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How to Identify Equity Issues in Education


A diverse group of students sitting around a table with an educator

Every classroom, not to mention each school district, contains a student body with diverse experiences and needs. While diversity is good and enriches students’ lives in many ways, certain aspects of it are tied to inequity, and make success more difficult for some students.


School is better for everyone, including students, teachers, administrators, and families, when students have what they need to succeed. Of course, resource limitations will always leave some needs unmet. It’s worth seeking solutions to keep unmet needs to a minimum.


One solution is looking for the inequities we can address. Easier said than done, right? In addition to the challenges of pinpointing equity issues, the uncontrollable factors that affect students (socioeconomics, institutional racism, etc.) can feel downright overwhelming.


Fortunately, with the right tools, you can discern where it’s possible to make things more equitable for all students. One of those tools is data, viewed in a way that highlights discrepancies and counters them with actionable insights.


This article will unpack the word “equity” to differentiate it from “equality” in school settings. We’ll then outline common achievement gaps and what can exacerbate them. Finally, we’ll explore how the right data analytics help school leadership understand equity issues and address them effectively.


Educational Equity, and What Can Hinder It


Before anything else, we want to be clear on what equity is and how it differs from equality. Understanding this is the first step in addressing equity issues in public education systems.


Equity vs. Equality


Equality is when everyone is given the same resources and opportunities. The thinking behind this is that, with the same tools, students will have what they need to perform as their peers do. Among students, equality might look like:

  • Providing every student with the same books and electronic devices for the classroom setting and to take home

  • Assessing academic achievement on a set of uniform standards that apply across a building, district, or state

  • Offering student counselor services through a professional who looks and speaks like most teachers

These all sound good at first. Yet, what about the student who can’t use their school tablet at home because they don’t have Wi-Fi? Or the district whose students see the world very differently than students from the opposite side of the state? Or the largely Black and Hispanic student body that feels misunderstood by its kind, yet mostly White, staff of teachers and counselors?


Equity recognizes that not everyone begins in the same place. Simply having the same tools doesn’t mean students also have the same ability and opportunity. True equity provides individualized support to meet students where they are, which might look like:

  • Addressing reading challenges so each student can learn from the books teachers provide; working with agencies and network providers to ensure children can access the internet with devices they bring home

  • Analyzing academic performance beyond a list of check boxes, and setting standards that align with students’ cultural experiences

  • Employing teachers, counselors, and support staff who are truly familiar with the experiences of their students and won’t come across as condescending, even unintentionally

Equality might work well enough in schools where the student body is relatively homogenous (such as certain private, religious, and small public schools). However, most schools are too diverse for that approach to actually address achievement gaps.


Equity recognizes that not everyone begins in the same place. Simply having the same tools doesn’t mean students also have the same ability and opportunity. True equity provides individualized support to meet students where they are.

Horizontal Equity vs. Vertical Equity


Those relatively homogenous schools we just mentioned may move beyond equality to something called “horizontal equity.” Often used in funding conversations, the concepts of horizontal and vertical equity in education usually refer to how financing is determined.


A school that uses horizontal equity strives to provide equal resources for students who come from “equal” places. If they know most students’ families earn similar incomes, or all of them speak English, for example, equal resources are generally acceptable.


The problem with horizontal equity is that it doesn’t necessarily consider all the factors at play. It also doesn’t always give educators the tools to seek out unequal circumstances among students.


Vertical equity, on the other hand, intentionally looks for where student circumstances and educational opportunities are unequal. Then, it supports teachers, administrators, and districts in developing solutions to counter the resulting inequities.


True Equity Is Better for Everyone in the Community


Equality isn’t enough. Horizontal equity isn’t enough. Vertical equity takes more effort, but the outcomes are beneficial to everyone, not just the students involved.


Studies have linked small achievement gaps between student demographics to higher test scores. Schools that work to reduce inequities see improvement among all students, no matter what their individual circumstances. Further, communities that prioritize equity seem to experience better health and longer lives on average.


One important note: Educational equity is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done project. As students and school systems change over time, our efforts toward equity must also evolve.


