Education Impact column – “Equity”

By Sarah Ostergaard

Fair. “It’s not fair.” is a common childhood complaint. “His slice is bigger,” or “she had a longer turn.” Does anyone else remember waiting by the swing at recess and counting down to your turn? I do. Counting was fair. No one could argue with the counting method since we all count from 1-25 the same.

Or do we? Maybe kids counted the number of swings back-and-forth as “one” and some kids counted that as “two.” Some kids rushed counting and others used their watches for an exact time. Even in counting the same numbers, 1-25, there were different interpretations of how to count.

I think in those days, we heard the buzzword “equal” or “equality” a lot. Equal time on playground equipment. Equal slice of the pie. Equal pay for equal work. Equal opportunity. The basic definition of “equality” is same – everyone has the same allotment, the same resources, the same access and then the equal opportunity comes from what they choose to do with it.

Fast forward to today and the word “equity” captures our attention and stirs debate. Equity has become a heavy, controversial, and political term, especially in the context of education. Why? Importantly, how can we come together despite terminology for the betterment of our community’s children?

Misunderstood, the concept of equity stirs concerns that its practices are not fair in that some people may be elevated and some leveled down. At the heart of the controversy are concerns our child’s education may be diminished to make room for others with different abilities, skills, or challenges. But education is not a zero-sum game where one child’s gain is another child’s loss. Rather than remaining fixed, educational opportunities are expandable: a rising tide floats all boats. When each child’s educational needs are met through equitable practices, our whole community benefits. Equitable education practices are those that recognize and work with unique capabilities so every student has an equal opportunity to excel. Equal opportunity is the goal; equitable access is the procedural vehicle.

How? Equitable educational practices require time, training, and fully staffed schools and when done well, have tremendous results for an entire community. Skilled school personnel evaluate progress and, under the federal IDEA, Section 504, or ADA laws, may craft a plan of accommodations to lay the procedural groundwork for equal opportunity for a child who learns differently, or whose eye muscles that don’t focus in tandem, or who is suffering from a bad concussion after falling off his/her bike (it happens). Providing a dyslexic child, for example, with extended time on an assignment does not take away from another child’s opportunity for success. The equitable practice of extended time provides equal opportunity to excel. Done well and with trained staff, equity in education is not leveling down, is not lowering expectations, is not giving the easy way out. Education is not a zero sum game; the pie is expandable.

Absolutely essential to this success are fully staffed schools. This term is difficult to pin down, raises ire across the political spectrum, and will be the subject of a future article here. In short for now, LR5’s class size maximum is 25 (may be higher with principal approval). Title 1 funds may be used to reduce class sizes in Title 1 schools, which in LR5 are some of our elementary schools, although it stands to reason that Title 1 class size reduction would also benefit the students as they progress through the secondary schools into which these Title 1 elementary schools feed.

Equity in education also means recognizing that each child has different life experiences that are valuable and meaningful to them. My Economics students planned their ideal Thanksgiving meal – real or imaginary – with their favorite foods. They made a budget, calculated unit costs, and analyzed pricing data to evaluate inflation. Sounds straightforward. But in our diverse and beautiful country, there are myriad opinions of what must be included in the Thanksgiving meal. And also, especially in the post-pandemic years, remaining sensitive to students’ family situations is crucial to an inclusive classroom environment. This is not dumbing down education; it is building up with a strong foundation. Equitable classroom practices are needed, especially in this era of google, to foster communication, community, and collaboration. All three of these skills are highly regarded by our students’ future employers.

As Americans, our differences are our heritage and one of our sources of strength. Whatever the terminology, supporting an equitable classroom environment is not a zero sum approach. Understanding and supporting educational opportunities through equitable practices expands the pie for everyone.