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Chapter 3

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Chapter Excerpts

We know that students from families who have the ability to travel, provide private music lessons, attend cultural performances, and have the luxury of time to talk about what is happening at school, in their community, or in the world do better in school than children from families without these opportunities. Yet, too often we fail to understand that even though these are family activities valued by schools, all children come to school with a wealth of cultural capital. Other children, who may come from families struggling with poverty, disease, homelessness, for example, may have learned to cook meals, clean the house, negotiate the local bus system, care for younger siblings, and so forth—all skills that have enabled them to survive, but not necessarily those that help them interpret and makes sense of the typical “middle-class” school curriculum. This means that, as educators, we must learn to value and make connections to, a wide range of experiences and cultural capital. It is not sufficient to focus on what students do not know; instead, it is critical to emphasize and build on what it is that they do know and can do. (p. 32)

There is no excuse in a “democratic” nation in which education is supposed to be “free and universal” for marginalizing students based on the economic status of their parents. Especially in the VUCA social milieu of the 21st century, with record gas prices, constantly rising commodities costs, housing foreclosures, homelessness, high unemployment rates, and so forth, countless families are struggling to survive. Educators must be particularly careful not to exacerbate the educational challenges children face when their parents are struggling financially. (p. 34)

Sometimes one hears educators ask about the norms of local control, raising the following question: if the community is against homosexuality, perhaps for religious reasons, is it ethical, permissible, or desirable for the school to address the issue, in essence, going against the will of the community? My argument is that it is the only moral and ethical way to proceed, given that there are children within the school who are either gay or questioning or whose parents may be in a homosexual relation. Beliefs that exclude or marginalize others cannot be acted upon in a public forum, no matter how strongly they may be held. (p. 35)

Being sensitive and age-appropriate are sometimes used as codes for skirting the central issue. I recently asked a group of teachers how they would handle it if, after asking a group of kindergarten children to draw a picture of their families, one child showed himself or herself with two mommies or two daddies. A teacher quickly responded, “I would talk about how there are different families; some children live with grandparents, some with aunts and uncles, etc.” This is an excellent starting point, but in order for the discussion to address the central issue, it is also important to include in the conversation that some children have two mommies or two daddies … A transformative leader will warrant that the topic be addressed, in a non-judgmental and matter-of-fact way, to ensure the respectful inclusion of all children in the learning environment. (pp. 34–35)

The starting point for holding all students to the same high standards is the deconstruction and rejection of what is known as deficit thinking and the reconstruction of positive images of able and engaged students. Deficit thinking is another way of saying that we blame the students or their families for their lack of school success because we see them as being in some way deficient. In other words, we equate difference with deficiency and place the onus on them to change. Although they might not use this transformative leadership language of deconstructing and reconstructing knowledge frameworks, many scholars argue for the necessity of rejecting deficit thinking and holding high expectations for all students. Almost 20 years ago, Wagstaff and Fusarelli (1995) conducted a study in which they found that the single most important factor in the academic achievement of minoritized students is the principal’s explicit rejection of deficit thinking. (p. 38)

Supplemental Chapter Resources

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples

The history of aboriginal peoples in Canada (including those sometimes referred to as Eskimo, Indian, First Nation, Métis, etc.) is one of failed agreements, misunderstandings, and sordid attempts to assimilate, eliminate, and marginalize their historical realities, rights, and cultures. As in the United States and many other countries throughout the world, aboriginal peoples have been subjected to mistreatment in residential schools, to legislation intended to destroy their language and culture, and to assimilate them into what has traditionally been perceived as a more mainstream and “superior” culture.

In Canada, this has led to the production of numerous Royal Commission reports, the latest being a five-volume report in 1996, intended to rectify the ongoing marginalization and inequities in Canadian society. The complete report is available at http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/webarchives/20071115053257/http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/ch/rcap/sg/sgmm_e.html.

In its conclusion, we find a section subtitled: “Foundations of a New Relationship” in which we read:

The starting point is recognition that Aboriginal people are not, as some Canadians seem to think, an inconsequential minority group with problems that need fixing and outmoded attitudes that need modernizing. They are unique political entities, whose place in Canada is unlike that of any other people.

The message is clear and strong: remaining passive and silent is not an acceptable option for those who care about equity and social justice in our society—whether Canada, the United States, or elsewhere. And yet, as of January 2012 (16 years into the 20-year commitment outlined in the report), the news is filled with stories of the plight of the Cree community of Attawapiskat First Nation on the shores of James Bay.

In December 2011, after the community declared an emergency situation, to the shame and dismay of the Canadian government and all Canadians, a cargo plane with a shipment of aid from the Canadian Red Cross delivered food, heavy winter sleeping bags, and heaters to be distributed to community residents. The community’s housing crisis, in which many families were found to be living in uninsulated shacks and tents or abandoned construction trailers, has been widely reported and condemned (for more information, see http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2011/11/29/attawapiskat-tuesday.html).

The point is that even in countries well-known for their focus on civil rights, equity, and compassion, unless all citizens pay careful attention to those who have been traditionally marginalized, disadvantaged, and oppressed, inequity and injustice continues.

