One of the most important aspects of research, professors will tell you, is asking the right question. The “right question” for a researcher is important, interesting, and answerable through a particular methodology. Asking the right question is the cornerstone of inquiry. It orients the investigation and guides the researcher’s thinking. In other words, how a research question is worded frames the approaches available to answering it. The answers are often used to support arguments about educational policy for change.
This essay examines three pressing, often implicit questions currently being asked in educational policy research:
1) What is educational equality?
2) What is educational equity?
3) What is a just education?
Although they are seemingly similar terms, the concepts of equality, equity, and justice orient thinking about policy in different and important ways.
On the surface, the goals implied by the above questions might seem to be aiming at the same result—even the terms might seem to be about the same idea. But, in fact, when thought about rigorously, each concept carries different assumptions about students and the goals of a policy outcome. All three concepts are important, but each can easily be misapplied. Misunderstood or poorly understood ideas of equality, equity, or justice, when enacted in policy, can inadvertently harm certain groups of students. This is why understanding the differences between these three ideas—and asking the right questions—is important.
Equality and Equity in Education Policy
The ideas of equality and equity are often misunderstood and misused. Each concept carries implicit underlying assumptions about what is “fair” as they relate to the types of schools children should attend. Each concept also carries implications about how students should be treated and how resources should be distributed. A common understanding of educational equality is that schools should offer all students the same education. This way all students will have an equal chance. A common understanding of educational equity is that all children should be given the education they need to achieve certain outcomes. Both of these ideas make sense at first glance, and they clearly connect to ideas of fairness. However, when these ideas are used to orient policy approaches, undesirable consequences might arise.
[A viral image demonstrating the difference between equity and equality]
As demonstrated by this pithy cartoon, the assumed logic of equality gives all students the same amount of a good, such as the same number of boxes to stand on. In contrast the equity orientation acknowledges the different needs of individuals and how they all require specific support to be able to reach a goal, such as achieving proficiency on standardized tests, or in the case of the cartoon watching a baseball game. To extend the metaphor in this picture, the educational equity orientation reframes the policy discussion and orients it around ensuring that schools help all students to achieve, even if that means distributing resources “unequally.”
The difference between thinking about equity and equality is important because the rhetoric around major policy changes such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes terms such as equal and equitable. ESSA’s website claims that the law “Advances equity by upholding critical protections for America’s disadvantaged and high-need students” and that it is committed “to equal opportunity for all students.” The statement of purpose in section 1 of the ESSA amendment reads: “The purpose of this title is to provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.”
The ESSA incorporates the idea of equity into its policy orientation, and based on the reasoning above, equity seems to be “fairer” than the idea of equality. However, there is a problem with the concept of equity when thinking about school policies. Although an equity orientation is more sensitive to the differences and diversity between students, equity assumes that there is a sameness of the “good” to be achieved in education. This “good” could be everyone graduating from high school, or everyone reaching certain testing benchmarks. But the goal has to be the same for all students, because that is what makes reaching equity possible from a policy standpoint. What happens when, for example, a student does not want to watch baseball? Will policy force that child to watch baseball? This is the current tension that the ESSA will be struggling with as it is implemented in the coming years.
Although an equity orientation is laudable in its sensitivity toward different students, this orientation leads to problems surrounding the definitions of what is good, what is success, and what is progress. Simple answers, such as achievement on tests and graduation rates are the common responses, and are not, superficially, controversial. However, when looked at more deeply, ensuring that all students reach testing benchmarks can oppress the wide variety of values and goals within U.S. society. For example, policies specifically geared towards equity, such as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), have created a narrowed curriculum, because reaching equity is reaching proficiency on state standardized tests. This lowers the importance of non-tested courses, such as social studies, music, arts, and athletics, which is a common criticism of NCLB. The resources devoted to achieving a specific outcome narrow and limit the potentials of students. While the orientation of equity is one based on students’ fundamental rights, and positive ideals, the implementation can actually hurt students unintentionally. Time will tell if the ESSA policies help remedy this issue.
