by ParentPowered contributing author Curran Mahowald, M.A. Cognitive Science in Education
If you’re an educator or administrator, you have probably heard the terms “equality” and “equity” and likely even used them yourself. But what does equity in education actually mean, and how is it distinct from equality? Equity is more than promoting equal treatment and access to resources regardless of one’s socioeconomic status. In this post, we will explore what equity means and why it is essential for creating an educational system that promotes positive outcomes for all students.
Additionally, we’ll discuss ways to promote equity within educational institutions by providing targeted support appropriate to students’ needs. By the end of this post, you’ll have a deeper understanding of what education equity entails, key differences between equality vs. equity in education, and how you as an education leader can use it as a lens for providing equitable access to quality education.
Similar words, different ideas
What is equality in education?
Equality in education means providing all students with the same resources and opportunities, regardless of their individual differences. Although this one-size-fits-all approach may sound fair in theory, in practice it is not. If one child is very hungry and another is very thirsty and both are given a water bottle, equality is achieved but the solution does not feel fair. This is because fairness involves each person getting what they need.
Most children in the United States attend schools that serve a diverse student body in terms of racial or ethnic background and socioeconomic status (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2022). This means that educators must provide a variety of supports designed to meet diverse needs.
It is important to recognize the limitations of equality-focused approaches to education reform. Educational equality does not guarantee equity. Following the principle of equality, the same educational resources would be provided to all students, without considering what they need to succeed.
Key takeaway: The difference between equality vs. equity in education is that equality focuses on providing the same resources to all students, while equity focuses on supporting students differentially according to their needs. Although the intent of equality may be rooted in ideas of fairness, an equality approach does not actually result in a fair system because students do not all have the same needs.
What is equity in education?
With educational equity, the focus shifts from equal beginnings to equal outcomes. In order to ensure that educational outcomes do not differ significantly by student group, educators committed to educational equity provide extra supports for students who need it.
Students come from a variety of different circumstances and have different strengths and needs, so distributing resources equally does not ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. In an equitable system, each student gets what they need when they need it. Equity requires closely examining what students and families in a particular community actually need and providing accordingly.
It is essential to address challenges faced by students from a variety of backgrounds when striving for equitable learning environments. The goal of educational equity is to eliminate disparities in public education in which academic outcomes correlate with factors like linguistic background, race, socioeconomic status, or disability status.
Educational equity is simple in theory but requires careful analysis of diverse student needs, collaboration with families and the community, and ultimately a mindset shift. The goal is for all students to have an equal opportunity for success, regardless of background or any obstacles faced along the way.
Key takeaway: Equity in education involves supporting students differentially according to their individual needs so that disparities in outcomes are not seen across demographic groups such as race, socioeconomic status, linguistic background, gender, and disability status.
What is the difference between equality and equity in education?
Equality and equity are often discussed in tandem, but as you can see from the descriptions above, they do not mean the same thing. Equality is about providing the same opportunities for everyone regardless of their background or circumstances. The goal of equality is to ensure all students have access to the same resources and quality instruction, and this is a common approach to creating equal opportunities for everyone.
However, because not everyone has the same needs, focusing on equality does not help all students reach their full potential. The equitable approach, on the other hand, acknowledges that not everyone starts from an equal footing. It requires school leaders to look at the needs of each individual student in order to ensure success. Only with equity can we deliver on the promise to help every student thrive, regardless of their background or circumstances.
The one-size-fits-all approach of equality does not lead to equitable outcomes. To promote equitable learning environments, educators must recognize that different students face different challenges and give students tools to overcome those challenges.
The left pane of this graphic represents equality—each person has one box to stand on. However, the shortest person cannot see the baseball game, whereas the medium-height individual just reaches over the fence to see and the tallest person has a clear line of sight over the fence. Each person has been given the same number of boxes (representing resources), but not necessarily the right number of boxes to allow someone of their height to see over the fence.
In the right pane, by contrast, the boxes are redistributed in a way that enables each spectator to see the ball game. Even though the resources are not distributed equally, they are distributed equitably because everyone has what they need according to their own situation.
Key takeaway: Equality in education means providing the same resources for everyone, whereas equity requires us to take into account each student’s individual needs and provide tailored support accordingly.
Educational equality vs. equity in practice
What roles do equity and equality play in education?
