What is the difference between equity and equality?
This is a question that has been slowly increasing in popularity since 2014.
People not familiar with equity and equality often interpret them to mean the same, or nearly the same thing, and while they do have the same base root, they diverge in meaning quite substantially. To the left is a simplistic image that is universally used to highlight the difference between the two words.
Equality is generally understood to be an evenness of rights and opportunities regardless of individual status. Under the tenants of equality, when circumstances are the same, justice is impartial. Equality allows us to see the differences in one another, while still being able to treat each other in an impartial manner. Equality understands that not everyone will achieve the same outcomes due to the infinite differences between one another.
Equity, in contrast, means the promotion of “fairness” over opportunity. Equity also acknowledges that individuals are different and seeks to elevate some individuals in order to promote the sameness of outcomes. Equity is often used in conjunction with other practices to achieve “social justice” or “cosmic justice” rather than impartial justice.
Simply put, equality is the sameness of opportunity, while equity is the sameness of outcome. Even Bernie Sanders agrees.
Where does equity go wrong?
Equity sounds great, but the application of equity in all institutions of society can have serious drawbacks and even be detrimental to progress. If the highest priority is the equalization of outcomes, the following concepts will necessarily suffer or be irradicated:
Meritocracy – the elevation of people in a society based on their demonstrated abilities, work ethic and successes. If all focus is placed on equal outcomes, how can we determine who is most qualified when evaluating a candidate? While current meritocratic systems may have their flaws, ideal meritocracy ensures that the most competent people always rise to the top.
Exceptionalism – having the quality of being extraordinary in one facet or another. Shouldn’t we promote and celebrate each individual’s unique gifts? Not everyone will excel in each academic field or in all athletic aspects, but rather than bring everyone down to the same level (which is necessarily what will happen in most cases) shouldn’t we accentuate everyone’s talents to make a truly diverse and exceptional team?
Work Ethic – the idea that hard work and diligence are associated with good character traits and can lead to positive results. We disincentivize individuals from achieving their maximum potential when we reward all levels of work equally. A student who minimally participates in a group activity, only to receive an exceptional grade, will continue to do so if there are no ramifications.
Personal Responsibility – people have control of their actions, which in turn have at least some effect on their destiny. We remove an individual’s self-agency when we preordain a desired outcome. Why would anyone seek self-improvement if they believe that they are just a product of their circumstances and are owed an equal outcome?
Justice – the quality of being just, fair and reasonable, most commonly in the eyes of the law. If equity is the guiding principle when reviewing disparities, then we run the risk of losing track of real acts of discrimination or injustice. When we focus on equity over equality, we attempt to solve the problems by changing the results, rather than focusing on the underlying causes. We are also susceptible to blame all differences of achievement on structural injustices, often times overlooking the multitude of other factors that lead to variation.
What about those who need additional assistance or specialized help?
A common rebuttal to the equality over equity argument goes something along the lines of, “what about students that need additional support, shouldn’t we try to give them what they need to succeed?” This is obviously true, and for decades we were doing this without the need for enacting these Equity Policies. There are laws and policies concerning the funding and teaching associated with Special Education and homelessness (McKinney-Vento Act), among many other support systems. Not to mention existing nondiscrimination policies that create protected student classes based on a multitude of characteristics. There are certainly still areas that we can pin-point that could use more assistance or a different approach, but does that mean we need to completely rework the system?
Maximum potential or equal outcomes?
Equity Policies (or Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Policies) often proport to helping students achieve their maximum potential by providing; a multi-layered approach to learning, culturally relevant & responsive curriculum, and recognizing biases & social inequities, among other pleasant-sounding language. These Equity Policies in practice often fall short of this goal and seem to be more focused on creating equitable outcomes, rather than lifting every student.
Barrington Public Schools
Barrington Public Schools in Rhode Island is an example of one district that adopted a Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity Policy in 2019 with all of the usual buzzwords.
Barrington Public Schools (BPS) acknowledges that students need to feel included, safe, accepted, engaged and empowered by what they are learning, supported by teachers and staff, and welcomed into an inclusive learning environment. BPS is committed to the development of each student’s unique potential through ensuring safe and inclusive schools, championing bias-free practices by recognizing and challenging our biases, and implementing a culturally relevant and responsive curriculum. BPS will make equity and inclusive education an integral part of its operations.BPS Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity Policy
Education Equity: “To ensure just outcomes for each student, raising marginalized voices, and challenging the imbalance of power and privilege.”*
Equity: To provide students with the resources and individualized supports they need to thrive academically, socially, emotionally, and physically in alignment with their identity.BPS Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity Policy
In 2022 the school district decided to eliminate all honors classes in order to promote equity through a process of “deleveling.” Deleveling is the process of removing classrooms that provide additional support for students who are falling behind or that provide additional challenge for those students who are excelling. At its essence, deleveling requires that all students are taught following the same outline, no matter how proficient they are at a subject. It’s hard to see how this will maximize students’ potential.
Culver City Unified School District
Similar to Barrington Public Schools, Culver City Unified School District (CCUSD) in California recently dropped all honors classes to advance social justice and educationally equity. The programs were removed due to the difference in enrollment between black and Latino students with respect to other demographics. CCUSD adopted an Equity, Social Justice, & Inclusion Plan in 2020 with an Equity Advisory Committee which has “worked incredibly hard to develop an equity action plan that will outline specific action steps moving forward to support and educate our students and our staff in the areas of anti-racism, anti-hate, and anti-bias.”
Further, it is in our common interest to ensure that all students in CCUSD receive an education that allows them to cultivate their talent and maximize their potential.CCUSD Equity, Social Justice, & Inclusion Plan
Is a school really cultivating students’ talents and maximize their potential when they remove these types of systems?
While these might sound like one-off occurrences, Vermont schools are already on the same trajectory. Schools across the state, the Agency of Education and other educational organizations like the Vermont Principals Association (VPA) and Vermont School Board Associates (VSBA) are already adopting/promoting Equity Policies with similar language and goals. How much longer until we see the full acknowledgement that equity is not about achievement, but about engineered outcomes.