Equity vs. Equality in the Classroom
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
By Beckett Haight
“Why does he get that? I want to do that!”
I have heard this observation or comment in one form or another over the years as I provide supports to students who need a little extra help to level the playing field (e.g. reach the given standard). While providing accommodations, scaffolds, and modifications to help students with special needs is second-nature to me, to some other students in inclusive classrooms, and to some teachers at times, it is not.
Given this potential for concern, I have thought about what is fair and what is just many times over the years, and I have had many conversations with students and teachers to ensure everyone was on the same page. At the end of the day, it comes down to deciding between having equal access and having equitable access to the curriculum.
I have had this ‘debate’ or discussion with countless students as I push-in to classes to support inclusive practices, and also as I have taught in self-contained special day classes. Students may see other students receiving supports, accommodations, or modifications and feel wronged, not realizing that the goal is for all students to work in their Zone of Proximal Development, which “is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help.” Or in other words, not recognizing that the given task may not be equal, but it is equitable as both students are ideally working their hardest.
A breakthrough in my discussions about equity versus equality was made back when I was teaching in Los Angeles where I came up with an analogy that students couldn’t argue with. I was able to persuade a student who thought I was unfair with my tardy policy one time by saying, “Why are you late to class? Because you’re with your friends outside by the cafeteria? What if I told you that Jose is late every once in awhile because he has to drop his little brother off to school before coming here? Should I give both of you lunch detention? Maybe Jose needs to leave home a little earlier, but I can’t treat both of you equally when Jose is doing a big brother duty, and you are hanging out in the quad with your friends.” That is equity.
It is not equal…but it’s fair.
This is the discussion I have with students when needed, it’s the mantra that helps me when differentiating, and it’s the general framework I use when collaborating with teachers to deliver content to reach all learners in the general education classroom. We look at what makes sense, what is ethical (i.e. are they still hitting the grade-level standards), what is fair.
If it takes a student on my caseload 15 minutes to craft an email to their teacher that asks for an accommodation, it is only fair that we consider the reduced work (based on standards) accommodation for the in-class five paragraph essay that they have next week. Some students may think it’s unfair that one student only writes three solid paragraphs, but if the student can show their learning in those paragraphs, and hit the standard, it is an equitable approach.
This would come up when I was a teacher assistant while going to college, and in the 12 years since I have become a special educator, and will surely be an issue that sporadically rears its head in the future. But my hope is that as schools become more inclusive, as awareness of differences increases, and as special educators and general educators increasingly collaborate to share best practices, the idea that all students in a classroom should be doing the exact same thing at the same time will fade into educational memories similar to old-school educational games like Number Munchers and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego.
Beckett Haight is a former student who received special education services for needs that stemmed from my ADHD and ODD. This led to a volunteer job in a classroom for students who were developmentally delayed, which led to being a teacher assistant for four years, which led to the last 12 years of a teaching career that I feel lucky to have. Check out my website called Collections of a Special Educator that has Special Ed resources I have developed over the years and didn’t want just sitting on my computer. You can also find me on Twitter.