Equity, Equality, and Access to Quality Education – Part 1

Back-to-school is already upon some, and for many will be starting up in the next few weeks. With that in mind, and especially with the very public conversation around school choice and ESSA and accountability for schools, I’ve decided to do a 3-part series on equity, equality, access and quality education. These are ‘buzz’ words that are thrown about in news stories and education settings, but I think often times these words or terms are used incorrectly, or interchangeably, with many people not really understanding what is really being said or what the meaning behind these terms actually might be. With that said, this first part in my series is going to focus on defining these three terms so that we are all on the same page and have a common understanding in which to move forward.

Quality Education

This term is loaded. Everyone wants a quality education for their child and schools and states strive to provide quality education for all their students. But what does this mean? What does this look like? I am going to define it here and in later follow-up posts we will dive more deeply into this.

There are many definitions out there for what quality education means. I actually had a hard time finding an ‘official’ definition, but found the term ‘quality education’ used frequently in vision/mission statements from many education organizations and school districts. Which is interesting – we use the term, yet we don’t define it, so how are we ensuring that students are indeed getting a quality education?

Here is a definition of Quality Education from ASCD (Association of Supervisors of Curriculum Development) and EI (Education International) which I think provides a strong common understanding that will connect to equity, equality and access.

A quality education is one that focuses on the whole child—the social, emotional, mental, physical, and cognitive development of each student regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or geographic location. It prepares the child for life, not just for testing.

A quality education provides resources and directs policy to ensure that each child enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle; learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults; is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community; has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults; and is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.

A quality education provides the outcomes needed for individuals, communities, and societies to prosper. It allows schools to align and integrate fully with their communities and access a range of services across sectors designed to support the educational development of their students.

A quality education is supported by three key pillars: ensuring access to quality teachers; providing use of quality learning tools and professional development; and the establishment of safe and supportive quality learning environments. (retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sean-slade/what-do-we-mean-by-a-qual_b_9284130.html)

Equity and Equality

The definition of equity in the dictionary is “the state or quality of being just or fair”. The definition of equality is “the state of being equal, especially in status, rights and opportunities”. So what does this mean in terms of education, especially as these two terms are often used interchangeably, when they are very different when it comes to education? Let’s look at each separately in terms of education.

Equality in education would mean that all students are treated the same and are exposed to the same opportunities and experiences and resources. This is deemed as fair because everyone is getting the same instruction, the same assessments, the same resources, the same access to teachers. However, if students are coming into a classroom with different capabilities and different backgrounds – which is the reality no matter where you are – (this means educational knowledge, socio-economic status, family support, etc.), then treating them equally is going to disadvantage most students. No one will get what they truly need to learn – most will not get the appropriate supports and opportunities they need to be successful and to learn to their full potential (as examples, those with special needs would not get the additional supports needed and ‘gifted’ students would not be exposed to more challenging learning experiences they might need).  Everyone gets the same and so everyone suffers to some extent.

Equity in education means that all students get what they need from education, meaning instruction, assessments, resources are distributed so that every students individual needs are met in a fair way so all students can be successful. This relates to the statement above, under quality education, that students have access to personalized learning so that their educational needs are supported, allowing them to be prepared for future success, whether that be a career, college or some other aspiration. So unlike equality in education, equity in education is not the same for everyone, rather it supports everyone with what they need. A students socio-economic status, gender, race, or ability level do not prevent their access to education resources and opportunities. Equity does NOT mean equal. Equity implies an education for each child that meets their specific needs,  both pedagogically and developmentally, so they can be successful in their future endeavors no matter where they live or what their economic status might be.

Access

Access to education is closely tied to equity and equality. I almost didn’t separate it out, but I do think it is a key component behind why many students do NOT get equitable education opportunities. The goal of providing quality education to all students means we are providing them with equitable access to resources and learning opportunities – i.e. students with learning disabilities are getting the extra services and supports they need to be able to learn; students from low-income areas are getting the technology and materials and qualified teachers needed to address their instructional needs; students who excel at math or science are provided with technology and resources that allow them to explore and expand their understandings; students who are artistically or musically inclined are provided with teachers and courses that let them learn and create.

It was hard to find a ‘definition’ for access, because it’s really a process of ensuring students get what they need. I found this nice summation of access on the Glossary of Education Reform that I am going to use to inform our discussion going forward:

 “The term access typically refers to the ways in which educational institutions and policies ensure—or at least strive to ensure—that students have equal and equitable opportunities to take full advantage of their education. Increasing access generally requires schools to provide additional services or remove any actual or potential barriers that might prevent some students from equitable participation in certain courses or academic programs”.

As you can see, all these terms and ideas are related, and it is often hard to think of them in isolation. Hopefully now you have a better understanding of each, and in our follow-up posts, we will explore issues surrounding these using our common understanding.

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