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What Is Equity in Education?

7 Min Read
Equity in education

The word equity itself sounds similar to equality. But, according to experts, differentiating the two is essential to meet the needs of students in K-12 school districts.

Let’s take a deeper dive into what educational equity truly means—and the steps teachers and administrators can take to make their schools more equitable.

Equity in Education Definition

Dr. Tyrone C. Howard, ICLE Senior Fellow and professor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), recently kicked off a keynote presentation at HMH’s Think Connected Virtual Summit for education leaders with a powerful statement: “Equity is much more transformative than equality.”

Why is that the case? Because if you gave the same exact resources to all students, inequalities would still exist, he says. Equity in education means being willing and able to create systems, structures, principles, and policies to “meet children where they are,” or to account for the vastly different realities of children across the U.S.

Being equitable as an educator means taking the time to identify which students need what resources for success. The support educators give to students who live in poverty, for instance, will look different than the support they give those from higher-income backgrounds.

“[Equity] is about saying, ‘We are going to give students what they need to succeed,’” Dr. Howard says. “Equity is not about fairness; it’s really about uprooting disadvantage.”

As an example of equity in a broader context, Dr. Howard points to his relationships with his four children. Each is a different person with unique needs. As a result, he needs to think about how best to meet each of their individual needs as a parent to help them achieve equal amounts of success.

Tyrone howard

“Equity is not about fairness; it’s really about uprooting disadvantage.”

Tyrone Howard

UCLA Professor; ICLE Senior Fellow

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:

  1. Curriculum: Students need to see their own backgrounds reflected in learning materials while also getting glimpses into the lives and experiences of others.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Lydia headshot

Equality is like the end line; it's going to take equity to get us there.”

Dr. Lydia Carlis

Chief Program and People Officer at Acelero Learning and Shine Early Learning

“You automatically recognize that there is a very large subgroup of families, especially in public schools, who will not be able to access those opportunities and that ultimately would lead to lower achievement,” Dr. Carlis says.

Even after the pandemic, administrators need to be informed about students’ at-home lives to support them both academically and social-emotionally. However, access is largely a funding issue, Carlis says. In the case of COVID, it has become the administrators’ responsibility—if their district couldn’t fund devices for all students—to seek grants and other financial resources.

“Another responsibility for administrators is developing tools and supports to help families access with their children, to understand what's going on, how they can be most helpful academically,” Carlis says.

Qualities of an Equity-Minded Educator

According to HMH’s 6th Annual Educator Confidence Report, published in collaboration with YouGov, equity in teaching was top of mind among educators in June 2020, when the survey was conducted. Fifty-six percent of teachers and administrators in high-poverty school districts, and 41% of educators in low-poverty districts, said they were most concerned about inequity in our K-12 educational system.

So, what makes an educator equity-minded? Dr. Tyrone C. Howard and his son Jaleel outlined the following characteristics in their keynote presentation:

  • Has a willingness to relinquish power while maintaining authority and creating a safe environment for students
  • Maintains awareness of students’ realities and interests
  • Maintains awareness of the community in which the school is located and where the students live
  • Maintains a constant awareness of student challenges and skill level
  • Can scaffold to help all students comprehend higher-level content
  • Centers students’ voices, needs, and experiences in the curriculum, procedures, and activities

“I think we can increase equity for all groups of students by looking at the materials, supports, and trainings we give teachers and school systems to address these issues,” Carlis says.

She adds, “If the books and the tools are inclusive and focused on supporting—not even supporting, but honoring, respecting, celebrating, acknowledging—that there’s a diversity of ways that families show up, that people love, that people identify gender-wise, that would have a big impact on children’s experiences.”


Looking for more resources about access and equity in education? Equip yourself with strategies to foster judgment-free environments, in both physical and virtual classrooms, with this free guide.

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