For most of my life, equality was the word that most people used to talk about improving society for marginalized communities. However, the word that most people use today is equity.

But what is equity, what is equality, and how are they related, especially with regard to education?  

A Short History Lesson

In 1892, a Black train passenger, Homer Plessy, refused to sit in a train car for Black people. Plessy sued, and, in 1896, his case made it to the Supreme Court. He argued that his constitutional rights were violated, but the Supreme Court rejected his argument. 

The judges decided that racially segregated public facilities were legal as long as Black people’s facilities were equal to the Whites’ facilities. That decision established the “separate but equal” doctrine that made it legal for businesses to block Black people from sharing the same buses, schools, and other public facilities as White people. Those laws would stand for the next 60 years.  

However, in 1951, Oliver Brown filed a class-action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, after his daughter, Linda Brown, was prevented from enrolling in any of Topeka’s all-white elementary schools. 

Mr. Brown argued that schools for Black children were not equal to the schools for White children, and that segregation violated the “equal protection clause” of the 14th Amendment, which asserts that no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” 

The Supreme Court agreed with Brown. On May 17, 1954, they issued the decision that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” as segregated schools are “inherently unequal.” 

By arguing that separate is unequal, the Supreme Court decided that Black students should be given the same opportunities to go to whatever schools White students attended. 

For the Supreme Court, equality meant giving students the same opportunities or inputs. That is, if students are given the same inputs, then schools are essentially fair. 

So if a teacher presents information to both Black and White students in the same exact way, then that is considered equality. That is, both students are given the same inputs—or opportunities—to learn. That, according to the Supreme Court, is deemed to be fair and equal. 

However, presenting information to Black and White students in the same way only makes sense if both Black and White students can perceive the information in the same way. 

However, because Black and White students did not start at the same place, contextually and culturally, it is improbable that Black students will see the learning opportunities presented to them by White teachers in the same way that White students see those opportunities. 

Black students might not even see the information as relevant, important, or achievable. Because their contexts and cultures are so different from their White classmates, Black students might not perceive the teacher’s information as worthy of their time or attention. 

Therefore, students should not be given the same inputs. In the final analysis, Black students do not need equality, they need equity.

What is Equity? 

Equity involves empowering all students to succeed in school by presenting them with learning opportunities that they perceive to be relevant, achievable, worthwhile.

Think about it. What good is it to tell someone they should care about something if they don’t see its relevance for them personally? What good is it to give someone an assignment if they don’t perceive it as achievable? Why would they pay attention to it if it does not seem like doing so would be a good use of their time?

Equity involves presenting people with learning opportunities that they can feel and understand, and be inspired to learn. 

How can an individual teacher do that for all their students?

In my book, Teacher Secrets, I share 40 powerful lessons every educator must know to create relevant, worthwhile, developmentally appropriate learning opportunities for their students. 

If you are an educator, or if you know someone who needs help reaching students today, invest in this book. It could literally keep a kid from dropping out. It could inspire them to love learning. It could really change the direction of their lives.

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