The Unpleasant Truth About Equity

Equity is a topic that takes center stage in many education conversations, and rightly so. It’s about every child being given a “fair go.” We often voice our concerns about the plight of the underserved in our communities, and as educators, we always strive to address their disadvantage within the resources we have available.

At times, it can seem almost pointless when faced with the barriers and handicaps that society has placed in front of so many of our young people, yet as educators, our moral compasses guide us to try and give every child equal opportunity.

It’s not easy. Whether you are dealing with disability, cultural or demographic limitations, or probably the most challenging, financial disadvantage, every day schools across the globe seek to offer a leg up to the less fortunate in our communities.


It can be as minor as funding books or technology or lunches, or as major as comprehensive welfare support programs such as those that are now common place in many countries challenged by recent influxes of refugees. Whichever way you look at it, schools across the world are often the first place where equity intervention is offered, and many school communities offer a wide range of living support services for millions of kids far beyond what some may see as a traditional role for schools.

Understanding Hidden Inequities

However, while we will continue to celebrate the extraordinary impact these interventions can have on a child’s life opportunities, I want to walk down a far more sensitive path and talk about a form of equity that is more subtle, almost hidden, and that few seem to want to discuss.

Put simply, how equitable is it for some students to be better prepared for life than others as a result of their schooling?

While it’s common to hear the superficial answer when we say kids need to be “literate and numerate to make their way in the world,” by any reasonable measure that is an extremely narrow view of the learning experiences a student might have during their years of formal schooling.

To put it more bluntly, how fair is it that some students will spend twelve to sixteen years preparing for life as it has been, while others are being prepared for life as it is, or rather possibly will be?

To what extent is a child being offered equal opportunity if on the one hand they are taught in a traditional teacher-led classroom, while their colleagues are developing skills and experience as modern learners in the school down the road?

How well will the students in the former adapt to the realities of the perpetually changing world around them when they have spent twelve or more years being fed a highly selective diet of information and facts to be then tested on their ability to recall it?

And while they have spent a good part of their schooling preparing for those tests, the modern learners down the road are becoming resourceful, critical and creative thinkers, and are developing the discipline and dispositions to be passionate self-directed, lifelong learners.

Giving Learners Input

Meanwhile, our traditional learners have had little or no input into what they learned, and even more importantly how they learned, or how they expressed their understanding of their learning, rather deferring to the choices provided to them by their teachers. And dare we say it,  so many will become so bored, disillusioned and disenfranchised by the whole regime of school that they have left the place, hopefully, to seek more relevant options on their own.

Meanwhile, at the school down the road, the modern learners there are developing the skills, competencies, and dispositions that will allow them to be better informed to make better choices, and most importantly to understand that their future will be guided by how well they make those choices.

Is that fair and equitable?

I know which school I would want my kids to attend.

But then, that would be giving my kids an unfair advantage, wouldn’t it?

You get where I am going with this, and yes, undoubtedly I am offering rather polarizing options, but the circumstances are very real, and yet there is little or no discussion about how inequitable this scenario is.

Schooling for the Stereotypical Child

Finally, if you want to add fuel to this equity fire, think for a moment about the impact that choice and agency have to demographic disadvantage. No matter which way you look at it, traditional school was designed and built for a stereotypical child, for a narrow band of outcomes, with an extremely limited range of expectations.

Modern learning flips this model on its head, where the focus is the child and their learning. On what makes sense to them. On identifying their talent. On what they are passionate about, without fear or favor or pandering to traditional post-school experiences.

And the really unpleasant part is this. No test scores, real-estate rankings or car park gossip would show this disadvantage, because it can’t be easily tested, measured or quantified, so very few are even aware of the insidiousness or scale of its impact.

But over time, more and more alumni stories will start to form a pattern of the directions the kids from those two schools took.

Of course, there will be students from both schools who achieve their life goals, but over time the evidence of the “unfair benefits” offered in schools for modern learners will undoubtedly build a compelling case for us to rethink where we can focus our time and energy in addressing equity in our schools.

