Education is often seen as “the great equalizer” because of its potential to produce adults ready to take on work and social situations that afford the needs and novelties of a fruitful life. This is the reason that I became a teacher and fell in love with the field of early childhood, where we can make the biggest impacts on children. However, it is also very clear that the mechanisms of education need to be equitable for this to be possible for all children. By definition (in education), equity assumes that all children are provided with unique supports to succeed on an individual basis. This differs from equality, of course, as that term simply means that all children are given the same opportunities, or chances. This falls short when you think about an opportunity or a chance as being merely the beginning, and that for opportunities to flourish into full-fledged successes, there need to be specialized supports and experiences along the way.
What is the Difference Between Equity and Equality in Education?
As equity gets discussed and highlighted more frequently, I worry that it might become confused or even synonymous with the notion of being culturally responsive. Sure, having books in another language in the classroom is necessary (I’ll talk more about that below), but implementing equitable practices is really about the careful evaluation of all components of the larger systems and whether each piece is striving to meet children’s individual needs. Equity is about offering nuanced supports that help children take an opportunity and develop it into success. I would further argue that equity needs to be thought of relative to inspiration and how practices foster motivation, persistence, curiosity, and interest so that children can take ownership of their learning. This is largely the reason that whole-child approaches in early childhood mean so much.
One important consideration becomes this: how do we ensure that this is happening? To start, we must first acknowledge early childhood as the continuum of development from ages 0 to 8, and, consequently, that whole-child approaches matter after pre-K and are particularly important in kindergarten through third grade. We need to carefully consider how we are aligning practices and thinking about equity year after year despite the pressures of accountability—namely, testing—as this is not the way to inspire children to be self-driven to do their best. The question really is about exactly where and when equity factors into our practices to inspire—across the system—early childhood professionals to get this done. In short, my thoughts are that to create equity, we need to generate inspiration among children to learn. This is what high-quality practices should do, right? How, then, can we get there? Here are a few ideas:
As a mom and former teacher, I’m distinctly aware of the ways in which the learning environment impacts young children. Early childhood education has long considered the learning environment to be the “third teacher” because of the ways in which the classroom setup contributes to self-guided exploration and how it allows children to feel safe and secure enough to focus on learning. Environments need to be inviting and reflective of children in the classroom and they need to connect homes, families, and cultures. This is where books that reflect children and their languages come in. Children need to feel valued and that they belong to a community where they can take risks.
We must pay close attention to the educational content and how it is delivered in classrooms of young children. To do this, we need to first prioritize building broad knowledge about the world and then focus on building narrow skills that are easy to assess. The latter, while necessary, cannot account for the whole of curriculum for children to be successful, mainly because it’s not inspiring. Vocabulary development, for example, has been touted as a great equalizer, and many researchers have noted a vocabulary gap. While we know vocabulary building must be done intentionally, we cannot lose sight of developmentally appropriate practice suggesting that children should drive their learning and that teachers should be responsive. Further, the school day should allow times when children can talk and engage in rich conversations. Books should spark interest and excitement all the time. This is what entices children to be curious, ask questions, and bring their learning home.
Assessment practices should capitalize on what children know and can do rather than focus only on deficits. Knowing where children are within developmental trajectories can help teachers identify individualized ways to plan and move children toward meeting standards.
Of course, while I am able to explain the ways that each of the above impact equity through the lens of an educator and researcher, most often I see these through the lens of my most treasured role: as a mom. Since becoming a mom of school-aged children, I find myself thinking deeply about the experiences of my own children in school in order to understand the experiences of others. It is important to me that all children receive the supports that will make them as successful as I wish my own children to become. Mostly, as a mom, I feel that school should inspire all children to learn and that ultimately, this is what moves an opportunity to a success.