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Big Ideas at the Heart of Educational Equity: 5 Key Considerations

Big Ideas at the Heart of Educational Equity: 5 Key Considerations

By Chris Harrison, EdD | August 24, 2017
Program Manager, ETR


“It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.”

~Sankofa, Akan tribe of Ghana


This is a true story. Picture, if you will, a young student “at-promise,” starting his first day of middle school. His name is Michael. He is excited about reconnecting with friends, meeting his new teachers and finding his way around his middle school.

But right after school begins Michael calls his mother and exclaims, “Mom, you have to come and get me because they have me in detention. They won’t let me go to class!”

His mother later learned that her son was placed in a detention room all day with a non-credentialed staff person. Her son was not allowed to attend any classes because he did not have on his school uniform. The school also separated him from his peers during lunchtime.

Michael’s mother had previously called the school on several occasions to explain that he would not be in school uniform on the first day and to request a waiver. She wanted to inform the school that she did not have the money to buy his school uniform and needed to wait until her next payday to make the purchase.

His mother had left messages with the school principal to no avail. She never received a call back. She could not believe the school barred her son from attending all his classes and placed him in a detention room for the entire day simply because he did not have on a school uniform. In this case, Michael, an African-American adolescent male, endured the school’s zero tolerance disciplinary practices that denied him his right to an equitable education.

Questions Raised

What role do stakeholders play in shaping the landscape for educational equity? What systemic factors in education contribute to the marginalization of youth and young adults in our society? What works in promoting educational equity for children, youth and young adults? These are a few key questions practitioners often grapple with when addressing ways to promote educational equity.

This post is written to encourage further discourse around expanding equitable educational experiences for all learners. The following five key points concerning educational inequity may help us better understand how to realize educational equity for all K-12 and post-secondary learners.

1. Toward an Understanding of Educational Equity

Educational equity as a concept has its roots in the U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision. It has traditionally focused on overcoming the effects of racism, segregation and discriminatory practices on K-12 learners. Many social and education reform efforts have evolved out of this legal basis in the fight for educational equity for all students.

Other stakeholders have approached educational equity more broadly. For example, the Center for Public Education states, “Equity is achieved when all students receive the resources they need so they graduate prepared for success after high school.”

This implies that education resources include (but are not limited to) teachers, administrative staff, curriculum, assessment, school climate, adequate funding, home-school-community partnerships, and a vision and plan for maximizing the quality of schooling, teaching, and learning.

The National School Boards Association on Equity asserts, “Public schools should provide equitable access and ensure that all students have the knowledge and skills to succeed as contributing members of a rapidly changing global society, regardless of factors such as race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background, English proficiency, immigration status, socioeconomic status, or disability.”

When we consider equity as a focus in education for all learners, the most common principles that serve as fundamental big ideas for this work are access, opportunity and fairness. However, in light of recent social justice efforts nationally and internationally, redistribution of wealth and power have emerged as an additional heralded underpinning in the pursuit of educational equity.

So why does educational equity matter? It matters because when it is unhindered, all students receive what they need to maximize their learning potential, matriculate successfully in academic settings, and pursue their post-secondary and career goals with the skills and readiness they need to lead a positive, productive and responsible life as a citizen. As the Education and Training Policy Division, OECD states, “There is surely a human rights imperative for all people to have a reasonable opportunity to develop their capacities and to participate fully in society.”

In other words, education becomes a path to a higher quality of life, a way of preparation for purposeful living, and a doorway to realizing dreams, addressing social dilemmas, and leaving a mark of excellence on the hearts and minds of present and future generations.

2. Making a Commitment to High Quality Teaching and Learning

If you were to compare teaching and learning in some U.S. inner city and suburban schools, you might be taken aback by what you see. The landscape for teaching and learning in classrooms is often fragmented across these settings.

