We have seen the pictures of three people — of three different heights – trying to watch a baseball game over a fence, each standing on an identical box. In the first picture, titled Equality, only the tallest person has a perfect view of the game. The person in the middle can see most of the game, but the shortest gets only glimpses through the cracks in the fence.
In the second picture, the tall person stands on the ground, the medium-sized person stands on one box and the shortest stands on top of two boxes. All three have unobstructed views of the game and the image caption reads equity.
If we attempt to apply the “Is it equal or is it equitable?” principle to educational contexts, however, the solutions may not be as straightforward. As a direct result of their economic, racial, ethnic or cultural backgrounds, some students need more assistance than others.
Since 1954, when the Brown versus Board of Education decision mandated the integration of schools, the U.S. population and, consequently, the American student population, has become increasingly diverse. But the gap between white and non-white students, or American and foreign-born students, and even neurotypical and neurodiverse students, still needs closing. The differences in student achievement and success reflect many crucial aspects of the family’s financial situation, the primary language spoken at home, and the student’s own motivation to succeed.
Research from the Center for Public Education (CPE) showed that students from lower-income households were four times as likely to fail in math than students from affluent families. The research reports that “if we are to close the achievement gap completely, we must address current inequities in funding, access to high-level curriculum, access to good teachers, and how school discipline is imposed.” Schools in poorer neighborhoods in the United States typically receive less funding, which ultimately perpetuates a cycle of both poverty and racial inequality.
For administrators, addressing such inequities may be an area of focus for long-term change. But what can one do as a teacher with little say about the school’s finances?
Although it may seem the most obvious, funding is not the only issue toward a path of equity. “Teachers have more influence on student learning than any other school factor,” notes the CPE study. The academic standards to which each student is held can play an important role as well. Teachers can be helpful by customizing each student’s educational experience based on student limitations and capacities.
Thinking Maps suggests approaching educational equity a bit like personalized learning. Recommended techniques include:
- Holding different but equitable expectations for students’ assignments (writing less, different due dates)
- Providing the academic and/or social/emotional support of a teacher or external aide both inside and outside the classroom
- Offering resources at a different reading level or in the student’s first language
Teachers, administrators, and other school leaders must work together to ensure that all students have access to the resources they need to succeed, including appropriate classroom materials, extra training and/or coaching, after-school programs, technology, and access to high-level curriculum.
Thinking Maps notes that “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.”
Finally, educators have the responsibility to empower students and encourage them to pursue a path of success. The U.S. Department of Education writes, “Traditionally underserved students, including minorities and low-income students, attend and complete college at far lower rates than their peers.” The obstacles of an underserved student’s life may stop them from even completing high school.
To achieve educational equity, it is vital that teachers understand the systemic issues that continue to create disparities in education. It requires teachers to go beyond what is expected of them and ensure that each individual’s needs are met, by giving students the support and skills they need to surmount obstacles and learn well.