Access & Equity in the Classroom – A Teachers Role (Equity, Equality, and Access to Quality Education -Part 3)

This is the 3rd installment in my 3-part series on equity, equality and access to quality education. Here are links to Part-1 and Part-2, where I first define these terms and then I talk about funding issues that impact access and equity. As noted in Part 2, funding is a huge component of why schools and districts don’t provide equitable access to support student needs, and why low-economic areas tend to have inequitable education experiences and poor access to the supports and resources needed to help all students learn and achieve, based on their individual needs.

As a teacher, school funding is out of our hands for the most part (except for the personal funds we all spend to make sure the students in our classroom have resources and support). Parents and community leaders need to take a really close look at the money teachers spend out of their own pockets to address some of the inequities within their own classroom and school – it’s not right, it’s not fair and there needs to be more push-back on education policy and more support from local businesses, community advocates, and state and local school boards to ensure that schools that need funding and resources are getting those in an equitable fashion (remember, not equal, but equitable – all schools do not need the same). Teachers will spend their own money, even when they have very little, because they care about their students and what happens in their classroom, but they shouldn’t have to.

But, I digress.

What I want to talk about in this post is what teachers can do in their classrooms to address equity and access to quality education. Teachers, even without adequate funding, resources and support, are the most able to provide equity and access for the students in their classroom because that is where the learning happens. And it’s the learning, it’s the teaching strategies, it’s those interactions and learning experiences that can provide equity and access for all students. Let’s remind ourselves about what equity and access means – it means each student getting what THEY need to learn, meaning they have access to rich learning experiences and teaching that provides them with the support they need to understand the content, to think, to make connections, to apply that learning, and to achieve to their potential. To learn, despite their gender, their race, their socio-economic status, or their disabilities.

I can only speak from what I know, so I am going to take a mathematical approach to equity and access in the math classroom, but even if you are not a math teacher, these ideas and processes work in your classrooms as well, with the only difference being in the content.

NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) has a position for what it means to have equity and access in the math classroom, so I am including it here (this links to the full article):

Creating, supporting, and sustaining a culture of access and equity require being responsive to students’ backgrounds, experiences, cultural perspectives, traditions, and knowledge when designing and implementing a mathematics program and assessing its effectiveness. Acknowledging and addressing factors that contribute to differential outcomes among groups of students are critical to ensuring that all students routinely have opportunities to experience high-quality mathematics instruction, learn challenging mathematics content, and receive the support necessary to be successful. Addressing equity and access includes both ensuring that all students attain mathematics proficiency and increasing the numbers of students from all racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender, and socioeconomic groups who attain the highest levels of mathematics achievement.

This means that all students should be engaged in real-world learning, problem-solving kids-girl-pencil-drawing-159823experiences, and applications of the content. These types of learning experiences are not just for those ‘advanced’ students. This means providing opportunities for students to engage in collaborative learning, where they are communicating their thoughts and ideas with others, where they are taught and allowed multiple approaches and multiple solutions, where they have supports (i.e. questioning by the teacher, partnering with others, hands-on materials, technology/visuals, etc.) that might help them make connections or get to that next ‘aha’ moment.  Lower-performing students shouldn’t be relegated to doing drill & kill worksheets and ‘remedial’ math classes where the focus is on test-taking strategies and memorization, but rather should be exposed to the same challenging problem-based, inquiry approaches as the high performing students, but with different supports to help address their needs (so scaffolded questions, or suggestions on strategies, or working with a partner, etc.).

A large part of this equity and access means teachers need to BELIEVE that ALL students can achieve and learn, with the difference being that some need more supports than others. I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “well, my lower-level students can’t do that” or “my students won’t talk or show me different approaches” or “my students will just wait for the ‘smart’ ones to do all the work’ or “my students have a hard time reading so we don’t do word problems” or “my students will just give up or just ask me to show them the answer”. I could go on, but I think you get the point (and have perhaps made those same comments yourself). It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if you think this way, try something once and it ‘fails’, and therefore you don’t do it again – and then you and the students believe they can’t learn, or they can’t talk, or they can’t solve problems, etc. This is where inequity becomes a huge issue in classrooms – because we then resort to teaching students the ‘one way’ to do things (i.e. often the ‘way that’s on the test), and those students who need a different approach or who can’t memorize, can’t ‘perform’ or ‘achieve’ because they are NOT getting what they need to learn, and the cycle continues. To promote equity and access within your own class, you need to do some planning, some hard work up front, and be consistent – but it can change how you teach and how students learn so that all your students are getting what THEY need to learn. As a teacher, this is your responsibility within your own classroom.

