CHAPTER ONE: GETTING TO A DEFINITION
I’ll be the first to admit… I sort of have a tendency to overcomplicate things. Simplifying big ideas is super hard! So when I initially sat down to try to define equity, here’s the rough draft I came up with:
Equity is the work of removing barriers that have obstructed the full advancement of certain groups. It is the pursuit of fair treatment, access, and opportunity for all people. It is recognizing that not everyone has the same starting line, then taking steps to remedy that, institutionally and systemically.“
So like any good Millennial, I turned to Instagram for help.
That said, I got some awesome responses! My hands-down favorite though, and the one I’m adopting here, was:
Equity is when everyone has access to what they need to be successful. “
The access piece is especially key.
Picture some people slogging their way up the long, steep staircase to access that top floor we call success, while others are taking escalators or elevators. All those people have access, but clearly some have easier access than others. How might we remove barriers and create pathways of easier access for ALL? That’s a question of equity.
So now that we have a baseline, let’s build.
ISN’T EQUITY JUST A FANCIER WAY OF SAYING EQUALITY?
Actually, they’re pretty different.
Equal is everyone getting the same thing.
Equitable is everyone purposefully getting different things because we recognize that they have different starting points and thus different needs.
As an educator, it can be tempting to say, “I treat all my students equally.” Those words sound good at a surface level. But if you dig a little deeper, is it right to give everyone the same thing regardless of their needs?
This infographic from The Inclusion Lab illustrates the difference well:
That’s not to say we never want equality, of course! The reason we want to treat students with equity is so that they can all reach equally high levels of success, regardless of their starting points.
It’s the difference between focusing on inputs vs. focusing on outcomes.
We know that schools do not exist in vacuums, and students come to us with a wide range of different baselines. Family dynamics, living conditions, socioeconomic status, health, and myriad other factors all play into how our students show up at school. They bring their whole selves, just like we do.
But someone’s starting line shouldn’t determine their finish line.
If we want equal outcomes for all– which we do– we have to vary the inputs to balance the equation. That’s equity!
For our mathematical thinkers:
Different baselines + Equitable Inputs –> Equal Outcomes 🙂
Embarking on this mission to define “equity” in clear and simple terms proved to be harder than expected. Along the way, I realized that defining words is much harder when they have to do with an uncomfortable topic, and equity is just that. Uncomfortable.
Go with me for a minute, here.
In the nonprofit and private school sectors in particular, “diversity, equity, & inclusion” (D.E.I.) is a category of education work that has been gaining traction and momentum in recent years. “D.E.I. Practitioners” are becoming commonplace in independent schools, which is really great progress!
Over in the business sector, where a much wealthier and more powerful portion of society works, the equivalent term is “D & I” work. It’s much more common to hear “D & I” (Diversity & Inclusion) than “D.E.I” (Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion). In that world, they tend to drop the “E” and focus on the “D” and the “I.”
Perhaps the “E” gets left out because it is the uncomfortable part.
“D & I” — Diversity & Inclusion– are two concepts that feel good. Everyone is unique (diversity), yet everyone belongs (inclusion)… How wonderfully warm & fuzzy! These 2 words conjure up images in our heads of a rainbow of skin tones high-fiving, and happy thoughts of harmony, togetherness, and belonging.
The “E” on the other hand?
There are 4 reasons that “equity” makes us feel a little uncomfortable, especially in contrast with diversity & inclusion.
Equity is uncomfortable because…
It means we have to talk about unfairness and injustice.
If Equity had direct synonyms (which it doesn’t) the closest matches would be fairness and justice. So if we say we want equity, that implies that the current state of the world is unfair and unjust.
There are the haves, and there are the have nots.
If you’re in the “have”s camp, the suggestion that you have an unfair share of something feels like an accusation, an attack on your character. You’ve been accused of hoarding the goodness and keeping it away from others.
You might hear it as “YOU are being unfair,” or “YOU are being unjust,” which of course naturally triggers defensiveness. Thoughts like those usually then activate other thoughts, like “But I’m a good person!” Or “I worked hard for what I have!” Which are probably true, they’re just beside the point.
It’s so much bigger than individual “YOU”s though. It’s systemic. More on that in a minute.
We can all see that there is unfairness and injustice in the world. That’s a painful reality. I wonder what would happen if instead of that observation making us feel defensive, we opted to get curious about how we could take real steps to make it more fair and more just?
That mindshift could be a major step toward equity.
Equity is uncomfortable because…
It means we have to confront stuff much bigger than us: privilege and systems.
