Equity in Education

Equity in education is a complex and thorny issue...

The topic has become a focus during the pandemic as students struggle to learn from home for a number of reasons.

Many are pointing out that it is important that teachers do not penalise students for their lack of access. Indeed, this is important. I fully endorse the notion.

However, it is also important that we do not penalise those who do have access for the lack of access of their peers...

The goal of equity is NOT to equalise outcome. It is to maximise outcome across the population.

This means that outcome might still differ between two students.

In short, if we identify a method of teaching and learning that is effective, but then find that some students are not able to benefit from it because of their underprivileged circumstances, our job is to help increase the access of the underprivileged students as much as possible while also supporting the more privileged students.

There is an attitude held by some that suggests that using approaches, methods or platforms that not all students can access is unfair, because it widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and therefore these approaches should be shelved in favour of alternatives that all students can access.

This is a mistake.

This knowingly restricts the learning of the “haves” in order that the “have-nots” not be left behind.

As much as I don’t want to see anybody left behind, the path to equity cannot be lowering quality and standards for everybody. The goal of equity should be minimising restrictions at every level, which means in the end, there will still be some differences in access between two students from differently restricted backgrounds.

For example, lets look at two students:

In this case, Student A obviously has fewer restrictions than Student B. If the school has the resources to lend both students laptops, then Student A is fully equipped to study from home, but Student B will still struggle without home internet and with less free time available.

Some might suggest that teaching online when you have a diverse student body split between these two demographics is unfair. It gives greater opportunity to one set of students, ultimately widening the attainment gap in favour of those who are more privileged. Therefore, the only fair thing to do is scrap the programme and look for a more equitable alternative.

This seems to me to be obviously flawed reasoning.

If it has been deemed that the most effective way to continue the students’ education is through this online programme, then the programme should be made available to as many students as possible, not kept away from all students for the sake of those who cannot access it.

And any students that do not have access should be supported by the school as much as possible through whatever other means are available.

I say again: The goal of equity measures should not be to equalise outcome by any means necessary but to maximise outcome for all.

This means, unfortunately, that some will be helped a little and others will be helped a lot. It means, unfortunately, that some who are already ahead will be facilitated to move even further ahead. That sounds unfair, I know, but it is not the students’ fault that they inhabit more fortunate circumstances, and they shouldn’t be penalised for being in a better condition just as their peers should not be penalised for being in a worse condition.

If you have a student in your lesson who gets the topic and one who is struggling, and they both have questions, the former a question that will take their understanding above and beyond your objective for the lesson and the latter a question that might make then reach your objective, you obviously don't ignore the first student's question to hold her back and make it fairer for the latter!

The challenge that faces educators and the education system is how to raise standards and access for everybody, not how to bring everybody to a middle ground to the benefit of some and the cost of others.

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