In the United States, with the gap between rich and poor at an all-time high, and when (in 2012), the National Poverty Center reports a 21.6% rate of child poverty, affecting over 15 million American children, one cannot afford to be complacent. This is particularly true when we know that the poverty rate is considerably higher for children from African American, Hispanic, or multi-racial families than it is for White or Asian children (see http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/acsbr10-05.pdf).

Remaining passive and silent is not neutrality—it is support for the status quo.

Color-Blind Racism

There is a general perception in the mainstream United States, especially after the 2008 election of President Obama, that racism and racial discrimination have been largely eliminated. Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that visible minorities in the United States continue to be disadvantaged by almost any measure one selects—school and university graduation rates, unemployment, incarceration, poverty, literacy, and so forth.

To suggest that this is a normal state of affairs or to imply that segments of the population are simply lazy, less motivated, or even less intelligent than others is to ignore the long history of marginalization and discrimination in this country. Yet, it is common to hear people make statements such as:

I don’t see color.
I treat everyone alike—as members of the human race.
In this country, everyone has the same rights and responsibilities.

Yet, when we make these and similar statements, we are perpetuating a kind of hegemonic approach to society that reinforces the privilege of the majority. Would an African American student be likely to say, “I don’t see color?” Would an Hispanic adult seeking employment likely say in every community in the United States that he or she was treated exactly as a White peer? The notion that White “is a color too” although not technically correct, is helpful in thinking about culture and historic privilege. When asked about what aspects of their culture are typically emphasized in their family, most White people are perplexed, having never thought of themselves as having “culture” in the same way that other ethnic groups have—unless they have maintained proud immigrant traditions from their European ancestors.

What people fail to understand is that the ongoing daily reality of members of visible minority groups is different from the reality of people who look and sound like I do (White, middle-class Americans). My reality is one of privilege. I have never had to wonder where I can find a restaurant that serves me, a landlord who will rent to me, or a washroom I can use. And, although in the United States, legislation has outlawed such barriers for decades, we are fooling ourselves if we believe they do not still exist.

For a dramatic representation of housing discrimination see the YouTube video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_3mSW8XUZI (and others) in which a caller used many different voices and accents to inquire about the availability of a particular apartment.


Homelessness has been previously discussed. Here, however, I offer a picture, a video-taped account, and additional comments from one young boy we’ll call David.
“Hi. My name is David. When I was pretty little, we lived in a house. For the last three years, my whole family—my older brother who is 19, my two sisters, my little brother, and my parents—have been living in a hotel room. My sister would kill me if she knew I told you that. She always says we live in an apartment. We would all like to have our own rooms though and not have to share a bed, but maybe because we live in such a small space that we don’t have any choice, we are more unified—we do things like watching TV together.

The principal of my old school reported my parents because he thought we were being abused. But really, my brother had a birthmark on his back but they said it was a burn and my sister had a small cut on her head from her hair pins that got infected. They wouldn’t listen to us though. And we just didn’t want to go to school any more.
Now we go to a school where we ‘feel normal.’ My Mom always says that ‘when we feel a part of the school, whether it’s being homeless or because we’re African American or whatever the case may be, it makes us learn better.’”

See also the following pictures of families whom I interviewed who were homeless. The pictures are used with permission, because they want to help eliminate the negative stereotypes related to homelessness. As David said, they look, and want to be considered, “normal.”

Figure 3.1 Figure 3.2


In addition to the discussion of Sophie in the book, I offer here a short, composite video of her story.

Sayani Dissertation

From: Sayani, Anish (2010). The impact of schooling experiences on the identity of disaffected South Asian male high school students. Unpublished dissertation, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

This dissertation combined elements of narrative and ethnographic inquiry in order to tell the story of the disaffection of a group of students known locally as “the Brown boys” in a local high school. It won two awards, namely the Division A AERA doctoral thesis award and the thesis award for the Leadership for Social Justice SIG of AERA. In their acknowledgment of these awards, the adjudicators in both cases talked about their fears (and dismay) when being given a dissertation of slightly over 400 pages. And in every case, readers talked about how they could not stop reading—a rare compliment for a doctoral dissertation.

The dissertation is available at https://circle.ubc.ca/search or https://circle.ubc.ca/search.

Te Kotahitanga

This New Zealand program has now been running for over a decade (see http://tekotahitanga.tki.org.nz ). In 2001, Dr. Russell Bishop interviewed a group of Maori students as well as their principals and teachers. As he asked why Maori students, whom he knew to be bright, and to have supportive families, were not succeeding as well as their White (pakeja) counterparts. What he found supports the discussions in this text and elsewhere about:

  1. the need to reject deficit thinking and for educators to take responsibility for teaching all children;
  2. the need to empower students and build their capacity to take charge of their own learning;
  3. the need for pedagogy to take into account, and to build on, the daily, cultural, and lived experiences of the students themselves.

This was the origin of the long-standing program, now supported by the New Zealand government and the New Zealand Ministry of Education.