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Equity? Equality? How Educators Can Tell the Difference (Opinion)

Today’s post is the latest in a series on the difference between equity and equality.

‘Every Student Doesn’t Need the Same Thing’

Karen Baptiste, Ed.D., a senior consultant at McREL International, is a former special education teacher, instructional coach, and director who now works with K–12 schools across the United States to support improved teaching and learning. She is a co-author of The New Classroom Instruction That Works:

It’s common for educators to believe and teach that everyone should be treated fairly and equally. Having been a special education teacher, and being a person of color, I understand the impact on a child’s life when we treat everyone equally.

Equality, in general terms, is the belief that everyone should get the same treatment, the same resources, and the same starting point. That would be OK if our society did not rank race, gender, (dis)ability, religion, etc. Unfortunately, people of color have dealt with racism and oppression for hundreds of years, and they have not had equal treatment, fairness, nor the same starting point. When teachers say they want equality, what they are saying is that they want all of their students to be treated the same and, therefore, do not see or acknowledge the differences among their students.

When an educator says they believe in equality over equity, they overlook their students’ unique characteristics, abilities, and traits that make them who they are and alleviate themselves from the responsibility of having to address their students’ needs. Most people want to avoid discomfort, especially when the topic of race is surfaced. There is fear of getting it wrong or being accused of being a racist, so it’s easier to say “I treat all of my students the same.”

Equity acknowledges and addresses the unique needs of each student, and it is what we need to work toward. Because of my dark skin, and because of my gender, and because of the texture of my hair, and because of the language I speak, I am born into a world where I am too often dismissed and seen as inferior, not just in school but at work, when buying a home, shopping at the grocery store, traveling, and engaging in any part of living life. There is no part of our lifves that has gone untouched by racism and/or discrimination. People of color are still fighting today to be seen and heard as an equal, valued member in the world. Until that happens, we can’t talk about equality.

Equity says I see you.

Equity says I want to understand you.

Equity says I accept your Black and brown skin.

Equity says there is nothing wrong with you or your existence in the world.

Equity says I recognize your learning needs and I am willing to learn the best ways to teach you and provide you with the resources that you need to be successful so that you can feel equal in this space.

Every student doesn’t need the same thing. Equality pushes for everyone to get the same thing, while equity is about giving every student what they need to be successful. Let’s set aside the topic of race momentarily and think about the grave outcomes if we treat students with special needs equal to their peers without special needs. What if the expectation during physical education class is to run two laps in a specified time? Students who use a wheelchair cannot realistically meet that expectation. This is why the federal law requires children designated for special education services to have an individualized education program, because their needs are not equal; they do not need equal treatment, they need equitable treatment and resources in order to access a quality education. Now, think about your student in class who needs to use manipulatives during a math lesson while other students can do mental math.

All students learn differently and can meet mastery when equity becomes part of your practice. Some might consider this pedantic when discussing equality and equity, but it’s not. Providing students with the resources they need to be successful provides them with the psychological safety that is sometimes missing in classrooms but gravely needed.

‘Equity Is Not an Initiative’

PJ Caposey is the Illinois Superintendent of the Year and is a best-selling author, having written nine books for various publishers. PJ is a sought after presenter and consultant who has a widely read weekly newsletter available at

Sometimes, I think the concept of equity compared to equality is very difficult and complex. Other times, I think it is straightforward and people out of an act of willful ignorance choose not to understand. I work hard to keep a positive mindset, so my intent in this is to provide six practical examples to demonstrate the difference and how it plays out in schools.

· A student’s grandmother is in the hospital, and their attendance suffers, so you modify some assignments to ensure you are measuring their progress toward standards but limiting the volume to best meet the student’s needs. EQUITY

· A student’s grandmother is in the hospital, and their attendance suffers, and you keep them responsible for the exact work everyone else must complete. EQUALITY

· A student struggles to read and has a documented disability, so their tests are read to them. EQUITY

· A student struggles to read and has a documented disability, but you provide zero assistance to them because it would not be fair to the other students. EQUALITY

· A district analyzes their data and creates plans to close achievement gaps by paying special attention to those groups not performing well. EQUITY

· A district analyzes their data and creates improvement plans that are equally applied to all students. EQUALITY

· Based on benchmark assessment results, some students are placed in intervention groupings to support their learning needs. EQUITY

· Despite assessment results, all students receive the exact same instruction throughout the course of the day. EQUALITY

· All students who wish to participate in Advanced Placement courses are allowed to do so despite previous performance if they attend an in-person meeting articulating the demands of the course. EQUITY

