What is “Equity” in Education?

This is a first for me: I’ve spent — no joke — weeks researching a long post, gathering information, copying out pages and pages of notes, writing thousands of words, starting and restarting several different drafts . . . and I’m almost more confused than I was when I started.

What topic did this to me?

The topic of equity.

My goal originally was trying to ask: What is equity? And what does it mean in the context of education?

Turns out, there is very little agreement, and very little clarity. It reminds me of a few summers ago when I tried to unravel the roots of proficiency learning in Vermont and . . . I couldn’t do it. I just kept finding more and more roots the further down I went. Equity is similar. It’s just amazingly complex, this massive receptacle, this big moving target.

What I tried to do was to research as many definitions of equity as I could within education. But there was little agreement, and little in the way of consistent examples provided.

I think what I want to do then is quickly summarize some very, very general findings. Maybe this will help me to make sense of just what equity is . . .

So, some thoughts:

First off, equity is a classic educational buzzword: It slips into the lexicon, catches on, starts being used by everybody, sounds smart — and pretty soon we’re all sliding it into our educational pronouncements, without really agreeing on its meaning or substantive qualities. The term equity is particularly susceptible to this disclarity because it is not just an educational term, but an important cultural and political term, as well — as part of its use in initiatives for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in both the public and private sphere in the United States. The term equity, then, is almost omnipresent right now in reform efforts among governmental agencies, legislatures, corporate America, and education. But what does it mean in education specifically?

The best explanation I encountered was when one author called it a “rebranding” of the term “equality” (to which “equity” is always contrasted). I think that’s true, and I also agree with another author who calls the term equity symbolic of a “search for new answers” — specifically a belief that formalized equality, of the kind offered by Civil Rights-era reforms, has been inadequate, given that real educational disparities persist. Equity then becomes a new way to train in our focus on improving educational access and outcomes for these disadvantaged groups, a self-conscious break with the past, and a newly focused demand for access and resources.

While I don’t think the term was as commonly used back then, there were of course advocates of “equity” in education twenty years ago, during the NCLB era. This was the time when test scores began to be disaggregated by different markers of identity. The difference is that although many of these 2000s-era reformers professed to want somewhat similar things to today’s equity proponents (greater equalization of educational outcomes, a sense that one’s educational attainments are not dictated by identity traits such as their skin color, gender, or ethnicity), yet many of the most high profile efforts proposed (often by both parties, with bipartisan support) to attain these goals were neoliberal reforms (high stakes testing, accountability measures for schools and districts, school choice, merit pay). While some modern advocates do call for more traditional metrics of educational equity (such as school funding, well-trained teachers, and access to rigorous classes), in general the current use of “equity” is far more aligned with the modern social justice movement and calls for more socially progressive measures, particularly an increased focus on creating a bias-free school environment, a diverse educator workforce, and on advocating instructional practices that respond to — and curriculum that highlights the contributions of — traditionally marginalized populations. Examples of classroom instructional techniques include asset-based approaches to instruction, culturally relevant/responsive education, and the use of Critical Pedagogy.

Unlike neoliberal advocates of equity, who were more than comfortable measuring educational equity as a specific outcome — usually a standardized test score — modern equity proponents place less emphasis on — or in some cases disagree completely with the concept of — defining equity in terms of specific measurements of educational achievement, especially standardized tests. Sometimes other indicators are used: graduation rates, participation in advanced courses, college attendance rates, even disciplinary rates, but in my experience these metrics are not consistent. Most modern advocates view standardized testing results with skepticism at best. Some even question both the validity of the measurements of — and the underlying premises of — so-called “achievement gaps” entirely.

Yet in one important sense, the new use of the term “equity” to denote a needed goal of reform efforts — and its self-conscious contrast with the concept of “equality” — is misleading. Equity advocates set up the term “equality” as a kind of foil, a caricatured approach to education in which all students are treated exactly the same. Clearly, this is a misleading characterization of current educational practice, given that schools employ a variety of formal and informal methods to provide students with “equity” — differing resources based on need — already. Some of these methods are in fact legal requirements, like the federal mandate to provide students with disabilities with special education services, such as Individualized Educational Plans. Other techniques, such as the use of differentiation in the classroom, are bread-and-butter instructional methods, known to (if not practiced by) most educators, and still others, such as the multi-tiered system of supports, are widely accepted structural patterns used to individualize, assist, and support students in thousands of schools in the U.S. This is to say nothing of the basic notion of good teachers getting to know their individual students and providing resources (time, teaching strategies) according to their needs. Clearly then to say that schools don’t already “do” equity is a misleading statement.

The difference is that many of these traditional means of providing “equity” call for determinations of need based on an individual’s characteristics, such as a particular student’s specific learning disability, or seek to apply practices of individualization to the student population as a whole (as in the case of differentiation). Yet most modern equity proponents wish to see a greater focus on providing resources to or focus on students as members of identity groups, such as those of race, gender, sexuality, or immigration status. Some advocates suggest using an “equity lens” on important educational decisions to focus both on improving outcomes for minority groups or historically underserved populations and on using this knowledge to improve outcomes for all students.

Another complicating factor is the differing visions of equity advocates. There are many. For example, neo-reconstructionists and Critical educators wish to use schools to purposely reshape society into a more just (“equitable”) place (through the use of Critical Pedagogy, for instance). Others wish to use schools as sites from which to distribute educational resources (in a variety of forms) that are in themselves considered compensation for past injustice, while still others wish to use schools to promote economic mobility leading to better material outcomes for marginalized groups.

In my view, I think the modern equity movement — even if it has often suffered from a lack of clear goals and even basic definitions — has been a positive one in that it has pushed schools to a greater recognition of inequalities in their treatment of students, and toward important debates over educational goals, the best methods of teaching and learning, the ideal curriculum, and the best means of assessment. Equity always points back to individualization, and an individualization that is based on a strong understanding of the force of group identities today in the world is important, both in a moral sense (each child deserves to be “seen”) and in a pedagogical sense (individualization and recognition of each learner is always the very best method of helping them move forward). Techniques like culturally relevant education have been around in some form for a long time, of course, but the “equity” movement has reminded the whole profession that while clarity of goals is important, teachers must work to understand their students both as learners and as culturally-situated individuals. This is especially important if teachers are not from the same types of background as their students. Educational goals are always up for debate in every community — what are the “norms” we are teaching students, and what are our (community and school district’s) fundamental beliefs about what comprises a good education? How do we modify these in light of social and political realities? Practices like that, I believe, are an immensely promising residue of the “equity” lens focus — because they can potentially help students who have been the most neglected, and because in doing so, they can potentially help all students.

The problem that I see is about the disclarity of the movement. I have done my best to try to define what “equity” means in education, but there are many different perspectives, and I am at best skimming the surface. As I mentioned, there is tremendous difference of opinion about how “equity” is defined, measured, and employed. Like many educational buzzwords, “equity” is thrown around a lot, often with few specific details attached. In particular, I think the conscious break with the concept of “equality” is somewhat troubling and contributes to a lack of clarity. On the one hand, there are many years of political and legislative victories on behalf of greater equality that equity advocates could seek to build on. Additionally, the break with “equality” — which is an understandable, tangible end-goal — in favor of “equity” (which is more confusing) I believe hampers clear thinking around the goals and objectives of the movement.

In fact, this points to some even deeper questions about political visions in the modern era in education, particularly on the political left. I’ll explore those in a subsequent post.