Thursday, February 12, 2009

Liberty , Equity (?), Fraternity

Buzzwords are a big thing in education, and one of the biggest today is "Equity". On the faculty page of the (very respected) Stanford University Education Department, the word equity pops up over a dozen times.

Until recently, equity was mostly used in discussions about stocks, finance, or maybe actors. "Equality", or lack thereof, was used to talk about differences in opportunity, education or income. So why did equality lose the buzzword battle to equity ?

According to my handy on-line dictionary, equity can be defined as: "justice according to natural law or right ...freedom from bias or favoritism".

Equality is: "the quality or state of being equal".

A subtle distinction, but significant in ideology. Practicing the concept of equity means that, as a teacher, you are trying to give students an equal chance (an equal input) - but that ultimately there will be winners and losers (an unequal output). This manifests itself as good grades or bad grades. An honor roll certificate or no honor roll certificate. It presuppose that children practice free will and engage in rational choice, and that their choices - through an equitable presentation "free of bias or favoritism" - will lead to a meritocratic social structure. Therefore, an unequal outcome is normal, and not indicative of an unequal input. I would argue that this philosophical approach bleeds beyond the differences of individual students, into the expectations the educational system has for groups of students from different social backgrounds.

Focusing on equality as teacher, means you are not principally trying sort or stratify. Equality of output is as much a concern as equality of input. This mindset assumes that an inequality of output signifies an inequality of input - especially when measuring large numbers of students, of different social backgrounds, against each other.

Equity is a safe buzzword, while equality probably sounds too socialistic for the educational hierarchy, and those devising policy.

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