Wouldn’t it be great if every child could have equal access to a high-quality education? What if every child could receive what they need to reach their full academic, professional and personal potential? The simple reality is that the quality of a child’s education correlates directly to his or her future quality of life.
At the heart of this is the idea of educational equity — a concept that has been receiving heightened scrutiny of late thanks in part to disruptions caused by COVID-19 and by long standing racial tensions now at the forefront of national discourse.
What is Equity in Education?
In education, as in society at large, one key definition of “equity” is “fairness.” In school, we are taught to think of America as a land of opportunity “where all who are willing to work hard can get ahead, join a thriving middle class and lead fulfilling lives.”
However, according to the U.S. Department of Education, “far too many students, especially in underserved groups and communities, lack robust access to the core elements of a quality education. That includes free, quality preschool; high, challenging standards and engaging teaching and leadership in a safe, supportive, and well-resourced school; and an affordable, high-quality college degree.”
So what is equity in education?
According to the National Equity Project: “Educational equity means that each child receives what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential.”
Education consultant Dr. Karen Baptiste, writing for Thinking Maps, says: “My definition of equity is creating a space where all children have their perspectives seen and honored and have equal access to opportunities.”
She goes on to say that achieving equity in education “requires special care and focus on children from traditionally underrepresented or marginalized groups to ensure that they have equal access to educational resources and opportunities enjoyed and expected by children from dominant groups.”
Inequity in our educational systems can take many forms, and it can affect different students in a variety of ways.
The Glossary of Education Reform asserts that: “Inequities occur when biased or unfair policies, programs, practices, or situations contribute to a lack of equality in educational performance, results, and outcomes. For example, certain students or groups of students may attend school, graduate, or enroll in postsecondary education at lower rates, or they may perform comparatively poorly on standardized tests due to a wide variety of factors, including inherent biases or flaws in test designs.”
Check the overview provided by EdGlossary to learn more about some of the different types of educational inequity, including:
- Societal inequity
- Socioeconomic inequity
- Cultural inequity
- Familial inequity
- Programmatic inequity
- Staffing inequity
- Instructional inequity
- Assessment inequity
- Linguistic inequity
Equity vs. Equality in the Classroom
As applied to education, the terms “equity” and “equality” are sometimes used interchangeably. Here’s how EdGlossary defines the difference: “It is has been said that ‘equity is the process; equality is the outcome,’ given that equity — what is fair and just — may not, in the process of educating students, reflect strict equality — what is applied, allocated, or distributed equally.”
The math education company Prodigy gives this example of how an educational scenario can be equal but not equitable: “Imagine handing out a math assignment to students. Every student has their assignment, plus a calculator, pencil and paper. Equal, right? But it’s not equitable. To make the assignment equitable, teachers have to understand their students and provide targeted support. This could include helping ESL students understand instructions in an unfamiliar language, providing text-to-speech technology for visually impaired students or giving students with ADHD a quiet space to complete the assignment.”
The article quotes third-grade teacher Clayton Carr on how he talks about equality vs. equity with his students: “Equality is everyone being treated the same, whereas equity is everyone getting what they need to succeed. After addressing that with my students and reinforcing it, I’m able to meet my students’ needs for isolated seating, fidget cubes for stress, or standing during testing, intervention and small groups in Zoom.”
Why Equity in Education Is So Important
Big picture: According to the U.S. Department of Education, access to an equitable, high-quality education “can help to ensure that all children in this country with dreams and determination can reach their potential and succeed.” Conversely, the fact that the nation does not currently live up to this ideal not only harms individual students but also our nation’s ability to compete in the global economy.
In "What Is Educational Equity and Why Does It Matter?" The Balance writes: “Inequity in education slows economic growth as much as recessions. Students that don't receive the educational resources they need can't perform at their optimal level. They don't earn as much, can't build wealth, and therefore can't afford to send their children to good schools. This continues a cycle of structural inequality that hurts society as a whole.”
