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Equity in Education: What it Is and Why it Matters

MARCH 12, 2018

Equity in education is a goal everyone in education can get behind. What educator doesn’t want to see all students have an equal opportunity for success? But it’s not always easy to define precisely what we mean when we talk about equity. Is it about outcomes? Resources? Funding? Academic support? Achieving true equity will require looking at all of these aspects and more, from both a larger systems perspective and an individual student perspective. Let’s take a closer look at what we mean by educational equity and what school leaders and teachers can do to improve equity at the school and classroom level. What Do We Mean By Equity, Anyway? There are many different ways that we can define equity. The dictionary definition of equity is “justice according to natural law or right; freedom from bias or favoritism.” When we talk about equity in education, we usually mean something similar to “fairness.” But what does this look like in practice at the national, district, school, classroom, or individual student level? Much has been made of the difference between equity and equality. While equality means treating every student the same, equity means making sure every student has the support they need to be successful. Equity in education requires putting systems in place to ensure that every child has an equal chance for success. That requires understanding the unique challenges and barriers faced by individual students or by populations of students and providing additional supports to help them overcome those barriers. While this in itself may not ensure equal outcomes, we all should strive to ensure that every child has equal opportunity for success. Aspects of Educational Equity The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) defines two dimensions of equity in education:

  • Fairness, which means ensuring that personal and social circumstances do not prevent students from achieving their academic potential.
  • Inclusion, which means setting a basic minimum standard for education that is shared by all students regardless of background, personal characteristics, or location.

Achieving these standards requires looking at equity from several different aspects.

  • Monetary resources: Is school funding equitable? Do schools serving populations with greater needs have access to the resources they need to effectively serve these students?
  • Academic standards: Are all students held to high performance standards? How are standards modified to accommodate students with special needs?
  • Academic content and support: Do all students have access to high-quality content that fits their educational needs? What supports are provided for students who need extra help to achieve academic goals? Do all students have highly qualified teachers who are well prepared to meet their needs?

OECD has outlined ten critical steps to equity in education that encompass educational design, practices, and resourcing.

Promoting Equity at the School and Classroom Level While some aspects of equity in education must be addressed on a broader systemic scale, there are many things that can be done at the individual school and classroom level to create a more equitable environment for students. Achieving equity is closely tied to personalized learning: it requires understanding each student’s individual needs and designing educational experiences that will help all students achieve success. In an equitable—as opposed to merely equal—classroom, each student is given the support and scaffolding they need to optimize their educational progress. The goal is for all students to work in their Zone of Proximal Development, which is defined as “the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help.” That may mean that:

  • Some students will have different expectations on an assignment, such as only writing three paragraphs instead of five.
  • Some students will have extra time to complete an assignment or other accommodations designed to meet their educational needs.
  • Some students will have resource teachers or aides that provide additional support in the classroom or in a pullout environment.
  • Some students will have resources provided at a different reading level or in a different language.

These extra resources and accommodations do not make the classroom more “equal”—some students are getting more support, time, and attention than others. But they do make it much more equitable: additional resources are going to students with greater needs. At the school and district level, educational leaders have a responsibility to:

  • Ensure that teachers have the materials, resources, and training they need to design an equitable classroom.
  • Provide access to programs and strategies that support the goal of equity and enable all students to succeed.
  • Support teachers when addressing parent concerns—for example, when explaining why some students were given more time on an assignment than others.
  • Ensure that there is a fair and objective way to determine student academic needs, monitor academic progress, and implement support systems that serve all students.

Empowering All Students to Succeed Ultimately, building a more equitable educational environment is about student empowerment: making sure all students have what they need to succeed in the classroom and beyond. This includes students in Special Education, English Language Learners (ELLs), Gifted and Talented, and other students with diverse educational needs. Cherry Creek School District in Colorado used Thinking Maps and Path to Proficiency to help them increase educational equity for their growing ELL population. Using Maps to make thinking visible helped ELLs accelerate language acquisition, access grade level content while still learning English, and connect with their English-speaking peers. ELL Program Coordinator Meg Lucerno says, “Creating the Maps is something that all students can be successful with, regardless of their language skills. They can use pictures, individual words, or short phrases. The Maps let them show what they can do an engage in meaningful classroom interactions with their peers.” Read the full story here. How does your school ensure equity for individual students and populations of students? What additional supports would be needed to make education more equitable in your school? Let us know what equity means to you!

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