By Peter Levine
My wife and I have each spent many hours teaching by video this spring. While sitting in the same house, I meet online with college students who attend a selective private university; she meets with 5-to-9-year olds in an urban public school system, helping them learn to read.
Both of us think and worry about equity: how to treat all students fairly within our respective institutions and across the whole country (even the world). And both of us discuss these issues with our respective colleagues. I suspect that many other educators are similarly wrestling with the challenges of teaching equitably while schools are closed.
Before the pandemic, schools were already dramatically inequitable. In our state of Massachusetts, total expenditures per pupil vary from $14,000 to $31,000 among regular school districts. But the worst-funded Massachusetts district still allocates twice as much per student as Utah does. In Uganda, the government spends $2.12 per student per year on education (although many families spend more).
Boosting a school’s budget certainly does not guarantee better results—as Utah’s decent outcomes show—yet inequity in education takes many other forms besides cash, from biased adults' expectations to the amount of pollution in the air, or even the degree to which other students are focused on learning.
Although such disparities persist, at least there are some ways of promoting equity within the walls of a bricks-and-mortar school. Every enrolled child can be required to attend for basically the same amount of time, can be afforded the same fundamental rights, can be allocated similar equipment and materials, and can count for roughly the same when it comes to allocating funds or measuring outcomes.
Equity in education becomes more challenging when schools close their doors and teachers try to serve students online or by telephone calls and care-packages delivered to their doors. For one thing, the total amount of instructional time is likely to plummet, making time a scarce resource that is hard to allocate fairly.
Some students have excellent WiFi and hardware at home, and their parents can help them use these tools. Other households get online through a parent's cell phone or not at all.
Some households are equipped with office supplies and art materials and clean and quiet places to work; some have none of these assets.
Some parents know the material that the school is trying to teach; others do not. Some have the time, capacity, and commitment to be deeply involved in their own children’s education during the pandemic. Other adults are barely managing or are perhaps unwilling to help.
"Boosting a school’s budget certainly does not guarantee better results—as Utah’s decent outcomes show—yet inequity in education takes many other forms besides cash, from biased adults' expectations to the amount of pollution in the air, or even the degree to which other students are focused on learning."
In considering these disparities, we should avoid stereotypes. In an affluent, highly-educated household, the adults might be so busy that they cannot support their children as well as working-class parents who were laid off and receiving unemployment benefits. In a family where the adults do not know the school’s curriculum—and perhaps do not understand English—the pandemic could be a powerful opportunity to impart their own cultural traditions and knowledge. Meanwhile, the disease distributes crippling pain in unexpected ways, striking the privileged as well as the poor. Nevertheless, it is a safe assumption that—overall—students who have more social and economic resources in their homes will weather school closures better than economically precarious students.
Given these challenges, what principles should guide us as educators?
First, a little terminology: I would use the word “equitable” as a near-synonym for “just” or “fair”; it is an ethical concept. In contrast, the word “equal” means that two measurable things—such as funding, opportunities, or test scores—are the same. “Equal” is a mathematical concept: one plus two is equal to three. Equity may, but does not always, imply mathematical equality.
The problem is that we don't agree about what is fair, and many of us are pulled in different directions by competing ideas of equity.
Equity in Education as Equal Preparation for Life
One definition of equity in education is getting every child up to the same level of preparation by the time they become adults. To prepare all our high school seniors at the same level requires deliberate attention that starts in pre-K. It may require investing resources and attention to children in proportion to their needs. The further behind they would fall without support, the more support they should get from their public schools.
Applied during a pandemic, this principle means directing as much attention as possible to the students who are likely to be worst affected by the disease, by disrupted schooling, and by economic hardship.
One reason for this ideal of equity is that our society is competitive. A job does not just go to someone who is qualified for it, but to the candidate who is deemed most qualified. If you have a better education than I do, then I can lose the job to you, even though I could have done the job just as well. The same is true of college admissions. In turn, power and influence flow from holding desirable jobs and fancy college degrees. We want our public schools to try to make the many competitions of life as fair as possible by helping all students to have similar assets by the end of high school. During a crisis, we want to mitigate the competitive disadvantage that threatens our most vulnerable kids.
This is a valid ideal, but it presents several challenges and dilemmas.
First, you may literally not be able to tell who needs your help most, especially given the limited information available to teachers about students' home circumstances during a pandemic.
Collecting too much information can also be invasive. We are virtually entering many private homes as we teach students during this spring of COVID-19. It is not necessarily our business to know whose house is messy, crowded, or less well-equipped for learning.
