Leveling the playing field in your classroom should be the aim of every educator in 2021 and beyond.

equality vs equity

(Image Source)

If you’re an educator, you’ve almost certainly seen the above image. It succinctly defines and demonstrates the concept of equity: providing every individual with what they need to give them the same opportunities that their peers have.

In the wake of the global pandemic, equity has increasingly been on the hearts and minds of educators. Students who are racialized, come from poorer socioeconomic households, have English as a second language, and/or have learning disabilities have historically been at a disadvantage at school. Although special programs and other supports are in place in most school districts, it’s an ongoing challenge to reach students who need more than the standard practices and curriculum have to offer. 

As most schools in the U.S. have switched to remote or a hybrid-learning model, many fear that the “digital divide”, will create an even deeper chasm between those who have access to an education that meets their needs and those who do not.

Now more than ever, equity is important. In this article, we’ll look at what it is, why it matters, and some strategies to promote it in the classroom. 

What is Equity? 

Equity is often referred to as “leveling the playing field”. Like the image above shows, equity is achieved when each individual gets what they need to be on equal footing with others in the same environment. In the classroom, that might mean extra time, different supports, and unique resources for some students to achieve their learning goals. 

The Glossary of Education Reform equates equity with fairness and points to many ways it can lead to inequality. “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.”

Providing equity in education requires honesty about inequality and a commitment to individuals with unique needs and those who are disadvantaged by systemic inequalities.

The impact of Covid-19 on K-12 students is a “perfect” example of why equity is important in education.

According to a Pew research study, during the spring 2020 lockdown, 36 per cent of low-income parents reported that their children were not able to do their schoolwork at home because they didn’t have access to technology. As most districts across the U.S. are using a remote or hybrid learning model in the 2020/21 school year, this problem continues.

A joint study between Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) reports that the digital divide affects every type of community but is more pronounced in rural communities and for Black, Latinx, and Native American households. 

Despite the best efforts of school administrators, and even commercial businesses, to get technology and internet access into the hands of every student, it’s simply not possible to ensure equity for all.

“The homework gap is no longer just about homework; it’s about access to education. In this new environment, with the prospect of distance learning extending into the future, lack of technology access will significantly impact students’ ability to learn and engage, accelerating learning loss for students cut off from teachers and peer resources,” the Common Sense Media/BCG study’s authors write.

These conditions may create a perfect storm of inequity. Some students have everything they need to excel; others do not. When the pandemic passes and all students go back to school, it is unlikely that the academic playing field will be level. (An 8-part Education Week series reviews the challenges and some solutions for building in equity to the current conditions.)

What are the Benefits of Equity in Education?

Studies show that when schools provide students with resources tailored to their individual needs, the entire classroom environment improves. It’s true: classes with smaller gaps between the highest- and lowest-achieving students have higher overall test scores. And when disadvantaged students’ scores improve, so too, do the scores of students from more privileged backgrounds. 

Other studies indicate that equity can strengthen students’ social-emotional development. Promoting and understanding diversity and providing opportunities to develop empathy means students of all backgrounds and abilities are more likely to extend to others compassion and kindness as children and adults. 

Equity indirectly benefits everyone in the educational and broader community, too. Consider a student who, without support and resources in school, would be more likely to have chronic absenteeism and be less likely to graduate high school and/or pursue a post-secondary pathway.

If that student gets what they need to achieve their academic goals, they have a higher chance at being a healthy, contributing member of their community and society at large. 

Classroom Strategies to Promote Equity

Although district or schoolwide supports and resources are ideal for ensuring equity, work can be done by educators at the classroom level as well. Ideas include:

  • Providing a variety of ways to explore a topic and demonstrate knowledge: Rather than assigning a standard essay, consider a playlist, an infographic, a website, a speech, or a letter. Students can choose their preferred way to communicate.
  • Varying expectations by learner: Some students may need more time to complete a test, accommodations (i.e. a laptop, earphones), or resources provided at a different reading level.
  • Creating an environment in which differences are accepted: Encourage students to discuss distinct needs with you; let them know you’re flexible and willing to help.
  • Engaging with parents: When parents or guardians feel welcome and in touch with what’s happening in the classroom, the home-school connection is strong and supportive.
  • Embracing diversity and inclusion: Highlight and incorporate issues of diversity and inclusivity. Here are some resources that will help.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we are only as collectively strong as our most disadvantaged individuals. At the district, school and classroom level, it’s increasingly important to acknowledge and address issues of equity. 

In many ways, when one student succeeds, we all succeed.

ABOUT HEATHER

Heather Hudson is a Toronto-based freelance writer and journalist. She specializes in content marketing, corporate storytelling and good old-fashioned journalism. You can read some of her work in The Toronto Star and learn more about her at heatherhudson.ca.