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Equity: Preamble to Justice

Study this provocative visual by artist Angus Maguire. It was commissioned by the Interaction Institute for Social Change. (Used with permission. URLs found at the bottom of this article.)

What a story it tells.

The story actually begins prior to the image on the left. It starts with all three of these individuals standing on the ground, each seeking to watch the ball game that is occurring. What all three have in common is that they are confronted with a barrier to their aspiration. Regardless of their size and stature (which we could easily translate into societal standing based on race or socio-economic status in addition to their obvious physical differences), these guys are confronted with a fence, a solid obstacle that hinders their participation.

A fence. What is the purpose of a fence? Typically a vertical structure, a fence is designed to accomplish one of two things: containment or to deny access. The fence in this illustration does both. The activities of the game are confined within the limits of the barrier, while the interests of these three fellows to participate in or observe the goings on are limited or denied.

This represents a sad metaphor of our national history. Our country has designed and built mechanisms that limit, or even deny, the participation by certain sectors of society to events that may interest them or ones where they may derive benefit.

Our collective desire to correct this problem is illustrated in the left-hand panel labelled “Equality.” Here we see the well intentioned attempt to “level the playing field” by offering everyone involved a boost. By its very definition, the “boost” must be the same for everyone, as equality requires an expectation of identical treatment. Examination of this panel is revealing. The intervention was beneficial for the fellow in the middle. It gave him just enough of a lift to be able to watch the game. However, the equitable intervention for the guy on the left provides him more than he needed. In fact, he was able to see over the fence without any support. Sadly, the “equality box” provided to the person on the right isn’t sufficient. It got him part way to his aspiration, but falls short of supporting him in reaching his goal.

Imagine for a moment that you are taking a child clothes shopping in a mall department store. She needs a pair of shoes, a couple of tops and a pair of jeans. As you search the racks you discover that all of the jeans are 26 inch waist and 24 inch inseam. All of them. Every single pair is exactly the same size. The tops in stock only come in size “medium.” There is some degree of choice: she can select either pink or yellow. The shoe department does offer a wide variety of sizes. But, the only shoe in stock, regardless of size, is a black high-top sneaker. Now, if you’re lucky, the child you are shopping with likes black sneakers, is fine with pink or yellow and sports a 26 inch waist. (The jeans can always be shortened if they’re too long, or made into shorts if the reverse is true.) If not, you, and she, are out of luck.

Let’s apply this to schools.

While my example is a bit ridiculous, it does reflect a reality inherent in American public schools. Our nation’s children experience schools that are standardized: defined by standards of achievement frequently taught by using standardized and externally approved materials, and sit for standardized assessments to measure how they compare to their peers in discrete areas of study. In an earnest effort to provide equality, we have a “one size fits all” system, that offers limited opportunities of choice for kids (pink or yellow) that are aligned with their interests and aspirations.

While the provision of equality may feel right, seeming like the appropriate thing to do and a lofty goal, it is inherently unfair. Blindly imposing interventions that are not necessary for some, while falling short for others, is an example of injustice. Put another way, it is inequitable. As we see in the right panel of this colorful illustration, equity assures that each of the participants receives what he needs to be successful; in this case, being able to watch the game. For one, no intervention is required. For the others, they require, and receive, differing levels of support.

A superintendent I once worked with asked the following of his district administrative team. “Should we aspire to be a school district or a district of schools?” From his perspective, there was clear benefit to being a school district. It allows for efficiency, symmetry and management predictability. If we have a system of basically identical schools that are sprinkled across the neighborhoods within the geographical boundaries of the district, a standard experience can be guaranteed to families. On the other hand, the notion of a “district of schools” allows for some deviation and the autonomy for individual sites to cater to the unique needs of their communities. A district of schools is less predictable and may present issues in resource allocation, undeserved school-to-school comparisons or opportunities for kids that present challenges for the system.

He and I agreed to disagree on our conclusions.

“A school district” = equality

“A district of schools” = equity

Is it just semantics, or is it possible to achieve both? Is it possible to have the predictability and efficiency, the guarantee of “sameness” of one, plus the autonomy and elasticity of the other simultaneously? While tricky, I suggest this is both possible and desirable.

Work to assure the continuity of experience for students across a large system, as many districts are attempting to do, is admirable. Especially in light of mobility, it makes sense that a student would have a similar experience as he moves from one school to another within the same system. Adjustments will be easier. The likelihood of academic loss is diminished. The rationale of establishing common operational agreements across a system, if based on the consideration of relevant research, is easily understood. It enjoys a degree of political expediency and it is easily defended. “This what we stand for. This is what students may expect.” are both statements of clarity and commitment. But . . .

Here is where I poke the bear.

A mandate of the number of minutes all students must spend on the study of a given subject, the declaration of a limited menu of common electives, the imposition of a specific schedule across the system for all schools of a given level - do these reflect equity? The connection to equality is obvious. But, are they equitable? I don’t know the answer to my question because I wasn’t in the room as these decisions were being made.

But, I wonder.

I must ask.

And, I beseech decision makers that are making these types of adjustments to reexamine their conclusions to verify that equity is truly being served before the train leaves the station.

Within the mechanisms being put in place, is there room to provide students an extra small or a size large as their needs require or their interests dictate?

Is there room for autonomy that might lead to innovation and improved student experiences and outcomes in a specific school community?

The tension that exists between assurances of equality while promising the execution of equity is both healthy and thorny. Both lenses must be used, with absolute clarity about which is which. And mirrors must constantly be in use to offer systems accurate, in time, reflections on their efforts.

Now, back to Macguire’s brilliant illustration. There is an element to his drawing, evident in both panels, that I need to address further.

The fence.

The existence of that fence, and the metaphorical fences that are present throughout our society, represents a cruel reminder of social injustice. Barriers to equitable access are evident everywhere, including in our schools. Some of them have been erected deliberately. Others may be the unintended consequences of other actions. Either way, we must face this difficult truth and take whatever steps that are necessary (note I didn’t say “within reach”) to remove them. Only then will our system of public education be truly equitable: assuring that every child, regardless of race, wealth, family circumstance or zip code, every child will be guaranteed the supports they need to fully reach their potential and realize their dreams. After all, that’s the education kids deserve.


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