How to Balance Equity, Equality, and Fairness

September 24, 2019 - 3 minute read


a classoom filled with students listening to a professor speak

I have been a part of multiple conversations [chats/tweets/Voxer groups] discussing fair versus equitable versus equal. I have to admit at this point even I am confused as the words are so closely related. I know treating students 100% the same 100% of the time in 100% of the situations is not a good thing. But how do we describe this to students and to each other?

One of the conversations, that gave me pause to ponder, centered on the idea of limiting homework as sending work home poses an equity issue. Someone in the conversation stated that home differs greatly from student to student, so the most equitable place for a student to work is at school. After that discussion, I really started to wonder about what I thought equity, fairness, and equality were because everyone seemed to have differing opinions.

The statements “equal doesn’t mean the same,” “equity doesn’t mean equal,” and “equal doesn’t mean fair” are made a lot during the conversations. I think the confusion in the three statements arises, even though most people are making the same point, is that the conversation does not go deep enough.

Let’s look at quick definitions to establish a baseline:

  • Equal is defined as the same or exactly alike. [Equality]
  • Fair is defined as just or appropriate in the circumstances. [Fairness]
  • Equity is defined as the quality of being fair and impartial.

Equal is the easy one. I think in today’s world, it is agreed people and students are different and treating everyone the same in every situation is not always the best solution. In a classroom setting, students need different instructional strategies and modifications to be successful. It is a reality that must be acknowledged and addressed.

Fair seems to be pretty straight forward as well; however, it can be tricky as it is based on circumstances. At a restaurant, one can usually get a free dessert on his/her birthday, if I am there and it is not my birthday I cannot get the dessert for free. This would meet the definition of fair as it is appropriate for the person getting a free dessert on his/her birthday and appropriate for me to have to pay for mine because it is a normal day for me. This is also a standard operating procedure for most restaurants so it is not like it would come as a surprise. Its fairness lies in the fact that it holds true only for this circumstance and is open to all who have birthdays under the same set of circumstances, It is also an example of equity as the free birthday dessert treats a person appropriately based on his/her circumstances but not showing bias towards that person [favorable or unfavorable] either.

This is not easy. Because when we treat students [people] appropriately based on their circumstances, we treat them differently. When students [parents] see that occurring and someone is getting more than they are, the “that’s not fair” statements resonate. I think zero-tolerance policies of the 90s became the rage because many in the field of education were beaten down by the “that’s not fair” people and just said fine everyone is getting treated the same. Though it was fair, it wasn’t equal.

Equity can only occur in schools and in society if we are okay with people getting what they need, even if it seems better or more than what someone else gets. Having an altruistic character about us is essential for equity to be successful and sadly, this is not common unless it is during the holidays or a disaster.

The good news is we can change that, by being happy for people when they get what they need to be successful. It will also make all of us more successful in the long run.

Joseph Clark is husband, a father (of two awesome girls), a past radio DJ (Clark after Dark), and came into education as a CTE teacher. Currently, he is a Vice Principal in the Sacramento area. Over the years Clark has worked at an affluent charter school, a locked youth prison facility, a comprehensive high school, in a core model middle school setting, and served on the Board of Directors for Westlake Charter School in Sacramento. Now he teaches at Concordia University Irvine in their MAED Program.

Clark’s Core Values guiding his daily practice are:

  • Value people [over programs] – Treat everyone with respect-everyday-all the time.
  • Be a faucet [not a drain] – Each moment matters so make each one positive. Be a filter – my positive [or negative] attitude will become that of those around me.
  • Behavior then Beliefs – Can’t make anyone change his beliefs, but can set expected behavior.
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