cute-children-drawing-teacher-preschool-class-little-40195392Here are some suggestions:

  1. Starting day one, begin creating a classroom culture that promotes communication, collaboration, and respect. Students need to ‘learn’ how to talk with each other and listen to each other – so practice getting them in and out of groups, sharing ideas (start with non-academic sharing first, like ‘what’s the best movie you saw this summer and why”), working with partners and presenting their thoughts. Practice respectful listening. Practice and model appropriate responses when someone might make a mistake (mistakes should be accepted as part of the learning). There are several places to go to help you learn some collaborative teaching strategies – this is a nice list of articles with good tips.
  2. Learn to ask questions instead of giving answers or telling students they are right/wrong or yes/no. Simple questioning skills force students to start thinking, communicating, making connections, asking their own questions. Again, many resources out there to support questioning skills and provide some sample questions (“Why” is always a good one, or “Can you explain?”). Here’s one resource.
  3. Set high expectations and be consistent with those from day one. Expect students to not only show their work, but to explain their thinking (write out in words or draw pictures or explain verbally). Model this when you teach or show things to students (think-out-loud is a great way to model this type of behavior in mathematics class). Consistency is important!
  4. Provide problem-solving strategies from the beginning so that students realize that they have multiple ways to approach an unknown problem or situation. These are great strategies to incorporate in those first couple weeks of school and then to reference as they come up the rest of the year. And yes – even elementary students need problem solving skills.  (Notice & Wonder should become a habit of mind for all students, no matter the age because it provides that ‘think time’ and that ability to try and connect to prior knowledge and use what you know). The Math Forum is a wonderful resource for learning about the strategies and for getting problems to use in class.
  5. Expect and allow for multiple ways to approach math problems. As long as students can justify what they did and it is mathematically sound reasoning/thinking, it should be okay. This is probably the single most important piece to equity in the math classroom – allowing students to solve problems multiple ways, using the strategies and methods that work for them, and allowing for multiple solutions/solution pathways. This is the hardest thing for teachers i think because we ‘know’ the ‘right’ way – but the right way is not the only way, and some students may never get the ‘right’ way, but they have a way and it gets them there and that should be okay AS LONG AS THEY EXPLAIN THEIR THINKING (see #3). To make this work, see #4.
  6. Provide interesting learning experiences that promote thinking, multiple pathways to a solution, even multiple solutions. You will not get students working and communicating if you give them a worksheet with 30 process/skill based problems. You need to find interesting, relevant, problem-solving experiences that engage all students, that allow all students, no matter their ‘ability level’, a way to start thinking about solving. These types of problems should require previous math content knowledge and/or applications of new math content, require some analysis… think rich tasks.  There are many resources for interesting problems out there – content-related too – (Math Forum, Mathalicious, YummyMath, Illuminations, links to other resources)
  7. Less lecture, more inquiry, student-based learning. Hands-on, visualizations, student questioning, student explanation. This does not mean you need to have a different activity for every student – that would be exhausting. You need to find learning experiences that address your content that allow all students a way to ‘enter’ the learning from whatever level they are at.

Teaching one way and expecting the ‘same’ approach for all students, no matter the level, will always leave some students behind and others stagnating.Our teaching should always be focused on the standards and content, with the way we structure the learning and the way we allow students to demonstrate their understandings providing the differentiation that will let all students achieve – those who are ‘behind’ learning to catch up and those stagnating able to move ahead and explore. The more students can connect with, engage in, and explain mathematics using what they know  and building on this knowledge, with the teacher guiding them to deeper understanding through questioning, modeling, and supports as needed, the more equitable the learning becomes.


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

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.