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April 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 7

How Our Language Feeds Inequity

Instructional Strategies
How Our Language Feeds Inequity thumbprint
Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board, the conversation about race and educational equity is more relevant than ever. African American, Latino, and Native American students continue to achieve at levels far below that of their white and Asian peers. Concerns persist about overrepresentation in special education, suspensions, and expulsions, and underrepresentation in gifted education. And the hard reality remains that race and ethnicity override socioeconomics when it comes to educational success (Grissom & Redding, 2016; Losen & Gillespie, 2012; Noguera & Pierce, 2016; Opportunity Insights, 2018).
Since Brown, the educational community is more apt to openly reject policies with expressed intent to discriminate against groups of students based on race or ethnicity. No district officially identifies "black schools" like those outlawed in Brown, or "Mexican schools," such as the ones rejected in Mendez v. Westminster (1946). Yet practices that result in inequitable school systems continue to exist. Why is that?
We can legislate policy, but we cannot force people to change their belief systems about students. Thus, the "Wallpaper Effect" is at play in many U.S. schools (Johnson & Avelar La Salle, 2010). Mandated structural changes mask underlying biases that perpetuate long-standing gaps. One way to bring those biases to light, however, is to reflect deeply on the language we use to describe students.

Meet Precious

Consider the story of Precious Cantor, a student from one of the schools our organization, Orenda Education, works with in a high-poverty area near Los Angeles. Precious began experiencing academic difficulties in kindergarten, like many of her peers. However, by 2nd grade, her teachers agreed that Precious was more distractible, unfocused, and a slower learner. Her 2nd grade teacher, concerned with her lack of progress, initiated an intervention team meeting (including the assistant principal, school psychologist, and special education teacher) with Precious's mother. The team listened as Mrs. Cantor shared that Precious's father was in prison for gang-related activity. She was raising Precious and four younger children on her own. The unstated assumption had been that there must be something in Precious's home life that explained her challenges in school, so the team requested a full assessment. The results indicated that Precious had an unspecified learning disability and qualified for special education services. She was placed in a resource specialist program (RSP).
Though Precious made some progress in this program, it was slow. Although frustrated with the pace, the staff were grateful that Precious was showing any improvement considering the challenges she faced at home. Precious participated in the RSP program the entire year but fell further behind. When Precious began 3rd grade, her younger sister, Valerie, started kindergarten.
Within the first month of school, Valerie's kindergarten teacher heard stories about Precious and the Cantor family from other staff members. Soon, she identified subtle problems in Valerie's learning and requested that Valerie be assessed for learning disabilities. To help her right away, Valerie got easier class work and her homework was reduced and made optional. Also, the staff did not want to contribute negatively to Mrs. Cantor's already challenging life, so they kept communication with the mother to a minimum. By the end of that year, Valerie, too, was placed in RSP.

What's Wrong with This Picture?

The school's response to the struggles of Precious and Valerie appears well-intended. However, in our view, the school culture clearly fostered inequitable practices. To understand this more deeply, we must look at the role of language through an equity lens.
The language adults use provides insight into assumptions, beliefs, and expectations. When these become institutional norms, entire systems accept them without question, and operate under those assumptions and beliefs. Expectations become woven into the organizational vernacular, either energizing or sapping schools of equity momentum. Unfortunately, this is what unfolded at Precious and Valerie's elementary school.
How can schools begin to unpack—and then address—this phenomenon? In the following section, we provide a framework for understanding the subtle yet powerful relationship between language, beliefs, and inequitable school systems.

The Inevitability Assumption

The inevitability assumption (Johnson & Avelar La Salle, 2010) is the belief that some students will succeed and others will not, simply because that is how it has always been. Often, expectations are lower for students in marginalized racial and ethnic groups. If asked whether we think that all groups of students can succeed, most educators would say yes. However, if we reflect very privately and deeply, do we really believe that all students can attain the same educational outcomes?
We rarely hear, "This group of students is destined to fail." But even subtle comments can evolve into an institutional reality that becomes the basis for decisions that disproportionately affect the lives of students in profound ways.
Underlying assumptions expressed through language played a significant role in Precious's educational plan. Adults in the school commonly used belief-laden language about Precious and other struggling students that went unchallenged. For example:
  • "Trying to keep up with the brighter students."
  • "All we can ask is that she try her best."
  • "Working to her potential."
  • "Doing the best she can."
  • "She is an RSP (Resource Specialist Program) student."
  • "She is learning disabled."
Consider this sobering fact: Our beliefs about our ability to improve student outcomes, conscious or not, directly influences those outcomes (Bandura, 1997). Unfortunately, in Precious's case, a collective lack of self-efficacy on the part of educators triggered a chain of decisions that stacked the deck against both her and her sister.