Photo by Søren Astrup Jørgensen on Unsplash

Five for Further Reading

Here’s an extra post that will interest those who are looking for some grassroots stats on the profiles of people who are the developers at the coalface of all things technology…and if anyone can tell us, StackOverflow certainly can.

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7 thoughts on “The Unpleasant Truth About Equity”

  1. Bob Feurer

    You raised the issue of equity based upon culture, immigrant status, and socio-economic standing but another group was mentioned at a conference I attended this summer which was very much centered on racial equity. One of the attendees raised the question of developmental status. What about the autistic and developmentally challenged learners in our charge? None of the presenters had much of a response for her.

    I have a friend here in Nebraska who has created a program called “Circle of Friends” that strives for inclusion of all of those kids and I referred the lady from the east coast to her for help with her issues.

    We are observing record numbers of immigrants and a neighboring school has 26 different languages spoken and a single leaner enrolled here through us into a dither. We need to do a better job for all our charges!

  2. Hi Bruce,

    Love your work at Modern Learners!

    How to ensure equity in education? This is one of the four great human rights questions of our age. (The others being about healthcare, housing, and food.)

    I think it’s fair to say that ensuring educational equity is a moral imperative these days. As our society becomes more economically stratified, and that stratification is more closely tied to educational attainment, one’s education becomes a proxy for quality of life.

    If educational attainment is a proxy for quality of life, educational equity is a lifelong societal commitment, part of a new social contract, one might say.

    I think is the first thing we miss about educational equity: it must extend to lifelong learners.

    The second thing we miss about educational equity is what I refer to as the “Channel Theory of Educational Equity”.

    We are conditioned culturally to think of education as synonymous with schooling: in-building, in-home, online, via community program, etc.

    These are all important channels. We must work harder to serve learners more equitably through them. But there are two other channels, more direct channels, that we are not yet looking at with much rigor: the parent channel and the learner channel.

    Parents are their children’s first teachers. Yet we don’t do much, even for homeschooling parents, to reach them directly with the information and tools they need to ensure equity. Once again, wealthier families tend to educate their children better than economically disadvantaged families, whether families are homeschooling or not.

    Parents are the agents of both nature and nurture. It’s hard to argue that they aren’t powerful forces in the education of every child. If we consider the relative “educational force” of a two-parent, two-BA family in contrast to that of a single-parent, no-college family, it’s immediately obvious that we must address equity issues at home as well as at school.

    The most important channel of all, the most powerful channel for educational attainment by far (and the only channel that can make up for inequities in all the others) is the learner channel.

    This is the channel directly to the learner unmediated by formal or informal schooling, family, or other programmed educational experience.

    Equity is a challenge for many reasons. But the main reason is because we focus consistently on inequity. That is, we put our emphasis on the “lack of” or “disparities in” or “gaps between” what we have and what we want. This “deficit-based” view of equity lies at the root of our problems because, through this lens, the path to the attainment of equity simply isn’t visible.

    When we look for inequity, we don’t see its positive opposite—the very thing we’re trying so hard to attain.

    And yet…

    We all know of many, many schools, programs, and family situations where learners whose performance we might expect to be poor (because that’s what statistics tell us) is quite excellent. Often this excellence is not apparent until learners are in their mid-20s; often this excellence comes about through means of self-sufficiency and personal agency.

    Many people seize common and uncommon opportunities, on their own, to ensure their own higher levels of learning. They do it every day. We just don’t look at it very hard because it doesn’t seem connected to the problems of inequity we are trying so hard to solve.

    But individual agency is the only viable path to educational equity. Instead of calling for the creation of “infrastructure of educational equity”, then, we might better call for the creation of “infrastructure of educational agency.”

    To use an old saying, “Many hands make light work.” To use more modern language for more modern learners: “Decentralized systems, comprised of loosely coupled elements operating in parallel fashion, are more robust in the face of challenge and more efficient in the face of change, than centralized systems comprised of tightly coupled elements, operating in serial fashion.”

