Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

Equity vs. Equality


(We’re still assessing our attitudes and actions toward the ignored and forgotten. This readers’ favorite helps to answer our third essential question: How can I bless the ignored and forgotten?)

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 would you answer the question: How can I bless the ignored and forgotten?
  • In what ways does the Master Teacher enact equity for the ignored and forgotten?
  • How might enacting equity and offering choices bless the ignored and forgotten around you?

 Post Author

Melissa K. Smith

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

2 comments on “Equity vs. Equality

  1. Julie
    March 12, 2017

    Thanks, Melissa. Interesting question about the Master Teacher and equity. I think immediately of the parable of the laborers who came to the field early vs. the ones who came late (Matt. 20) and am reminded of the simple gift of mercy, perhaps? And the whole equity vs. equality issue seems so easy to think about when I look at the picture, but the reality seems infinitely more complicated.


    • Melissa
      March 14, 2017

      I know what you mean about the reality being complicated. On Facebook, a friend suggested tearing down the fence. I like that idea, and when I think of, for example, Eph. 2 (v. 14), I see that the Master Teacher was in the business of tearing down walls. I’d like to be a wall remover, but that’s complicated too.


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This entry was posted on March 9, 2017 by in blessing the ignored and forgotten, equity, Melissa K. Smith, readers' choice.



Photo Credit: Eric Fischer via Compfight cc
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