We break down six common misconceptions for those beginning to learn about educational inequity and the importance of all children having access to an excellent education.
July 26, 2019
Children’s potential knows no race, income, ethnicity, or gender. It is present across all communities and all lines of identity. Ideally, this potential is nurtured in school, where passionate educators can empower their students to learn, lead, and follow their passions into a happy and successful adulthood. But in our country, the circumstances children are born into—such as their parents’ race and how much money they make—too often predict the educational opportunities they will have before even stepping foot in a classroom.
Educational inequity is a profoundly complex issue, and the history of those who fought tirelessly and those who continue to fight to make our educational system equitable for all students could fill many textbooks. It’s also a frequently misunderstood issue. Here are six common misconceptions about educational inequity and the truth about them.
Myth 1: “Educational Resources Are Equally Distributed Across Schools”
Educational resources include the allocation of school funding, teachers, supplies, facilities, and more. They also include less quantifiable but equally important resources, including exposure to a rigorous curriculum that tests grade-level mastery, culturally relevant pedagogy, college-access resources, opportunity for family engagement, and teachers and school leaders who hold high expectations and learning standards for all of their students.
However, in our current education system, resources are not equitably distributed among students, schools, and communities, with schools in low-income communities receiving far less.
These resources are more than just items on a school budget—they are necessary for ensuring that all children are able to achieve strong academic outcomes, regardless of race or income. Resource allocation determines the level of supports students are able to access during their education. Without these supports, students may not be given what they need to thrive in schools, whether it’s accommodations for learning disabilities, counseling for trauma, or a balanced breakfast for those without access to healthy, fresh foods at home.
They begin to fall behind. And as the academic disparities between them and their more affluent peers grow, it becomes increasingly difficult for these students reach the height of their potential. Our 100-year-old school system was not designed to anticipate these 21st-century obstacles to an excellent education, nor is it structured to ensure all students are able to overcome them.
Myth 2: “Low-Income Children and Children of Color Are Receiving Enough Educational Resources to Succeed Academically”
On average, U.S. school districts serving the largest populations of Black, Latinx, or Native students receive roughly $1,800 less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color. And these funding disparities have a direct impact on what’s taught at schools in these districts. Schools that primarily serve students of color, for example, are able to offer far fewer advanced courses than schools that primarily serve white students.
The consequences of this inequity are clear: Every year, 1.3 million students drop out of high school in the United States. More than half of those students are students of color, and most are low-income. And although these students are born with just as much potential as their more affluent peers, students growing up in low-income communities are 2.5 times less likely to be college ready.
This unequal distribution of academic funding and resources along the lines of race and income, along with the added burden of low expectations, institutional racism, and other systemic injustices, takes its greatest toll on students of color and students from low-income backgrounds and their potential to succeed academically. This is known as the opportunity gap, because we know that when given the resources and opportunities they deserve, all students have the potential to achieve.
Myth 3: “Educational Inequity Is an Issue That Doesn’t Have Widespread Impact”
When millions of children aren’t given what they need to learn, our whole society misses out on the potential of entire generations whose minds, unique talents, and visions for a better future are never realized. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so famously said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Educational inequity also weakens our economy. The costs of failing to close educational opportunity gaps are enormous and will only continue to grow with time if left unaddressed, according to a report by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, “The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Improving U.S. Educational Outcomes.” Our country’s ability to compete in the global economy suffers when low-income students and students of color are not being given the opportunities they need to thrive and lead in our workforce.
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Myth 4: “All Students Should Receive the Same Educational Resources”
There is a reason we use the word “equity” and not “equality.” They may sound the same, but they are different concepts.
Equality implies that everyone is treated the same and that all students are given the same support, same curriculum, same resources, and same funding to succeed. This sounds fair in theory. However, this mindset fails to take into account disparities caused by centuries of oppression and discrimination, and the toll they take on even our youngest learners. Equal treatment is not fair treatment when students from historically marginalized communities face systemic barriers that do not disappear at the classroom door.
By contrast, an approach based on equity aims to ensure that where you were born, your parents’ income, or the color of your skin does not predict whether you will succeed in school. This focus on equitable outcomes determines the resources students receive, instead of allocating the same supports and opportunities for each student in the hopes that they will result in fair outcomes.
Simply put, while equality focuses on leveling the playing field, equity focuses on giving every player a fair chance of succeeding on that playing field.
Myth 5: “Solving Educational Inequity Will by Itself Fix Other Societal Disparities”
Low-income children and children of color--and their families--are disproportionately affected by many societal problems, including economic inequality, food insecurity, high rates of incarceration, lack of access to health care and affordable housing, fewer jobs that provide a living wage, and the rapidly shrinking path to the middle class.
Educational inequity sits at the intersection of so many of those issues, but fixing educational inequity alone is not enough. Solving educational inequity will not in and of itself provide all children with the opportunities they need to succeed. These problems have consequences that deeply affect a child’s ability to be successful inside and outside the classroom and that prevent the sort of social mobility needed to break generational cycles of poverty.
On the other hand, we cannot solve so many of these other issues—including providing that mobility for students from historically marginalized communities—without improving our current education system, because an excellent education is key to college attainment, competitive career options, and greater opportunities later in life. And the students in our classrooms today can’t wait.
Although an excellent education alone cannot solve all these injustices, it’s clear that in order to create a fair system that gives all students the chance to succeed and thrive, we have to pursue educational equity and work toward ending poverty.
Myth 6: “We’ll Never Achieve True Educational Equity”
A teacher intimately understands how economic and societal disparities manifest within the classroom: the child who is too hungry to focus on his work because he wasn’t able to have breakfast, or the student who struggles to keep up in class because she lacks eyeglasses to see the board. Teachers understand that while they may not be able to solve food injustice or medical access issues on their own, their actions in the classroom, the supports they provide, and the standards they hold for their students can make a significant difference in their students’ lives.
Because of this, we are steadfast in our belief that the fight to end educational inequity, while long and difficult, is a fight that is well worth our efforts. And it is one we can win. Over Teach For America’s 30-year tenure, we’ve seen undeniable progress in this work. In regions across the country, academic achievement and high school graduation rates are on the rise.
We see it in Chicago, where college graduation rates among Chicago Public Schools alumni have doubled in the past decade. And in Tennessee, which has been recognized as one of the fastest improving states since 2011 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). And nationwide, we see the numbers of first-generation college students growing at an unprecedented rate, with a third of enrolled college students being the first in their family to seek a college degree. A growing number of schools are meeting the needs of all of their students, and giving children the support needed to overcome obstacles and shape a greater future for themselves.
While there is still much work to be done, we know this is true: None of this progress would be possible without teachers who joined the profession because they truly believe in the potential of every child. Whether they remain in the classroom or bring their knowledge and passion to other fields that shape the lives of children, these leaders intimately understand the systemic issues that prevent all children from achieving their fullest potential--and they are committed to making change happen.
Learn More About Educational Inequity
Are you looking for ways to learn more about the challenges facing our educational system? Check out our list of resources about educational inequity and what you can do to help address it, or explore our recommended podcasts. If you’re eager to partner with us in tackling this issue now, take the next step in joining the Teach For America corps today.