In a Teacher magazine article, professor Geoff Masters, Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research, writes "Equity in education is often viewed as equivalence or sameness. A more useful way to view equity is through the lens of 'fairness.'"
Equity vs. Equality
Equal distribution may be considered fair when there is no obvious basis for differentially distributing resources. There are circumstances, however, when unequal treatment is considered fair. For example, equal treatment would mean that everybody in a group gets a cookie. However, if half of the group just finished a big meal and the other half of the group has not eaten all day, most people would be happy to allocate the cookies to those who need them more. In fact, a 2017 article by Yale researchers reported that people, in general, value fairness over equivalence.
Unequal Learning Needs
In education, it would seem reasonable to say that an equitable system would be one in which all students are treated equally. All students have the same opportunities, are exposed to the same curriculum, are taught by teachers with equivalent expertise, and have equivalent resources and support. This would seem fair, until you take into account the different learning needs of the students.
Students in the same grade level at school are generally the same age and have been in school for the same length of time. However, they differ widely in their stages of learning and development. Students are not equal when they have different levels of achievement. In response, most teachers vary treatment in order to meet individual student needs.
Another factor affecting educational needs is student background. The circumstances into which students are born have a significant impact on learning and abilities. Cultural differences, socioeconomic disparities, language barriers and family dysfunction all affect student performance and call for a need-based distribution of learning resources.
Education Equity in Wisconsin School Districts
The Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) has adopted the following statement on equity and its role in public education:
We affirm in our actions that each student can, will, and shall learn. We recognize that based on factors including, but not limited to, disability, race, ethnicity, and
socio-economic status, not all students receive equitable educational opportunities. Educational equity is the intentional allocation of resources, instruction, and
opportunities to meet the specific identified needs of students and staff in the local school community.
— Approved by the WASB Board of Directors, June 2018
Best Practices in Educational Equity
A Wisconsin School News article, Fostering Equity in Education, presents these best practices in educational equity:
Teachers – By recognizing the diversity of cultural heritage and accommodating multiple modes of learning, teachers can ensure that students are comfortable in their classroom environment and enhance learning for all students.
Schools – Creating welcoming environments for diverse families and offering parent education activities can help engage those who would otherwise feel excluded. "Some districts embrace a 'community school' model and engage diverse families by offering English classes, housing support, and job coaching to extend the services provided to families."
Communication – Communicating with hard-to-reach families in their own language, and meeting them in their own communities helps to make parent participation easier. Building parent networks for those who speak the same language helps engage families.
Parents – Parent engagement programs can have a significant impact on student learning. Consistent communication that focuses on parent empowerment is more useful than meet-and-greets, fundraisers and performances.
Educational leaders – People in positions of leadership at the school and district level must be attentive to the administrative needs of high-mobility students like ensuring timely transfer of records, creating welcome packets for new families, creating orientation materials, and appointing student ambassadors to provide a buddy system to support new students.
Discipline – Consistent implementation of tiered disciplinary policies is key to the administration of fair and equitable discipline. Consequences of misbehavior should be proportional to the harm caused. Positive disciplinary programs help improve school climate.
Educational Programming – Students who are identified as high-potential may not be included in advanced programs simply because of barriers in communication. Schools must communicate the benefits of participating in advanced courses to students and their families. Sending information home in multiple languages, providing transportation and food for evening information sessions, and following up are especially important for students from under-represented groups who may be otherwise unaware of these programs.
What School Boards Can Do
The Panasonic Foundation, which partners with public school districts to promote education, has identified a number of ways that school boards can support educational equity. These include adopting an equity-based vision that can provide a framework for the work of the school district staff. Maintaining effective communications and relationships with the school superintendent, demonstrating leadership, allocating resources equitably, and educating and engaging the community are all ways that the school board can lead the effort to achieve educational equity for the district.
In addition, monitoring the performance of all students as well as engaging students, families, communities, elected and appointed officials, and local businesses will help increase the effectiveness of collaborative efforts to support the academic and social success of all students.
The WASB recognizes that "Not every school or school district is the same or has the same problems, issues or needs. Local school board policies should reflect the needs of the district and their students and should be able to be implemented using the resources available in the district."
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