Equity in Education: Defining Equity, Equality, and Standardization

By Dr. Laura Latta, M.Ed., Ph.D., Director of Post-Secondary Partnerships & Research


This is the first installment in the ImpactTulsa multi-part series, Equity in Education.


Equal access to a high quality public education has been a top social justice issue for the past century. After all, it was only 65 years ago that the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling was made and “separate but equal” education was found to be decidedly unequal. One would hope that a landmark ruling and the passage of time might heal an education system that was designed to limit access to students of color and benefit white students. Unfortunately, issues of educational equality and equity are still the most commonly raised issues in communities across the nation (See: McNeel, 2019; McMillan, 2019; Peetz, 2019; Wilson Phelan, 2019). This blog series seeks to answer the question: What does equity in education look like? 


What’s the difference between equity and equality? 


Educational researchers, Cramer, Little, and McHatton (2018) explain that using the correct language to describe issues in education is critical. The words equity and equality are often used interchangeably, confused as having the same meaning. It is important to note that though the words sound and are spelled similarly, they have very different meanings. 


Equality is the provision of equal treatment, access, and opportunity to resources and opportunities (Gunn, 2018). Essentially, everyone gets the same thing, regardless of where they come from or what needs they might have. 


Equity is the provision of personalized resources needed for all individuals to reach common goals. In other words, the goals and expectations are the same for all students, but the supports needed to achieve those goals depends on the students’ needs (Equity Education, 2019). 


This popular cartoon illustrates the difference between equality and equity:
















Source: (Interaction Institute for Social Change, 2016)

Note: a variety of iterations of this image have been developed but the original is included above


On each side of the picture, the goal for the three individuals is to see the baseball game. When provided with equal resources, the goal cannot possibly be achieved. However, when the resources are made equitable and adjusted based on the needs of the individuals, each person can successfully see the game.


Equity and Equality: Why are they so important in schools?


Public education is supposed to serve the public. What is known about the public is that there are a variety of experiences, cultures, and beliefs represented, all of which contribute to a unique and vibrant community. Similarly, different members in a community have different needs and resources (financial, emotional, and physical, to name a few). Schools are tasked with educating all members of the public regardless of income, level of ability, native language, or prior education. For this reason, equity is critically important to public education.  


In school, equality is often associated with access and outcomes. Equality asserts that every student should have the same access to a high quality education regardless of where they come from. It also requires that all students be held to the same standards and objectives regardless of their circumstances, abilities, or experiences.


Equity recognizes that different students need different resources to achieve the same goals as their peers. It takes into consideration the fact that a student with a disability requires different physical supports at school than a peer who does not have a disability. Similarly, a bilingual student who speaks a native language other than English needs different language supports than a monolingual English speaker. None of the children are better or worse than another, they just have different needs. Every child brings to school a unique set of needs, talents, and resources that prompt teachers to respond in different ways to each individual student. 


Equality focuses on what is fair within the group. Equity highlights what is fair for the individual. In public education, both group and individual needs are important. All students should have equal access to high quality education and once they get it, they should be afforded equitable supports to achieve success. 


What is standardization? 


There is another important term in education that is important to consider in the conversation about equality and equity: standardization. Standardization is “the process of making something [or someone] conform to a standard,” (Merriam Webster, 2019). The US public education system was built around standardization. Everyone shares the same goals and expectations. Teachers develop their lessons around state adopted standards. Students are required to demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests, normed on the standard scores of kids in other districts and states. Schools are standard-ized.


It is important to note that standardized education can be equal. Every student is expected to meet the same sets of standards, goals, and objectives as their grade-level peers. 


While equality and standardization can coexist peacefully, the burning question is: Can a standardized education system also be equitable? 


Stay tuned for the next installment in the equity series: Are equity and standardization compatible? 


Cramer, E., Little, M. E., & McHatton, P. A. (2018). Equity, Equality, and Standardization:

Expanding the Conversations. Education and Urban Society, 50(5), 483–501.