Equity in education is absolutely critical for students to achieve their potential--but what does the term really mean?

Equity and equality are not equal

Equity in education is absolutely critical for students to achieve their potential--but what does the term really mean?

A rising tide raises all boats. However, it is hard to guarantee equal outcomes in education when students are not starting from the same place, nor are they exposed to the same quality of instruction. People throw around the term “equity in education” so frequently that it has lost significance. Inclusion and respect for diversity is a virtuous and necessary goal for public education, but what exactly is equity?

Writer Robert Longley explained how equity and equality have been misconstrued over the years. Longley states: “Equality refers to scenarios in which all segments of society have the same levels of opportunity and support. Equity extends the concept of equality to include providing varying levels of support based on individual need or ability.”

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Writer Ellen Gutoskey added, “Equality has to do with giving everyone the exact same resources, whereas equity involves distributing resources based on the needs of the recipients.” Gutoskey points out, “equality is about dividing resources into matching amounts, and equity focuses more on dividing resources proportionally to achieve a fair outcome for those involved.” Gutoskey and Longley both put forth excellent analysis. However, the communist slogan is similar, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was put forth by Karl Marx in Critique of the Gotha Program.

Confusing? You bet it is. But the better question is: who determines equity in education? How will we measure that success? How long will it take? As Historian Amity Shlaes pointed out, for all our efforts thus far, we have not achieved our goals of eradicating poverty, sheltering the homeless, and helping all citizens participate more fully in the American Dream. In education, bureaucrats, not educators have the most control over the content taught, textbooks used, or resources provided by the state, district, or school. If we want more opportunities for students, we have to surrender more control to educators on these factors. More importantly, we have to quit blaming educators for every failure in education policies in which they have very little control. We are stuck in a moment here, and the pattern continues. It is time to break that cycle.

Longley asserts that in education, “Equality means providing every student with the same experience. Equity, however, means overcoming discrimination against specific groups of people, especially defined by race and gender.” Again, a worthy goal, but not as clear in the application.

For example, children who are furthest behind academically may require additional resources to be successful. Those children are often low-socioeconomic, do not have the same academic support as their peers, and are often unprepared when they start school. Many of these students have other needs besides poverty, such as hunger, parent education, home resources, English-language proficiency, and other factors. Longley contends that achieving equality requires the application of policies ensuring equity.

We must improve the inclusion of our communities and families into our schools if we are to understand the issues facing the students we serve. This increases the input of citizens into their government. Many of these challenges may be better addressed at the community level and better provide a mechanism for incorporating new policies and programs. Just as problems facing communities differ, solutions are going to be different. Differing resources may be needed, which may expand inequities.

Every student should have the resources necessary for high-quality education. Some students may need more resources. Nevertheless, opportunity does not equate to the outcome, and in our society, we are not locked into the circumstances of our birth. In that regard, education is a great equalizer.

The problems facing low socio-economic families and students are diverse and complex. They certainly transcend the American classroom. Rather than focus on specific issues, such as poverty, crime, healthcare, single-parent homes, and limited English proficiency, perhaps it is easier to assess family behavior, structural services, and cultural values. Working to find more attainable solutions, we should work to maximize community input, and collaboration between community organizations, including faith-based organizations and government agencies to help strengthen individuals and families.

The irony of the equity debate is that some people believe we must treat some students unequally to compel equality of outcome. In striving for equality of outcome it could leave many people without equality and opportunity. So perhaps instead of leveling the playing field, we should recognize that this isn’t a game. These are real people’s lives. Herbert Hoover pointed out that words without actions are the assassins of idealism. I would suggest those good intentions found within those who advocate for equity are unrealistic, until they better define their intent, and then set measurable objectives. More importantly, we have to address the larger challenges within society, the role of the individual, and the appropriate function of government, a recurring theme in American history.

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