Second, you may not be able to do anything useful for some of your students, while you could meaningfully help some others. Does it really promote equity to refuse to serve a student in the lower half of the social-economic scale because you might miss a student at the very bottom?
Also, which children should you strive to place on an equal footing? If we do the best we can for the least advantaged students in Massachusetts, we stand to expand the gaps between Massachusetts students and those in Mississippi or Uganda. After all, Massachusetts enters the pandemic with much more spending, better outcomes, and a more competitive economy than those other places; and some forms of competition are national or global. If every child counts for the same—as I certainly believe—then is it really equitable to focus on the children in our own schools, towns, or states?
Blog: Safely Reopening America's Schools and Communities
Equity in Education as Equal Concern for All of a Teacher’s Own Students
On the other hand, education requires concern for the actual individuals and places you know. Children aren’t educated by money being spent on them; they learn from adults and peers who care about them as human beings, who know their names and their needs. And you cannot actually care about all the children of the world in a meaningful way.
We might, in fact, think of equity as equal care for the people we personally affect. It seems a valid principle that I (as a college instructor) should feel and demonstrate precisely equal concern for every student who enrolls in my own courses.
Note that this means I am favoring students who just happened to end up in Poli. Sci. 191 this semester over other students and other human beings, but there are reasons for that favoritism. One reason is a division of labor: I try to be equitable in my little acre of the world; others should be equitable in theirs. Another reason has to do with relationships. Every student in my class has an equal right to the same kind of meaningful teacher/student relationship with me. And then there is the fact that I am paid to teach all my students, and no one else.
Implementing this principle can mean different things in different contexts. Although I have never taught 14-year-olds and would defer to teachers who have, I suspect that it’s important to avoid suggesting that you are aware of status differences among these students, because teenagers are often painfully conscious of such disparities. Ninth-grade teachers might adopt a policy of offering precisely the same opportunities to everyone in their classes (notwithstanding actual differences in their circumstances), just to make students feel equal in their teachers' eyes. On the other hand, when working with five-year-olds, a better way to demonstrate equal concern might be to tailor opportunities to each child’s needs.
Still, you should not neglect your most advantaged students—even if they are thriving during the pandemic—if you aim to honor the teacher/student relationship for every student. The principle of equal care for all your own students implies that you must help everyone (including the already advantaged), whereas the principle of preparing every child to compete on an equal footing directs you to favor the most vulnerable.
Equity in Education as Fair Incentives and Rewards
Another principle is in tension with the two we have explored so far. Maybe educators should set incentives to motivate learning from all their kids.
Our society makes very heavy use of incentives to motivate learning and work. In schools, students do homework because it’s graded, just as adult workers show up because they are paid.
There is room to criticize this approach. Shouldn’t learners be intrinsically motivated, and shouldn’t learning be its own reward? Couldn’t we get more out of youth if we inspired rather than penalized them into studying?
I think it might be utopian to envision a rapid shift to a whole different culture. In the meantime, most educators set expectations, reward hard work, and penalize slackers. I did that with my college students this semester: grading their papers and taking attendance for virtual classes (albeit with liberal extensions and excused absences).
This principle conflicts with the previous two because setting high expectations can make life harder for some of your students than for others. The easiest way to accomplish a certain definition of equity would be to award every student an automatic “A” during a pandemic. But then you would not give more recognition for harder (or better) work.
Not only may loosening expectations and rewards reduce the amount of learning, but it may also be inequitable in its own way. If some of my students manage to write truly excellent papers during the pandemic, maybe they have a reason for complaint if I hand out “A’s” automatically. Maybe that is not equitable.
Furthermore, a grade, a completed course, or a diploma is supposed to indicate that the student has learned the material. If all of our students were automatically awarded high grades for biochemistry this semester because the pandemic caused some of them serious stress, that would be equitable in the sense that they would all have biochemistry credits and higher grade-point averages. But it would make it harder for medical schools to select students who are prepared to become good physicians.
Here I have explored some competing principles and tradeoffs, with a tight focus on the students themselves. I have not considered inequitable demands on educators, which can be severe. It is a lot easier to provide equitable online learning during a pandemic if you are healthy, decently paid, and supported to care for any children in your own home. Women are pretty clearly bearing more of the burden of childcare (on average) than men in this crisis, and younger adults often more than people whose own children are grown up.
Ideally, providing an equitable education would be a society’s responsibility and would not fall solely on beleaguered teachers in unequal circumstances. However, we know we are far from that ideal, and in the meantime, we educators should do our best to think about what equity means for our own students.
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