It’s our mission as educators to keep students engaged and accelerate learning. We strive to create the best learning environments for student success. We want to help low performers excel and progress. It’s time to pause and ask ourselves, what are we really doing to focus on progress? And how do we help teachers have the right mindset to drive the work?

We often approach student progress and achievement from a deficit mindset. Education systems typically focus on rigorous achievement standards or narrowing the gap between students who are succeeding and those who aren’t. However, in What Doesn’t Work in Education, John Hattie explains that focusing on these areas doesn’t generate real solutions. As school leaders, we are often distracted by fixing the infrastructure, students, teachers and schools. Instead, he encourages educators to concentrate on getting all students to improve, not just those who may be behind.

We help all students improve with a perspective that views every person as valuable and having potential. To help people make progress we start with what they do know, not with what they don’t know. That is how we improve using an asset-based mindset.


For example, Erwin Middle School (EMS) in Birmingham, Alabama recognized that students couldn’t make up every assignment that was missed. EMS educators determined a reasonable amount of work to attain the necessary learning standards and prepared recovery packets for students to use. If EMS tried to force those students to make up everything, those students would have quickly disengaged.

This approach helped students progress and reduced the need for recovery packets every nine weeks. As a result, seventh-graders reduce the number of F’s from 54 to 19 between the first and third nine weeks of the school year.

Lately, parents and educators have been bombarded by messages emphasizing learning loss and regression due to distance and hybrid learning models. Despite this uptick in the media, we are still faced with the same learning gaps prior to COVID-19 that we are facing with the disruption. If we really want to achieve equity in our schools, we can do so by prioritizing an asset-based approach rather than deficit-based.


It’s common for us to focus our attention on what’s broken and how we can fix it. When we approach problems in this manner, we are utilizing a deficit mindset – a mindset of scarcity. What we want to do is shift our thinking to an asset-based approach — how can we help people progress? A deficit model works reactively, while an asset model works proactively to notice what’s right and build from there.

In Shifting the Paradigm research, authors Renkly and Bertolini share, “When schools focus solely on at-risk behaviors exhibited by students, they tend to work reactively rather than proactivity. Within a school, where the ultimate goal must be student learning and growth, this method is wildly unsuccessful. Rather, schools must focus on identifying and building up students’ assets to create positive development. This positive development emphasizes strengths over weaknesses, resilience over risk and assets over deficits.”

When we work from a deficit model, we imply students are failing because they’re not trying hard enough. Therefore, the emerging practices and assumptions often cover up the abilities of students and teachers. “On the other hand, an asset model, or abundance model, focuses on what a student can do: their strengths, skills, talents, interests and competencies”

Asset thinking sounds like….

  • Here is where you excel…
  • Can you tell me what you learned from this experience?
  • What do you enjoy learning about?
  • Let’s set a goal to help you grow your strengths.

Deficit thinking sounds like…

  • Here is where you are behind others in your class…
  • Your questions in class are disruptive.
  • What do you think you did wrong here?
  • If you focus harder you will perform better.

What about you, would you rather discuss what you did wrong and where you struggle, or what your strengths are and where you excel?

When we concentrate on where students, teachers or systems are lacking we can unintentionally create emotional harm. Deficit thinking can negatively impact one’s self-esteem and encourage negative thought patterns in individuals. This is not a mindset conducive to learning.


Within every individual in our organizations are untapped resources and abilities waiting to be developed. To reach these untapped talents effectively, it is essential that leadership supports students and staff through planning an asset-based approach to the organization’s mission, vision and values. Student achievement starts from the top and replicates through the system.

Albert Bandura, a Stanford University psychologist, revealed that a group’s confidence in its abilities seemed to be associated with greater success. Researchers have since replicated this across many domains. Bandura named this human behavior pattern, “collective efficacy.”  He found that “in schools, when educators believe in their combined ability to influence student outcomes, there are significantly higher levels of academic achievement” (Bandura, 1993).

John Hattie’s synthesis of more than 1,500 meta-analyses, Visible Learning Insights, also found collective teacher efficacy is greater than three times more powerful and predictive of student achievement than socioeconomic status. It’s more effective than prior achievement, home environment and parental involvement. Collective efficacy is more predictive of student achievement than student motivation and concentration, persistence and engagement.

We can achieve equity, accelerate learning and increase engagement in our school systems. When we use an asset-based approach, we can increase the positive student interactions with adults and harvest wins, not challenges. As leaders, we can start with empathy, use hope as a strategy and feedback to our advantage.


Remember, students and staff are human beings, not outputs. Although we can measure performance, humans aren’t systems and numbers, we are a complicated mix of emotions. People can only handle so much stress at once, we have a surge capacity – a collection of mental and physical systems that we draw on for short-term survival. However, this pandemic is different, the stressful situation has been stretched indefinitely. In times of chronic stress, people become exhausted, have mixed emotions and even experience periods of burnout. This chronic, prolonged emergency requires us to lean into empathy and compassion. Maslow before Bloom. As we continue to learn what the new normal will become, meeting the needs of people is a top priority.


Psychologist, Charles Richard Synder was a specialist in positive psychology. From Snyder’s work, others have conducted studies linking levels of hope to academic performance and physical health and well-being. Snyder’s Hope Theory works to help people stay motivated while following a path to the desired destination. According to Synder, there are at least three components that people relate to hope. The more a person believes they can achieve these, the greater chance they will develop a feeling of hope:

  1. Have focused thoughts.
  2. Develop strategies in advance to achieve the goal.
  3. Have the motivation to make the effort required to actually reach the goal.


With the purpose of replicating and expanding Hattie’s Visible Learning research from meta-synthesis, The Power of Feedback Revisited is a comprehensive analysis of educational feedback. This research finds that feedback is more effective for cognitive and physical outcomes measures than for motivational and behavioral criteria. The authors explain, “A possible explanation from motivation theory is that feedback can have negative effects on motivation… when it is controlling, negative and uninformative (Ryan and Deci, 2000). Hattie and Timperley (2007) have stated that rewards significantly undermine intrinsic motivation and feedback administered in a controlling way caused negative effects, taking away responsibility from learners for motivating or regulating themselves.”

As we think about how we provide feedback, it’s important to consider the implications of asset and deficit-based thinking. If we give feedback from a deficit mindset, we are likely to cause harm to the receiver. However, if we focus on providing feedback with a positive lens we can help people identify and develop their strengths.


Our challenge remains the same, disruption has only brought forth the vast need to solve the following questions for our students:

  • How can we create opportunities to pursue knowledge, goals and pathways to the future for each individual?
  • In what ways do we support our students who have mental health, socio-emotional and developmental needs?
  • What can we do for students who need support with basic needs?

We have an amazing opportunity to reimagine the role we play in creating a stronger, more agile and inclusive system. We don’t need to have all the answers, we just need to focus on our strengths to fulfill our purpose.

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