Equality isn’t enough. Horizontal equity isn’t enough. Vertical equity takes more effort, but the outcomes are beneficial to everyone, not just the students involved.


Two high school students meeting with an administrator

For the Most Disadvantaged Students, Inequities Arise From Many Angles


It’s not possible to list every single factor that contributes to educational inequities among students. Even if we could, no teacher or administrator is able to meet every student exactly where they are.


Yet, acknowledging what makes a school more likely to see significant achievement gaps gives us a sense of where to look. Then, educators will have a better chance of reaching the disadvantaged students who need help most.


Often, discrepancies in achievement may be tied to the following factors:

  • Race

  • Gender

  • Ability

  • Language

  • Finances

Consider a girl with leaning difficulties whose family primarily speaks Spanish. Her low-test scores may be identical to the White boy’s whose family faces food insecurity. A third student with ample financial resources and no language barriers may score low due to mental health challenges.


A school system cannot change the root challenges of language, money, and health. Yet, weighing all the factors and understanding the unique reasons these students struggle will make equitable solutions more apparent.


In addition, consider what established practices and parameters exacerbate those achievement gaps. The following could be part of the larger problem:

  • Exclusion of input from marginalized groups and minority students in school and community discussion, intentionally or unintentionally

  • Ineffective or non-existent laws and policies that fight inequality and promote equity, including resource distribution for low-income students

  • Cultural pushback from those who feel accommodations for disadvantaged families will somehow penalize students with greater advantages

Situations like these are when it’s important to recall that closing achievement gaps and striving for vertical equity will be good for everyone the school touches, not just minority students.


Data Helps Bring Equity to the Education System


Inequity in education is complex, and the solutions are not simple. The journey from equality-focused to equity-focused is not necessarily straightforward and without missteps.


Fortunately, tools are available to help schools along the way. Data is one of them. The ability to view a student body through the lenses of demographics, behavior, academics, and finances, and then connect the information to realistic actions, is invaluable in the pursuit of equity.


Equitable education meets students where they are and seeks solutions to their unique challenges. Similarly, effective data analytics are customized to the circumstances of specific states, districts, buildings, and people.


Using customized data on student demographics, behavior and discipline, school resources, and state and district comparisons, educators can begin to address the achievement gaps in not just their schools, but their communities.


Equitable education meets students where they are and seeks solutions to their unique challenges. Similarly, effective data analytics are customized to the circumstances of specific states, districts, buildings, and people.

Equity as a Path to Justice


Once we’re looking at individualized plans toward equity, we more clearly see the barriers that cause inequality and inequity in the first place.


For example, imagine a room of kindergarteners learning to read. Every student has access to the same books, which is equality. Students are put into groups according to their reading level (horizontal equity), and those needing extra help work one-on-one with teachers and tutors (vertical equity).


Still, a small handful of students are working extra hard simply to reach the baseline levels of their peers: those who primarily speak languages other than English.


Giving kindergarteners books in their primary language removes a barrier and lets them focus on the stated goal: learning to read. That’s justice. Imagine if we applied this concept to every piece of children’s education!



Eidex Is Dedicated to Education, Equity, and Justice for All Students


Eidex is developed by educators, for educators. We centralize the massive amounts of data your school system collects and organize it in engaging and actionable ways. Our software is designed for primary and secondary education.


As your partner in assessment data, we work hard to provide an accessible, collaborative, and flexible system that gives you clear views at every level, from the state all the way down to individual students and teachers. Like you, we want to see equitable education that promotes justice for students and their communities.


If you would like to learn more about effective data strategies in K-12 education, check out our resources page. There, you will find a variety of original ebooks, case studies, and webinars from Eidex clients, partners, and our team of experienced educators.


To schedule a meeting, quote, or demo, please feel free to submit this simple contact form. It will be our pleasure to work toward equitable education with you!


References

Why understanding equity vs. equality in schools can help you create an inclusive classroom. (2020, May 2). Waterford.org. https://www.waterford.org/education/equity-vs-equality-in-education/

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