How to Support Equity when Access isn’t Equal

April 17, 2020 Sarah Williamson By Sarah Williamson
Support Equity

In a period of just two weeks, our nation’s education system underwent rapid transformation to support student learning, quickly determining how to extend teaching and learning at scale.

With this large-scale shift to online learning, educators have had many questions, but one that has frequently risen to the top is equity. This topic has also emerged front and center as one of the challenges districts need to overcome to support their remote learning programs. 

The following blog post considers strategies, tools and resources educators can offer within their digital curriculum programs, both pre-and-post-pandemic, to support educational equity. To listen to our full webinar on this topic, visit:

How do we define equity?

Equity means many different things to many different people. In a recent survey by the Education Week Research Center, 350 district leaders were asked to define equity.

The responses were quite varied with 41 percent describing equity as a tailoring of resources and opportunities to meet individual needs; 40 percent said equity is providing all students with high quality resources and opportunities; the balance of respondents (11 percent) describe equity as addressing disparities for socioeconomically disadvantaged groups; and just four percent believe equity is ensuring students with disabilities receive access to the general program through appropriate services.

All of these definitions could be considered correct. Equity in education requires putting systems in place to ensure every student has an equal chance to succeed. This requires understanding the unique challenges and barriers facing individual students, or populations of students, and providing additional supports to help them overcome those barriers. Equity and access have become a major challenge, particularly for certain populations of students who have been the most significantly impacted by the transition to online learning, including:

1) Students who come from economically disadvantaged homes lacking computer and internet access.

2) Students who qualify for English language services who may not have an adult in the home who speaks English.

3) Students who have IEPs or receive support services for learning. These students may not receive the services they had available in brick and mortar schools due to social distancing and school closures.

Equity vs. Equality

A recent EdSurge webinar described educational equity as providing the necessary opportunities to all by ensuring each student has the right resources to reach their individual potential.

Understanding the difference between equality and equity can help us to eliminate opportunity gaps. If each student is provided with the resources they need to be successful, they will be able to participate fully in their education.

Making sure every student has access to an iPad does not define equity. There are still other considerations that must take place to ensure every student has an opportunity to learn.

For example, a high school teacher who is developing a course for online delivery might want to include a video clip that will not be accessible to some of his students. One of the students is deaf and another student is learning English. Even though these two students have access to the course, they will not be able to view the video. But he could still provide the same activity by including multiple modalities for learning, such as including a separate audio description and looking for videos with closed captioning. This would enable all of his students to access the material and benefit from the task.

Logistics matter

When we provide students with access to the equipment they will need for online curriculum, we should consider three major categories: hardware and software, assistive technology, and technical skills. This includes ensuring students not only have access to equipment, but that they are able to use it and understand how to perform simple functions to get up and running and operational. This may require training for both students and their caretakers/parents.  

Emerging national guidance

In the early days of the pandemic, if districts could not effectively offer online learning to every student, they felt they could not offer it to anyone. The concern was that the federal disability law would prevent insurmountable barriers for students to access remote education. However, the U.S. Department of Education released new information clarifying that the federal law should not be used to prevent schools from offering distance learning to all students, including students with disabilities.

In mid-April, the U.S. Secretary of Education said there was a federal expectation that learning would continue for all students. This included the aspirational goal that students would not only maintain their current level of learning, but expand on it and progress toward their academic goals. This should happen without facing significant loss of learning. Now there is emerging guidance for districts to consider in their online learning programs:

1)  What are the resources available to each student, including the online learning options?

2) What are the current conditions for online learning now that schools are not in session and services are interrupted?

3) What is the context of the home, understanding that parents are having to take on the role of providing oversight for the child’s learning?

4) What are the considerations teachers need to take into account to service each student?

Moving forward together

As districts transition to the maintenance phase of their plans, ensuring your program is inclusive of all learners, including those who are the most vulnerable, is important. This means being sensitive to what’s going in the lives of each individual family and considering the factors that are impacting student learning. As a nation, we all share the same goal: to increase learning opportunities for every student. Despite the challenges this pandemic has created, we will all get through it together, and we believe our education system, and our nation, will emerge even stronger than before.

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