The Normalization of Failure

A second factor contributing to systemic bias, the normalization of failure, is pervasive in schools and districts serving racially diverse groups of students. Recall what happened to Valerie. In anticipation of her presumed academic struggles, the team made rash decisions. Valerie was not expected to do grade-level work, her homework load was reduced, and communication with her mother ceased. These kinds of decisions promoted the idea that failure is "normal" for some students.
The normalization of failure is an all-too-common phenomenon that creeps into schools and districts, even when educators try to guard against it. Historically, patterns of gaps, over- or underrepresentation, and low educational attainment of marginalized groups of students are seen as normal. This normalization of failure "operates at the level of taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs" (Noguera & Wing, 2006). In other words, failure is perceived by many as the "status quo" and goes unchallenged. When this happens, it becomes part of the institutional culture.
One way to uncover hurtful beliefs is to pay close attention to the language we (and our colleagues) use. When we speak about students or families, there are the stated words and there are the beliefs underlying those words. Even the perception of those words by others matters greatly. Below (fig. 1) is an example of the school team's language describing Valerie and Precious, and the possible interpretations about students that can easily become part of a school or district culture.

Figure 1. What We Say v. What We Mean

How Our Language Feeds Inequity - table

Stated Language

Possible Interpreted Beliefs

"Lower ability"She was just not born as smart as other students and will never be able to do as well as her classmates.
"Working to her potential"There is a fixed, predetermined, and inborn limit to every person's intelligence. We, as professionals, are able to know that point for students.
"She is an RSP (Resource Specialist Program) student"The programs and services she receives define her as a student and as a person.
"She is learning disabled"She is not able to learn as well as others. Her academic deficits are inevitable.

A Shift in Culture

When Precious started 4th grade, a new RSP teacher and assistant principal began working at the school. Their arrival heralded a dispositional transformation in the school's culture and the way in which all students were valued. At the first intervention team meeting of the year, the assistant principal, school psychologist, and classroom teacher noted that Precious had met each and every goal set forth in the previous year's individualized plan. Yet her academic performance continued to be extremely low. Upon further examination, they realized that she had met her goals because they were written and assessed at a 1st grade level. When the assistant principal and RSP teacher questioned previous teachers about her lack of progress, they were reminded that Precious was an RSP child and that it was great that she had made even some gains.
Uncomfortable with the team's response, the new RSP teacher spoke to Mrs. Cantor to better understand Precious's academic history. The mother again explained her husband's absence from the home. In the conversation, Mrs. Cantor also showed the teacher a letter that her husband had sent Precious from prison that had amazing artwork bordering it. The teacher admired the artwork and listened to Mrs. Cantor share how Precious received two very positive gifts from her father—an eye for art and the ability to sing.
The next day, the teacher asked Precious if she would mind staying behind during recess to demonstrate some of her talents. It turned out that Precious was a gifted artist and an amazing vocalist—and she was not shy about sharing these gifts. The teacher and assistant principal convened another team meeting: They decided to encourage Precious to participate in art and singing experiences that could build her confidence and self-esteem—and help override her history of challenges in school. This focus on one of Precious's assets (which just happened to be her artistic ability), marked a shift away from the deficit-based thinking held by adults in the school—and even Precious herself. They also rewrote her academic goals to match grade-level expectations. While doing so, the overarching question became, "What conditions would be necessary for Precious to reach grade level in two years?"
The team debated whether it was reasonable to expect Precious to reach grade-level expectations as a "special education" student who had difficult family circumstances (the inevitability assumption). They also expressed their satisfaction that Precious improved at all (the normalization of failure). In response, the RSP teacher and assistant principal shared samples of the incredible, intricate artwork Precious had produced, demonstrating the highest degree of artistic and conceptual application.
They then repeated the question, "What conditions would be necessary…." The general education teacher said she was not opposed to helping Precious more, but in light of the large class size, felt it impossible to devote the necessary amount of attention to any one child. The assistant principal appreciated the teacher's willingness to be supportive, but once again restated the question clearly and deliberately: "What conditions would be necessary for Precious to reach grade level in two years?"
The team meeting continued this way, until the general education teacher finally stopped and said, "You really and truly believe that if we could stop finding reasons why we cannot help her and put our energy into coming up with the right plan, Precious could actually be on grade level before she leaves our school?" The RSP teacher and assistant principal responded, "Absolutely." After a moment of collective silence, the team took a big breath and set out to design a plan built on the premise that Precious would be on grade level by the end of 5th grade.
The assistant principal and principal subsequently facilitated conversations with the entire faculty to analyze the lessons learned from the experience with Precious. In time, staff members became more aware of how their implicit bias expressed itself in language, and thus, in their decisions about students. Their reflective exercises resulted in the identification of one critical principle: With will and practice, they could fundamentally transform the school's culture and propel achievement for all students. As Bandura's research found (1997), the positive effects of collective teacher efficacy on student academic performance more than outweigh the negative effects of low socioeconomic status.
Recognizing the interplay between language and belief systems, the staff made it their mission to practice language mindfulness.

