The Acknowledgment Gap

Educational Leaders and the “Acknowledgement Gap”
Dr. Kenneth Magdaleno – Associate Professor
California State University, Fresno

Meeting the needs of all students by addressing academic needs only is like “planting seeds on concrete,” so indicated the assistant superintendent of a local central valley school district as he spoke to my Fresno State class in the fall of 2011. This comment served to solidify that which I have been teaching in my classes for the last seven years in the Educational Leadership and Research department at California State University, Fresno. Although many see the achievement gap as the major dilemma in schools today; it is in fact my premise that it is the “acknowledgement” gap which precedes the presence of the achievement gap and threatens today’s educational system. Failure to “acknowledge” and act upon the reality that issues of race, ethnicity, class, and culture affect student learning and workforce attitudes is indeed a gap that must be dealt with. In fact, it appears that the age-old adage, “the more things change, the more things remain the same” (Sarason, 1990) is correct.

Teacher working with elementary school childrenAddressing the acknowledgement gap through educational transformation is not about becoming comfortable. In fact, it is about facing those issues which make us uncomfortable. It is about making school’s better places for young people; which on occasion may be an uneasy process. Although much has been done to address and close the achievement gap, efforts to successfully close, or eliminate, the racial achievement gap have been sporadic at best.

Expecting students to increase their academic scholarship is essential and should be purposeful. Nevertheless, as long as students, and especially students of color, enter, or return, to unchanged schools burdened with identical negative belief systems, where the leadership and faculty lack a comprehension of racial, social, and cultural value, and continue to focus on student learning with the same “deficit thinking” beliefs that have been at hand for decades, the gap will never entirely close. Identifying and responding to the “normative beliefs, attitudes, expectations and actions” in order to address the presence of “cultural incompetency and deficit thinking” in our classrooms and schools is critical if the system is to move forward in addressing the racial achievement gap.

Increasing the understanding of how race, ethnicity, class, and culture bias, among other issues, prevent students from learning all they can in classrooms and in schools is imperative. Yet, educational leaders rarely openly discuss these subjects that permeate society. Preconceived stereotypes often determine how students are treated, and particularly students of color. Julian Weissglass (2001), professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and Director of the National Coalition for Equity in Education pointed out that,

The causes of disparity in achievement are complex. They involve economic, psychological and social conditions; peer and family culture; and educational practices and policies. Although some factors (economics, for example) may be difficult for schools to change, many of the conditions that cause inequitable outcomes are within our reach. We can do something about teachers’ attitudes and expectations and the way teachers relate to students. We can change institutionalized practices that work to the disadvantage of children of color and children living in poverty. We can help students deal more effectively with their difficulties. We can ascertain how unaware biases in teaching and counseling practices, in curriculum, in school policies and in hiring practices affect teaching and learning (Weissglass, 2001). “

Educational Belief Systems

Educational belief systems developed over the years are foundational and difficult to change. Ethnocentrism – the belief that one’s culture is superior has long been present in the educational system and society in general. Therefore, in the schools and classrooms that millions of students attend they encounter the “we need to fix you” syndrome. Though one would suppose that by interacting with different cultures on a daily basis and observing their value, a positive change in one’s belief system would naturally occur as it pertains to cultural value, deficit thinking, and eliminating the racial achievement gap; however, this appears to occur much too infrequently. Often, it takes an “edict” from a strong and culturally proficient leader to make change happen; if not a change in the belief system, then a change in action. In other words, “if one cannot change the belief system, then one must change the behavior.”

Increasing leader understanding of cultural value is essential if the racial achievement gap is ever to close and/or be eliminated. Eliminating the belief system, hidden curriculum, and negative behaviors that prevent students from learning all they can in classrooms and schools is of the essence. Discourse and rhetoric have been, and continue to be, that place at which one often stands at the precipice while considering thoughts of what should be; however, it is praxis, or the implementation of a cultural value curriculum and cultural proficient strategies by educational leaders in today’s schools which is missing and should be implemented. As Paulo Friere stated,

It is not enough for people to come together in dialogue in order to gain knowledge of their social reality. They must act together upon their environment in order to critically reflect upon their reality and so transform it through further action and critical reflection.

In his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Friere (1994) defines praxis as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it. Through praxis, oppressed people can acquire a critical awareness of their own condition, and, with it, struggle for liberation (pg. 36). This action of what should be – to create networks for change, is the true demonstration of praxis.

