Why does equity in education matter

A student reads a book in a classroom.

Published: June 23rd, 2023

Equity in education lies at the heart of every successful classroom. When all students are granted equal access to learning materials and resources, they can reach their full potential and be empowered to achieve great things.

Promoting equity starts with recognising that not all students have the same experiences or needs regarding accessing an education, which is why it’s so important for teachers and schools to prioritise equity when creating lesson plans and teaching strategies.

Let’s take a deep dive into what exactly equity looks like in the classroom, and explore how you can help ensure your students receive high-quality instruction regardless of background or experience.

What is equity in education?

Equity in education is the idea that all students should be provided with equal access to a quality education, regardless of their background, identity, or ability level. This means providing resources and support to all students so that they have the same opportunities to succeed. It also involves creating an environment in which diversity is celebrated and all perspectives are respected. By promoting equity in education, you can give every student an equal chance at achieving academic success.

Equity vs equality in education

While the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between equity and equality.

Equality means everyone receives the same educational opportunities regardless of background or ability. In other words, everyone is treated equally. This sounds good in theory, however, equality is a “one size fits all” approach where everyone has access to the same level of support regardless of personal factors or individual needs. This can lead to unfair treatment for marginalised groups, as they’re unable to achieve the same educational success as their peers.

Equity, on the other hand, ensures that every student receives the resources needed to succeed according to their individual needs and abilities. Resources are distributed fairly so that all students can access what they need for academic success. This might mean that one student is given more support than another.

Take, for example, an English test. You give all your students a pen, paper and written instructions. All your students have the exact same tools to complete the test. Equal, right?

Now consider your students – perhaps one of your students has ADHD, one is an ESL student, and one student is visually impaired. Despite all having access to the exact same materials, some students will need additional support to ensure the test is equitable – this could be a quiet room to focus for the student with ADHD, a translated text for the ESL student, and a text-to-speech reader for the visually impaired student. Only now is the test truly equal. In other words, everyone gets what they need to succeed.

Diversity in the classroom

All students are unique, with unique strengths and weaknesses. There are also many additional factors that may impact a student’s access to education, including (but not limited to):

●     Gender and gender identity

●     Religion and culture

●     Race and ethnicity

●     Sexual orientation

●     Socio-economic status (for example, students experiencing family homelessness, poverty, or remote or regional isolation).

●     Disability

●     Neurodivergence

●     Social, emotional and physical development

●     Health and wellbeing

● Trauma

It’s important to recognise and pay attention to the needs of diverse groups in your classroom to ensure you’re fostering equity for students.

Why equity in education in important

Equity in education provides all students, including our most vulnerable, with the opportunity to overcome barriers and achieve success, not just in the classroom, but also in the rest of their lives. Equitable education has many benefits for the individual, as well as society as a whole. Some reasons why equity in education matters include:

●     Access to education is a fundamental right of all people, regardless of a person’s background, ability or experience

●     Education empowers students and leads to lifelong benefits

●     Education promotes the development of life skills, such as communication, negotiation and critical thinking

●     Education closes skill gaps and pay gaps

●     Education increases the supply of knowledge and skills, and enables access to work, which in turn fuels economic growth and prosperity

●     Education promotes social cohesion, reduces crime and poverty, and empowers all people to contribute to society

Gender equity in education

According to UNESCO, 118.5 million girls are out of school globally, and two thirds of adults unable to read are women. Providing girls with access to educational opportunities is a top priority for UNESCO. In addition to education being a fundamental right, it’s also a critical stepping stone to achieving gender equality. Education empowers girls and women, giving them autonomy and enabling them to develop important life skills and contribute to society.

One specific gender-based education issue facing Australia is girls’ low rate of participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). According to the Australian Department of Education, low participation by school-aged girls means that, as adults, women are far less likely to work in STEM. In 2011, the Australian STEM workforce comprised just 28% of women.

This becomes an issue in evolving job markets, with the Australian Government predicting that “future workers will spend more than twice as much time on job tasks requiring science, maths and critical thinking than today”. It’s a national imperative that Australia keeps up with the need for STEM, and this means ensuring that all genders have equal access to educational opportunities in the field. 

How to promote equity in education

Ensuring equity in education is an important responsibility for everyone involved in the educational system, from school administrators to classroom teachers.

For school administrators

Train your employees (or hire an expert)

Train current staff on issues related to equality, diversity, and inclusion. By providing employees with the necessary knowledge and skills, they can become better equipped to handle situations where inequities may exist and to foster a culture of inclusion, fairness and respect in their own classrooms.

To find professional development opportunities for your staff, seek out learning programs offered by your state or territory government. For example, the Victorian Department of Education provides an Inclusive Classrooms professional learning program to help school staff build their capability to support students with diverse learning needs. In 2023, courses include:

● Supporting Students with Autism

● Supporting Students with Learning Difficulties, including Dyslexia

● Supporting Students with Oral Language and Learning

● Supporting Students with Hearing Loss

● Supporting Student Behaviour.

