Equity or Equality?
There are clear examples of inequality in our midst. This morning I was reading some articles about poverty levels, lack of access to clean water, millions of Americans and others pushed in recent years from the middle to the poor class (2008 meltdown), and the 10’s of thousands of Japanese impacted by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. I wrote about greed and the economy a few months ago and the news and the blogosphere are rife with articles about unequal distribution of wealth, food, property, education, disasters, and opportunities. History is replete with stories of people living with inequality. In my assessment I would say the gaps are increasing not getting smaller. Public education has definitely been a reasonably successful equity builder over the years. But I would not call education an equalizer. Nothing in our world is that.
I was having a tweet-convo yesterday with a colleague about the inequity that schools and communities face in British Columbia. He expressed concern that technology is increasing inequity experienced by students in their learning. The suggestion is that some will “have” and others will “not have” access to technology to enhance and transform their learning. He also talked about First Nations communities that don’t yet have cell coverage or high speed internet (reminds me of Gold River on the Island…). I think we need to define equity (dealing with fairness) and equality (the state of being equal) before digging deeper. With equity, we are concerned with whether a relationship or ratio of something is fairly distributed whereas with equality it is simple, there is no difference between what parties have.
I don’t believe it is possible or necessarily right to strive for equality. We are all born with different gifts and talents, into families with various degrees of function, wealth, position, and potential. For sure, people can strive to reach their greatest potential but not all people have the same (equal) potential in life. Our world, including education, is filled with sorting systems to help us understand and recognize differences. In fact we appreciate diversity and differences in our world. I would say that by striving for equality, we would be creating greater inequity. IE, how would it be fair to take a disproportionate amount of something from one person to give to another? The person with “more” may have worked particularly hard to achieve or acquire it. They may be extraordinarily gifted in getting it. The person with less may be lazy or born with fewer abilities. People also make thousands of choices during their life that will cause their situation to improve or decline (consequences). Real life is full of examples of differences of inequalities both in nature and in our human societies. However, I do believe that a disproportionate distribution of wealth and opportunity (e.g., a piece of the OccupyWallStreet message) to a very small (elite) group is problematic. I would say that is a sign of a significant imbalance likely caused by something or someone with poor intention.
I do however believe in equity. For example, I believe that regardless of one’s choices in life, what they’re born with or into, shouldn’t prevent them from having a place to live, food to eat, clothes to wear, adequate health care, etc. They should also have an equal opportunity to improve their lot in life as best they can. This I believe is where public education plays a key role. We provide extraordinary services for students who are disabled, we provide food for those whose families don’t, and we provide a base education for all kids. We try to improve equity while recognizing inequalities.
Thinking now about the digital divide (unequal access to technology) and the impact on learning opportunities. I advocate strongly that students should be bringing their own learning technologies to school. As costs decline for technology, more families will afford this. I know of many poor families that have gaming machines in their homes, why not a netbook, a tablet, to support their children’s learning? Do you think it is appropriate for our schools to allow students to bring their own learning technologies to school? What about those that can’t afford it? Does this create an inequity within education? What responsibility does a school or District have in removing digital inequity? Is this even a concern? What would equitable access to learning technologies look like in a school? Do you know of any schools providing calculator labs anymore (they used to cost 10’s of thousands per lab)? Seriously in the 1980’s they apparently existed. Schools have supported BYOC (bring your own calculator) initiatives for decades…
I believe schools need to move from “sole” technology providers to gap fillers. I think some families are better at prioritizing their expenditures than others and as they accept their responsibility for digital school supplies, they will provide them. We do need to recognize this while we fill the gaps for kids who don’t have equitable access. I believe that access to technology for learning should be a joint responsibility of families and schools. Schools and Districts need to take responsibility for connectivity, bandwidth, and pedagogy.