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Closing Achievement Gaps as an Accountable Leader: The Acknowledgment Gap

I am an educator with over 17 years experience in the public school sector.

This article will take a look at the achievement gaps within many schools across the country, what causes them, and how they can be properly addressed—and hopefully closed.

This article will take a look at the achievement gaps within many schools across the country, what causes them, and how they can be properly addressed—and hopefully closed.

There are achievement gaps in all levels of an educational organization. In order to be effective in improving performance, closing achievement gaps, and meeting accountability standards in diverse settings, educational organizations must effectively analyze social, political, and economic dynamics. There are many things that must be considered in order to do this.

The Acknowledgment Gap

First and foremost, focusing on the achievement gap without first recognizing the need for analysis of accountability gaps in our educational systems is, as an assistant superintendent of a Central Valley school district so eloquently states, like “planting seeds on concrete” (cited in Tollefson & Magealeno, 2016). The first step is to look within the educational systems to see how the systems themselves have contributed to and perpetuated the achievement gaps, especially for children of color from low-income environments. According to Tollefson & Magealeno, (2016) this is called the acknowledgment gap. The acknowledgment gap is defined as the:

“disparity between some educational leaders and the communities they serve in understanding the roles of historical context and cultural, social, and economic capital in facilitating students' academic success . . . the acknowledgment gap is a necessary precondition for an accountability system that requires standardized outcomes in profoundly nonstandardized conditions for teaching and learning, and guarantee that the American promise of equal opportunity for every child is undermined through our nation's schools, particularly for students of color from high- poverty backgrounds” (Tollefson & Magealeno, 2016, p.229).

There are four examples of the acknowledgment gap that Tollefson and Magealeno describe as predominant ideologies in the educational system today that must be addressed prior to focusing on the achievement gap. The four examples are:

  1. Ideology of Achievement in the Absence of Equity: Educational leaders neglect to recognize the effects of poverty on children's ability to learn, especially when having the same expectations for children living in such environments coupled with inequitable resource allocation.
  2. Ideology of Amoral Familism: This is a kind of school culture that achievement-based accountability systems such as high-stakes testing has promoted in which students are taught their success is not about learning and growing, but about competing with other students and other schools. Once again, students in poverty-stricken areas are at a distinct disadvantage.
  3. Ideology of Dominant Culture Privilege: This is when there is a lack of representation or omission of particular groups of people (e.g. race, sex, sexual orientation) within the curriculum.
  4. Deficit Ideology: Simply put, this equates to blaming the victim. It is when educational leaders are unable to see the diversity of students (race, culture, language, sexual orientation) as strengths to build off, but see them as weakness to overcome (Tollefson & Magealeno, 2016).

Addressing the acknowledgment gap prior to the achievement gap is essential so that the conditions of the soil are correct for growth to be attainable. Therefore, first, accountable leaders must not only challenge staff to examine their own ideas, biases, and actions that lead to inequity and the perpetuation of the achievement gap, but they must also analyze their own.

This can be done by explaining the examples of the acknowledgment gap to school staff and then identifying how the district/school may be perpetuating these biases. The school culture can be studied to eliminate factors that may alienate certain groups from learning and/or feeling accepted.

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Other Strategies for Closing the Achievement Gap and the Acknowledgment Gap

Another strategy for working toward closing the achievement gap relates to how schools engage and relate to parents. This is important for both the acknowledgment gap and the achievement gap.

“Research provides more than 40 years of steadily accumulating evidence that family engagement is one of the strongest predictors of children's school success” (McREL International, 2015, p.2). It is important to build a cultural bridge between families and schools. According to Tollefson & Magealeno, (2016) “many parents, particularly Latina/o, African American and Native American parents, commonly say they walk away from interactions with educators feeling misunderstood, unwelcome, alienated, inferior, and/or embarrassed” (p.241). This needs to change. Accountable leaders need to tap into the strengths of each family and affirm the differing identities and cultural talents of a diverse, multicultural school environment.

This can be done through sharing personal stories of identity, diversity, and culture (Naqvi, Carey, Cummins, & Altidor-Brooks, 2015). It is important for educators to find ways to connect with parents. How often have educators asked parents how they would like to be involved and when they are able to do so? This will have dramatic effects first on the acknowledgment gap and ultimately on student achievement.


Reorganizing Resources With Equity and Need in Mind

Lastly, the reorganization of resources must be considered. Allocation of resources must be distributed equitably and by need. If a specific level of proficiency is to be used as a standard for all students to achieve, then not all schools are created equal to begin with. A “distributionally equitable education system” based on “equality of outcomes” will need more resources allocated to higher-needs students in order to bridge the gap between the higher-achieving schools and lower-achieving schools in order to “achieve similar educational outcomes” for all students (Halverson & Plecki, 2015, p.45).

This allows resources to be used in a more flexible and purposeful way so the resources can be aligned with learning improvement and targeting the achievement gaps. However, realizing the need for equity-focused differential resource allocation takes an acknowledgment that this gap even exists.


National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Achievement Gaps


  • Halverson, T. J., & Plecki, M. L. (2015). Exploring the Politics of Differential Resource Allocation: Implications for Policy Design and Leadership Practice. Leadership And Policy In Schools, 14(1), 42-66.
  • Naqvi, R., Carey, J., Cummins, J., & Altidor-Brooks, A. (2015). The Role of Identity Narratives in Overcoming Barriers to Parental Engagement. TESOL In Context, 25(1), 16-33.
  • Regional Educational Laboratory Pacific, (ED), & McREL, I. (2015). Toolkit of Resources for Engaging Parents and Community as Partners in Education. Part 2: Building a Cultural Bridge. Regional Educational Laboratory Pacific.Retrieved from
  • TOLLEFSON, K. k., & MAGDALENO, K. R. (2016). Educational Leaders and the Acknowledgment Gap.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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