Featured, Social Justice

Equity vs. Equality: Eliminating Barriers in the Classroom

Equity vs. Equality: Eliminating Barriers in the Classroom

Originally published May 2022

By Sierrah Chavis

If you’ve ever done any research on the terms “equity” or “equality,” you might have come across the illustrations by Tony Ruth (based on Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree), which each depict an apple tree and two young children standing below it. The first image shows the children waiting to collect the apples that fall, but the tree is slightly inclined to the left, so all of the apples are falling on that side and only one boy can collect them. This represents the idea of “inequality.”

In the next image, each boy is given a ladder of the same size. The boy on the left can use the ladder to easily collect apples, but the ladder is too short for the boy on the right. This image represents “equality,” where the same tools are given to everyone. However, in this case having two ladders of equal heights is of no use to one of the boys.

Finally we come to the third image. This time the boy on the right has a slightly taller ladder than the other boy’s, which allows him to finally reach and collect apples as easily as the boy on the left. This image demonstrates “equity,” the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the difficulties we face in the world, but rather a right-size solution for each individual’s needs.

As a former educator and current administrator, I’ve noticed that in recent years “equitability” and “equality” have become popular buzzwords, but although the two terms are frequently used interchangeably, there are significant differences between them.

Equality assumes that everyone has the same rights, needs, and resources, which is not necessarily the case and does not always fulfill the distinctive requirements of each individual. For example, although providing every student with a laptop to take home might appear to be a good solution, it may fail to address the needs of kids who do not have access to the internet at home.

Equity, on the other hand, acknowledges that everyone’s circumstances are unique and therefore require different solutions to reach the same outcome. Thinking with an equitable mindset means ensuring that each student has access to resources that are appropriate for their circumstances.

For example, instead of just sending every student home with a laptop, teachers can also share information about how to find internet access outside of school (libraries, mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, etc.). Other options could include allowing students to use the computer lab during study periods, setting up open lab time at the end of the day, assigning homework that doesn’t require the internet, or providing hard copies of instructional materials as necessary.    

Focusing on equality means treating everyone the same without regard to their ethnic background, race, gender, needs, and available resources. But when schools place an emphasis on equity instead, they are better able to understand the requirements of their students and give them the necessary tools to overcome any individual obstacles they may be facing.

It is important for educators to implement strategies that break down barriers and focus on building unity, diversity, and equity in order to better support student learning. In this way, we can level the playing field and give everyone a fair shot at success.

Here are some strategies that can be put in place to support equity in the classroom.

Reflect on Your Own Biases/Beliefs

As with everyone, teachers may be unaware of their own prejudices and blind spots. Understanding equity can be complex when someone doesn’t understand how their own culture bias and differences affect their perceptions of others. A person’s upbringing and the manner in which they were raised have an impact on how they interact with and regard others, even their students.

It is important to always consider the barriers that certain racial, ethnic, and gender groups face, and it’s possible to become more cognizant of these issues by understanding the conditions that shape your own identity. This can help you better support students in your class.

Consider the Classroom Space

All kids should feel comfortable and at ease in their school environment. One way to contribute to this is by taking a look at how the desks, including your own, are set up in your classroom. Are they arranged in such a way that collaboration is possible? Creating a seating plan that allows for group discussion is one technique for facilitating student learning and participation.

Additionally, moving among students rather than remaining in one spot for the entire lesson can help to de-emphasize the teacher-student hierarchy while also encouraging more dialogue among students. Make sure to mix up your activities as well. By organizing students in different formations for different types of work, whether for group, partnered, or solitary assignments, you can boost their engagement with one another and the instructional content. 

Establish an Inclusive Environment

Students must not only feel safe in their classroom, they must also feel heard. Preparing for this early in the school year can help you build a class environment that is inclusive of all students. It is vital that kids feel comfortable expressing themselves in class discussions, and that a variety of viewpoints are represented. You should also make them aware that you will not tolerate profanity, personal attacks, or violent behaviour in the classroom. Children and teenagers need to realize the importance of replying to their classmates in a polite, non-judgmental manner.

 Diversify Your Curriculum

It is vital to expose kids to a wide range scholars, writers, and artists. When students see their cultures and identities represented in the material they are taught, this can help them feel more connected to their studying.

Hold Every Student to High Expectations

While there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, it’s important to set the same expectations for all students. By encouraging everyone to perform at the same level, you can help to eliminate stereotypes around student performance.

Avoid Assumptions about Students’ Backgrounds

It’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that your students have had similar life experiences, but it is important to remember that they come from many walks of life and all have their own unique challenges to face.

Accommodate Different Learning Styles

Having a diverse set of materials and tools available to use in classrooms and schoolwide programs is a good way to promote an inclusive learning environment. There are many ways you can accomplish this, such as:

  • Using several presentation methods for visual, kinesthetic (hands-on), and verbal learners to convey the same information—videos, books, and audiobooks are some examples;
  • Including transcripts for multimedia assets;
  • Providing additional materials to enhance the lesson plan, such as glossaries, illustrations, etc.;
  • Making technology more user-friendly (e.g. give students the ability to increase the text size or adjust the screen brightness).

Differentiate Curriculum

A differentiated curriculum is one that is based on each student’s specific needs. Teachers can differentiate in four ways: content, method, products, and learning environment. Flexible grouping, along with formative and summative exams, can also be used by teachers to help their students learn better. (Note that formative assessments, standards alignment, and content with a range of skill levels are all important considerations when looking for technology that supports differentiated instruction.)

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Teaching with an equitable mindset helps students meet their academic, social, and emotional learning needs, while also fostering a positive school climate. Being aware of the distinction between equity and equality is the first step toward creating a learning environment in which every kid can thrive. From there, educators can then take efforts to better address the issues presented by students who are experiencing difficulties in school.


Sierrah Chavis is currently the Chief of Staff for ChildSavers, a mental health agency for children, prior to which she was an educational leader for 10 years, fulfilling roles of curriculum specialist administrator, teacher, and special education case manager. She is the recipient of an Impact Leader Award from the Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.