Dr. Lydia Carlis, chief program and people officer at Acelero Learning and Shine Early Learning, says inequities in education often stem from historical inequity and racism, so educators need to support those children differently than other students. This is especially true for Black children, particularly those from low-income backgrounds—though equity is also essential for LGBTQ+ students, English language learners, students with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.
“Equity means [educators are] doing something specific to address the past and sometimes current systemic inequalities and inequities,” Dr. Carlis says. “And that should lead us to equality. Equality is like the end line; it's going to take equity to get us there.”
5 Key Areas of Focus
Dr. Tyrone C. Howard and his son Jaleel Howard, a doctoral student and former educator—who gave the keynote presentation with his father—say equity can be examined in each of the following areas:
- Curriculum: Students need to see their own backgrounds reflected in learning materials while also getting glimpses into the lives and experiences of others.
- Discipline: Data shows significant racial disparities among students who face disciplinary action in U.S. schools. Black students are more likely to be suspended in part because of implicit biases among teachers, administrators, and other school staff. School communities need to work together to address this disparity.
- Teacher Quality: When students have access to highly qualified, racially aware teachers, academic outcomes can improve significantly. Students with the greatest academic needs should be taught by educators who have the experience and skills to keep them engaged. This may also entail involving educators in training about unconscious bias and culturally responsive teaching.
- Counseling: Schools need to work toward a reasonable ratio of students to counselors—not just for academic help but also for career guidance, college planning, and mental health. Large high schools in urban districts, for instance, with thousands of students, should have more than just a few counselors to ensure they adequately meet all students’ needs. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1.
- Relationships: Equity is at the core of positive student-teacher relationship. To be an equitable educator, find out what’s important to your students—their values, their experiences, and who they truly are as people. Students don't want to be talked down to. They want to be accepted for who they are.
Access and Equity in Education
In education, schools and districts should aim to ensure all students can access the same services and facilities and thus take full advantage of their time in the classroom. In the context of students with disabilities, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education defines accessibility as:
When a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally integrated and equally effective manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use.
The equity gaps in K-12 education became more recognizable than ever before last spring when schools unexpectedly switched to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some students, particularly those from low-income families and rural communities, didn’t have access to the same course materials, supervision, and technology as many of their peers from higher-income backgrounds.
Some families could afford tutoring for their kids to help them catch up on lessons they may have missed. These children also likely had access to high-speed internet and other types of useful technology at home.
"There are lots of students whom we know are not in a position to access technology like laptops and computers and smartphones by way of just their socioeconomic circumstances," Dr. Howard wrote in an April 2020 blog post. "That's an access-and-equity issue."
Students may also have parents who are essential workers—such as nurses or food services employees—and who may not have been able to offer support and supervision for their children at home, especially with their work hours possibly increasing during the pandemic. The at-home challenges students have faced, regardless of income level, have varied widely since last spring.