· Only students who have a 3.2 grade point average and have had less than five missing assignments per year on average are allowed to participate in Advanced Placement courses without any exceptions. EQUALITY

· Some staff members have advanced degrees in reading so their professional development requirements around the new reading curriculum are altered to acknowledge their expertise. EQUITY

· All staff members are required to attend the same professional development regardless of prior knowledge or expertise. EQUALITY

My point in sharing these very realistic examples of equity versus equality is twofold. I have come to the realization that we “DO” equity far more than some people would elect to realize. Second, even those who are reluctant to embrace the fact that schools should have an equity focus typically want schools to make equitable decisions when it comes to them or their children. From that statement, feel free to extrapolate what you will.

I will leave with one last thought on the topic. Equity is not a goal. Equity is not an initiative. Equity is a mindset and a lens through which we make innumerable decisions every single day. Whenever we consider how we can best serve an individual student or lead an individual staff member by meeting them where they are at and helping them to get where they need to be, we are operating with an equity mindset.

‘Equity Empowers’

A retired teacher and speaker, Denise Fawcett Facey now writes on education issues. Among her books, Can I Be in Your Class focuses on ways to enliven classroom learning:

The words “That’s not fair” have become a virtual children’s anthem. Heard from homes to playgrounds to classrooms, those three words—spoken almost in the cadence of a song—are the outcry of kids everywhere, conveying their frustration over what they perceive as unequal treatment when things don’t go as they expected. Although we tend to ignore that all-too-common outburst, the early sense of justice that underlies it just as often informs adult concepts of equality as well, fostering an expectation that everyone will be treated the same. However, there is a striking difference between appearing to treat everyone equally and ensuring that everyone has the equity offered by an equal opportunity.

In an educational setting, affording everyone an equal chance at success means equity supersedes equality. From differentiation in teaching methods to the hiring of teachers, among other factors, here are four differences between equality and equity:

1. Differentiation. Just as we don’t expect all students to wear eyeglasses in the name of equality, we shouldn’t expect all students to learn in the same way, either. Differentiation settles that. Providing what each student needs for optimal learning, it might be as simple as eyeglasses, preferential seating, or extended time for assignments. However, the chance to present mastery in multiple ways or to use books and other resources that are culturally relevant are also means of differentiation. Although the content area is the same for all students, as are the myriad tools available (there’s your equality), each uses the tool that enables that student to achieve success. That’s not only differentiation. It’s equity.

2. Admission to gifted classes. While white, able-bodied students of a certain intellectual ability and socioeconomic level generally have an equal opportunity to be admitted to classes for gifted students, admission tends to exclude students of color as well as students with physical disabilities and those of lower socioeconomic levels, all of whom have eligible students among them. Equality makes certain that all schools have classes for gifted students. Equity goes beyond that, seeking to identify gifted students among those underrepresented groups within each school and assuring that they also gain admittance to gifted classes once identified.

3. Hiring diverse teachers. It’s easy to point with pride to teachers of color in a district or to teachers who use wheelchairs, believing them to be reflections of equality and diversity. However, how many are there? And where are these teachers placed? Equality merely says there are some of each. Equity provides an equal opportunity for ALL teachers to teach at any school, not simply affording them an interview at the “better” schools with no hope of being hired nor relegating these teachers to schools designated “inner city” or “low achieving.” Equity also ensures that the number of teachers outside the dominant group is at least representative of their numbers in that community.

4. A seat at the table. Much like hiring practices, opening a committee or group to people not normally invited is ostensibly equality. After all, this type of equality frequently involves having “one of each kind,” so to speak, with representation from various racial and ethnic groups and possibly from different ability groups as well. However, it’s certainly not equity as the newly invited are expected to be grateful for the invitation, not to be bold enough to participate as equals. Without affording these participants a genuine voice, it’s educational tokenism that solely allows one to be present. Equity, on the other hand, balances power, legitimizing each person’s voice.

Returning to that childhood question of fairness, equity is the true answer for both students and educators. Offering an equal playing field for success, equity empowers, placing everyone on equal footing.

Thanks to Karen, PJ, and Denise for contributing their thoughts!

Today’s post answered this question:

It’s not unusual for districts, schools, and educators to confuse “equality” with “equity.” What are examples, and ways, you would help them understand the difference?

Part One in this series featured responses from Jehan Hakim, Mary Rice-Boothe, Jennifer Cárdenas, and Shaun Nelms.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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