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.
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.
The following are a few representative ways in which inequity may enter public education:
- Societal inequity: Minority students may be disadvantaged by preexisting bias and prejudice in American society, with both conscious and unconscious discrimination surfacing in public schools in ways that adversely affect learning acquisition, academic achievement, educational aspirations, and post-graduation opportunities. While not always the case, inequity in education is most commonly associated with groups that have suffered from discrimination related to their race, ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, or disabilities. For a related discussion, see opportunity gap.
- Socioeconomic inequity: Evidence suggests that students from lower-income households, on average, underperform academically in relation to their wealthier peers, and they also tend to have lower educational aspirations and enroll in college at lower rates (in part due to financial considerations). In addition, schools in poorer communities, such as those in rural or disadvantaged urban areas, may have comparatively fewer resources and less funding, which can lead to fewer teachers and educational opportunities—from specialized courses and computers to co-curricular activities and sports teams—as well as outdated or dilapidated school facilities.
- Cultural inequity: Students from diverse cultural backgrounds may be disadvantaged in a variety of ways when pursuing their education. For example, recently arrived immigrant and refugee students and their families may have difficulties navigating the public-education system or making educational choices that are in their best interests. In addition, these students may struggle in school because they are unfamiliar with American customs, social expectations, slang, and cultural references. For a related discussion, see multicultural education.
- Familial inequity: Students may be disadvantaged in their education due to their personal and familial circumstances. For example, some students may live in dysfunctional or abusive households, or they may receive comparatively little educational support or encouragement from their parents (even when the parents want their children to succeed in school). In addition, evidence suggests that students whose parents have not earned a high school or college degree may, on average, underperform academically in relation to their peers, and they may also enroll in and complete postsecondary programs at lower rates. Familial inequities may also intersect with cultural and socioeconomic inequities. For example, poor parents may not be able to invest in supplemental educational resources and learning opportunities—from summer programs to test-preparation services—or they may not be able pay the same amount of attention to their children’s education as more affluent parents—perhaps because they have multiple jobs, for example.
- Programmatic inequity: School programs may be structured in ways that are perceived to be unfair because they contribute to inequitable or unequal educational results for some students. For example, students of color tend, on average, to be disproportionately represented in lower-level classes with lower academic expectations (and possibly lower-quality teaching), which can give rise to achievement gaps or “cycles of low expectation” in which stereotypes about the academic performance of minorities are reinforced and perpetuated because they are held to lower academic standards or taught less than their peers. For related a discussion, see stereotype threat.
- Staffing inequity: Wealthier schools located in more desirable communities may be able to hire more teachers and staff, while also providing better compensation that attracts more experienced and skilled teachers. Students attending these schools will likely receive a better-quality education, on average, while students who attend schools in less-desirable communities, with fewer or less-skilled teachers, will likely be at an educational disadvantage. Staffing situations in schools may also be inequitable in a wide variety of ways. In addition to potential inequities in employment—e.g., minorities being discriminated against during the hiring process, female educators not being promoted to administrative positions at the same rates as their male colleagues—students may be disadvantaged by a lack of diversity among teaching staff. For example, students of color may not have educators of color as role models, students may not be exposed to a greater diversity of cultural perspectives and experiences, or the content taught in a school may be culturally limited or biased—e.g., history being taught from an exclusively Eurocentric point of view that neglects to address the perspectives and suffering of colonized countries or enslaved peoples.
- Instructional inequity: Students may be enrolled in courses taught by less-skilled teachers, who may teach in a comparatively uninteresting or ineffective manner, or in courses in which significantly less content is taught. Students may also be subject to conscious or unconscious favoritism, bias, or prejudice by some teachers, or the way in which instruction is delivered may not work as well for some students as it does for others. For related a discussion, see personalized learning.
- Assessment inequity: Students may be disadvantaged when taking tests or completing other types of assessments due to the design, content, or language choices, or because they have learning disabilities or physical disabilities that may impair their performance. In addition, situational factors may adversely affect test performance. For example, lower-income students who attend schools that do not regularly use computers may be disadvantaged—compared to wealthier students with more access to technology at home or students who use computers regularly in school—when taking tests that are administered on computers and that require basic computer literacy. For more detailed discussions, see test accommodations and test bias.
- Linguistic inequity: Non-English-speaking students, or students who are not yet proficient in English, may be disadvantaged in English-only classrooms or when taking tests and assessments presented in English. In addition, these students may also be disadvantaged if they are enrolled in separate academic programs, held to lower academic expectations, or receive lower-quality instruction as a result of their language abilities. For related discussions, academic language, dual-language education, English-language learner, and long-term English learner.
Generally speaking, reforms focused on improving educational equity seek to identify disparities in educational performance or results, and then introduce modifications intended to address or compensate for those inequities—e.g., by increasing funding levels, redesigning school programs, teaching students in different ways, or providing comparatively more educational services and academic support to students with greater needs. One of the fundamental theories motivating equity-driven educational reforms is that people and groups who suffer from discrimination, prejudice, or unfair treatment may develop emotional responses and behaviors that can perpetuate the consequences of discrimination even when discrimination is not clearly or actively present. In this way, some of the disadvantages stemming from unfair treatment and prejudice may be difficult to discern—a situation that, in education, requires proactive strategies with broad application in schools, rather than reactive strategies that address inequities on a case-by-case basis. For these and other reasons, “equity pedagogy”—i.e., consciously teaching with equity as a primary goal—is sometimes called “teaching for social justice,” since the object of the equity-based strategies both begins with and extends beyond the specific students in a specific class.
