Lots of schools these days have “equity and diversity” committees My guess is that no-one wonders much what diversity is in “equity and diversity” because we all have a pretty good sense of what it is – acceptance, toleration, and perhaps celebration of the various ethnic, racial, national, gender and sexual orientations in our midst. But what on earth is equity?
People (teachers, education students, other scholars in education) ask me this reasonably often, because they think that, as a professional philosopher who thinks a lot about education I ought to have an answer. I used to shrink from the question because the term “equity” is on that I never use, but recently I have become bolder. A School of Education recently asked me to prepare a lecture on “Equity, Equality, and Social Justice in Education”, and in the talk I just talked about equality and social justice, and said, bluntly, that I don’t understand “equity” and wish people would stop using the term.
After saying that, I thought I should do a couple of bits of research. The first was to run a search in amazon for books with the words “equity” and “education” in the title. 7,235 results. Fortunately, most of them seem not actually to have equity in the title, and when I looked at the 107 books published in the last 90 days I found that many only use “equity” somewhere in the text, and a few of those (including Hidden Markets by my colleague Patricia Burch) use “equity” in the way that is standard in finance circles, to mean capital. But there’s enough to confirm that equity in education is a standard phrase that ought to be easy to understand. The second thing I did was to read a bunch of books by scholars concerned with school improvement and the internal life of schools whose work I admire, to see how they use the term “equity” and figure out whether there was some obvious meaning that I was missing (Ronald Ferguson’s excellent Toward Excellence with Equity: An Emerging Vision for Closing the Achievement Gap, which I promise to review in the “Books Every Teacher Should Read” category when I get a chance, is the only one with “equity” in the title, but all the school reform improvement/reform books I’ve read recently use the term, and most of them prefer it to equality).
Having done that research I think I was wrong to wish that people stop using it, even though I’ve been right to resist using the term myself. It is a vague concept, but the best authors who use it do so knowing that it is very vague, and feeling, rightly, quite comfortable with that. I’ll explain.
Here’s roughly how I think about educational equality. There are several principles of justice in education. One of them is principle educational equality. In what is undoubtedly (and annoyingly ) the best paper published on educational equality in a philosophy journal (here, PDF, no paywall) Christopher Jencks shows how difficult it is to give a satisfactory definition of educational equality, by showing that all the most likely candidate definitions involve some counterintuitive consequence. In fact I have ended up thinking that one of Jencks’s candidates is the right one, even though implementing it fully would have counterintuitive consequences, viz, what I call the radical version of the principle of educational equality, which demands that children face equal prospects for educational achievement regardless of their social background or their natural level of talent. (If you’re interested in more detail, see this paper with Swift, and pp. 6-12 of this one without him, both PDF and free. Note that Swift, as ever, is responsible only for what’s right in the paper, and not for anything that’s wrong, and not for anything in a blog post).
You can’t just choose what you are going to mean by “educational equality” or “educational equity”. These are moral terms, and they need to be defined by reference to our best moral understandings. I think the radical version of the principle of educational equality is best supported by one of the moral reasons that we should care about equality, which is simply that we think that it is unfair of society to set things up so that some people’s lives will go worse than those of others despite the fact that they are not responsible for doing anything that makes their lives go worse. Society doles out the goods that it produces very unequally, and makes education one of the key instruments for succeeding in the competition for them, so when educational success is dependent on factors for which the person bears no responsibility that is, in itself, unfair.
It should be obvious why the radical version of educational equality has counterintuitive consequences: since some children have very low levels of cognitive capacity, implementing it fully would require serious leveling down of prospects of achievement; requiring that we lobotomize the cognitively able, and resulting in very low levels of achievement for all.