Now that we’ve cleared up the difference between two common buzzwords in education reform, we’ll discuss how equity and equality come into play in the day-to-day work of education leaders.
As an example, let’s look at how two students at the same junior high school spend their after-school time. One heads straight to a part-time job for a few hours, and when she arrives home later she is in charge of babysitting her younger siblings while both of her parents work late. The other has time to eat a healthy snack and read a book before her private tutor comes over to help with the day’s homework.
These students are in the same classroom with the same teacher. They receive the same books, access to computers, and food service at school. If we focus only on equality, we might assume that providing them with the same instruction and resources will ensure fairness.
But if we look more closely at their circumstances, it’s clear that these two students have vastly different levels of support outside of school—and thus require different kinds of assistance within it. This latter approach of differential assistance represents equity rather than equality.
School districts can help bridge these differences and set all students up for success. An equity-based support structure might include partnering with local food banks to provide supplemental meals or snacks at no cost to the student. The students’ teacher could allow for flexibility in homework due dates (e.g. have all the week’s homework due on Friday rather than each day’s homework due the next day) so the student with more external responsibilities could catch up on a day when she doesn’t have work or her siblings are at daycare.
Equality is focused on providing equal access to resources, while equity seeks to individualize support based on the unique needs of each student. Focusing on equality instead of equity can cause opportunity gaps to widen.
Key Takeaway: Equity involves providing educational resources to set up all students for success. It is the only approach that advances positive outcomes for all students.
Early childhood education and its role in promoting equitable learning environments
Opportunity gaps begin to take shape even before students enter school. Not all children enter kindergarten equally prepared. For example, children from low-income families are often already behind on language and early numeracy skills compared to peers from higher-income families by the time they reach kindergarten. That’s why creating equitable early learning environments is key. Addressing any inequities that young children face early on can help to prevent gaps from widening. The quality of instruction that children receive in pre-K is a critical factor in their future success.
Research shows that children from low-income families and neighborhoods are less likely to have access to high-quality preschool programs, leading to disparities in educational outcomes later on. Students facing poverty are more likely to lag behind their peers in both academic and social-emotional development. It is critical for education leaders to be aware of these matters and take an equity lens to everything they do.
Even in the early years before the child enters kindergarten, family engagement can help reduce opportunity gaps.
Key Takeaway: Early childhood education is an essential component of promoting equitable learning environments, and educators must be equipped with the best practices for creating such environments. By building relationships with families and community members, educators can enrich the educational environment and boost academic achievement for all students.
Creating equitable learning environments: best practices for educators
The environment in which students learn matters. Creating equitable learning environments is essential to ensure that all students have the opportunity to reach their potential. So how can educators begin to prioritize equity and not equality in their approach to serving children?
1. Equitable family engagement
Students benefit when educators build relationships with parents and caregivers as well as community members who are familiar with their students’ needs. An open communication channel between families and schools enables the exchange of important information that can allow educators to tailor the experience to children to meet their needs. And research has shown that family engagement improves student outcomes.
2. Equitable education policies
When implementing a new education policy, educators should consider how it will affect students from traditionally underserved groups such as students of color, students who are multilingual learners, students from low-income families, and students with disabilities. Different students may experience the same school environment differently.
3. Equitable goal-setting for academic performance
Educators should set goals for reducing disparities in performance and devise strategies to meet these goals. For example, a goal could be that students who are multilingual learners would perform as well or better on standardized math tests than students who are monolingual English speakers. Differentiated instruction techniques enable teachers to customize lessons according to each student’s individual situation while still providing them an equal chance of succeeding in the classroom environment.
Equity in education is critical to student success
All students deserve to be provided with an educational experience that enables them to reach their full potential for learning and achievement. When educators partner with the community and families, they have many tools at their disposal to create equitable classrooms for every learner, regardless of race, gender identity, socio-economic status or any other factor. By understanding the difference between equity and equality in education, educators can help close achievement gaps between different populations and ensure every student can learn, grow, and thrive in school and beyond.
About the author
Curran Mahowald is a former high school language teacher turned education research advocate. In addition to having worked at ParentPowered, she has also designed parent-facing informational materials at Oakland Unified School District and currently works on improving national research-to-practice infrastructure at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Curran holds an M.A. in Cognitive Science in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and B.A.s in Linguistics and French from the University of Southern California.