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Equity vs. Equality: Are they opposites, or on a continuum?

equity equality

Comic retrieved from http://blog.ubcjoe.org/2012/04/05/1for-a-fair-selection-everybody-has-to-take-the-same-exam_787144ec8906c416d5b842d5d9412257/

When my second son was born eight months ago, I experienced a lot of angst over how to divide my attention between my newborn and his 16-month-old brother. My first son seemed to need so much of me—play time and stimulation, shared reading, language input, nourishment, snuggles, rocking, singing. How would my second son be able to snag even a moment of my time by comparison? There were moments I felt bad about leaving him in his bouncer as he cooed and looked on, rather than holding him, while I played with my toddler. It felt like he was ignored for large parts of the day, even though I did my best to stimulate or snuggle him, too. I talked to an experience mom about my angst (and, I daresay, guilt) and she asked me, “Is your newborn getting everything he needs? Are you feeding him? Do you keep him clean and warm? Do you smile at him? Do you hold him when he’s unhappy, (even if not immediately)?” When I answered yes to each of these questions, she said, “If both your kids are getting what they need from you, it doesn’t matter if their need for you is equal.”

Mind blown! I have an entrenched sense of equality when it comes to siblings, because my mom prioritized being fair with my brother and me, and neither of us could ever honestly say that there was favoritism growing up. But when I realized that a newborn and toddler require different amounts of interaction, vigilance, and clothing changes, I started thinking about the difference between equity and equality in parenting. What’s funny is that I never had an issue with this as a teacher. It was obvious to me that some students (no wait, all students) needed more (of something) from their teachers—more boundaries, more freedom, more lenience, more guidance, more challenges. The Montessori setting I was in had differentiation built into its model too, so it was natural to identify and provide students what they needed.

Still, not every educational setting allows or encourages that level of equity. In fact, most of the conversations in government and educational policy surrounding difference, whether that difference is disability, socioeconomic status, or English learner status, is about equality. (The only time the conversation knowingly touches on equity seems to be with regard to gifted and talented programming, which still doesn’t get much attention). But there are traces of equity in many policies–installing a ramp for wheelchair-bound students and offering free and reduced lunch to a portion of the student population are both moves toward equity, since they are intended to meet the needs of some, and not all, students. And though English Learners won their right to educational equity with Lau v. Nichols (1974), it’s been more than 40 years, and teachers still have a hard time shaking the easy, one-size-fits-all definition of equality for the necessary, yet nebulous, balm of equity to help all students succeed. Take the teacher in this article, who didn’t want one student to miss a quiz, even though the student would benefit more from direct instruction than from a quiz of skills she didn’t yet have.

The hardest part is recognizing that equality and equity may be on a continuum, rather than opposite sides of the coin. In fact, most opportunities start out with the need for equality, then as you see each child’s interest and need, you adjust your approach midstream. I might offer both my boys some pear with their lunch, but just because my 8-month-old tires of it after five bites doesn’t mean I should withhold it from my toddler, who can eat a whole pear himself. Likewise, you might do an activity designed for your ELs with your entire class at first, so everyone has a shot at something new, but allow students who find it too easy to move on to other things. Teaching, like most other things in adulthood, requires some level of judgment. But if equity is at the heart of your decision-making, I’m sure the learners in your life will receive what they need.

How do you promote equity in your classroom? Do you find equity and equality to be more dichotomous, or on a continuum?

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