Equity versus Equality — A False Dichotomy?
Why We Can’t Forget About Equality in the Educational Equity Conversation
By Lanette Trowery, PhD, Senior Director of Learning Research and Strategy, McGraw-Hill
In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about how equality and equity are viewed in the classroom. Much confusion arises from the interchangeable use of each term. More recently, images abound on the web, showing the impact, and in some cases, detriment, that only focusing on equality can have on educational outcomes for all students in schools. However, it is important to remember that without a history of striving for equality, equity in classrooms would never be reached.
Pushing for equality in education set the foundation for the current focus on equity. In the United States, a number of civil rights statutes provide a foundation for equality in education:
- Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting race, color, and national origin discrimination)
- Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibiting sex discrimination)
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (prohibiting disability discrimination)
- Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (prohibiting disability discrimination by public entities)
- The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 (prohibiting age discrimination) (Office of Civil Rights, 2018).
Each statute denotes a moral value, while having made immense strides toward equality in schools, that are important in the fight to uphold equality in education.
How are Equity and Equality Different?
Let’s review how equality and equity are defined. Equality can be considered a social good — providing everyone with access to basic goods or services. As defined by Lynch and Baker (2005) equality of condition is the belief that all people should “be as equal as possible in relation to the central conditions of their lives…which involves the equal enabling and empowerment of individuals” (p. 131). Their premise lies on the idea of “real options,” setting the foundation upon which people have access to the resources, respect, love and solidarity, power and work (Lynch and Baker, 2005). Thus, equality can level the playing field by providing equal access to resources so that everyone has the same set of tools or has a seat at the same table.
In reviewing the many definitions of equity, most point to the idea of providing additional resources or supports based on needs to enhance or improve reaching of anticipated or expected outcomes. Geneva Gay, one of the most prominent researchers in the field of culturally responsive teaching, defines equity in relation to equality, “… the real focus of equity is not sameness of content for all students, but equivalency of effect potential, quality status, and significance of learning opportunities. Since these will vary by circumstance, purpose, group, and individual, the best way to achieve comparability of learning opportunities is to differentiate among them according to the characteristics of the students for whom they are intended” (1988, p. 329).
To reach equity in education, as Gay points out, there is a need for equality in setting high expectation of potential outcomes and learning experiences. Equality in high expectations relies on the need to have similar goals — such as well-defined and agreed upon learning standards — for all students to reach. The crux of equity is how to get all students to reach those anticipated outcomes. Thus, equality lays the foundation for making sure all students have access to the materials for a quality education and are expected to reach a set of agreed upon goals — and equity helps determine who needs what in order to reach the outcomes or goals set forth.
Thus, equality can level the playing field by providing equal access to resources so that everyone has the same set of tools or has a seat at the same table.
Equal Access to an Equitable Set of Tools
The worry is that the focus on equality created a tenor that overshadows equity (hence the plethora of equity vs equality images). That is a concern — making sure every student has a basic set of tools is not enough.
For a minute, consider equality as a toolbox. Every student gets a tool box, containing everything he/she might need to succeed in school. Making sure each student receives that full tool box is the crux of equality — if some students get more advanced tools or a higher quality of tool than other students, they have an advantage over other students who do not get those same tools. Once we are assured that every student has received that tool box, then each student can use whichever tool they may need from that toolbox to support their educational endeavors.
From there, additional supports should be provided to make sure that every student understands how to effectively use each tool in their tool box; some students may have earned how to use those tools form their home communities, and others may not. Understanding the differences in prior experiences and knowledge with the tools and working to mitigate those differences is the crux of equity.
We can never remove our eyes from ensuring equality in education. Groups such as the World Education Forum continues to fight for equality through the Education 2030 declaration. The 160 countries represented by the Forum look to promote equality in providing free education for all children, access to early childhood care and education, access to quality technical and vocational education, and access to quality education to the vulnerable and differently abled. Their work underscores the continued need for the foundation of resources that equality provides as a crucial basis for reaching the goals of an equitable education for all children. Fighting for equality is a part of the moral fiber of our global community and we must continue to strive for it.
Gay. G. 1988. Designing Relevant Curricula for Diverse Learners. Education and Urban Society, 20(4). 327–340.
Lynch, K. and Baker, J. 2005. Equality in education: an equality of condition perspective. Theory and Research in Education. 3 (2). 131–164.
UNESCO — The World Education Forum. https://en.unesco.org/themes/education/
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