Educational equity refers to equal access, opportunities, and expectations in education for all persons, irrespective of their backgrounds or status. As a democratic nation, the United States offers a system of “universal” and free public education as a primary mechanism for providing equal educational access and opportunities to all persons, for preparing its people for civic participation in society, and for the socialization of immigrants.
The basic premise of public schooling in the United States is that students at all grade levels are entitled to equal learning opportunities irrespective of advantages, disadvantages, or liabilities linked to skin color, ethnicity, disability, or socioeconomic status. An open system of public education serves as a key compensatory strategy to minimize individual differences and to equalize potential achievements and life outcomes for all. To achieve this end, attendance in public schools became compulsory in most states by the start of the 20th century.
Rooted in the principle of human equality in a democracy, educational equity identifies with the basic liberties and constitutional rights of all citizens, allowing them to participate on an equal footing in a competitive, capitalist economy, with the freedom to move, as desired, in a stratified social system in pursuit of their goals in life. Colloquially referred to as the American Dream, this principle finds expression in the Declaration of Independence as every person’s entitlement to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Specifically, the words equality and equity have different meanings. Equity speaks to public actions and policies in the cause of fairness and social justice. It requires a sufficient distribution of social resources to rectify initially unequal conditions for different groups of people.
Equal access to educational opportunity has been a central issue of legal, educational, and social debates since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954. Affirmative action policies like busing, a strategy for balancing racial distributions in public schools, are examples of public actions aimed at improvement of educational equity through desegregation.
Fiscal equity and educational adequacy lawsuits represent other examples of legislative action in the pursuit of educational equity. These cases challenge inequitable allocation of dollars by U.S. states for public schools located in rich versus poor localities or in inner-city versus suburban areas. Because school financing is largely dependent on local property taxes, plaintiffs successfully argued that children in school districts with low assessable property values receive a lower-quality education than that available to children in wealthier districts. Observers document that larger classes, fewer certified or qualified teachers, rundown physical plants, low teacher pay, and limited or out-of-date teaching materials are found more often in schools located in poorer areas.
The 1980s standards movement in the United States focused educators, policymakers, and the courts on equality of educational outcomes and on “achievement gaps” among different socioeconomic, ethnic, gender, and disability groups, as measured on standardized achievement and ability tests. The bipartisan No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 followed 2 decades of standards-based reforms in U.S. education. NCLB was passed on the premise that higher standards alone had not resulted in higher levels of achievement, and achievement gaps still persisted in various ethnic and socioeconomic subgroups. Comprehensive visions of educational equity in the United States now advocate broadening resource allocations to achieve student outcomes beyond raising test scores. Recent proposals aim to equalize access of families to an array of health, educational, and supplemental services, both in and out of school, to improve students’ cognitive and noncognitive outcomes more comprehensively.
Globally, the notion of educational equity found voice in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of the United Nations, signed by all member nations in 2002. The MDG calls for universal primary education and equal educational access for girls and boys in developing nations worldwide.
As a social problem, the analysis of educational equity can be approached from multiple perspectives. Issues for investigation may be situated in ethical, legal, political, sociological, economic, or institutional policy frameworks. The appraisal standards for educational equity vary in different contexts, such as in public schools, higher education, and professional or private institutions, both in the United States and overseas.
- Center on Education Policy. 2006. “From the Capital to the Classroom: Year 4 of the No Child Left Behind Act.” Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.
- Fuller, Bruce, Kathryn Gesicki, Erin Kang, and Joseph Wright. 2006. Is the No Child Left Behind Act Working? The Reliability of How States Track Achievement. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Gordon, Edmund W. 1999. Education and Justice: A View from the Back of the Bus. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Gordon, Edmund W., Beatrice L. Bridglall, and Aundra Saa Meroe, eds. 2005. Supplementary Education: The Hidden Curriculum of High Academic Achievement. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
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