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 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.

Preparation and Making Educated Decisions on November 8

I watched the Presidential Debate this past Monday. My brain still hurts.

I obviously could talk about a lot of things I heard, but instead I want to bring up two things that stood out for me.

  1. Hillary Clinton’s reply to Donald Trump when he accused her of being “over prepared” for the debate. Her response: “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did. You know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing,” 
  2. Education – not really mentioned in the ‘debate’ (yes, let’s use that term very loosely!), except in passing, and in all honesty, sort of missing in this whole election process.

As an educator, these two things struck me as sort of key components – we need a president that is prepared and we need to get this country focused on education, because, as is very evident in this political climate we are in right now, lack of education is clearly resulting in a lot of inaccuracies, belief in “hype” and poor decision making. Education is so crucial, and we need a President who is going to help address issues like equity, ESSA, funding, ELL….so many things.

Let’s talk about preparedness. Can you imagine, as a teacher, walking into a classroom of students unprepared? Unthinkable! Teachers study the content they are going to teach, anticipate student misconceptions, prepare for alternate ways of presenting information, prepare questions to guide and encourage student discourse and investigation. They know their stuff.  They have a strategy. Because of that preparation, they can make educated decisions and changes during a class, based on student questions, misunderstandings, tangent trains of thought, etc. The plan may change when execution begins – as any teacher knows, the lesson you planned can go in lots of directions – BUT – the preparation for that lesson leads you and the students in relevant directions focused on the original content. Preparedness matters when important decisions are at stake and, in the case of students, when learning needs to happen – so…being prepared matters every day?!!

I would like a prepared President who knows his/her ‘content’ (about our country, policy, government, treaties,  and world affairs, etc.). One who can use that preparation to make decisions, big and small, and be flexible for those times when tangent trains of thought or questions or disagreements arise.

This leads me to my second focus, education in this country. The next President will have a huge impact on shaping education policy – and its not mentioned much and we don’t really hear about the candidates take on education except for sound bites. ESSA is just coming into play, so that’s huge. The next Supreme Court Justice appointment could impact education policy -also huge. The next Presidents’ take on the Department of Education, on Pre-school Education, on higher-education, teacher pay, funding, technology, etc- all those really important things we educators think about on a regular basis, this matters a great deal to the future of education in this country. The next President should understand education policy – how the federal, state and local governments interact, what issues and policies are important and needed, how changes impact students access and equity in education. If we don’t educate ourselves on what all the Presidential Candidates believe about education, and instead make decisions based on personal feelings, ‘hype’, showmanship, he said/she said, then we are NOT PREPARED and our vote on November 8 is NOT an educated one, and could drastically hurt the state of education in our country.

So please – as educators interested in the future of education, prepare for this November 8 election. Read the actual policies on education that each candidate proposes. Find out what they know (or don’t know). Prepare, compare, and make an educated decision.

Here’s a nice quick visual summary of the four candidates positions (from BallotPedia):


Here are some good resources for comparing the candidates views on education . I’ve also included some links that compare the candidates on many of their policy stands, not just education. But, as an educator, education is rather crucial to me, so it is the one I focus on.

  • This link has a nice summary and then a run-down of each candidates stance and things they have said about education.
  • This is an interactive comparison on different education related topics (just Clinton vs Trump)
  • A higher-ed comparison of the candidates (just Clinton vs Trump)
  • List of some key education ideas and how candidates compare
  • Strong Public Schools (NEA) comparison
  • In their own words comparisons of the 4 candidates (Ask yourself – who knows what they are talking about, who doesn’t?)
  • 20 Questions/Answers (on more than just education) from ScienceDebate.org. All 4 candidates. Eye opening – again, ask yourself, who is prepared, who isn’t?

Let’s do what we as educators do best – prepare, plan and make educated decisions. It matters.