What is equity and how is it different from equality? If you’ve been to an education conference or been through a graduate school course in school leadership recently, you’ve probably had at least one conversation framed around this image. It certainly can inspire some good conversations.
I’m at the iNACOL blended and online learning symposium this week in San Antonio. The symposium brings together over 3000 idealists, futurists, digital learning advocates, edtech firms and educators, and this year the theme of the conference is “Innovation for Equity + Redefining Success.” We’re only a few sessions in, and I’ve already seen this equity image three different times. The underlying assumption is that moving towards competency-based education is inherently equity focused. Certainly the five core elements, including an insistence on meaningful assessment and timely, differentiated support hint at an equity-focused theory of action for our classrooms and schools.
So, before I go too far, let me reinforce my belief that concepts of competency-based and personalized learning are ideals that I aspire to for my own children and for the education systems I work to transform. It’s hard to argue that strong, positive relationships with adults and authentic, transparent systems of assessment and feedback aren’t important ingredients of any quality education system.
Yet I think the conversation has to push deeper.
Saying things like “all students will get what they need to succeed” is not, in my opinion, a definitive statement about equity. Yes, pushing for our most marginalized or impoverished students to have access to competency-based, personalized learning environments is important work. But isn’t trying to provide the same level of access and opportunity more closely associated with a push for equality? Isn’t equity about bringing outcomes into closer alignment?
In many ways, privileged, mostly White, students already have access to a competency-based education system. Perhaps it’s not defined as a user-adaptive content delivery system at the school, but in terms of skills-based, personalized learning, it’s already deeply ingrained. Need to learn collaboration and teamwork skills? Afternoon soccer leagues or dance classes probably fit the bill. Need to build global and historical awareness? Travel opportunities can’t hurt. From packed skill-based summer opportunities to ongoing access to enrichment experiences tailored to kids’ interests, personalization is a way of life for kids and families with the means to make it happen. Resources are often mobilized when gaps in learning present themselves.
Of course this isn’t to say that students of color living in poverty don’t have access to amazing experiences and opportunities for learning or that incredible sacrifices aren’t being made to ensure a quality education for kids. Whether it’s access to multiple languages spoken in the home or access to role models who personify tenacity, poor and marginalized students bring powerful assets to the table.
I think to foster a real conversation about equity, the entire field of competency-based and personalized learning needs to ask more questions and not assume it already knows what will ameliorate decades and centuries of inequitable practices in schools and society. We need more sessions about racial identity and the effects of marginalization. We need more awareness about how poverty and power dynamics influence and drive resource allocation and accountability policy. Just going back to the conference theme – what do we think “innovation for equity” means? I want more of that conversation.