The Access Formula – (Equity, Equality, and Access to Quality Education – Part 2)

In last weeks’ part 1 of this series on equity, equality, and access to quality education, I defined access to quality education as “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.” Access then encompasses many aspects of education, from funding, to resources, to programs and services that help ensure that all students are getting an equitable education (what they need to support learning).

Obviously, all school districts and schools strive to provide access to needed services and supports for their students. There are federal laws in place designed to ensure that all students are getting access to equitable education and getting supports they need. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) is a law that all public schools must adhere to, which ensures that students with disabilities (including learning disabilities) have access to the least restrictive educational setting, have rights to ensure they get the services they need to support their learning, and parents can have a say in the educational decisions made regarding their students. An example of this from my own teaching is having an interpreter in my math classes that signed for the deaf students in my classes, or a student with an IEP (individual education plan) who needed copies of my notes because they had a learning disability that interfered with their ability to take their own notes. There is also Title I Laws and Funding, specifically designed to address low-income and disadvantaged students and ensure that schools that serve these students are getting the funds they need to support achievement, through things like extra academic supports for reading and writing, pre-school and after-school programs, with the goal to improve achievement on state standardized testing. I won’t go into all the details (link provided gives more information), but the idea here is to provide additional academic supports to low-income& disadvantaged students who are struggling academically. There are no federal laws that pertain to gifted students needs, though there are individual states and local schools that provide resources and supports for gifted education, but it varies by state.

As you might surmise, there is definitely an attempt to provide access to equitable education. But what’s the reality?

From my own experiences, access is NOT equitable. I would wager in most school districts, there is a huge disparity between what resources are available and the quality of education received at various schools within the same district and between districts within the same state. I have worked in many urban school districts where one middle school has low-achieving students at computers every day in math class, working on computer programs designed to support their mathematical skill development, and the other middle school down the street barely has enough rulers for the 42 students in the class, with a teacher who just has one computer and projector and a room full of ELL students speaking 5 different languages. Same school district. Not equitable access to resources. Not equitable learning environments or supports.

This is NOT an isolated situation, as I am sure many of you have experienced similar situations personally, whether as an educator or as a parent. Why is there such disparity when there are laws designed to ensure access to equitable resources and education opportunities?

The obvious answer is funding, which is a huge factor in access discrepancies. While everyone thinks funding for schools comes from federal money, federal funding makes up only 8% of public schools funding, so those TitleI funds and IDEA funds only accounting for a very small portion of education funding overall.  92% of funding for public schools comes from the states themselves, from taxes, lottery receipts and other sources, and a large portion from local property taxes. This means two school districts next to each other, one with a lower-economic base and less property tax, and one with a higher-economic base and more property tax, are going to have vastly different educational funding and resources. High-poverty schools spend less per student, and often have a more difficult time keeping quality teachers because of the disparity in available resources and services. It’s a vicious cycle. Many of the problems come from the way states/school districts apportion school funding, using different funding formulas that from the outset are ‘unfair and unequal’:

In a separate report, “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card,” the Education Law Center answered its own question with a resounding “No.”  Among the findings:

  • Fourteen states, including Texas, Pennsylvania and Illinois, have “regressive” school funding, defined as providing less money to schools with higher concentrations of students from low-income families.
  • In 19 states—including California, Florida, Colorado and Washington—the funding systems are defined as “flat,” meaning they “fail to provide any appreciable increase in funding to address the needs of students in high poverty districts.”
  • Only four states have school-funding systems that earned “fair” ratings: Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Delaware. But “these states have a sufficient overall level of funding and provide significantly higher amounts of funding to high poverty school districts,” according to the report. (from

If we go back to what equitable education means – students should be getting the resources, supports and instruction that supports their individual needs. With the type of funding described above, this is clearly not what is happening (nice graphic here by state showing the difference by state in funding for poor school districts vs. wealthy school districts). Poverty and all that it entails, seems to be a huge factor in the access to equitable quality education. It impacts parental support (hard to be there to help with homework or pay for tutors if you are working two jobs to make ends meet), access to educators and schools support personnel such as school counselors and nurses, access to technology, education supplies (paper, manipulatives, textbooks, calculators, etc.), school safety, and all the myriad of other components that make up quality education.

When thinking about education and how to provide access to the resources every student needs, we need to restructure how states and school districts distribute school funding and resources. Districts need to do a true evaluation of what each school in their district has in terms of education resources (materials, technology, personnel), and most importantly, what they need to support those students in those specific schools. If the two schools down the street from each other in the same school district have math classes in one school of 20, with students at computers, and the other school with math classes of 42 and no computers and not even enough seats or rulers for students, there is clearly a problem. The first step is to really do an inventory of what schools have, what class rooms and sizes look like, what personnel resources are and really identify the glaring discrepancies. You can’t fix something if you don’t even know where it’s broken – once we see the vast difference in access within school districts, then we can take that next step of thinking about ways to reapportion some of those resources in a more equitable way.



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.