Equity in Education

A guide for educators and administrators

One of the most common questions that educators ask with regard to equity is this: What does equity mean?

Equity has been defined both in really broad terms (e.g., “giving every student what they need to succeed”) and using narrower conceptions (e.g., “ensuring that students have access to rigorous content and academic opportunities”).

As with every definition, there are nuances — particularly with something as dynamic and far-reaching as the concept of equitable school environments. The answers lie at both ends of the spectrum AND somewhere in the middle.

We define equity as the elimination of the predictability of success or failure by any social or cultural factor AND the dismantling of inequitable practices and policies. See a more in-depth definition below.

Working toward equity in education starts with the belief that all children are entitled to an education rooted in justice, free of racist and gender-exclusive practices and policies, as well as inaccurate historical depictions. Furthermore, educators and school and district leaders should strive for high levels of consciousness around racial literacy, gender equality, ableist practices, and actions that disenfranchise students who have minimal economic and social resources. Achieving high levels of consciousness around equitable practices is not easy, but in order to fulfill the promise of a free and public education, we must meet this challenge. Working toward equity also involves identifying goals, engaging in constant practice, implementing changes, and measuring outcomes.

The concept of public education is a radical idea. Every state in the union individually — and the federal government collectively — has committed to providing a free, public education to every child. This commitment comes with the responsibility to ensure that every child has access to a physically and psychologically safe learning environment, excellent instruction from well-prepared teachers, as well as rigorous content and resources that support their learning.

The data have proved over and over that optimal learning environments are not currently accessible to every child. Thus, we must look at working toward equity as both an opportunity and a challenge.

The opportunity of working towards equity lies in America’s promise to fulfill the educational and psychological needs of every child at every public school institution. When adults create classroom spaces that are inclusive, where students feel a true sense of belonging and have access to instruction and content that are culturally responsive, those students can imagine a world that values their identities, regardless of race, gender identity, ability status, and socioeconomic status.

The challenge of ensuring equity lies in the fact that on the whole, schools do not meet the needs of all children. Qualitative and quantitative data support the claim that students from historically marginalized populations (Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students, as well as students with special needs and students with minimal or no economic resources) many times attend schools that have not adequately met their educational needs. Thus, meeting the challenge of ensuring equity for these students and others requires active, ongoing self-reflection, as well as a commitment to dismantling inequitable practices and policies, providing access to rigorous content, delivering culturally responsive instruction, and ensuring opportunities for all children. All of these things need to be accomplished at the level of the instructor, school leader, and district leader.

Learning environments that are built around equitable principles have the potential to positively impact students inside and outside of classrooms. Educators, administrators, and board members that are committed to equity have the ability to build equitable schools. Schools with a clear commitment to ensuring equity can be the catalyst to change the educational system as a whole, so that student outcomes can no longer be predicted based on race, gender, socioeconomics, ability, or any other sociocultural factor.

What Is Equity?

The root of the word equity is derived from a single Latin word, aequus, meaning “level” or “just.” We conceptualize equity as having two parts. Working towards equity means:

  1. Eliminating the predictability of success and failure as determined by race, gender, socioeconomics, or any other sociocultural factor.
  2. Interrupting and dismantling oppressive practices, structures, and policies that are barriers to access and success.

Many people say they want to advocate for equity, but interrupting inequitable practices and the systems that perpetuate them is hard work.

Throughout this section, definitions of the different types of equity will be offered. These definitions are not meant to be comprehensive. Rather, they are meant to illustrate the intersectional nature in which equity or inequity exists.

Equality and Equity — What is the difference?

Equality denotes a degree of equivalency. It means that people receive the same resources, the same support, the same opportunities. Even though the American social order tends to place a lot of value on equality, as a society, we do not live up to the ideals of equality.

No, everyone does not have the same chances and opportunities. No, everyone does not receive the same education. No, everyone is not born into families that have significant resources to support the success of future generations. If we intersect these inequalities with the reality of racism, sexism, gender inequality, and social and economic repression, we have the recipe for a system that does not work for all people. These inequalities are further highlighted when we examine the institution of schooling.

When we work towards equity, we recognize that people do not start on equal footing. The fact that we are all human beings with our own identities, abilities, ideas, and skills means that we are inherently unequal. Thus, the process of overlaying this notion of equality on individuals and institutions is doomed from the start. Working towards equity means erasing the barriers that stand in the way between people and opportunity. Working towards equity means that outcomes can no longer be predicted by one’s race, gender, or other sociocultural factor. 

If we truly want equitable outcomes, we cannot wait for them to come about by treating all students equally. We must accommodate different students’ learning needs, cultural backgrounds, circumstances, and aspirations. Different students need different supports and resources than others. Different students need different opportunities. Furthermore, much school content is written without the narratives of marginalized populations in mind. While culturally relevant content is not the sole determinant of success in schools when it comes to the education of students from marginalized populations, it remains an important factor.

In order to better understand equity in general — as well as racial equity, gender equity, and economic and social equity specifically — we have provided some basic definitions of terms that we use throughout our work. These definitions are by no means comprehensive or static. They are always open for analysis and change.

Racial Equity

In order for us to work toward racial justice and racial equity, we must first acknowledge that inequitable systems and racist practices have existed in the United States since the country’s inception. The concept of race is a social construct that was meant to sort and select and to determine one’s freedom, access to wealth, and one’s participation in the democratic process.

Achieving racial equity is a process — a process that will remain ongoing for a long time to come and that must actively involve everyone. Equity in education must acknowledge the historical systems of oppression and their impact on students, families, and educators. To work towards educational equity, we must address each student, not just groups of students or students as an aggregate. As we talk about different racial groups as either privileged or oppressed (see the definitions below), we must remember that educational equity and an emphasis on individual needs go hand in hand.

Gender Equity

Gender and gender identity in public school spaces have been hotly debated and talked about topics in the last several years. Suffice it to say, the dominant cultural narrative supports and values the norms of a white, male, cisgender identity. As a result, girls in general, and girls of color specifically and students who identify as LBTQIA+ (regardless of gender identity), face marginalization in public school settings. Furthermore, much school content is written without the narratives of marginalized populations. As such, historical events in social studies, literature, and concepts in math and science do not tell the unique stories, nor do they accurately represent the identities of the various gender identities.

Working towards gender equity includes, but is not limited to, positive representations of people of different gender identities in content, access to educational opportunities for people who represent marginalized gender identities, intentional recruitment of girls and students who identify as LGBTQIA+ in courses where they are underrepresented, and dismantling of written and unwritten policies that discriminate against people with marginalized gender identities.

Economic and Social Equity

Schools are microcosms of larger societal structures. Within schools, there are economic and social hierarchies. Economic and social power within schools translates to access to funds of knowledge, opportunities, and resources. Students with little economic and social power have less access to the things that would help them be more successful. Also, schools tend to respond more favorably to students and families with economic and social power, giving those students access to the support systems that are essentially required for school success.

Schools should dedicate their resources to balance the scale of economic and social power for students who lack this among peers, teachers, and the power structures within schools and districts. Most schools that do this successfully implement specific programming to benefit marginalized student populations and also find ways to provide leadership responsibilities to those students and their families.