Fall 2016

Equity in Education: When Equal is Not Enough

An Equitable Education Matters Significantly

An Equitable Education Matters Significantly

In education, the term equity refers to the principle of fairness. While it is often used interchangeably with the related principle of equality, equity encompasses a wide variety of educational models, programs, and strategies that may be considered fair, but not necessarily equal. 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.
 
 

Equal — the same in number, amount, degree, rank or quality. Not changing, the same for every person.

Equality — the state of being equal in political, economy and social rights.

Equity — fairness or justice in the way people are treated. (Merriam-Webster)

I watched with great interest the summer Olympic Games in Rio de Jeneiro, Brazil. I noticed how different the starting line positions were for the various track and field races. With the exception of the shorter sprints where runners started at the same point, in longer races runners had staggered starts. Seeing runners line up staggered—each starting from a different position along the track, yet all striving for the finish line, provided a helpful analogy for how one might depict the quest for equity in education.

For races in which each runner has to stay in [their] lane, the semicircles at the two ends of a 400 meter track normally force outside lane runners to travel further distance. However, with a staggered start every athlete is provided an equal chance to win because no single runner has an advantage. It is believed that those in the inside lanes gain an advantage by seeing the rest of the field ahead of them, but this is balanced out by these runners plotting a tighter curve.

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This visual metaphor illustrates a major difference that exists among sprinters, runners and marathoners that reminds me of the staggered start that students have as they enter into and travel along their educational journey. Like runners assigned various starting positions along a track, students—and those who advocate on their behalf, have to seek equity by making adjustments to their position along the way. Some students show up ready to learn, have more opportunities and support, and we can see how an equitable output does not slow down their race to learn. Rather, they could start at the beginning with other students staggered along the track such that all runners would cross the finish line regardless of how they started the race. The hypothesis of equity is used to celebrate athletes as they receive their medals; crossing the finish line together is impactful for all who participate.

A desire among educators to close achievement gaps and generate uniform student outputs—such as academic performance, standardized test proficiency and improved graduation rates, and post-secondary degree attainment, or even for the less well defined career-readiness—led to an effort to strive to provide equal resources to all students regardless of need. It is the notion that if we pour equal amounts in, then equal outputs will flow out. The flaw in this theory is that it assumes all students come from the same level starting place.

“Unfortunately, methodological difficulties with respect to the use of and inquiry into alternative models of education and change have contributed to overconfidence in an over commitment to the input-response-output model, and it has moved into realms where it simply is overextended or quite inappropriate” (Goodlad, p. 211).

We must be very careful not to conflate the nature and notion of equality with the necessary embrace of equity. Equity in the context of education has developed a conceptual framework that purports to embrace the possibilities of an education for all students regardless of where they begin schooling, what their needs are or how far they are along the performance continuum. The flexible format that is necessary to get equitable outcomes for all students requires adjustment in the vision, time and commitment offered in support of increasingly diverse student populations. This will enable all students to cross the education finish line even when not all students have the same needs or advantageous starting position.

When educators have had the courage, talent, belief and expectation to choose and deliver on equity inputs for learning, they are recognizing charted directions that have led to proven equality outputs. As many educators and parents can attest, we pour all of our hope, our inputs into children, and expect results in better outputs in addition to the best possible outcomes. And, we know that we have limited time to impact these precious lives. As educators, we must do more than hope. We must work toward, advocate for and do more to build equity into our daily practice and reform models. From the perspective of parents who are the champions of their children, a new mindset must emerge. Uneven inputs will be needed so that all children will continue in the education pipeline because they will have been supported throughout their educational journey in ways that maintain the equity that ensures equality and opportunity for every student we are privileged to serve.

Equitable inputs with respect to education throughout the P-16 pipeline for children might be useful for society when equality outputs are produced. However, when the interest, skills, knowledge and learning are compromised, the possibilities for growth, achievement, talent and the high expectations we have for an educated populace are limited.

It may take a deft distinction of subtlety and in-depth discovery to differentiate effectively between equity and equality when bonded by race, gender, and learned behaviors.

I find myself having arrived at our destination in education, yet I am caught in a quagmire that prevents me from often seeing the distinction between equity and equality in educational politics—school districts, administrators leading, teaching, believing and acting on beliefs that are direct and indirect challenges that lie beneath the surface of our profession. We limit ourselves by restricting ourselves, and worse, limit children, by viewing the prescription for ensuring educational equity as a simple solution of equal application of the same interventions, supports or funding for all schools and students regardless of circumstance, challenges, resources or starting advantage. Diversity in thoughts and actions, as well as supports and interventions, represent the potential for supporting equity. Equality, an equal application of the same resource regardless of need and irrespective of mitigating circumstance—is not fair. From the perspective of educators who must champion the beliefs and attitudes of equity of education to fulfill the promise for all the children, educators must be willing to breach the barriers to live up to the current dilemma in our profession. All children and families are entitled to equitable education options that permeate the P-16 pipeline and if we choose this pathway, we will produce equal educational outcomes for the children we are entrusted to serve.

From a historical perspective, state and federal legislation seem to have set aside the critical input necessary for successful local districts and schools in the areas of equity, and the full implementation of civil rights legislation. Frazier (1983, p. 116) concludes that: “It is a time for selflessness and a willingness to forego those elements geared to enhance or protect any one group or governance level. The emphasis must be on improving the quality of the educational network and generating a synergistic pattern that will be repeated and valued by all those committed to maintaining an effective public education system in their country.

Research tells us that a significant expectation for an equitable output would entail supportive instruction and interaction between the educator and the student which must embrace three factors: time, resources and positive experiences. This is the bedrock for a solid learning experience where equity matters significantly. Equity paves the way for excellence.

 

References:

Frazier, Calvin M. (1983). The 1980’s: States Assume Educational Leadership in The Ecology of School Renewal, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.

Guralnik, David. B. (1961). Webster’s Dictionary of the American Language-The Everyday Encyclopedic Edition. Copywrited by the World Publishing Company.

Goodlad, John I. (1975). The Dynamic of Educational Change. McGraw-Hill Book Company: New York.

Johnson, James, Cummings, Jay, et.al (2013). Getting to Excellence. Authorhouse: Bloomington, IN.