What is Equity?

Have you ever heard or thought:
“Aren’t equality and equity the same thing?”
“Shouldn’t I treat all of my students the same?
“How is equity connected to understanding difference?

Brainstorm a list of words that come to mind when you hear the word “equality,” then when you hear the word “equity.” Identify any words that overlap between these two lists. Think about each word and determine if they apply to both lists.

Are there words that do not apply to both? Why not? Now, look at each image below and consider the following question: what does each plant need to grow and thrive? How are these needs different? What happens if we treat each plant the same?

At some point, we have heard the terms equality and equity used interchangeably. However, it is critical to note that while both concepts are key to social justice and deal with resources, they are significantly different. Generally, equality is associated with treating people the same or people having equal access to resources and opportunities. Above, you were asked to think about what the individual plants need to grow and thrive. At a base level, we know that a cactus will not thrive in the same type of soil or with the same amount of water as a sunflower. The term equity, thereby, asks us to consider the amount, as well as the type of resources, that each plant needs to reach its highest potential.

From a multicultural education perspective, the terms equality and equity are often associated with perspectives on fairness and justice. According to NAME’s definition, “multicultural education is a philosophical concept built on the ideas of freedom, justice, equality, equity, and human dignity….recognizing that equality and equity are not the same thing, multicultural education attempts to offer all students an equitable educational opportunity.” The distinction between equality and equity is an important one for achieving a quality education for all students, but what difference does this distinction make?

Although the sunflower and the cactus both need sun, soil, and water to survive, they need varied amounts to thrive. Too much water can adversely impact the cactus, whereas not enough will cause the sunflower to whither. Sunflowers may not thrive in sandy, arid soils, but the cactus will. If we continue to extend our reflection on the cactus and sunflower, what happens when we consider how their needs differ seasonally and climatically over time? This question asks us to consider the context for growth, as well. If we want both the cactus and the sunflower to flourish, but they have different needs and contexts for growth, we must differentiate -- provide different environments and resources for growth for each of the plants.

Equity across Dimensions for Multicultural Learning

Let’s move away from a simple additive or subtractive understanding of differentiation to critically examine how the sociopolitical context of teaching and learning impacts the four classroom dimensions for multicultural learning: curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, and intellectual challenge. We then begin to see how culturally responsive teaching predicated on providing equitable opportunities to learn is able to support students’ access to learning outcomes. The image below illustrates this important distinction of providing equitable opportunities over equal opportunities:

Figure 1

Equality would mean offering everyone the same curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, and challenge, expecting that, despite differences among students, outcomes should be the same. Equity -- the foundation for multicultural learning -- would mean ensuring that every student has access to the curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, and challenge he or she needs based on the recognition and response to individual differences and the sociopolitical context of teaching and learning. Multicultural learning in the classroom becomes an interplay between students and teachers, and among students themselves, in order to enable students to access, engage, and attain the desired student outcomes:
  1. Positive Academic Identities
  2. Positive Social Identities
  3. Respectful Engagement with Diverse People
  4. Social Justice Consciousness; and
  5. Social Justice Action
Figure 1 also illustrates how each student comes with different prior experiences, cultural resources, capacities, interests, and so forth for engaging opportunities and attaining student outcomes. If everyone has the same or equal opportunities, he or she is not fully tapping into the interplays possible within the classroom community. If students, however, are individually given the educational assets or rights that allow them to successfully tap into these opportunities, all students are better positioned to succeed.

By rethinking these engagements through an equity lens, schools can then build student capacities for success and redefine what is fair in education.


Equality assumes that everyone has equal opportunities to learn and everyone learns equally the same way. Equality also assumes that everyone should receive the same treatment and access to resources.Consequently, pursuing equality in education, educators and policymakers may advocate for the even distribution of existing resources to all students with no exceptions or additional considerations. However, U.S. schools tend to privilege the experiences of White middle class heterosexual Christian males, often to the exclusion of other experiences prominent in the Americas. This is evident across the curriculum, but most explicit in the construction of required textbooks and delineated suggestions for content-rich, nonfiction texts, basal readers, and other texts for ELA instruction and reading in the content area.

As part of a standardized curriculum, comprehension of these texts along with fluency and other competencies are often assessed through common assessments adopted district-wide to ensure “fair” accountability measures and reporting as they prepare for norm-referenced standardized assessments, such as ACT-Aspire. While providing equal opportunities may seem like an attractive goal, an even distribution of resources often fails to consider those students who do not fit a particular norm and are compelled to “fit”, or be “forced” out. Consider how a standardized curriculum, such as an English Language Arts curriculum rooted in a White, middle class, English-speaking model, might be peripheral to the entry points for learning of students who are not White, middle class, and English speaking, such as English-Language learners, students from under-resourced communities, or Navajo students, as examples.

