Challenging Racial Deficit Assumptions: School Leadership Actions to Drive Educational Equity

The authors utilize Critical Race Theory as a lens to understand how school leaders effectively drove institutional change at a U.S. middle school where teachers and staff held strong racial deficit views.

Reviewed by Sabrina Wong


Recent education research literature shows that a ‘new racism’ has emerged in elementary and secondary schools. This ‘new racism’ adopts a deficit mindset that blames students and parents of color for educational inequities instead of institutional barriers. Using Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a framework, the authors present the case study of a middle school in the Mountain Western region of the United States to underscore how school leadership decisions can drive institutional change in schools. They examine how racial deficit thinking can be challenged by: (1) identifying systemic equity challenges through internal equity audits, (2) initiating parental dialogues to counter majoritarian views that blame students of color and their families for academic outcomes, and (3) challenging existing school disciplinary measures that are rooted in the idea of whiteness as property.

Michelle N. Amiot is the Director of Research, Assessment and Evaluation at Salt Lake City School District and is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Utah. Jennifer Mayer-Glenn is the Special Assistant to the President for Campus-Community Partnerships at the University of Utah and previously served as the Director of Family School Collaboration at Salt Lake City School District. Laurence Parker is the chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Utah. Parker’s work focuses on diversity and equity in K-12 education.

Methods and Findings

While CRT is often used to highlight evidence of educational inequity, the authors argue that it is underutilized as a lens to explore how the policies and initiatives of school leaders impact racial equity. A traditional CRT framework includes six tenets, including the permanence of racism and other key facts. The authors focus in particular on the tenet of whiteness as property, which is rooted in the fundamental belief that “meritocracy in admissions and acceptance into […] elite colleges and universities was seen as a property right of whites”. This concept can manifest as the prioritization of white history in academic programming over that of minoritized groups and as a racial deficit mindset that normalizes the underperformance of students of color. 

The authors conduct a case study of a historically low-resourced middle school where two members of the research team worked as assistant principals. The  school was located within a high immigrant and refugee population area; 65% of the students identified as Latinx, and students spoke a diverse set of first languages. One of the main equity challenges identified was that the teachers had ingrained racial deficit thinking that “accepted beliefs of school failure regarding racially, culturally and linguistically diverse students.” A school equity audit revealed that many teachers believed that “individualized reasons for underachievement” were the cause of school failures. Examples of deficit-based reasons include lack of parental attention, inherently unmotivated students, and familial cultural devaluing of education. These beliefs in turn led to lower levels of academic programming and instruction for students of color. The authors discuss several key interventions school leadership took to combat racialized deficit thinking and create more equitable school practices for students of color.

Institutional change efforts conducted by the school leadership team to combat racial deficit assumptions:

  • Internal equity audits: These audits focused on uncovering systemic inequities that had become normalized at the school. The audit results showed that the school’s policies focused more on the needs of staff instead of students, and teachers held racialized deficit beliefs about students and parents. These results were shared back in small group sessions with teachers. In these sessions, school leadership worked to dismantle the prevailing belief that the alternative of racial deficit views of blaming students of color was scrutinizing teachers. This effort catalyzed teachers’ acceptance of engaging with racial equity work at the school.  
  • Parent dialogues: Increased communication with parents facilitated the sharing of counternarratives that challenged teachers’ racial deficit thinking. In the case study, parental  dialogue sessions were held multiple times a year and “served as a tool to disrupt the deficit storytelling and the majoritarian view about the school population and the surrounding community.” Parents, teachers, and school leaders were seen as partners in the effort to create more equitable schooling.
  • Changes to school discipline practices: The equity audits revealed that school discipline measures served as another barrier to educational equity. The authors highlight how “whiteness as property and an overuse of punishment controls against students of color was part of the normalized standard operational procedures at the school.” Using a CRT framework, the school leadership collaborated with school resource officers to recognize the investment of their students in education rather than seeing them as a threat. School leaders also initiated sessions teaching staff and students about the role of racial profiling.


The authors advocate for CRT as a lens to challenge racial deficit thinking in schools and create pathways to educational equity. They present a case study of how one middle school in the U.S. was able to shift deficit thinking and create more equitable pathways for students of color. Key institutional change efforts include (1) conducting internal audit reviews to understand systemic inequities, (2) creating partnerships between parents, teachers, and students to challenge deficit beliefs, and (3) challenging assumptions that privilege whiteness in school disciplinary measures. Understanding and challenging racial deficit thinking is critical to introducing and sustaining racial equity change in education.


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