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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Equity & Diversity Opinion

There’s a Difference Between Equity and Equality. Schools Need to Understand That

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 24, 2023 15 min read
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There was a multipart series here a few years ago on the differences between “equity” and “equality” for schools, but I’m not sure there’s been much advancement in understanding since that time.

I do, however, believe that there tends to be more “lip service"—without accompanying action—in the equity direction.

For example, even though our then-superintendent often gave speeches about it, he ignored pleas from teachers to support providing additional services to English-language learners when we were doing distance learning during COVID’s peak because he supposedly thought that all students should receive similar services.

This new series will again try to make an impact on educators’ understanding of why we need to focus more on equity, instead of equality, in our schools.

Today’s contributors were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

‘The Unseen Layers That Students Carry’

Jehan Hakim is a community organizer, mother, and culturally responsive educator at Jehan Hakim Consulting, LLC:


I am certain everyone has seen this graphic from Angus Macguire and the Interaction Institute for Social Change. It provides an illustration of the differences between equality and equity.

The left side of the image portrays equality:

There are three individuals watching a game from behind a fence, and they are standing on equally sized crates; not all individuals can see the game.

The right side of the image portrays equity:

There are three individuals watching a game from behind a fence, and they are standing on suitable size crates, each individual can now see the game.

So, if we used this visual to understand what equality and equity mean, we could come to these conclusions:

  • Equality means every individual or group of people have the same resources and opportunities.
  • Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.

What equality looks like in the classroom is giving every student the same material, assignment deadlines, correspondence (in English) with their families/caregivers, and so on. While these are examples of an equal classroom, it does not always benefit every student equally.

It is important to recognize that each student enters the classroom with different circumstances. This next visual helps illustrate some of the invisible challenges that students carry into school hallways and classrooms, such as poverty, homelessness, immigration status, disability, etc., and oftentimes unbeknownst to their teachers. The path toward equity begins when we visualize the unseen layers that students carry.


So how can educators strive toward equity? Consider the following three classroom recommendations:

Recommendation 1:

It really starts with getting to know your students, their families, and the community. This is usually referred to as family/community engagement.

Create short surveys to understand their background, invite families to engage in their students’ learning process, regularly seek input from families, and communicate regularly (correspondence should be translated into languages that reflect the classroom’s cultures).

Recommendation 2:

The key to academic equity is understanding the individual needs of students.

Adapt teaching methods, materials, and assessments to accommodate various learning styles, abilities, and interests. Tailor instruction to meet students’ needs.

Recommendation 3:

When students feel a sense of belonging, they will feel motivated to learn.

Expand your curriculum and library by including books and material by diverse authors and content, highlight visuals that reflect the diverse cultures in the community, integrate nontraditional holidays into the class and school calendar.

The path toward more equitable educational experiences may feel like a heavy lift at first—especially as systemic obstacles continue to exist externally. Understanding the difference between equity and equality is the first step to create a real student-centered learning environment in which every student can thrive in school and beyond.

Equity is realized when fairness is prioritized over equality.


‘The Distinction Is Important’

Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., is the executive director of curriculum development and equity for The Leadership Academy. She is the author of Leading Within Systems of Inequity in Education: A Liberation Guide for Leaders of Color and can be found on Twitter @mriceboothe or by reading her newsletter:

The Leadership Academy defines equity as every school and school system is intentionally built to ensure children of every race, ethnicity, language, or other characteristics of their identity have what they need to achieve academic, social, and emotional success. Equality is the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities. Here are some areas where these terms are often confused and why the distinction is important:

1. Access to advanced courses:

  • Equality: Stating that all students can enroll into advanced courses and providing the same process for all students to enroll.
  • Equity: Recognizing that oftentimes enrollment in advanced courses is not reflective of the student population, differentiating the enrollment process, and addressing the adult bias-based beliefs that are impacting enrollment.

2. Hiring Practices:

  • Equality: Posting an open position on the district website for any candidate to apply if interested.
  • Equity: Recognizing the positive impact of staff diversity, implementing targeted recruitment efforts, auditing screening postings and process for bias, and working with staff to minimize bias in hiring practices.

3. Resource Allocation:

  • Equity: Recognizing that students with minoritized identifiers such as disability, multilingual learners, neurodiversity, socioeconomic status, etc., need differentiated supports and providing the necessary resources to ensure they are academically successful.
  • Equality: Giving all schools the same budget based on their student enrollment to achieve academic success.

In all these examples, equality is giving the same treatment and providing the same level of effort to everyone. Unfortunately, this process puts the onus on the minoritized student or staff person to navigate an inequitable system. When we leverage systems and practices of equity, we are creating multiple avenues of entry while also targeting multiple root causes, all at the same time. Complex issues require complex solutions. Any other approach will get us the same results.


Using Metaphors

Jennifer Cárdenas, M.Ed., is a WIDA fellow and a multilingual-learner-program specialist in Columbia, SC. She is pursuing her Ed.D. in curriculum studies, focusing on equity for language learners:

Equality, equity, what is the difference? As a multilingual-learner-program specialist, I encounter this discussion often. Initially, I became frustrated and defensive when educators confused the terms. However, these feelings were exhausting and unproductive.

It was not until I reflected on my practice, personal biases, and the inequities in my building that I became a self-aware, knowledgeable advocate. I learned that to grow others, I first needed to look within. Once I took the steps to become a reflective practitioner, I could tackle the potential uncertainties and apprehensions of others.

Equity looks different depending on the situation and is not always straightforward, potentially causing confusion, as mentioned above. Therefore, the subsequent steps may require numerous attempts to alter an individual’s mindset. In my experience, it is helpful to have some examples ready. Initially, you may need a general approach to explain the terms.

