Equality Has Failed: The Case for Educational Equity

This week, I was honored to be a keynote speaker at Educational Equity in Action, a first of its kind event held at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). I have spent my career blurring the lines between academic, teacher, and school leader while advocating that our country shift toward an equity-based educational system. I was encouraged that the event attracted more than 670 education professionals from across the country and the state of Minnesota. It gives me hope that the concept of educational equity – as opposed to educational equality – is gaining momentum in America today.

Making this shift in our thinking and educational policy is vital if we are serious about fulfilling America’s promise of a pluralistic, multi-racial democracy.

The Failure of Educational Equality

In the 60 years since Brown vs. Board of Education desegregated America’s schools, we’ve pursued the ideal of educational equality. On its surface, this was an admirable goal – of course all children should be treated equally and have the same chance to receive an education and excel in life.

The problem with educational equality – this idea that all students should be treated the same – is that it hasn’t worked. In fact, if you look at our society today, I think it’s fair to say it’s been an incredible failure. There are three statistics that indicate that our public education has failed to create the equality we say we want; in fact, it has contributed to a fundamentally inequitable society where the gap between the have and have-nots is growing larger.

  • The income gap. If you look at the Congressional Budget Office data for income in the United States, you’ll find that we have not only the greatest income gap on Earth – but the largest income gap in the history of the industrialized world. There are few things that are more at odds with the ideal of building a democratic nation-state. Worse yet, it’s growing. In the 1970s, we had the smallest income gap in the history of the U.S., and we’ve taken a rocket ship in the wrong direction since. If our national public school system was creating equal opportunity, this data wouldn’t be so radically inequitable.
  • Incarceration rates. The U.S. is also the world’s leader in per capita incarceration rates. We lock up more of our own citizens than any other nation in the world, with Russia coming in at a distant second. This is another statistic that gives us some insight into the failure of our education system; there’s a wealth of data that shows the relationship between how a young person does in school and the likelihood that they end up in the penal system.
  • The Global Peace Index. This is an index based on a variety of indicators (homicide rates, terrorism, crime, etc.) that’s used by public health officials, the United Nations, and other global organizations to track quality of life and relative safety. Currently, the U.S. is 103 out of 163 ranked nations. To put this in perspective, we lag far behind our northern neighbor Canada (8th on the list) and just barely rank above Cambodia (105) and Brazil (103). What a terrible indictment of the wealthiest nation-state in the world. Once again, it’s not that there aren’t peaceful areas in the U.S. On the contrary, some communities in our country are extremely healthy and peaceful places to live, while others have health outcomes akin to a developing nation.

If this is the country we’ve created with 70 years of educational “equality,” then I’d say it’s time for a change.

Why Educational Equality Doesn’t Work

When I speak, I usually begin by untangling the difference between educational equity and educational equality. At the heart of an equality-based approach is that – in order to be fair – we have to give all kids the same thing. In practice, this amounts to setting a minimum standard of how we define a high-quality teacher or a high-quality school, and then saying, “Everyone gets at least the minimum standard.”

But it’s the “at least” in that last sentence that is the root of inequality. Schools with wealth and resources are allowed to exceed the standard, which creates a fundamentally unequal system. And I’m just referring to public schools – when you account for private schools, the inequality is incredible. Frankly, this equal education approach has been a complete and utter failure.

Even if we were able to succeed at this modest goal of providing true equality to all schools, it’s wrongheaded. This approach ignores the fact that – outside of the walls of the school, between 3 p.m. and 8 a.m. – things are fundamentally unequal. Yet, we keep trying to right a ship that’s destined to sink. The structure, curriculum, and teaching methods effective in an affluent suburban district often aren’t appropriate or relevant in schools serving large numbers of students growing up experiencing poverty, racism, and a host of other unrelenting stressors.

The Power of Educational Equity and Differentiated Instruction

A model of educational equity is more closely aligned with the rhetoric of the nation, the lofty goal of creating a pluralistic, multi-racial democracy. An equity model is more attentive to the particular needs of a school community. While some of the outcome pursuits might be the same – high levels of engagement, many opportunities for students, academic rigor, etc. – the methods and curriculum used are tailored to the needs and culture of the school’s students. Too often, we assume that achieving those goals for any group of kids requires an “equal” (or identical) approach.

However, research suggests using the same approach or same baseline in every classroom, school, district, or state is fundamentally inequitable. Ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you the most effective teaching practices are what we refer to as “differentiated instruction.” In differentiated classrooms, the teacher acknowledges that all the students come to the classroom with different needs, strengths, and baselines. You tailor your instruction to the particular needs of each learner.

While we know that differentiated instruction is the gold standard at the classroom level, we haven’t thought deeply enough about what that means at the systems level. What does it mean to have a differentiated approach to how we staff and resource schools depending on the particular needs of the community? It’s not a lower bar, it’s an acknowledgement that teaching to the needs and desires of your students creates better academic outcomes. The schools and students in our nation face a wide variety of challenges; a cookie-cutter approach to education can’t possibly solve them all.

A Blueprint for Educational Equity

While there are many great teachers working in our schools today that use differentiated and equity-based approaches to education, we need to do more on the state and national level to help create a public school system that truly serves the needs of all of our students. Here’s a few things we can do to move forward:

  • Invest in recruiting and training a diverse teaching corps. We make virtually no investment in recruiting and training teachers. That doesn’t mean we don’t know how to do it. In fields we value, like science, engineering, or medicine we make much more intensive investments in recruitment and preparation. As our country becomes more and more diverse, our teaching corps remains 86% white and 84% female. While many of these teachers are committed, caring, and aim to be effective, the profession should be much more reflective of the population it serves.
  • Give teachers better resources. When I say resources, I mean that in a couple ways. One, we need to pay teachers more in this country. Two, I’d like to see better structures in place for professional development, support, and advancement in the teaching profession. Right now, teachers find themselves in a fixed labor model with few, if any, opportunities for professional growth. This stagnates teacher growth and increases attrition in the profession, both of which negatively impact children.
  • More local control. The Los Angeles Unified school district has 700,000 students. How can one system possibly meet the needs of such a large – and incredibly diverse – student body? Schools, educators, and communities need much greater autonomy over their curriculum, assessments, school cultures, and teaching methods if they are to meet the needs of their students. There are certainly models of greater local control being given to communities and educators in places like New Zealand and Finland. Of course, this is also what happens all over the U.S. in affluent suburban districts and elite private schools.
  • Another problem we have is that a lot of the conversations around how to change the profession get siloed. One group of people are talking about recruitment. Another group is talking about what goes on in teacher credentialing programs. Yet another is talking about how to grow, develop, and support teachers once they’re on the job. Without synching these conversations up, we simply won’t have the impact we should have at the classroom level.

This last point is the main reason that I am so excited that events like CEHD’s Educational Equity in Action are taking place. Bringing together teachers, researchers, administrators, and community members to reflect on the current state of our education system and collaborate on solutions is the most powerful tool we have in trying to move towards true educational equity.

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Jeff Duncan-Andrade, Ph.D

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Jeff Duncan-Andrade, Ph.D.

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