Reforms intended to increase educational equity are, quite simply, far too numerous to usefully summarize here. In fact, a significant percentage of the concepts, terms, and strategies discussed in this resource are directly or peripherally related to issues of educational equity. For this reason, we encourage you to explore other entries for more detailed discussions.
Increasing fairness in education has long been—and perhaps always will be—marked by disputes and controversy. While the relevant debates are both numerous and nuanced, many of them center on divergent interpretations of fairness and equality. For example, a school might choose to allocate resources—funding, teachers, staff time, etc.—equally among all students. In this hypothetical case, white, wealthy, and high-performing students would receive the same amount of school resources as minority, low-income, and special-needs students. On the other hand, another school might choose to allocate resources in ways that it deems to be equitable. In this case, minority, low-income, and special-needs students might receive comparatively more resources in an attempt to compensate for and overcome preexisting factors that might place them at an educational disadvantage. For some, equal resource allocation may be seen as equitable (every student receives the same level of resources), while to others equal resource allocation is fundamentally inequitable because it fails to take into account the preexisting inequities in society that may have already placed some students at an educational or aspirational disadvantage, including racial prejudice and income inequality.
Another source of debate stems from the conception of America as a meritocracy in which anyone—if they work hard enough—can succeed and prosper. Public education has long played a prominent role in this conception, and many would consider a good education to be a gateway to the middle-class opportunity, career advancement, and long-term financial security and prosperity. On the other hand, America’s well-documented history of racism, sexism, and classism has prevented certain groups from receiving equal treatment and opportunities—in both education and in the larger society. While countless advancements in civil rights have arguably led to greater equality, many would contend that diminished societal inequity, or a greater understanding or awareness of inequity, does not mean that inequities no longer exist. Those who believe in and prioritize meritocracy may perceive unequal educational allocations, accommodations, or compensations to be unfair (because some students are being given an unfair advantage, which may diminish opportunities for other, and possibly more deserving, students), while others, who don’t perceive America to be a true meritocracy, may argue that the unequal distribution of educational resources is the only fair way to level the playing field and ensure that every student has an equal—or equitable—opportunity to succeed. A well-known example of this debate would be affirmative action in hiring and school admissions.
The following represent a few illustrative examples of debates related to educational equity and equity-driven reforms:
- What is the proper role and purpose of a school and teachers? Do schools exist to maintain society as it’s currently structured or improve it? Should a teacher support the status quo or actively seek to change it? In this case, some may argue that the primary purpose of a school is to prepare students to join the labor force and become contributing members of the existing society, while others would contend that schools should seek to address and redress social problems and assist in finding and promoting solutions.
- How should schools and teachers properly negotiate privilege, including racial, cultural, educational, or socioeconomic privilege? Should schools treat each student equally? Or should schools seek to “level the playing field” for those who are disadvantaged? Some may argue that schools are doing too much for the disadvantaged, and thereby creating new disadvantages for other students. (For example, some believe that undocumented immigrant students and families are taking unfair advantage of the system, and that these students are using resources that would otherwise go to the children of taxpaying citizens). Others argue that schools need to provide extra help to the underprivileged, since the privileged already have advantages—whether fairly of unfairly attained—and the underprivileged will only remain so unless schools and society actively improve their conditions. (In this case, educational resources may be perceived as limited commodities, and therefore the “haves” must give up some of their wealth, influence, and control to the “have-nots”—a perception that mirrors the so-called “redistribution of wealth” debates in American economic policy.)
- Should public schools remain social institutions or should they embrace free-market strategies? Capitalism is based on competition—among talent, resources, ideas, etc.—and should public schools, if they are going to be effective, also embrace competition among teachers and institutions? Advocates may argue that more competition among public schools, or between public schools and private schools, will increase accountability and educational quality, while opponents typically contend that such approaches will only exacerbate existing inequities—i.e., wealthy students and communities will get even better educational opportunities than they already have because those with money and power will use their advantages to increase their privileges and secure the best-quality education for their children, possibly at the expense of other children or what is best for society as a whole.
- To what extent does racial, gender, and socioeconomic discrimination still exist? Is discrimination no longer a major problem in American society or in public education? This is perhaps one of the most controversial debates related to educational equity. The Civil Rights Movement, citizen activism, progressive legislation, and other cultural shifts have dramatically changed attitudes toward people of color, women, the poor, the LGBT community, and the disabled over the past several decades. Some may argue that even though positive changes have certainly taken hold, America is nowhere near becoming a discrimination-free society. In education, students of color still underperform compared to their white peers, , for example, and they are still disproportionately represented in lower-level courses or special-education programs. Others may point to policies such as affirmative action, or the assistance given to students with disabilities, as evidence that formerly discriminated-against groups are now being given the same (or even more) educational opportunities as other groups. In this case, they might argue that even though discrimination still exists it is no longer a major factor in American education, and that some educational policies—such as those perceived to be motivated by so-called “political correctness”—may go too far in their attempts to compensate for America’s history of discrimination.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.