Tag Archive for underrepresented

Talk-ED: An ode to semantics

Stuart Middleton
23 February 2012

One of my favourite cartoons is a Jules Feiffer (NY Times) in which an old man sits in his chair and reflects.

“I used to think to think I was poor.

Then they told me I wasn’t poor, I was needy.

Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, I was deprived.

Then they told me deprived was a bad image, I was underprivileged.

Then they told me underprivileged was over-used. I was disadvantaged.

I still don’t have a dime.

But I have a great vocabulary!”

I thought of this on several recent occasions when I have got involved in discussions about words to use when describing the groups of students who enjoy little success in education systems. It’s an international issue – what you refer to them as. So too is the fact that such groups exist!

We have a range of words at our disposal that includes underserved, underrepresented, disadvantaged, special needs, and so on. Each captures something of the essence of the groups we are talking about but each also carries with it, like all words, certain linguistic baggage.

Special Needs

Often this is used to refer to students who require different or enhanced approaches. In New Zealand it seems largely to have been applied to students with disabilities of some kind or another and there is a reluctance, appropriate I think, to apply it to students who are largely without disability but who are not making progress.

This has some difficulties. For instance, if a student enters a system with a language background that is different from the lingua franca of the system then clearly they have “a special need”. If a student is gifted in mathematics, they have “a special need.”  There might even be a case to be made that each and every student has a special need but…


This word usefully describes a phenomenon – disadvantage – and is less precise about its target. Disadvantage can be the result of a number of things which do not produce a positive outcome and leave an individual not able to enjoy benefits that others can. Being hard of hearing in a meeting in a noisy setting produces disadvantage. So disadvantage is a useful word but has limitations when applied to a student. The disadvantage is usually a set of factors that are outside the student or wrapped up in the inability of the education system to work effectively with students from a diverse range of backgrounds or social settings. It is not a useful description because it blurs the sources of disadvantage.


Now this is a factual description. In the US there is no doubt about who is being referred to when the term “traditionally underrepresented” is used. Take the winners in examinations – who is not there in the numbers they should be? Take the NCEA results – why is there discrepant figures for different groups? I like “underrepresented” as a word that draws attention to flaws in statements and results and analyses. Take the PISA results – yes we do brilliantly but which groups are underrepresented in sharing that brilliant performance. Conversely, take the NEETs group and which groups are “overrepresented”?


This is a trickier word. Does it imply blame? Does it picture the relationships between teachers and students, schools and communities, education systems and groups within the population as ones in which one party are responsible for “serving” the other? Well yes it does and so it should. But one can “serve” without any hint of “subservience”.

If in the queue for breakfast the kitchen runs out of food before everyone has their food, some will not be served. If this repeatedly happens to the same group, they are most certainly “underserved” by the kitchen and, frankly, only the kitchen can solve it.

So “underserved” means something different from the others, it is based on a pattern and in education systems that pattern is pretty clear for some groups. So too is it in health systems, housing provision, the employment stakes and so on. It is not peculiar to education. Where there are systems there are generally individuals and groups that are underserved.

All this is a difficult issue because people bring meaning to words that might differ from the intended meaning of those who write or speak them. Do we call those we teach “students” or “pupils” – they are not exactly synonymous but both are better than the ubiquitously used “kids”, this makes us seem like goats!

There are discussions often about teaching and learning – that’s an easy one.

Of course we could simply refer accurately to the groups who generally do not benefit from education systems to the same extent as other groups. These are clear across different countries – Maori and Pasifika in New Zealand, Aboriginal communities in Australia, First Nations groups in Canada, Hispanic and African American in the USA and in the UK, children from immigrant groups. Across all these countries those who bring English as an additional language to the system will have some uphill paths to tread, it doesn’t pay to be of low socio-economic status (i.e. poor) and students with special needs will require strong advocacy to get the help they need and are entitled to.

We know all this, we know that we are not getting the results we should and must. Doing something about it requires us not to talk about it but to act on it. It is the results students get not the way they are described that will make a difference. It is what we do not what we say that will lead to more equitable outcomes.

“Priority learners” is gaining ground in New Zealand lately. I worry about how that word attracts “high” and “low” so easily.