We can’t talk EQUITY without mentioning privilege.
What is “privilege,” you ask?
Welp, here’s a one-page Privilege Primer for you. We’ll wait while you go get up to speed:
Looking back at our working definition of equity–
“when everyone has access to what they need to be successful,“
we see that privilege is a necessary part of the equity conversation, because it means some people have easier access to what they need to be successful than others.
Once we admit that we see privilege, just like we see disadvantage, we can start doing the hard equity work of addressing both.
…So back to that thing about systems.
I can’t disrupt privilege on my own as an individual because it is systemic— it’s based on who holds power in our society, and what rules and systems have been historically put in place to maintain that power.
These rules and systems add up to what’s known as Structural Inequality. And it even includes the laws governing our country.
There are current and historic laws– actual laws! — that carve out paths to power, success, and prosperity for some, while blocking the paths for others.
That’s inequity on a systemic level. ( <– click for an *AWESOME* resource!!)
Here are a few official, state-sanctioned policies that create structural inequality
(Most are still in effect even today)
Education is funded most by local property taxes. Hence, schools in wealthier areas are better funded than schools in high-poverty areas because they have more property tax money available.
[ The result: educational inequity ]
Political campaign funding:
The federal minimum wage regulation doesn’t line up with the federal poverty threshold– the government defines “poverty” one way, and defines “minimum wage” a different way. In other words, if I’m working a full-time job to support my family, there are no laws ensuring that I could work my way out of poverty. I could work and work and remain in poverty because my earnings aren’t actually enough to live on.
[ Result: financial inequity ]
While discrimination is of course appalling on the individual level, it is the systemic level that is most harmful. We are all part of a system that legally discriminates, resulting in better opportunity and better outcomes for some than others.
We are all accountable. What are we going to do about it? That brings us to…
Finally, equity is uncomfortable because…
It means we have to take action (and unequal action, at that!)
The fourth and final reason EQUITY can feel uncomfortable is because it necessitates action. Moreso even than its other two partner words we mentioned earlier (diversity, inclusion). It means we see the unfairness, and now we’re going to change.
Change is hard!
Human brains are wired to resist it.
Systems are– by design– built to resist it.
Then things get even more complicated, because to make the necessary changes, it means we have to take UNEQUAL measures to remedy the inequity–
We have to remove the barriers that block some people’s paths, not all.
We have to fill the gaps that keep some people further from success than others.
Choosing to be UNEQUAL in the name of EQUITY can be a real mindbender.
But like we learned in preschool: “fair” isn’t everyone getting exactly the same thing; it’s everyone getting exactly what they need.
Once we get past the discomfort of defining equity, we also have to sift through the folklore that further obscures its true meaning.
There are two harmful myths that get in the way most of making equity a common vocabulary word.
The Myth of Meritocracy
“If you just work hard enough, you can achieve anything! It doesn’t matter where you start, success is there for those who work hard enough.“
It also creates an atmosphere of judgement, where it’s easy to attribute nonsuccess to laziness or poor work ethic, and easy to attribute success to hard work even when it isn’t the case.
It leads us to ignore the things that lead to success besides hard work, such as having educated parents, being born into a high social class, inheriting family wealth, having mentors, living in a resource-rich community, or the unearned privileges that go along with simply being white.
Similarly, it leads us to choose laziness as a singular explanation for nonsuccess, when the reality is actually a constellation of factors than might include having uneducated parents, being born into poverty, living in a resource-scarce community, exposure to addictive substances at an early age, and experiencing abuse or other childhood traumas.
The reason this myth keeps persisting is, it does happen.
There are of course people who overcome their circumstances and become successful.
American culture clings to these stories and retells them as though they are the norm, or at the very least, in a way that communicates that they are our expectation.
In reality, though, these stories are the exception, not the norm. That’s where the trouble comes in.
Celebrating stories of exceptions means turning a blind eye to the norm and never getting around to answering the questions, “how might we make these stories more common? What is causing so many people to be unable to rise above their circumstances? What would change that pattern?”
Equity then, would be taking action to disrupt that pattern– pinpointing and providing access to the things people need to become successful.
The “Education is the Great Equalizer” Myth
“Focus on your education and you’ll go far! Education is the key to your future! No matter where you start, education can get you where you want to be.“
It pains me that this one is a myth. It SHOULD be true!
Back in the early days of American education (~1840s), Horace Mann had a vision that schools could serve the purpose of closing gaps in society, equipping the poor with the skills and knowledge to rise out of poverty. He’s often quoted for calling education society’s “great equalizer” (p.59).
