Why Understanding Equity vs Equality in Schools Can Help You Create an Inclusive Classroom

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The quality of education that students receive directly correlates to their quality of life years down the road.[1] Early education in particular has the power to shape a child’s future and the more resources available to them, the better. For this reason, it’s crucial for educators to address any barriers young students face to succeeding in school.

The key is equity. Equity means offering individualized support to students that addresses possible barriers, like poverty or limited transportation. 97% of teachers agree that equity is important, but many don’t know how to best work towards it in their classrooms.[2] But once educators have the right strategies to promote equity in schools, they can make sure each student is prepared to reach their potential.

Want to create inclusive and equitable classrooms at your school? Discover the difference between equity and equality, then learn five strategies for resolving common barriers to equity in education.

Main Differences Between Equity and Equality

When it comes to equity vs equality in education, the terms are often used interchangeably.[3] But understanding the distinction between the two is essential for resolving issues faced by disadvantaged students in the classroom. While working towards equity and equality can both do good, equity should be an educator’s end goal. The reason lies in the difference between being fair vs equal.

Equality is more commonly associated with social issues, perhaps because more people know what it means. In a nutshell, its definition is as it sounds–the state of being equal. When a group focuses on equality, everyone has the same rights, opportunities, and resources.[4] Equality is beneficial, but it often doesn’t address specific needs. Giving each student a take-home laptop, for example, would not address students who don’t have Internet in their houses. Even if a school is equal, some students may still struggle.

Equity, on the other hand, provides people with resources that fit their circumstances. The World Health Organization (WHO) definition of social equity is “the absence of avoidable or remediable differences among groups of people.” [5] Schools that prioritize equity versus equality are more in tune to their students’ needs and provide resources to overcome their specific challenges.

In short, equality is:

  • Generic
  • Group-focused
  • Equal

And equity is:

  • Adaptable
  • Individual-focused
  • Fair

“The route to achieving equity will not be accomplished through treating everyone equally,” says the Race Matters Institute. “It will be achieved by treating everyone equitably, or justly according to their circumstances.” [6] Equity is more thoughtful and, while it’s harder work, it is better at resolving disadvantages. While equality is an admirable goal, try shifting your school’s focus to equity for a more effective outcome.

Challenges Involving Equity and Equality in Schools

Barriers to an inclusive education can affect groups based on race, gender, and many other factors. The issues are not only who is being targeted but also how we try to resolve them. In terms of equity vs equality in the classroom, most schools focus on horizontal equity. The definition of horizontal equity in education is treating people who are already assumed equal in the same way.[7]

Horizontal equity is only useful in homogenous schools, where each person really is given the same opportunities in life. But in most schools, students will come from a variety of backgrounds–some more privileged than others. For this reason, educators should focus on vertical equity, which assumes that students have different needs and provides individual resources based on said needs.[8]

Another challenge facing equity vs equality in education is poverty. 60% of the most disadvantaged students come from low-income homes or communities.[9] Because their families or schools might have very limited budgets, it can be difficult to provide these students with equitable resources. Additionally, these at-risk communities often have trouble keeping educators who can make a difference: 62% of high-poverty schools report that it is challenging to retain high-quality teachers.[10]

According to the Scholastic Teachers and Principals Report, these are a few additional barriers to equity in American schools:[11]

  • Family crises
  • Mental health issues
  • Lack of healthcare
  • Coming to school hungry
  • Homelessness or living in a temporary shelter
  • Still learning the English language

Recognizing the challenges preventing equity in your classroom is the first step to resolving them. Try to analyze any issues that are keeping your students from succeeding in school. Perhaps you teach in a low-income community, or one of your students is an English language learner (ELL). By evaluating the needs of individual students, you’re much closer to providing them with the support necessary for academic achievement.

Benefits of Focusing on Equity in Education

Equity in schools is the answer to supporting every student, not just those from disadvantaged backgrounds. When schools provide their students with resources that fit individual circumstances, the entire classroom environment improves.[12] Not only that, but the importance of equity extends to our society as a whole. In equitable communities, everyone has the opportunity to succeed regardless of their original circumstances.

On a surface level, the benefits of inclusive and equitable classrooms extend to academic achievement. Schools with the smallest achievement gaps between demographics have the highest overall test scores.[13] This means that when the most disadvantaged student scores improve, students from more privileged backgrounds improve, too. When schools are mindful of different backgrounds and provide the right resources, all students are prepared to learn and help each other succeed.