Educators might pursue an “equal” approach to teaching and learning because they feel it is the most fair response to differences, but in many instances, doing so undermines the reality that different individuals might legitimately benefit from different approaches and resources to fully engage their potential. Common assessments, for example, make several assumptions that may be problematic. They assume that the content used to determine whether a student meets a standard is experienced and interpreted the same way for all students regardless of their cultural background. A common assessment of reading comprehension that uses a text passage taken from To Kill a Mockingbird may be interpreted differently by a student from an under resourced community in New York City than a student from an affluent suburban community outside of Atlanta. They also assume that all students can show what they know equally well in the same way (such as through answering multiple choice questions), and that all students experience the assessment process itself in the same way. It is still the individual’s responsibility to fill the gap between available resources and the resources needed in order to succeed academically. For those without access to the necessary resources, it is difficult to catch up to their more privileged peers. Fairness in education is not accomplished through a mechanically equal distribution of resources and opportunities. Rather, fairness is achieved when the students who inhabit classrooms and schools have access to the resources they need to learn, grow, and thrive.


Educators use the word equity to refer to an educational asset or right that students need in order to be successful in school and beyond. Unfortunately, ideal rights are not honored for all students. As discussed earlier, one-size fits all curriculum perpetuates normative ideologies and othering that marginalizes particular students and groups. Ideal rights are routinely violated for students and groups who do not fit into White middle-class, heterosexual and English speaking models. These violations create a need for an equitable education that benefits all students by providing each learner with the specific type and amount of resources, which serve as access to opportunities, needed to be successful. This is where pedagogy as a multicultural dimension becomes integral in that culturally responsive pedagogy specifically works to dismantle inequitable structures sustained and perpetuated by the current sociopolitical context of teaching and learning. More importantly, culturally responsive pedagogy, when combined with an equity pedagogy framework, looks at the intersectionality of diverse students across curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, and intellectual challenge. There are various ways that teachers are attending to the equity issues in their classrooms, and equity pedagogy is one of the most acknowledged practices.

Equity pedagogy is an approach to education in which teachers develop teaching strategies and cultivate classroom environments that better support all students, especially those who have been disadvantaged in school and the outside society (Banks & Banks, 1995; Banks & Tucker, n.d.). Equity pedagogy can be applied through steps such as: (1) fostering a cooperative learning environment that is proven to benefit students from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds, (2) developing teaching strategies that help girls or African American students better understand advanced science classes, (3) modifying the curriculum to enable Mexican American students to learn math more effectively, etc. (Banks & Banks, 2004). In so doing, curriculum and pedagogy become culturally relevant and equitable, so students from diverse backgrounds, and especially those who have been socio-economically, linguistically, and culturally marginalized, can succeed in school as well as the outside society (Banks & Banks, 1995). For example, extending beyond its initial focus on students with low socioeconomic status, recent practices for equity pedagogy reach out to structurally disadvantaged students with diverse race/ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, age, religion, body type, (dis)ability, etc. that hinder students from achieving at high levels. Valuing the classroom as a center of societal change, teachers change their methods to help students from diverse backgrounds to excel in the classroom and bring positive changes to their communities (Banks & Banks, 2004). Again, we are called to challenge limited additive and subtractive arguments for equity to dismantle the very structures that support standardization.

The video below outlines how equity and equality play out across school policies, practices, and programs.

How would I find out about equity issues in the classroom? What could I do to introduce equity in the classroom?

Since the interactions between and among students and teachers is at the center of opportunities to learn, it is important that teachers begin with a careful examination of self before moving forward to identify inequities in their classroom. You can begin this examination by visiting the FAQ on implicit associations and bias. Once you complete a self-examination, you should be better equipped to analyze your classroom for inequities in the four dimensions where multicultural learning occurs.

Teaching Tolerance provides educators with a “Two Heads are Better Than One” toolkit to work together to identify inequitable structures and/or practices in their classrooms. As you go through each activity, reflect on the larger sociopolitical context that enables, grows, or sustains these inequities and consider an action plan that looks at systems in addition to personal advocacy. For instance, what systems (i.e., policies, practices, procedures) in the classroom, school, district, state, or federal levels shape perceptions, access, and opportunities related to these areas where issues of (in)equity occur? Critical multicultural educators also work with their students to identify inequitable structures and practices in schools and classrooms.

Let’s apply this line of questioning to some of the ways the Glossary of Education Reform, 2015 outlines how equity is represented in public education:
  • Societal (in)equity: How do contested immigration policies and public rhetoric impact immigrant children and youth’s cultural framing and/or distancing in schools?
  • Socio-economic (in)equity: What advantages do children and youth from affluent districts have over those with limited financial resources?.
  • Cultural (in)equity: How do standardized text adoptions from “The Canon” marginalize and distance students who do not come from White, middle class backgrounds?
  • Familial (in)equity: How do standardized counseling policies such as the college application process disadvantage youth whose parents did not complete high school?
  • Instructional (in)equity: To what extent do teachers (who are predominantly White and middle class) favor students who share similar cultural backgrounds?
  • Assessment (in)equity: How can reading assessments that privilege texts from suburban, middle class representations fail to engage students from under resourced communities, rural and urban communities as well as low income families?
Teachers committed to equity work across the four dimensions of multicultural learning (i.e.,curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and intellectual challenge) may raise questions about policy, practice, and programs similar to those found in the table below:
Curriculum Pedagogy Assessment Intellectual Challenge
What process should I use to select central texts?