Unfortunately, his vision isn’t quite coming to fruition, even (or especially?) nearly 200 years later.
In many cases, schools serve to further de-equalize (is that a word?) society. School funding gaps, discipline rate disparities, tracking, white-centric curricula, and more are all common fixtures that actively widen gaps, not close them.
What would it take to turn this myth into a reality?
Here is what *YOU* can do to make equity a reality:
- Use these 3 resources to teach equity directly in your classroom: paper ball toss, smarties, and a menu of other activities.
- Equity is Empowering: Value student voice; listen to students’ input. Share power in decision-making. Connect students to opportunities to make change in their communities. Involve students in goal-setting, reflecting, and self-assessing their learning.
- Equity is Inclusive: Vary your instruction, engagement strategies, & student product options using Universal Design for Learning. Recognize that everything exists on a spectrum. Take inventory of your classroom to make sure students can see themselves and see others (“windows & mirrors!”) in your classroom library, posters, videos, example problems, and lesson plans.
- Equity is Rigorous: Use Webb’s DoK & Bloom’s Taxonomy to guide your lesson-planning for ALL students; rigor is not reserved for only high-achievers. Keep expectations high for all. Build in thinking exercises, 20% time, a MakerSpace, and/or PBL units.
- Equity is Supportive: Cultivate strong relationships with students. Hold clear, consistent boundaries. Remember that behavior is the visible manifestation of an underlying need; get to the root of it. Disrupt the school to prison pipeline every day– You have that power!
School & district leaders:
- Are students able to see themselves and others in the demographic makeup of your staff? Recruit & hire for diversity purposefully. Then make sure there are ongoing learning opportunities to help staff work together effectively across difference.
- Disrupt existing gender gaps through equitable promotion practices. Currently, the portion of roles held by females goes down steadily as level of authority goes up: from 72% at the teaching level to 13% at the superintendent level. You can change that!
- Equity audit tools: Self-assess your environment for practices/ policies that widen equity gaps instead of close them. There are tons of conscious & unconscious ways we might be impacting different kids in different ways, resulting in inequitable outcomes. Spot them with an audit.
- Stop turning words that describe groups of people into insults. No more “…like a girl,” no more r-word, no more “that’s gay.” Everyone has the right to safety and belonging at school. We can all do our part.
- This is a really tall order that’s tough to ask… consider diversity as a key determiner in choosing a school for your child. Difference benefits everyone. Sameness maintains inequity in our society.
- Change the school funding formula to be less dependent on local property taxes, and hence more equitable. Allocate more resources to schools with higher needs.
- Remember that equity and education affect us ALL, whether you’re an educator, a student, a parent, or NOT. Education impacts economy, economy impacts you. It’s all interconnected!
- Vote your values. Make sure the elected officials representing you have plans and action steps for equity in education, including de-segregation and funding reform. Call and email them to check in on progress. They serve you!
Let’s circle back one last time on that equity definition as we close out.
“Equity is when everyone has access to what they need to be successful.“
Now that we know what it is, how will we know when we get there?
At the risk of getting a little too up-in-the-clouds-dreamy…
We will see a huge increase in positive outcomes for students who had a more challenging starting line in life, because school will have made the difference that they needed to succeed. The saying “school is the great equalizer” will ring true instead of feeling like a cruel ironic joke.
We’ll see community centers partnering with schools in high-poverty areas, acknowledging that it takes more than academic support to succeed. Community partners will come together to provide wrap-around services to meet children’s whole-person needs.
We’ll look at the day-to-day classroom experiences of children in high-poverty schools and high-affluence schools, and we won’t notice a difference in the way they are learning, the way they are disciplined, the way they are spoken to, or the quality of instruction they access. Hey, maybe we won’t even have high-affluence vs. high-poverty schools any more.
We’ll have school board and district leaders with the courage to draw school zone lines that unite instead of divide races & SES-classes. We’ll see children learning with a variety of peers who are different than themselves.
We’ll see school funding formulas based on student need instead of based on local property taxes. We’ll stop talking about “the good schools” in “the good areas” because zipcode will no longer determine school quality.
We’ll see teacher prep programs at universities encouraging and preparing teachers to teach in high-need environments. Teachers won’t have to wait until grad school (if ever) to hear words like “cultural proficiency,” “culturally responsive practice,” “critical pedagogy,” or “social justice teaching.”
See you there.
Ready to take the next step? We’d love to work with you to make your school a more equitable place!
Get in touch: