Leadership for Equity in Education: Deficit mentality is a major challenge

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

John P. Portelli, OISE, University of Toronto
Guest Contributor

Deficit thinking hinders leadership for equity. It privileges mainstream or conventional thinking and marginalizes any deviation from it. Yet, if one believes in a robust conception of democracy, one that fully respects social justice, diversity and equity, then leadership for equity should be a natural extension of democracy so conceived. However, even a softer form of democracy, for example, a liberal democracy such as ours in Canada, should be sympathetic to leadership for equity since such a conception and practice of leadership is consistent with the liberal values of freedom, equality and fraternity. In my research with Rosemary Campbell-Stephens of the London Centre for Leadership in Learning we suggest leadership for equity needs to incorporate inclusive procedures such as discussion, transparency, and community involvement as well as an honest treatment of substantive issues that matter (e.g. racism and sexism) (Portelli & Campbell-Stephens, 2009).

Unfortunately, ‘deficit mentality’ is a by-product of the prevailing neoliberal ideology, which has dominated the Western thinking in education for the last 25 years or so (Ross & Gibson, 2007). If we really believe in the ideal of leadership for equity in education, then we need to be aware of the nature of the deficit mentality, its pervasiveness and its dangers. The deficit mentality has taken different forms in education (Dei et al., 1997; Valencia, 1997; Borg & Mayo, 2006; Weiner, 2006; Portelli, Shields & Vibert, 2007).  This mentality relies on the assumption that there are indubitable educational values, norms and qualities that are ‘normal’ and universally acceptable for all. Anything that either diverts from or challenges such thinking is considered to be lacking in quality and, hence, a deficit.  It is precisely this kind of mentality that underwrites diverse forms of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia, including in the academy and educational system more broadly.

The literature in education is replete with many examples of deficit mentality. I will refer to some I have encountered in my own research over the past year. Wang, a high school student originally from China had always done well in English, ever since he started high school in Ontario. He really enjoyed the grade 11 English literature class and this showed in his excellent performance on assignments. For a major essay assignment, Wang obtained the highest mark in the class. The teacher wanted to speak with Wang in private and she asked him: “Have you actually written this essay? I did not expect you to be good in English but in Mathematics and Science.”

In a second example, a high school principal of African descent was chatting with some new members of her staff. One of them asked her where she lived. The principal mentioned the area where she lived, to which a colleague replied: “I was not aware that that area had apartment buildings.”

Finally, Preeti, a grade 4 student of South-East Asian descent who attended an inner-city school, was interested in sports and wanted to practice with the girls’ school basketball team. The gym teacher told her: “You are better off going home as I know that your family is not going to allow you to play basketball. They prefer that you girls help out at home so you will marry at a young age.”

The above examples are illustrative of deficit mentality in education and they are embedded in our daily practices and way of thinking. Many times, we do not even recognize that we have been influenced by such a mentality, and hence, we unwittingly reproduce it. Buck Cooper (2009) states that, “[d]eficit thinking has changed forms over time, but remains distinct from other forms of thinking because it places the blame for student failure squarely on the shoulder of the student and student’s lack of the traits necessary for academic success. This type of thinking leads to policies designed to instill those desirable traits/behaviours in students or in students’ parents. But people who practice deficit thinking often fail to pay attention to those aspects of the student’s life experience and family that make him/her unique and resilient.”

The important work of critical sociologists of education over the last 40 years has clearly identified the systemic inequities in schooling. The deficit mentality assumes that the system and current policies are not at fault since they have arisen from “experts.” Whose values, norms and beliefs do these “experts” represent?  What kind of evidence is used to support these policies? Of course, those who criticize the current system do not simply accept whatever qualities and values students bring to schools. We have to be careful not to romanticize the student experience. Yet, we cannot deny the immense damage that the deficit mentality has carried out – many times in the name of the “best interest of the students.”

A robust educational system committed to leadership for equity is incompatible with a deficit mentality. A schooling system based on deficit mentality yields to narrow student engagement that in turn leads to school dropouts or ‘school push outs’ as my colleague Professor George Dei puts it. Our commitment to the best education system demands that we unearth the fallacy of ‘one size fits all’ as well as eliminate the deficit mentality in our schools. To achieve such an aim we need to go beyond the rhetoric and written policy and substantively support the daily work of teaching and learning.

Dr. John P. Portelli is Professor and Associate Chair in the Department of Theory and Policy Studies and Co-Director of the Centre for Leadership and Diversity at OISE/University of Toronto. Email: / Read John Portelli’s full bio.


Borg, Carmel & Mayo, Peter (2006). Learning and Social difference: Challenges for Public Education and Critical Pedagogy. Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers.

Cooper, Buck (2009), “Deficit Thinking” in Mary Faith Mount-Cors et al., Bridging Spanish Language Barriers in Southern Schools. Available online.

Dei, George, et al. (1997) Understanding Student Disengagement.  Reconstructing “Drop-Out” Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p 64-84.

Portelli, John P., Shields, Carolyn M. & Vibert, Ann B. (2007). Toward an Equitable Education: Poverty, Diversity, and Students at Risk. Toronto, ON: Centre for Leadership and Diversity, OISE, University of Toronto.

Portelli, John P. & Campbell-Stephens, R. (2009). Leading for Equity: The Investing in Diversity Approach. Toronto, ON: Edphil Books.

Ross, E. Wayne & Gibson, Rich (Eds.) (2007). Neoliberalism and Education Reform. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Valencia, Richard (Ed.) (1997). The Evolution of Deficit Thinking: Educational Thought and Practice. London: The Falmer Press.

Weiner, Lois. (2006)  Challenging Deficit Thinking.  Educational Leadership 64, l: 42-45.


Equity Matters


Equity Matters