially with college enrollment.

Here’s an example: Research shows that the high school students who have access to college prep courses – whether that be Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate offerings, or dual credit programs that partner with local colleges – are disproportionately white and affluent. While these students increase their odds of entry to university, and elite ones at that, 20 percent of black high school students don’t have access to advanced courses like calculus, which weakens their ability access higher education.

Nevertheless, practitioners are moving towards recognizing education debt and allowing it to inform their practice. In North Carolina, former Wake Forest Middle School Principal Elaine Hanzer took a thoughtful data approach to placing students in advanced courses. Because allowing teachers to simply choose which students should pursue advanced tracks often involves pre-determined biases and deficit thinking, Hazer took advantage of the state’s more impartial statistical growth model which only accounts for student assessment history to predict the ability of a student to enroll in advanced courses. The result? A middle school with nearly 50 percent black and brown students tripled the number of eighth-graders taking algebra while maintaining a 97 percent pass rate on the state assessment. Getting these students into advanced curriculum early only raises the likelihood that those interested in college will have a fair shake at that opportunity.

But these kinds of shifts in thinking don’t come easily to everyone. That’s why the harder work challenges practitioners to acknowledge this nation’s persistent opportunity gap, where the white and affluent in this country have had access to high-quality resources while low-income communities and communities of color have been blocked from them. The harder work challenges practitioners to reckon with the fact that it’s up to those closest to students to change their own perspectives to value the unique assets that all students bring to the table. And the harder work challenges practitioners to truly use data in service of student learning by dispelling myths and making evidence-based decisions.

Check out some articles we found interesting about how asset framing applies to equity in education:

  • Why It’s Wrong to Label Students “At-Risk” (The Conversation): “At-risk” is a catch-all phrase used to describe a cluster of conditions or characteristics and placing this label on students may force them to see themselves through this negative social stigma throughout their education.
  • Let’s Stop Talking About the ’30 Million Word Gap (NPR): The prominent belief that kids in poverty grow up with 30 million fewer words by age 3 is a misconception that harms poor students and furthers deficit myths.
  • Walking the Bilingualism Tightrope (New America): The education field is running the risk of valuing bilingualism in different ways for different students – as an asset for monolingual English speakers and a deficit for English language learners.