Deficit Thinking

As previously noted, identifying and responding to the “normative beliefs, attitudes, expectations and actions” of the educational system must also include addressing the negative presence of “deficit thinking” in our classrooms and schools. Deficit thinking continues to undercut efforts to make schools more equitable. Educators express deficit thinking when they attribute students’ struggles in school to their cultures and, specifically, to how they assume those cultures deny students’ access to resources, effective parenting, and early learning opportunities (Guerra and Nelson, 2010). Preconceived beliefs regarding student capacity often determine how students are treated. These “stereotypes,” along with the resultant “deficit thinking” – that which views students, parents, and communities as the cause for underachievement rather than the educational system itself, produces little willingness to look within to create change. Lisa Delpit (1995), in her powerful book, Other People’s Children, points out that, “the key here is not the kind of instruction, but the attitude underlying it. When teachers do not understand the potential of the students they teach, they will under-teach them no matter what the methodology.” Deficit-thinking , or the attitude that students of color or students of a different socio-economic level need to be fixed because they are lacking the necessities to be successful in school,” is present in classrooms, schools, and in communities.

Cultural Competency

The “acknowledgement gap” is also the failure to acknowledge that the racial, ethnic, and cultural differences brought to school by students can be their greatest strength rather than their greatest difficulty. Tara Yosso (2005) indicated in “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth,” that students of color bring with them “an array of cultural knowledge, skills, abilities and contacts possessed by socially marginalized groups that often go unrecognized and unacknowledged” (Yosso, 2005).

In her award-winning book, Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, author Geneva Gay defines cultural responsive teaching as “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively” (Gay, 2000). Further developing culturally responsive pedagogy as an integral component in education is vitally important if school and teacher leaders are ever to move beyond solely attempting to close the “academic achievement gap.” Instead, leaders must reach to close the “racial achievement, opportunity, and acknowledgement gaps” as a response to negative belief systems and cultural “incompetency.” In “Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality” Spring (2004) describes cultural incompetency in education as “…destroying a peoples culture and replacing it with a new culture” (p.3). Spring also states in the same text that cultural incompetency and the racism and bigotry which results from it have forced students to learn an Anglo-American centered curriculum that neglects the value of a diverse school community.

Social Justice

Social justice is the umbrella under which other “justice” strands are maintained while initially reflecting upon and then taking action toward making the world a better place. Some definitions of social justice specifically link social justice with academic achievement, critical consciousness, and inclusive practices (Grant & Sleeter, 2007). At the end of the day, if one cannot define or describe the “right thing to do,” it can most often be found as a goal of social justice. According to Bell (1997), social justice is both a process and a goal. It is a journey in which the end of the road is fluid. Meaning, of course, that social justice knows no end; there will always be new roads and valleys to climb.


The education system and its leaders stand at the precipice of change. Change is occurring and leaders will either be part of the change or be left behind to wonder what occurred. Educational leaders have the power to address issues of race, ethnicity, class, and culture but must develop what Michael Fullan labels, the “moral purpose” to do so. Moving to eliminate the “acknowledgement gap” by improving their own cultural competency and then others around them will, in turn, raise the academic achievement level of all students and serve to close the racial achievement gap.

Perhaps author Patricia Carini, Director of the non-profit Prospect Center, summed it up best when she wrote in 2001 of the “valuing of humanness as the starting point for education” (p.1) and resisting “the over-systematization and depersonalization of school.” This starting point recognizes and affirms the value and the capacity of each individual to learn and become a full and active participant in society.


Carini, P.F. (2001). Starting strong: A different look at children, schools, and standards. New York: Teachers College Press.

Freire, P. (1994). Pedagogy of the oppressed (Rev. ed.). New York: Continuum. (Original work published 1970)

Fullan, M., (2003). The moral imperative of school leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York, N.Y: Teachers College Press.

Grant, C.A., & Sleeter, C.E. (2007). Doing multicultural education for achievement and equity. New York: Routledge

Delpit, L. (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York, N.Y: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Guerra, P., & Nelson, S., (2010). Use a systematic approach for deconstructing and reframing deficit thinking. Learning Forward, JSD, 31(2), 55-56

Sarason, S. (1990). The predictable failure of educational reform. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Spring, J. (2007). Deculturalization and the struggle for equality. New York, N.Y: McGraw-Hill.

Weisglass, J., (2001) Infusing equity into reform. Leadership. 30(4), 34 – 37, Mar-Apr 2001

Yosso, T. J., (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 8(1), 69-91

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