In 1848, Horace Mann referred to education as “the great equalizer.” In this lofty vision, education is a fulcrum that supports the intentional balance of opportunities and outcomes for learners. Equity is the power that ensures scales are not tipped in favor of some while leaving others marginalized. It is the method and mechanism by which the goals of competence, excellence and self-actualization become attainable for everyone.
Educational equity encompasses various concepts and broad themes. It is helpful to view these themes through a focused lens of why, how and what. While all three questions are important, understanding why there is a need to reach each learner is at the core of the work.
A common mantra in education is “all students can learn.” When referring to learners in terms of all, the performance of each learner can be overlooked. An intentional focus on teaching to Reach EACH, for “Efficacy, Access, Choice and High expectations,” forces us to look at students as individuals with different values, needs, perspectives, preferences and goals.
We have an ethical obligation to provide inclusive educational opportunities by creating pathways to success for the broadest range of students.
Reach EACH represents the foundational layers to equity in education:
Efficacy: Students’ sense of efficacy comes from having freedom and being able to pursue interests, capitalize on assets and make positive contributions to the world. Efficacy is fostered only when learners have been empowered.
Equipping students with knowledge, coping mechanisms, communication skills and other necessary tools prepares them to be independent thinkers.
In describing the kind of pedagogy that draws out the power and voice of learners, famed educator Paulo Freire once wrote: “The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach.”
This requires a willingness to release deeply held authoritarian beliefs of how classrooms should be organized.
Access: Removing barriers that block access to equitable educational opportunities and outcomes is important. We have an ethical obligation to provide inclusive educational opportunities by creating pathways to success for the broadest range of students.
This requires eliminating assumptions about who belongs, who can be academically successful and who deserves a high-quality education. A careful review of systems and practices may reveal barriers for removal so doors can be flung wide open for each learner to enter. In doing so, we strengthen the entire system and equip students to compete in a global market.
Choice: Learners are more successful when they are provided with multiple models of excellence and opportunities to demonstrate knowledge in a variety of ways. By providing expanded choices, we honor a fundamental desire to be in control of our destiny. Choice enhances equity by celebrating similarities and honoring differences. It allows students to see their unique experiences, assets and interests as worthy to be shared, acknowledged and celebrated.
High expectations: Having high expectations signals a belief in the inherent power, noble purpose and untapped potential of learners. Equity-minded educators inspire scholars to see themselves as future artists, engineers, athletes or other skilled workers, for example.
Such educators possess an unapologetic expectation that students will be critical thinkers, innovators and problem-solvers—contributing members of an informed citizenry. Teachers with high expectations about students’ futures make impactful pedagogical choices in the present. This is manifested through rigorous, standards-based instruction with explicit models of excellence and systems of accountability.
These “warm demanders” are sensitive to the unique challenges some students face, but they don’t make excuses or let students off the hook. Rather, they maintain high standards and provide appropriate scaffolds to ensure the success of each learner.
Kevin Maxwell, former CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, says: “Our job is to teach the students we have—not the ones we would like to have [and] not the ones we used to have, but those we have right now. All of them.” We honor the work of other equity leaders and advocates who share our commitment to Reach EACH.
Mary Conage serves as special projects director for Pinellas County Schools in Florida, where Dywayne Hinds serves as the executive director of middle school education. Shana Rafalski is the vice president of digital instruction strategies for SAFARI Montage.