For instance, some classrooms showcase the use of research-based pedagogical techniques (e.g., guided instruction, inquiry-based teaching, problem/project-based learning), while others are exclusively grounded in rote and/or direct instruction. Some students have access to cutting-edge STEM learning materials and maker spaces, while others watch videos and complete worksheets with limited exposure to hands-on learning. Some teachers move through their lesson plans without disruption, while others spend the first half of their classroom time trying to get students to settle down for instruction.

If these types of educational inequities persist, we will continue to see increased achievement gaps, disgruntled teachers, and unmotivated and disengaged learners who know they deserve better. So, what does it take to realize educational equity in teaching and learning? Across the board, it takes high expectations, a commitment to ensuring equitable access to excellence in teaching and learning, and a resolve to deliver high quality educational experiences to all students, regardless of their geographical location.

3. Leading with a Vision for Eliminating Inequities

School climate is a predictor of student success. School climate is also a function of an instructional leader’s vision for the learning process and the overall educational experience of learners. Conditions for positive school climate include engagement (relationships, respect for diversity and school participation), safety (emotional and physical safety), and environment (physical, academic and disciplinary environments and wellness). Yet, some students endure learning in school settings with no classrooms, unchecked bullying, limited access to school nurses, counselors, and administrative staff, hallways filled with sidelined trash, and students roaming school buildings or truant in the city at-large during class time.

When a school climate is allowed to decline to such levels, students either drop out of school altogether, or they become conditioned to accept this mode of schooling to their detriment academically, socially and otherwise. Thus, to guard against the debilitating effects of poor school climate on students, the instructional leader must broaden his/her vision to include a plan for eliminating educational inequities.

4. Moving Beyond the Pitfalls of Systemic Inequity

Systemic inequity in education includes unfair patterns of practice, procedures and policies that restrict students’ access to high quality learning experiences and ultimately cause them to become marginalized, with limited opportunities for upward mobility. Overcrowded classrooms, outdated curricula, few to no advanced and AP course offerings, fragmented school funding, an overemphasis on academic outcomes at the expense of building an ethic of care among school community members—these are just a few byproducts of systemic inequity in education. Sometimes, systemic inequity is perpetuated by assumptions (e.g., unconscious bias, microaggression and stereotypes) that foster low expectations of students.

A good education, skill development, and academic supports have long-term positive effects on economic and social well-being. On the other hand, systemic inequity has contributed to the failure of education, with long-lasting consequences for students and the economy. When the pitfalls of systemic inequity are overlooked and ignored, students are likely to find themselves victim to poverty, incarceration, unemployment, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and risky behavior, and unprepared for the competitiveness of the American and global economy. Hence, there is also a propensity for them to become frustrated, powerless, and ripe subjects for destructive behavior.

5. Steps to Promote Educational Equity: Suggestions for Educators, Practitioners, and Policymakers

There is no need for pessimism. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Educational equity can be realized for all students if there is a concerted effort among educators, practitioners and policymakers to be intentional in their work of addressing inequities.

Educational equity is not a panacea, but it is an essential philosophical framework. It can serve as a lens for ensuring that all children, youth and young adults are equipped with the skills, habits of mind and readiness they need to lead a successful life in this 21st century.

To this end, here is a list of recommended actions to promote educational equity:

  • Conduct a study to investigate how school and district level factors contribute to educational inequities. Enact data-driven reforms.
  • Adopt a continuous program improvement approach.
  • Develop home-school-community partnerships.
  • Evaluate the impact of educational equity strategies through evidence and research-based studies.
  • Diversify funding sources to ensure sustainability of educational enhancements.
  • Provide ongoing professional development for teachers and school leaders with a focus on educational equity and cultural sensitivity.
  • Align educational policies to goals, systems, outcomes, and a vision for educational equity.

There is a lot of work to be done in championing the cause for educational equity. Our children are our legacy and they are worthy of our labor to create a future for them that is fair and provides them access to limitless opportunities without systemic and social hindrances. As Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Come alive…

Chris Harrison, EdD, is a Program Manager at ETR and a member of ETR’s Equity & Inclusion in STEM team. He received his doctorate in Educational Leadership & Administration and has master’s degrees in Math/Science Education and Educational Leadership. He can be reached at


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