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What’s the Difference Between Educational Equity and Equality?

April 16, 2020

The education system in the United States is experiencing a period of innovation and evolution. A critical area of focus involves theorizing and implementing innovative research and techniques to leverage educational equity in both public and private sectors of education. Achievement gaps and disparate outcomes have shown that educational equality (the attempt to treat every student the same) has failed students from certain backgrounds, while the evolution to educational equity (addressing each student’s individual needs) can improve education for students who have been neglected. With a growing demand for professional educators, the US education system is recognizing the need for professionals to advance equity in education.

Educational Equity vs. Educational Equality

Educational equity ensures that the needs of individuals from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, individuals with disabilities, and other disenfranchised minorities are provided with educational tools, resources, and support that are individualized to a student’s educational needs. In juxtaposition, educational equality assumes that all students’ educational needs are the same, and that individualized systems of educational resources are not warranted. Educational equality negates the ability to transition into the next iteration of public education that focuses on education that is equitable.

Educational equity allocates educational resources by equalizing the educational system for students whose low SES (socioeconomic status), ethnic background, family background, or geographic region impeded their academic growth. This would help close the gap between students from a low SES compared to those individuals from a high SES.

Educational equality in schools is especially detrimental to individuals who are English language learners (ELLs). English language learners are those whose primary language spoken in the home is other than English. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 4.9 million students were categorized as ELL in 2015, which made up 9.9 percent of the overall student population in public schools. Hispanics made up 3.8 million of the 4.9 million students, while Asian students made up 511,700.

Educational equity is important for ELL students, because those students need individualized educational resources to encourage their academic and English language competency. Educational systems need to recognize that ELL students should be encouraged to develop both native and English language competencies due to their cognitive and economic benefits. By providing ELL students with resources, community support, and familial outreach, educators and communities can work together to develop a more equitable learning environment.

In 2016, 2.9 percent of Hispanic students were held back between grades 9-12 in part as a result of educational inequity. Equity in education is integral to the success of individual students from diverse backgrounds.

Advancing Educational Equity

The pursuit of educational equity is key to the sustainability and evolution of education systems in the US and abroad. The impact of educational inequity is felt most clearly at the classroom level and ripples its way throughout school districts. Achievement gaps are evaluated by analyzing student performance on standardized tests, access to advanced academic courses, and graduation rates.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), students who attended urban schools during the 2015-2016 school year were 65 percent more likely to be in high-poverty districts. The achievement gap between individuals from high-poverty districts and wealthier districts is distinct, and is a direct result of educational inequity among school districts in the United States. Achievement gaps affect individuals from many different backgrounds, including low-income students, minorities, ELLs, and students with disabilities.

The National Association of Education of Young Children argues that the future of the education system is undergoing a systematic change toward educational equity and away from educational equality. The association also posits that the current inequities in the education system are rooted in the “nation’s social, political, economic, and educational structures” that are in turn based on systemic biases regarding “race, class, culture, gender, sexual orientation, disability, language, national origin, income, religion, and other identities.”

These and other complex inequities in the education system further support the notion that educational equity needs to be advanced by professionals in the field of education who are cognizant of their explicit and implicit biases.

To advance educational equity, equitable academic resources, programs, and opportunities must be available to students from all backgrounds. Each student’s strengths need to be nurtured by specialty learning programs that are geared toward advancing academic success, closing the achievement gap, and eliminating inequities in education.

Equity can be achieved in the education system by utilizing technology, preparing educators with the skills necessary to teach in diverse settings, developing inclusive methods of teaching students from different backgrounds, as well as celebrating diversity. Achieving educational equity requires educators to reflect on their implicit and explicit biases, and understand that the inequities within the education system are based on systemic biases.

How to Encourage Equity in Education

Educational leaders can take concrete steps to introduce equity into their schools and classrooms. The following approaches can change teaching dynamics and improve outcomes for students of all backgrounds.

  • Cultural Responsiveness: Culturally responsive teaching is a skill that all educators must implement within their classrooms. Students from diverse cultural backgrounds should be provided a safe environment in which to learn. Educators must also understand that a disproportionate number of students of color are expelled or held back each school year compared to their white counterparts. The key to culturally responsive teaching is to dismantle systemic biases and provide high-quality education that is tailored to students’ unique needs.
  • Personalized Learning: Educators must develop the skills to understand the individual needs of students to excel academically. This typically entails implementing individualized lesson plans and advocating for individual students who may need tailored educational resources or opportunities. The ultimate goal is to ensure that no student falls behind academically, thus further closing the achievement gap.
  • Early Intervention: Providing personalized, dedicated support at an early stage in the educational process is key to achieving equity. Early intervention can have a significant impact on the future success of a student by helping to cultivate strengths and develop vital skills for overcoming challenges.
  • Community Engagement: Education extends beyond the classroom and into the communities and homes of students. Teachers should engage families and communities in the learning process. This will encourage diverse voices to assess and correct systemic inequities, further promoting educational equity for all students.

How American University Promotes Equity in Education

The online EdD in Education Policy and Leadership program at American University’s School of Education offers students the opportunity to learn from faculty members who are leading scholars in education. The program offers students the tools to create equitable learning environments through coursework and research that focus on providing educational equity to disadvantaged groups and communities, including program evaluation and collaborative inquiry.

Learn how the American University online EdD in Education and Policy program prepares leaders to shape the future of education policy.