Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

Equity vs. Equality


For over fifty years, the American education system has taken an equal opportunity and access approach which has met with some success, especially in closing achievement gaps for marginalized students. However, recent studies have shown that a better way may be to enact equity.[1]

Do equality and equity sound like synonyms to you? What distinctions do you see between the two?

Equality and equity are often used synonymously, but recent distinctions have been made. Equality means treating everyone the same. In education, this involves giving every student equal access to quality teachers and resources and equal opportunity to achieve. Equity, on the other hand, recognizes that students are different with individual starting points based on background, situation, and context. It seeks for ways to fill gaps (which may mean giving some students more) so that all students can flourish.

Which is better? Why?

Giving all students equal access and opportunity can help to bridge gaps. In fact, we’ve talked here before about providing opportunities for marginalized students. But how does equality help if students are unable to use resources and opportunities? This is where equity comes in. By giving each student what s/he needs, it “levels the playing field.” It raises up marginalized students in particular so that all, no matter their starting point, can make use of access and opportunities.

How would pursuing equity in the classroom help all students reach benchmarks?

Equality—everyone is treated the same as we work toward the same benchmarks. Like in a race, some students have an “inside track.” Since they start with an advantage, they should be able to reach benchmarks. But the students on the outside tracks will struggle.

Equity—each student is given what s/he needs so that all can reach the same benchmarks no matter where they begin or how they learn. In other words, we stagger starting points on the racetrack so that all students can reach the finish line.

How should we enact equity in the classroom?

Our first thought might be that we should lower benchmarks for some students, but this approach doesn’t seem to be the answer. In fact, higher expectations are associated with higher achievement.[2]

If all students are working toward the same benchmarks but starting at different points, then differentiated instruction is key. When you hear the term differentiated instruction, you might think of tracking students into schools, classrooms, or groups, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Rather, differentiated instruction starts with knowing each student’s background and background knowledge, strengths and weaknesses, personality and learning styles. Once we know each student’s story,[3] then, to a certain extent, we individualize instruction so that all students, no matter their starting point, are able to reach the same benchmarks.

Knowing each student’s story and differentiating instruction may seem impossible given time constraints and student numbers, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. See the resources below for examples. Or one easy way to differentiate is to design choices into activities, assignments, and even exams. Click here to see an activity my Chinese colleagues helped me come up with: Vocabulary Fair.

How might our attitudes interfere with equity in the classroom?[4]

We may unintentionally put students in categories based on ethnicity, gender, economic background, English pronunciation, or some other “label.” Once we’ve dealt with our own biases, we can deal with those of students in the classroom (possibly even toward themselves) and in materials. Then, we (teacher and students) will start to believe in every student’s ability to finish the race.

[1]   Donna Y. Ford, “Multicultural Issues,” Gifted Child Today 38, no. 3 (2015).
[2]   Paul C. Gorski, “Building a Pedagogy of Engagement for Students in Poverty,” The Phi Delta Kappan 95, no. 1 (2013), 50.
[3]   Shane Shafir, “Equity vs. Equality: 6 Steps Toward Equity,” edutopia, January 21, 2016,
[3]   Gorski, “Building a Pedagogy of Engagement,” 50.

Further exploration

What’s your perspective?

We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.

  • How do you enact equity in your classroom? What more could you do?
  • How could we enact equity in everyday life? How can we give people around us choices that make our relationships more equitable?
  • In what ways does the Master Teacher enact equity in His classroom?

Try it out

What are ways that you could differentiate instruction in your classroom? Give an example of how you could design choices into an activity, assignment, or exam?

Post Author

Melissa K. Smith

Photo Credit: Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire

2 comments on “Equity vs. Equality

  1. jlshylla
    November 30, 2016

    Hi Melissa, thank you for addressing this issue. I am currently exploring similar areas with regards to inclusive education and language teacher education. You have very clearly highlighted the key aspects of both the concepts. Delighted and thankful. More power to ya!


    • Melissa
      December 1, 2016

      You’re welcome, Jacob. The topic has been meaningful for me too as I think about LEAPAsia’s work in economically depressed areas. I hope the books we donate and the extra attention we give can provide a lift up to some of the children we meet. I’ve also really enjoyed looking for ways to differentiate instruction specifically by designing choices into activities. My students seems to appreciate having those choices…I hope. 🙂


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This entry was posted on November 30, 2016 by in equity, LEAPAsia on WeChat, Melissa K. Smith, students who lack opportunity, trends in education.



Photo Credit: Eric Fischer via Compfight cc
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