The reason I am not troubled by this is that I think other principles of justice – educational and otherwise – are more important than educational equality. To give an obvious example, a principle upholding the psychological and physical integrity of the person is an important principle of justice, and that is what prohibits lobotomizing the cognitively normally abled. To give a less obvious, and less frequently discussed, example, I think that it is more important to arrange social institutions to maximize the prospects for a flourishing and enjoyable life of those whose prospects are worst than it is to ensure equality of opportunity (or educational equality). In so far as we can improve the conditions of society in a way that benefits the worst off by training the talents of the talented and getting them to put them to work, that’s what we should do. This principle gives us a powerful reason to foster the talents of people who are might develop the wealth and technology that can improve the lives of, for example, the severely cognitively disabled. A final, and perhaps most obvious, example, I think that a flourishing family life is extremely important, and so measures (like removing all children from their children at birth and subjecting them to equally good educational experiences in some sort of super-orphanage) that would implement educational equality at the cost of seriously jeopardizing familial relationships would not be acceptable.
The point is that rather than trying to find a single principle which incorporates and balances all the relevant moral considerations, we should admit that there are many moral considerations, and that there is a hierarchy which helps us to decide what to do in the circumstances . But the fact that one value is more important than another in some circumstances does not imply that the less important value is not important at all. Just that there are limits on what we should do to pursue it.
So what does “educational equity” mean? People use it to mean something like this: “Children should have roughly equal prospects for educational success, but there are all sorts of limits on what we can, and all sorts of limits on what we are permitted to, do to achieve this, and it is very hard to articulate or get agreement about exactly what those limits are”. Adopting a principle of educational equity commits you to giving a fairly priority, in state and district-level policy, in the policies and design of your school’s instructional mission, and in your own practice, to raising the prospects for achievement of the lower achievers, while giving you appropriate room to give some weight to improving the achievement of other students, and to compromise with the barriers that will be placed in the way of improving low-end achievement.
By adopting the term “equity”, the authors I admire who use it evade the long philosophical discussions about exactly what the place of equality is relative to other values. And this is sensible, not only because to do so would be distracting, but because in the actual circumstances of American education prospects for achievement are radically unequal, and there is no possibility that schools could make them completely equal with, or without, violating other important values. I think that using “equity” helps people to feel that they have not failed when they do not reach full equality, and also helps them to screen out a lot of disagreement that is irrelevant to their practice right now.
So, in the end I think it’s fine to use the term. But there are two dangers. First, the looseness of the term, once it is understood, can let people feel they are off the hook for improving low end achievement: “well, if all you are saying is that we must try and do something, we are doing that, as long as we do something we are free to give lots of attention to the more advantaged students, for example by putting our energies and money into Gifted and Talented programs, or AP, or whatever”. In fact, there are lots of good reasons for putting energy and money into G&T and AP, and the like, including, ironically, that in many districts in order to be able to serve the bottom third well you have to keep the parents of the top third on board. But “equity” shouldn’t let you off the hook – my guess is that most districts, many schools and teachers, and of course many of the advantaged people whose only positive contribution to schooling is that they pay their taxes, could be doing a lot more to help raise the achievement of the low achievers than they currently do, and could do so without undermining their own family life or careers.
Second, it can be very confusing, because people sometimes naturally seem to think it has a well-defined meaning, and that it should be possible to distinguish it very clearly from “equality”. Not so – it is deliberately vague, and you should just accept that when you hear it used and use it. And because it is vague it cannot be very clearly distinguished from other related concepts, some of which, like equality, it partially incorporates. It was to help avert the possible confusion that I wrote this.
 Why “annoyingly”?. Imagine that you are a sociologist who (rightly or wrongly) considers yourself an expert in educational equality, and you discover the best sociological paper on the topic, which happens to be published in the best sociology journal, is 20 years old and is by a philosopher who is extremely eminent in his or her own discipline. Wouldn’t that be annoying?
 It is not annoying that the sentence this note refers to expresses exactly what Jencks said to me when I was explaining how I disagreed with him, but it is a little annoying that I only understood my and Swift’s own approach properly when Jencks said this.