What do we mean when we talk about “equity”?

In an academic context, discussions on equity generally center on providing each student with an equal opportunity to succeed across classes and content areas. The idea is that school should be fair for its students, that race, socioeconomic status, and similar factors should not play a role in determining their success.

Equity is such a concern in our education systems that schools dedicate significant time, and in some cases even professional roles, to addressing perceived inequities in ways that might level the playing field for students.

Still, despite all our efforts toward equitable education, there are students in every school who are struggling. And after exhausting our efforts to get them on track, we’re trapped into thinking those struggling students aren’t as good or as capable as others, and we trap struggling students into thinking the same.

But instead of blaming students for inadequate outcomes, we should be blaming inequitable outcomes for limiting students’ success.

To begin unpacking this, consider traditional academic outcomes. An academic outcome can be thought of as any measured result of the academic process. Traditionally, what’s measured in schools is performance in a range of curriculum areas, with overall learning summed up in test scores. Since the direct, measured outcome of learning in that system is curricular knowledge, we have to ask ourselves this: is knowledge an equitable outcome?

Alone, no––measuring performance solely on the basis of curricular knowledge is categorically unfair. It’s also incredibly damaging. When students are told (either explicitly or implicitly) that they won’t amount to anything because they can’t perform well on tests or within traditional academic confines, they’re going to take that to heart. But, simply put, it isn’t true: the picture of success sold to students is a lie.

Meaning and fulfillment––human success––can’t currently be determined by performance in school. Good grades are not a reliable indication that a person is successful, in the same way that bad grades don’t denote human failure. Whether or not we feel successful as humans is a function of self-understanding, knowledge, competency, and connection, the outcomes that help us contribute to the world in meaningful and fulfilling ways. Education will only be truly equitable when all of these outcomes are academic outcomes––measured results of the academic process.

This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky vision for education––there are schools that are already making it a reality (see Measuring Human Return: Understand and Assess What Really Matters for Deeper Learning). Human success and wellbeing can find a measured and meaningful place in education, and we really don’t have any more time to waste.

Every inequitable instance in schools is a lost opportunity to make learners’ lives better.