I use metaphors because they are a great way to conceptualize a complex concept. One metaphorical strategy is to use an audience-specific comparison, and, in many instances, the explanation is enough to end the dispute. For example, you may say to teachers, “Imagine sitting in a faculty meeting, stomach growling, patiently waiting for a person holding a basket full of snacks to come your way. As they approach, you hear what each person is requesting, chips, pretzels, and crackers, but the individual serving the snacks only hands out peanuts, and you are allergic.”

As I lead the discussion, I ask participants to discuss equality and equity in the scenario, and if they would make the accommodation. The answer is usually “yes,” they would, but what if we were not talking about snacks but access to information? How could that affect the success and happiness of the future generations of your family? Consequently, the argument becomes, why would teachers, districts, and school systems supply identical resources to all students when we have the resources to make schooling equitable?

Still yet, a simple metaphor may not be enough to explain your meaning. In this case, you may need a more participatory approach. When people feel they can empathize with a situation, they are more willing to make accommodations. For instance, if a person were deaf, you would unquestionably provide an interpreter because you understand the need. Yet, equity for language learners is not as explicit for districts, administrators, and teachers.

To help shift individuals’ perspectives regarding multilingual learners, I use an example that requires participants to consider another’s point of view. The following is an illustration of how I place my faculty in the shoes of my learners. My building is composed almost exclusively of monolingual faculty members. However, my language repertoire includes some Spanish. Therefore, to demonstrate the difference between the terms, I begin the first meeting with teachers by greeting them in Spanish without a visual display or use of body language. At this point, I usually receive blank stares of confusion. I then turn on my presentation (first slide in Spanish, with visuals) and accompany my spoken Spanish with hand gestures to indicate, with a pen and paper, that I would like them to please place their signatures on my sign-in sheet.

After the demonstration, I lead a discussion on the impact of the presentation with and without accommodations, how they felt as participants, and how it might make a multilingual learner feel. In this example, accommodations provide language learners with the necessary scaffolds to make content comprehensible. However, equity comes into play when those accommodations create access to the curriculum.

Although I direct these examples toward teachers, you can create activities for any audience to match your need. Just remember, feel confident in your ability to explain the difference before confronting the issue with others, cultivate trusting relationships with the individuals to whom you wish to explain the terms, and be ready to tackle tough conversations around equality and equity. Identifying and understanding the specific inequities in your building is the first step in fighting the systematic injustices that pervade school systems.


‘A Distributed-Leadership Approach’

Shaun Nelms, Ed.D., is the vice president of community partnerships and the William and Sheila Konar director for the Center for Urban Education Success at the University of Rochester:

Introduction: In 2014-15, I embarked on a remarkable journey as the Educational Partnership Organization (EPO) superintendent at the East Upper and Lower schools (East) in collaboration with the University of Rochester. The task at hand was to uplift schools in distress and demonstrate that with the right resources, structure, people, and unwavering commitment to change, even the most challenged systems can flourish.

Addressing the Systemic Injustices: At East, I found an opportunity to tackle the very systems that once limited my community, hindered my parents’ pursuit of higher education, and deprived my grandparents of completing their high school education. Through a distributed-leadership approach, we transformed the lowest-performing school in New York state’s lowest-performing district, raising the graduation rate from a mere 33 percent to an impressive 85 percent within our initial seven years. This transformative work is now being examined and shared by the Center for Urban Education Success at the University of Rochester, where I assumed the role of director in 2018.

Challenges of Cultivating a Transformational Culture: While the progress achieved at East is commendable, creating a culture that truly believed in our ability to shape the academic, operational, cultural, and structural conditions of the school proved to be the greatest challenge. Often, people mistakenly equate equity with equality, leading to harmful consequences. When school boards and policymakers conflate the two, scholars and their families bear the tragic brunt of such misperceptions.

Investing in Change: To effect transformation, the cost of resources was inevitably higher than in previous years. This increase was primarily attributed to extending the school day and implementing mandatory summer professional learning sessions for staff. The additional time required additional compensation for deserving staff members. Moreover, funds were allocated to remodel crucial spaces such as the gym, cafeteria, and community-gathering areas, which should have been addressed prior to the EPO. These necessary expenses naturally elevated the per-pupil allocation for the school.

Per Pupil Allocation and Return on Investment: Per-pupil allocation is a measure of the financial resources assigned to educate each student. In urban centers, this allocation is often inflated due to the additional resources required for school safety, special education services, English-language-learner support, and mandated behavioral-health services.

As East began to excel academically, some policymakers and community members questioned the higher cost per pupil compared with other schools. However, we must question why the budget wasn’t scrutinized earlier, when our graduation rate languished at a mere 29 percent. Did we adequately assess the return on investment when 71 percent of students failed to meet graduation requirements? When schools achieve success, it is imperative that we invest in understanding their effective practices and replicate them elsewhere. Stalling progress and waiting for other schools to catch up perpetuates inequality and limits the potential of children (equality based on a low standard of excellence). Creating systems where all schools fail and claiming these results as equitable is troublesome when in fact those results are equally harming generations of children.

Embracing an Equity Standard: To achieve equity, we must establish clear goals for our efforts (efficacy). Rather than focusing on equality as the standard, we should strive for excellence and ensure that our systems and structures are designed to not only meet but exceed that standard. Embracing an equity standard shields us from the harmful effects of low expectations and prevents sacrificing success in order to amplify failures within the same system. Even within pockets of success, we must work toward holistic improvement.

Conclusion: The journey at East has taught us valuable lessons about the importance of embracing equity in education. By challenging misconceptions and investing in transformative change, we can create a brighter future for all students. Let us foster a culture that celebrates excellence, learns from success, and continuously seeks to improve our education system, leaving no child behind.


Thanks to Jehan, Mary, Jennifer, and Shaun for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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