A Just Education as Compared to Educational Equity and Equality
In contrast to equality and equity, a just education is focused on ensuring that each student has the opportunities to find, figure out, and develop their skills and abilities based on their values and their communities’ values. A just education does not assume the same means or the same ends for every student. Instead, it is oriented around the value of liberty and the pursuit of one’s own goals by ensuring that students are prepared to make informed, knowledgeable decisions and have the skills and understandings necessary to achieve their goals. It is about seeing students as agents in their own education who have rights and inherent abilities. Finally, implicit in the idea of justice is that education is about ensuring that historical injustices are addressed, such as a historical lack of access to quality education faced by poor and marginalized students.
There are also problematic assumptions inherent in the idea of a just education. The first issue is that it is difficult to know what justice is and looks like for each student. Expanding definitions of success is complicated because success defined broadly does not allow for the same methods to measure student academic achievement—standardized tests. Standardized tests are controversial for exactly the reason asking questions about educational equity are not sufficient; testing limits the definitions of success and homogenizes the diversity of skills and experiences that students enter school with, as well as the variety of skills, knowledge, and abilities they can develop with the caring help of teachers and their communities.
Despite these issues, asking questions about justice has been sorely missing in large “school improvement” projects such as the recent overhaul of Newark public schools. Instead of ensuring that communities had a significant voice in decision making, an aspect of liberty, the policy makers focused on top-down policies that, although focused on equity by trying to improve the failing schools, in fact created chaos and upheaval. The improvement effort ultimately failed to have the desired impact. Perhaps one of the reasons was that the improvement effort was overly focused on equity at the expense of justice.
Policy makers are beginning to realize the importance of justice and liberty in education policy. The ESSA has scaled back much of its direct oversight of accountability measures, leaving that to state governments—a move that has been praised by many education experts. However, the legal stance of the ESSA policy is still oriented around the idea of equity and has not yet taken the next step towards a just education: an education focused on liberty while ensuring quality. The focus on equitable education is an important part of any educational policy, but another step remains to be taken. It may not be politically feasible at the national level, but local authorities, teacher leaders, and policy makers may be in a position to think of creating policies that offer quality education while still ensuring that students have the liberty to reach their own unique potential, the core strength of a democratic society. In other words, a just education ensures that each citizen has agency in their own education.
Asking the Rights Questions to Find Appropriate Answers
When trying to answer one specific question it is easy to get overly focused and lose sight of the many goals, needs, and values that are embedded in the American school system, and in the lives of each of its students. Even simple, related terms, such as equality, equity, and justice, which might seem to be the same at first glance, need to be carefully understood. Implicit assumptions about policy goals have far reaching consequences when made into law. This is why asking the right question is so important.
When education policies are oriented solely around the issue of equity, they can lose sight of the needs for justice and liberty. Like the federal government, checks and balances for education policy are necessary. Asking “does the policy improve equality, equity, and justice?” provides a more comprehensive framework for creating fair and good policies that meet the needs of all students and communities. As the push for every student to succeed continues, we must not achieve equality or equity at the expense of justice.
Joseph Levitan is a Foreign Language and Area Study Graduate Fellow and PhD Candidate in Educational Leadership and Comparative and International Education at Penn State. Levitan’s work focuses on how self-conceptions, attitudes, and aspirations influence learning for students from marginalized populations, and how schools can become spaces for responsive teaching and learning to ensure marginalized students’ success. Levitan is also the co-founder and Director of Educational Programing and Operations at the Sacred Valley Project, a non-governmental organization dedicated to ensuring that Quechua young women are able to attend secondary school and become powerful leaders in the Peruvian Andes. Prior to his work in Pennsylvania and Peru, Levitan received an MA in International Educational Development at Columbia University Teachers College and taught History and English Language Arts in an urban public middle school in Baltimore City.