by Andi Summers
What does it mean to say that schools in the U.S. are inequitable? What it means is this: Students in the U.S. have wildly different experiences in our nation’s public schools; these wildly different experiences lead to wildly different outcomes. It will not surprise most readers to learn that many of the lowest performing schools serve students who are low income and/or students of color. While a variety of outcomes is to be expected, it is unacceptable that some students have access to what is considered to be a high quality education while others don’t.
Equity isn’t just a problem between schools; it can also be a problem within a single school, where students have unequal access to things like:
Rigorous, engaging curriculum: Higher-order thinking, inquiry, and projects that have an impact on the world outside of school are often the difference between honors-level courses and foundational or non-college preparatory courses. Students of all ability levels and backgrounds, including students who are learning English or have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), need access to rigorous, age-appropriate, and engaging curriculum.
Technology: Some schools provide laptops or tablets to all students, while others don’t. When such technology is not provided, or when students don’t have internet access at home, it can have a large impact on homework quality, long-term projects, etc.
Extracurricular activities: Participation in sports, clubs, and activities is not just a perk; it is widely considered to be a critical piece of a college application as well as important practice of life skills such as collaboration, perseverance, and teamwork. Lack of access to these activities can interfere with a student’s pursuit of higher education.
Inequities extend far and wide in our system of education. There is unequal access to modern textbooks, classroom supplies, guidance counselors, social workers, tutoring, small class sizes, prepared teachers who are experts in both their content area and in instructional practice, and even more basic things such as respect.
The good news is this: There are many individuals, schools, politicians, activists, and school reform groups working hard to bridge the opportunity and achievement gaps that exist. The broader world of education is increasingly focused on equity. Almost no one would publicly oppose the idea of educational equity. But despite this, many teachers, students, and parents oppose the changes necessary to redress the inequities in our education system. Perhaps because redressing equity can feel, especially to those in an established position of power or privilege, unfair or unequal. Why is this?
Equality vs. Equity: What Is the Difference?
Artwork by Angus Maguire: http://beclouded.net/
It’s easy to see why the illustrated child in the purple shirt is better off in the right frame of the above image. When resources are reallocated more equitably, this child can now see the game. Indeed, all the children can. This concept is easy to support. At least, in theory. Yet when schools make these types of adjustments to increase resources or opportunities for students who need more, there is often pushback from the students and parents represented by the illustrated children in the blue and/or red shirts. No, they don’t need a box to see. Or as many boxes. But it feels unequal that one student should receive more assistance (time, tutoring, financial support, access to AP classes) than another. To the people in positions of power or privilege, it can feel personal; it can feel unfair.
But the truth is, equality doesn’t address need; only equity does that. More important still, equity is good for all students, not just the one in the purple shirt.
The Case for Equity
Beyond the idea that equity is morally right, the research and data suggests striving toward educational equity is a winning strategy for all students. Why? Because it:
Improves our communities. Public schools in the U.S. are intended not only to prepare students for college and careers, but for citizenship or participation in civic life. Not only do schools teach civics and democracy, but they embody it. In addition, students who attend economically and racially diverse schools—a key component of educational equity is this kind of integration—express fewer discriminatory attitudes and prejudices.
Challenges the imbalance of power and privilege. The U.S. has a long and tired history of maintaining the power and privilege of the select few—usually white, male, upper-class citizens—by limiting access to education. Slaves were forbidden to attend school or learn to read and write. Why? Because knowledge is power. The systemic racism that is embedded in U.S. schools is the modern equivalent of maintaining that status quo. Advocating for educational equity challenges this imbalance; implementing it can actually help redress the injustice.
Strengthens the economy. There is a direct link between high-quality education and a healthy economy. Education has the power to improve individual lives and uplift entire communities by strengthening the overall economy. Since the whole notion of educational equity is to provide a high-quality education to all students, it has the potential to reduce poverty nationwide.
It is not just blind faith, but reason and evidence that tells us educational equity will produce better social, economic, and civic outcomes for both individuals and entire communities. If you are inspired to start or continue this work, there are several tools available to help schools, districts, and/or community groups identify inequities and develop action plans to work toward improvement.