    So let’s change the question. Instead of “How do we ensure educational equity?” Let’s try this: “How do we ensure that, as long as someone needs it throughout their life, opportunities to attain higher levels of learning are available to the extent that learners wish to pursue them?”

    This is not merely “equity as equality of opportunity”. This goes beyond that—quite a bit, actually. And that’s what makes the difference.

    Look at the message even our very best classrooms, schools, districts, and programs send to kids about their education: study hard and get your HS diploma; choose a good college; find an “economically viable major; graduate; enter the job market; advance, etc.

    Notice that this is a completely serialized path: miss one link in the chain and none of the others is accessible. Notice, also, that the way we present this series to kids suggests very strongly that each discrete step in the “ladder of opportunity” is relatively age-bound.

    Suffice to say, there’s a lot more we can talk about here. I’d be happy to talk with you about it. I’ve given it quite a lot of thought over the 25 years I’ve been working in schools and the 35 years I’ve been working educational technology.

    Let me leave you with three things we all know to be true:

    1. Learners have the greatest control over their lifetime educational achievement.

    2. The social psychology or societal attitudes or institutional prejudices of our world suggest very strongly that there is but one, and only one, path to success.

    3. All of us have seen equitable educational outcomes all our lives in many areas of human endeavor.

    Given these three truths, it seems to me that over the course of a generation, creating the infrastructure for educational equity is well within our reach.

    As the infrastructure of educational equity exists—where virtually no such infrastructure exists today or has ever existed—greater equity will be achieved not by reallocating resources from the advantaged to the less advantaged, but by providing more paths, more tools, and more flexible opportunities for more individual learners to attain similar results and levels of life satisfaction.

    Modern Learners is all about rethinking education. So let’s rethink equity. But not with thinking that focuses on inequity and the traditional societal parameters by which it is perpetuated.

    If we want a paradigm shift in our results, we need a paradigm shift in our approach. I believe the shift is away from our focus on “inequity of opportunity and outcome” and toward the creation of the “infrastructure of educational equity”.

    If we build the right roads, more people will find their way along them to whatever destinations they seek.

    Keep up the great work!

    PS Yes, I wrote this to get your attention. I wrote it because it’s what I deeply believe about the nature of educational equity in a fundamentally inequitable society, one that grows less equitable with each passing election and Supreme Court appointment. I also want to work with you. I have a lot to offer. Your organization stands out to me as one of the few I would very much like to be involved with.

    Kind regards,

    Steve Peha
    Founder, Teaching That Makes Sense

  3. This conversation always makes me feel sad and kind of powerless, ultimately taking me into frustration and a negative view of our world. What I have realised, however, is that it gets me nowhere. I understand that we may not be able to save the world or change it for everybody but we can continue to ask ourselves the difficult questions and find the courage to make a stand for something better for the children of the world. (Shout out to the Modern Learners Community for enabling this)

    Personally, I feel that the true power lies in the hearts of our children, their mindset and their belief. People can rise out of the most devastating of circumstances and be powerful and successful in their lives. This has very little to do with School and/or Education but everything to do with the Human Spirit. With this in mind I am asking myself another question;


    Maybe if we were to find those answers we would be having a different conversation!

  4. Lisa Woodyard

    Really good article. Shame education is not modelled off Sweden. No private schools and education is free for all (like heath care). But as educators we still need to support the students in our care. “Actions are the seeds of fate”. So let’s ensure our actions are purposeful.

  5. Bernice Swain

    In my experience, student centred personalised learning is the best approach to creating equity for each and every student. This approach allows us to cater for all manner of developmental, cultural and individual differences. Personalisation offers teachers the opportunity to plan learning programmes that are designed around each child’s strengths, interests and goals. This kind of learning programme is totally achievable, but challenges us to restructure learning environments and classroom programmes.

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