Supporting Language Mindfulness

Language mindfulness is the practice of actively listening to the language we and others use, as clues to underlying belief systems. Engaging in language mindfulness as a school or district staff, without judgment, provides a safe forum for educators to discuss their personal and institutional biases, both conscious and unconscious (Avelar La Salle & Johnson, 2019). The following outlines key steps school leaders can take to facilitate this process.
  1. 1. First, become comfortable with the idea that a strong relationship exists between language and underlying beliefs. Engage in exercises like the one described in Figure 1, where language samples are collected from meetings or other gatherings. Agree as a team to assign a neutral facilitator to lead this learning exercise. Have the facilitator create a two-column table with one heading that lists each statement, and another where teams brainstorm interpretations of that language. Be courageous and create the time and space to note and reflect on patterns that emerge in language about vulnerable groups.
  2. 2. Establish the expectation that the school or district's focus is to promote an equitable education for all student groups. Doing so will inevitably open up discussions that might previously not have occurred. Give yourself permission as the facilitator to norm-check the discussion whenever the focus is lost (for rationalizations, excuses, tangential issues, or the like). For example, if the discussion veers toward areas that are out of the school or district's control, reframe the conversation by asking, "What conditions over which we have control would be necessary for…." This strategy gets the discussion back on track without placing blame. As your team becomes equity-fortified, give all staff the responsibility for such norm-checking.
  3. 3. Be vigilant about the distinction between a condition that exists because it must exist versus one that exists simply because "it's always been done that way." Imagine, for instance, a high school where 9th graders are struggling academically. Freshmen interviews point to the need for teachers who can relate to students on a more personal level. Upon reflection, the school leadership team realizes that, in general, more experienced and popular teachers tend to "earn" their way to teaching older students or advanced courses. This is an unstated, yet systemically accepted process for making teacher assignments. An essential skill equity leaders need is to be on alert at all times for the "it's always been done that way" response. That thinking must be challenged in order to overturn systemic inequities.
  4. 4. Finally, understand that language mindfulness is different from being "politically correct." To be PC is to use socially acceptable language in an attempt to avoid being deemed offensive. Being PC does not challenge potentially biased beliefs about groups of people. In contrast, language mindfulness acknowledges that biases exist in every person, whether we are aware of them or not. It reminds us to pay attention to our use of language when discussing student groups with long legacies of poor academic outcomes. By doing so, we can gain important clues about the genesis of systemic practices, policies, and decisions that both perpetuate long-standing underachievement and exacerbate the gap.

What Happened to Precious?

Once the staff at Precious's school understood the connection between their language and beliefs, they were able to slowly shift the culture. Precious made significant gains during her 4th- and 5th-grade years, ultimately meeting grade-level expectations in all subjects and meeting the criteria to exit from RSP prior to middle school. In addition, having been given multiple opportunities to develop and share her artistic and vocal abilities, she came to be seen as somewhat of a child prodigy in school and around the community, winning art competitions and regularly performing in front of audiences. Precious confidently sang an original song at her 5th-grade promotion ceremony.
Precious's remarkable progress, in fact, caused the RSP teacher to reassess her younger sister, Valerie, who was by now in 2nd grade. While Valerie's general education teacher continued to feel that she required major program modifications in order to keep up, the school psychologist's assessments determined that Valerie was within normal ranges in all areas. The team decided that Valerie would benefit from a new experience, so they changed her class and assigned her to a teacher who had been on Precious's IEP team. Soon, the new teacher reported that Valerie was "just as sharp as her sister," and was doing well with the unmodified grade-level curriculum, receiving the same degree of support as many of her peers. By the end of that school year, Valerie too was exited from RSP.
When Precious was promoted to middle school, her little brother started kindergarten. Since the Precious and Valerie stories were well-known sources of school pride by this time, Gabriel's arrival was much anticipated. After a month of school, his teacher described him as energetic, enthusiastic, and excited to learn. A "typical little boy," Gabriel was sometimes scattered and forgetful—just part of his charm—another great Cantor child. No referral was ever made for him.
Author's note: All student names are pseudonyms.

Avelar La Salle, R., & Johnson, R. S. (2019). Shattering inequities: Real world wisdom for school and district leaders. Lanham, MA: Littlefield & Rowan.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W H Freeman.

Johnson, R. S., & Avelar La Salle, R. (2010). Data strategies to uncover and eliminate hidden inequities: The wallpaper effect. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Grissom, J. A., & Redding, C. (2016). Discretion and disproportionality: Explaining the underrepresentation of high-achieving students of color in gifted programs. AERA Open, 2(1), 1–25.

Losen, D. J., & Gillespie, J. (2012). Opportunities suspended: The disparate impact of disciplinary exclusion from school. The Civil Rights Project (UCLA).

Mendez et al. v. Westminister [sic] School District of Orange County et al., 64 F. Supp. 544 (S.D. Cal. 1946)

Noguera, P. A., & Pierce, J. C. (2016). The (evasive) language of school reform. Educational Leadership, 74(3), 74–78.

Noguera, P. A., & Wing, J. Y., Eds. (2006). Unfinished business: Closing the racial achievement gap in our schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Opportunity Insights. (2018, Oct 23). Racial disparities in income mobility persist, especially for men. Retrieved from

Author bio to come.

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