What types of essential questions would support my diverse students?

Which of my students can relate to my existing curriculum and which may not relate?

What types of texts do I allow my students to choose?

How are texts adopted for my classroom? How should I supplement required texts?
How can I create a collaborative learning environment for my diverse students?

How can I differentiate instruction equitably so my diverse students can thrive?

Which of my students does my pedagogy reach well right now?

Who might I be missing?

How do I differentiate strategies beyond what is required to better meet the needs of all of my students?
What types of assessments should I use to support my diverse students?

How should content vary across assessments?

How often should I assess a student?

Should I assess some students more than others?

Which of my students do my assessments work well for?

Which students might know things my current assessments do not capture?

What role do the standards play in my assessments?
How do I communicate high expectations to my students?

How can I challenge my diverse students to reach high standards?

To what extent do my implicit bias impact how I support my students’ academic identities?

Which of my students might I be under-challenging?

Who seems bored and why?

What structures do I have in place to foster academic challenge?

How would I find out about equity issues in my school? What could I do to address inequities in my school to foster positive school climate and culture?

We can think about how equity differs from equality in relationship to a wide variety of areas. Let’s take achievement gaps among various student groups. What data does your school look at to make identify strengths and needs of “low achieving” student groups. Does your school disaggregate these data sources by subgroups? Are most decisions based on the disaggregated data of a single measure such as ACT-Aspire, the Stanford 10, or another standardized test? This is the primary way many teachers and school leaders identify achievement gaps in their schools. This common practice draws our attention to the distinction between equity and equality in that the analysis is restricted to the outcomes associated with what are larger opportunity gaps (see Figure 1 and Ladson-Billings, 2006).

Disaggregated analyses do a better job of showing us how pervasive and embedded equity issues in schools impact children’s opportunities to learn, than how students learn best. In other words, what contributes to gaps in achievement? If we rely on subgroup data, we might believe that poverty or primary language contributes to these gaps rather than seeing the ways that school policies and programs, teacher perceptions and practices, and school climate fail to equitably support children from low income families, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQIA+ students, English Language Learners, and other marginalized groups. This approach is partial and requires we move beyond a single, decontextualized measure to address opportunity gaps.

To better serve our students, we need to carefully scrutinize policy and practice to identify equity issues that operate in our classrooms and schools (Skrla, McKenzie, Scheurich, & Richardson, 2009). In her work, “Checking and Changing My Systems for Equity,” Enid Lee provides educators with a guided self-assessment, organized by preparation, teaching, and reflection, designed for "assessing, advocating and advancing equity in the everyday practices of educators." To begin this process, it is important to examine your school climate. There are a number of tools available to do this. Teaching Tolerance, a Division of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has a free toolkit for understanding and examining school climate. The National School Climate Center also has a number of tools and resources that can be used to assess school climate.

Equity audits are a useful strategy for examining how equity issues, in particular, may be operating in your school (Groenke, 2010). In her article, "How Does an Equity Audit Work?", Sparks (2015) provides an overview of the process for determining areas of programmatic inequity as well as variance in teacher quality that may impede our efforts to attain academic equity. The Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium also provides free equity audit tools to examine “Criteria for an Equitable School, Criteria for an Equitable Classroom, and Teacher Behaviors that Encourage Student Persistence.” Akin to an equity audit, Gorski (2014) developed an equity literacy framework to build teachers’ capacities to “recognize, respond, and redress” unjust practices, policies, and procedures that limit access for some students and not others. This framework extends his collaborative work, “Equity Literacy for All,” authored with Swalwell (2015).


Banks, C.A., & Banks, J.A. (1995). Equity pedagogy: An essential component of multicultural education. Theory into Practice, 34(3), 152-158.

Banks, J.A., & Banks,C.A. (2004). Handbook of research on multicultural education (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Banks, J.A., & Tucker, M. (n.d.) Multiculturalism’s five dimensions. NEA Today Online.

Gorski, P. (2014). Equity literacy: An introduction. EdChange.

Gorski, P. & Swalwell (2015). Equity literacy for all. Educational Leadership, 72(6), 34-40.

Groenke, S.L. (2010). Seeing, inquiring, witnessing: Using the equity audit in practitioner inquiry to rethink inequity in public schools. English Education, 43(1), 83-96.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in US schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3-12.

Lee, E. (2011). Checking and changing my systems for equity.

Skrla, L., McKenzie, K.B., Scheurich, J.J., & Richardson, J. (2009). Using equity audits to create equitable and excellent schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Sparks S.D. (2015). How does an equity audit work? Education Week