Assessment, Equity, Opinion, Policy

Equity: After the Poetry Comes the Prose

I think everyone is in favour of equity, right? But what does that mean? Rather than just wax eloquent about ideals perhaps we should talk about what inequity we will not tolerate. Specifically, what inequity in educational outcomes is unacceptable and what are we prepared to do to eliminate it?

Only in Lake Wobegon are the children all above average, so there is no inherent inequity in differences in educational achievement. Some students simply do school better than others. That is an issue to be sure but its not the big issue. The bigger issues is systemic inequity. When a particular group of students (by gender, wealth, ethnicity etc.) consistently lag behind, something more than human diversity is at play – something inequitable in the school system, and perhaps in society as well. But even in these cases, there are always counter-examples of students who excel, which means that the inequity is more insidious than overt. This creates a plausible deniability to the inequity and makes it easy to blame the victim.

If a student from a dysfunctional home that is captured in a cycle of abuse is poorly mannered at school, occasionally violent with other students and inattentive to his studies is that his fault or ours? If it is, at least in part, a social problem rather than merely an individual character flaw, then how far are we prepared to go to fix it? Of course, in this case the response would necessarily have to include elements beyond the school so perhaps that is too complex for starters.

How about those students who just don’t do well in the standardized and passive, compliance-focussed environment of a school? One example would be students whom we have come to label with ADHD. For the most part, their difference becomes a dysfunction primarily because school requires behaviour of which they are less capable than other students. This leads to all sorts of problems, often including lower academic achievement. Is that their problem or ours?

If we are committed to equity then we are committed to eliminating inequity, and that means be willing to change the way schools function and the way we behave in order to eliminate, or at least minimize, it. Equity does not result from equality. Treating everyone the same – no matter how kindly and encouraging that may be – perpetuates, and often exacerbates, inequity. Only when we are prepared to redistribute resources, including our own time and attention, to differentially address the characteristics and needs of any group of students who are not succeeding under current conditions will we be able to increase equity in student experience and achievement in schools.

 In issues of equity, if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem and excuses don’t change that.

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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