Defining Equity in Your School District

Equity and equality may sound similar. But each should have a different meaning to education leaders.

When it comes to equity, “We’re not talking about giving everything to everybody. We’re not talking about giving the same things to all students,” says Dr. Tyrone C. Howard, a thought leader on access and equity, during his keynote presentation at Leadership Academy 2018, presented by the International Center for Leadership in Education. Howard is also an Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at UCLA.

As an example of equity, he pointed to his own children. He said his love for them is an example of equity: He has to know how to recognize and meet each of their individual needs in order for them to be their best selves.

“I think equity works that same way in our schools. I think we have to be in tune with what individual students need,” said Howard, who defines equity as “a real committed set of ideals and principles that are really focused on trying to serve the most needy students.” 

Education leaders need to be mindful of the student populations in their schools “who continue to fall through the academic cracks,” Howard said. There may be some people who are resistant to equity, perhaps due to a lack of understanding of what it really means. For instance, he says, they may interpret equity as taking away from one group to focus greater time and energy on another.

In those cases, an educator must make clear to his or her colleagues that certain students who face challenges need additional time and support for reasons far beyond their control.

“What I think we have to do is be willing to make the argument that when we help folks who are in greatest need, we all win. … At the end of the day, this is not a zero sum game—we’re still going to provide the kinds of supports and services that are required for all of our students,” Howard said.

Equity looks different across school districts. One district may determine a need to focus more on students experiencing homelessness or poverty, whereas another may devote its efforts more to English language learners or students in foster care.

“We make this distinction between equity and equality,” Howard added. “They shouldn’t be used interchangeably. We’re not talking about giving everything to everybody. We’re not talking about giving the same things to all students.”

According to Howard, citing Estela Mara Bensimon, equity-minded educators:

  • Are aware that there are certain practices and policies in every school that have a disproportionate impact on student populations. Leaders must raise questions such as: Are our policies working? Are they hurting certain students?
  • Are mindful that larger institutional factors beyond students’ control can impact outcomes.
  • Constantly reflect upon the roles and responsibilities for student success. Equity-minded educators think about what they can do better and focus on those factors they can control.
  • Challenge colleagues to be equity-minded, which can be difficult. At some point, educators must be courageous enough to have these conversations.

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You can book a keynote with Dr. Tyrone C. Howard to bring his expertise about access and equity to your school or district.