At the classroom level, says Prodigy, “Actively promoting equity in the classroom helps remove barriers so all of your students can succeed. And when every student has the resources they need, the entire classroom thrives!”
The Challenges Schools Face Involving Equity in Education
“The challenge of ensuring educational equity is formidable,” according to the Department of Education. “Structural barriers, including inequitable funding systems, impede our progress. While one might expect schools in low-income communities to receive extra resources, the reverse is often true; a Department of Education study found that 45 percent of high-poverty schools received less state and local funding than was typical for other schools in their district.”
According to an article by education advocate Waterford.org, several additional examples of common barriers to equity in U.S. schools include:
- Family crises
- Mental health issues
- Lack of health care
- Coming to school hungry
- Homelessness or living in a temporary shelter
- Still learning the English language
Though the impacts of educational inequity conundrum are widely studied, overcoming the obstacles that stand in the way of equity in education is extremely challenging. The issue is an important one for the Intercultural Development Research Association, which has identified the following obstacles:
- Lack of appropriate law or policy to ground more equitable treatment
- Closed or sometimes hostile political climate that exists in some communities and schools
- Lack of appropriate funding to provide an equitable opportunity to learn
- Failure to distribute learning resources to all students in a fair and equitable manner
- Unwillingness on the part of those in control to include all key stakeholders in decision making and problem solving
- A deficiency in the notion of “valuing” leading to biased views of who deserves and does not deserve excellent education
- Continued blaming of the “victims” of inequity and discrimination for the outcomes of inequity and discrimination
- Inability of some educators to respond appropriately to the diversity of their students in terms of curriculum, schools, classrooms and instructional methods and practices
11 Ways to Promote Equity in the Classroom
Here are some of the top strategies for promoting equity in the classroom compiled from multiple sources including Prodigy, Waterford and others:
- ??Reflect on and challenge your own beliefs
- Review your teaching materials with an eye toward diversity of voices
- Model equity for your students
- Remember that every child is different and has unique needs
- Accommodate different learning styles and disabilities
- Evaluate challenges that students face and offer support or resources if needed
- Cultivate a classroom environment where every student feels heard
- Prioritize parent communication and engagement
- Add lessons on diversity, inclusion and bias so each student feels that they belong
- Be mindful of equity in how you use technology
- Give students a voice
Resources for Equity in Education
For those interested in learning more about equity in education, here is some additional research and reading material.
Professional Development for Equity in the Classroom
One of the best ways to work toward the ideals of educational equity in your classroom is by taking a professional development course or courses to gain a comprehensive understanding of the educational equity landscape and actionable strategies for making a difference.
One such program — ideal for busy teachers and passionate lifelong learners — is offered 100% online by the University of San Diego.
“Teaching for Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity in the Classroom” is a series of online courses that can be taken individually, or together as a series to develop in-depth understanding of the issues and how to facilitate positive change.
These courses provide educators with skills and strategies for creating a culturally inclusive classroom, while teaching students to value inclusion, celebrate diversity and promote cultural respect and tolerance within their daily lives. Among the course titles included in this series:
FAQs About Equity in Education
Q: What is equity in education?
A: According to the National Equity Project: “Educational equity means that each child receives what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential.”
Q: What is the difference between equity and equality?
A: In education, the terms equity and equality are often used interchangeably. One way to look at the difference is offered by third-grade teacher Clayton Carr. “Equality is everyone being treated the same, whereas equity is everyone getting what they need to succeed.”
Q: Why is equity in education so important?
A: Research shows that educational inequity is costly — not only harming individual students but also our nation’s ability to compete in the global economy because some students graduate, or in some cases fail to, lacking important life skills that enable them to contribute to the economy.
Q: What are some professional development opportunities I can pursue around equity in education?
The University of San Diego, a strong advocate for the ideals of inclusion, diversity and equity in education, offers a series of courses under the heading “Teaching for Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity in the Classroom.”
Ideal for busy teachers, these courses are offered 100% online.