This paper introduces and analyses three broad discourses of academic achievement and failure, specifically those that speak of students' deficits, disadvantages and differences. It draws on interview data collected from teachers working in Australian primary (elementary) and secondary (high) schools and on academic literature that speaks to the field. The paper argues that 'deficit', 'disadvantage' and 'difference' represent discourses of considerable influence in determining how teachers, students and parents define what constitutes success or failure in schools, which respective approaches educators employ, and the beliefs we hold about students who fail and those who succeed. In this respect, the paper is concerned with matters of inclusion and exclusion in schooling. In particular, we seek to tease out the stories that these discourses tell about student diversity, as a way of unmasking how students are differently represented and how these representations serve to include some and exclude others from the benefits of schooling and society more broadly.