The courses, which provide up to 20 hours of accredited professional learning, are free for all Victorian government school staff.

Another option, if your school doesn’t have the necessary expertise, is to seek out an expert, such as an occupational therapist, speech pathologist, literacy specialist, multi-sensory maths educator, or other allied specialist. In addition to providing support directly to your students, they may also be able to provide school staff, administrators and teachers with guidance, training, and support.

Involve your students in curriculum planning

Give your students a voice and involve them in the curriculum planning process. By doing so, you can gain a better understanding of your students’ backgrounds and perspectives, creating a more equitable learning environment.

When planning your curriculum, make sure to listen to your students and consider their interests. One way to do this is to allow students to pick their own projects or method of learning, for example, by giving them access to different resources for exploring a specific topic. Another way is to use alternative methods for demonstrating knowledge other than traditional tests. Some examples include preparing and delivering a presentation, holding a class debate, or analysing a book or case study.

Also, make sure to incorporate diversity (diverse perspectives and diverse people) into every subject, from maths and science to English and the arts.  

For teachers

Recognise that all students have different needs

Fundamental to promoting equity in education is recognising that all students have different needs. Recognise the range of diverse students in your classroom and pay attention to their needs. Your classroom could include students with disabilities, students from diverse religious and cultural communities, LGBTIQ+ students, students experiencing family homelessness, students with English as a second language, gifted/talented students, as well as many more diverse groups.

All students have different strengths and weaknesses. Educators should strive to create an equitable learning environment by providing each and every student with the support they need to succeed.

Look inward

We all hold biases. It’s important to be aware of yours because if you’re not, you may accidentally give your students unfair treatment. For example, pay attention to which students you ask questions, where you stand when you teach, or what kinds of stories you tell. It may not be intentional, but you could find you’re unfairly favouring some students.

Examine and challenge your biases. This can be achieved by reflecting on personal values and beliefs, understanding how they may affect interactions with students, and seeking opportunities for growth and change.

Create a safe and equitable classroom environment

Every student has the right to feel safe and welcome in the classroom. This means creating an environment where all students feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, opinions, and experiences without fear of judgement or ridicule.

By building a culture of trust that allows every student to be heard, educators can create an inclusive learning space that respects different perspectives and encourages open dialogue between students from diverse backgrounds.

Create a trusting and respectful educational environment that allows students to participate, ask questions, and take risks, and where students are not judged for holding different views. Some ways to do this include:

●     Celebrating diversity

●     Encouraging questioning through class discussions or question-and-answer sessions

●     Monitoring for and addressing bullying, including addressing inappropriate remarks or behaviours that may marginalise students

●     Catering to different learning styles through differentiated learning (more on this below)

●     Encouraging a sense of belonging through representation (more on this below)

●     Celebrating student achievements (big and small)

●     Building trusting relationships with your students

●     Creating a judgement-free zone

●     Encouraging students to get to know each other

●     Respecting your students (for example, respecting your students’ privacy, or making sure not to embarrass them in front of their peers)

●     Reframing mistakes as a learning opportunity

●     Modelling equity through your words and actions

Accommodate different learning styles

To create equity in the classroom, it’s important to understand how your students learn best. Every student is different, and each will have a learning style that best suits their unique strengths and needs.

Accommodate different learning styles through differentiated teaching, an approach that emphasises customised and personalised instruction. Differentiated teaching enables you to design and deliver personalised lessons that cater to the unique needs of each student in your classroom. This ensures that all students are challenged and all students achieve success, regardless of their academic ability or learning style.

Differentiated teaching also allows for accommodations for students with special needs, especially when paired with technology, such as Promethean’s interactive displays or teaching software. Ensuring content is accessible could mean using audio recordings, videos, interactive games and presentations, virtual excursions, recorded lessons, podcasts, music, or assistive technologies, such as voice-to-text and text-to-speech software, eye-gaze technology, and spelling and grammar aids.

Use diverse teaching materials

Make sure that the materials, books and resources you use in your classroom are diverse, culturally sensitive, and inclusive, reflecting the different backgrounds, experiences, cultures, languages, and belief systems of your students.

Check the books your class is reading, the examples and visuals included in your presentations and assignments, and the websites your students are visiting – are they predominantly focused on one group of people? It’s important to take into account the backgrounds and experiences of your students and make sure that they’re represented in the materials you use.

All students should be able to see themselves or people like them in books, presentations, assignments, and other class materials, as representation can help students feel seen and valued.

In addition to fostering a sense of belonging through representation, having a diverse selection of resources in the classroom can broaden students’ perspectives and promote understanding and acceptance of people from different backgrounds.

Using technology to promote equity in schools

It’s critical that all people in the educational system promote equity in the classroom, and a big part of this is ensuring all students have equal access to the educational materials and resources they need to succeed. Incorporating technology into schools and classrooms can help with this. If you’re interested in learning how Promethean can help you promote equity in your school with cutting-edge EdTech tools, get in touch.

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