Equity can also strengthen a student’s health and social-emotional development. In a study involving over 4,300 students in Southern California, the children who felt safer, less lonely, and reported less bullying also had higher diversity levels in their classes.[14] Being equipped to promote diversity and provide for students from all backgrounds makes for an environment where students feel comfortable and have better emotional regulation. Additionally, equitable communities are linked to better health and longer average lifespans.[15]

Surrounding communities benefit from equity in schools as well. Equity is linked to stronger social cohesion, meaning that individuals connect with each other better and are more compassionate.[16] It also leads to long-term economic growth.[17] This means that promoting equity in schools can be one of the best and most effective social investments.

To summarize, these are some of the benefits of focusing on equity in education:

  • Higher test scores
  • Better health
  • Stronger social atmosphere
  • Longer life
  • Economic growth

Tips for Using Equity to Create an Inclusive Classroom

Knowing the difference between equity and equality is the first step to creating a classroom where every child can succeed. From there, educators can take steps to better address the challenges faced by struggling students.

Keep these five tips in mind for promoting equity in your classroom and helping every student succeed:

  • Remember that every child is different and has unique needs. Evaluate any challenges that students face and, if needed, offer support or resources [18]
  • Cultivate an environment in your classroom where every student feels heard. Encourage them to speak out against unfairness and let you know if they’re facing any hardships at home or in class
  • Parent engagement is a particularly helpful way to resolve challenges involving equity. Keep open communication with parents and encourage them to volunteer or attend school events to involve them with their child’s education [19]
  • Provide equity training in schools for faculty members so teachers know how to resolve common barriers [20]
  • Add diversity and inclusion activities as well as lessons against prejudice to your school curriculum so every student feels like they belong [21]

Sources:
OECD Observer Staff. Ten Steps to Equity in Education. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, January 2008, pp. 1-8.[1]

Scholastic Team. Barriers to Equity in Education | Teachers and Principals School Report. Retrieved from scholastic.com: http://www.scholastic.com/teacherprincipalreport/barriers-to-equity.htm.[2]

Winston-Salem State University. Strategic Planning at Winston-Salem State University: Working Toward Equity. Retrieved from wssu.edu: https://www.wssu.edu/strategic-plan/documents/a-summary-of-equity-vs-equality.pdf.[3]

Just Health Action. Part 1: Introduction to Environmental Justice, Equity, and Health. Retrieved from justhealthaction.org: http://justhealthaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/JHA-Lesson-Plan-3-How-are-equity-and-equality-different-final.pdf.[4]

World Health Organization. WHO | Equity. Retrieved from who.int: https://www.who.int/healthsystems/topics/equity/en/.[5]

Race Matters Institute. Racial Equality or Racial Equity? The Difference it Makes. Retrieved from viablefuturescenture.org: https://viablefuturescenter.org/racemattersinstitute/2014/04/02/racial-equality-or-racial-equity-the-difference-it-makes/.[6]

Catapano, J. The Challenges of Equity in Public Education. Retrieved from teachhub.com: https://www.teachhub.com/challenges-equity-public-education.[7,8]

OECD Observer Staff. Ten Steps to Equity in Education. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, January 2008, pp. 1-8.[9,10]

Scholastic Team. Barriers to Equity in Education | Teachers and Principals School Report. Retrieved from scholastic.com: http://www.scholastic.com/teacherprincipalreport/barriers-to-equity.htm.[11]

OECD Observer Staff. Ten Steps to Equity in Education. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, January 2008, pp. 1-8.[12]

Gorard, S., and Smith, E. An international comparison of equity in education systems. School Comparative Education, 2004, 40(1), pp. 15-28.[13]

Atchison, B., Diffey, L., Rafa, A., and Sarubbi, M. Equity in Education: Key Questions to Consider. Education Commission of the States, June, 2017, pp. 1-6.[14]

OECD Observer Staff. Ten Steps to Equity in Education. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, January 2008, pp. 1-8.[15, 16, 17]

Scholastic Team. Barriers to Equity in Education | Teachers and Principals School Report. Retrieved from scholastic.com: http://www.scholastic.com/teacherprincipalreport/barriers-to-equity.htm.[18]

OECD Observer Staff. Ten Steps to Equity in Education. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, January 2008, pp. 1-8.[19]

Atchison, B., Diffey, L., Rafa, A., and Sarubbi, M. Equity in Education: Key Questions to Consider. Education Commission of the States, June, 2017, pp. 1-6.[20]

OECD Observer Staff. Ten Steps to Equity in Education. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, January 2008, pp. 1-8.[21]

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