Equality vs. equity: EPHS hosts Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade community conversation

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade describes the difference between equality and equity as part of a community conversation hosted by Eden Prairie Schools. (Sun Current staff photo by Sean Miner)

Most would say, without hesitation, that equality is a virtue worth fighting for. It seems that we should each, as individuals in a society, receive the same benefits of that society. The setup appears inherently fair.

But the notion of fairness is not always so easily addressed. In many cases, the words “equality” and “equity” are used more or less interchangeably, but to some, there is a vast, important difference.

Eden Prairie Schools invited Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade, associate professor of Raza Studies and education administration and interdisciplinary studies at San Francisco State University, to kick-start that very conversation. Speaking before an audience of more than 100 community members, Duncan-Andrade broke down the difference between equality and equity.

He began with an illustration that involved his own two children. One of those kids, said Duncan-Andrade, is often thirsty. The other, he said, is often interested in food.

A projected slideshow, narrated by Duncan-Andrade, displayed portraits of each of the children, and by each of them, a water bottle icon popped up. He asked if this arrangement was equal. Some among the audience murmured yes, while one called-upon woman noted that the desires of the water-preferring child had been met, but that wasn’t true of the food-preferring child.

Duncan-Andrade pointed out that while the situation was equal for the children, it wasn’t equitable. That, he said, was the crux of equity compared to equality: equality may be symmetrical and easy to administer, but equity addresses the asymmetries needs of multiple individuals.

“In an equity paradigm, if you’re hungry, you get food,” said Duncan-Andrade. “If you’re thirsty, you get water. If you’re hella thirsty, you get hella water.”

From that launchpad, Duncan-Andrade described the current state of the American public education system, from an equity standpoint. He explained how little progress had been made in the past six decades since the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, ordered the desegregation of schools.

As maps and other graphics demonstrated, that progress amounted to a collective standstill.

“U.S. city schools are more racially segregated now than they were when the Supreme court said ‘That’s illegal,’” said Duncan-Andrade. “And that, y’all, is the value of a policy. We will not policy our way out of this.

“That doesn’t mean policy doesn’t matter — of course policy matters,” continued Duncan-Andrade. “But, if we don’t make an investment in the people and the practice – the implementation of the policy – it’s just pomp and circumstance.”

He said that much of the problem, from his experience, was schools being driven by the wrong data.

“I’m in schools, all of the time, having these conversations, and all of these schools are telling me that they’re data-driven,” said Duncan-Andrade. “I think it’s fantastic that schools are going to be data-driven … but if we keep ending up at the wrong outcomes, we must be looking at the wrong data.”

The process of righting this and other wrongs in the education system, said Duncan-Andrade, begins at the basest levels.

“If you change the data you look at, you change the questions you ask,” said Duncan-Andrade. “And if you change the questions you ask, you change the answers you come up with. If you change the answers you come up with, you change the practices. And if you change the practices, you start changing outcomes.”

Troubling, said Duncan-Andrade, was how disproportionate educational outcomes were depending on a student’s family income. Graduation rates on the whole may have risen, but that trend does not hold true for low-income students.

“Public schools in the United States have done a pretty good job with middle class and wealthy children,” said Duncan-Andrade. “But this group of children and families, who can least afford to have schools failing them, experience abject failure coast-to-coast.”

He displayed two maps, comparing graduation rates for middle- to upper-income students and their lower-income counterparts. One was solid green. One was solid red.

“This is a map of an apartheid,” said Duncan-Andrade. “This is a social apartheid, where wealthy and middle class children are doing pretty well and poor kids, across the board, are not. This is directly interruptive of any effort to build a pluralistic, multiracial democracy.”

From the bottom up

According to Duncan-Andrade, the solution to the unequitable educational landscape of the country begins with a psychological organization of basic human needs known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

In short, American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a pyramid of needs, with the most basic needs placed at the bottom and more advanced needs at the top. Lower-tier needs, he said, needed to be met before it was possible for any higher-tier needs to be addressed.

Physical needs, those of basic survival and safety, form the base. A couple rungs up, love and belonging lie upon the base, and toward the top are esteem and, lastly, self-actualization. Duncan-Andrade noted that ascending this pyramid was essential to the well-being of children, both educationally and otherwise.

“The most successful students self-actualize,” said Duncan-Andrade. “There is zero debate in the research community about how — the only place where we debate it is in practice.”

For many students, said Duncan-Andrade, self-actualization is not possible, because more basic needs have not been met.

“You gotta take care of basic needs,” said Duncan-Andrade. “If you get basic needs right, then we start having a conversation about what these children actually feel … it’s so painful to hear from a 5-year-old, a 6-year-old, ‘I don’t feel loved.’”

He noted that, particularly for students of color, instead of self-actualization, it’s not uncommon for youth to spiral into self-hate.

“So many of our children hate themselves, the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, the color of the eyes, the language they speak, the neighborhood the come from, who their ancestors are,” said Duncan-Andrade.

According to him, the problem lies not at its most basic in the schools, but in society.

“We keep trying to fix kids,” said Duncan-Andrade. “What the research clearly suggests is that children are not broken. What’s broken is a society that we built where we actually have to say, ‘You have to feed, clothe, shelter and provide safety to children.’ That society is what we’re seeing, mirrored in schools.”

Hence, equity.

“Those who need the most get the least in schools,” he said. “And those who need the least get the most.”

Equity in Eden Prairie

According to Michelle Ament, senior director of personalized learning at Eden Prairie Schools, equity has been at the forefront of the district’s educational aims for years. She said the Duncan-Andrade’s presentation, made previously to the entirety of the district’s staff, was well-received.

“We really felt like it was spot-on with what we are trying to do in Eden Prairie, as far as really changing that equity conversation,” said Ament. “We need to pivot off equality education and toward an equitable education: that resonates with us. That really is what personalized learning is all about.”

She explained that much of the district’s work centers on determining students’ individual needs, and addressing them in a equitable ways.

“We have spent the last couple years on our framework of culturally-responsive instruction,” said Ament. “We have multiple indicators to help us know if the students are understanding what they’re needing to know. It’s teachers really knowing what students need to know, and then having the data to see if they’re learning it.”

That personalization of needs, said Ament, happens with regard to more basic needs as well, in addition to the higher educational levels.

“Our focus is really getting to know the students and their families, and being committed to building that partnership with our families,” said Ament. “We practice something called a responsive classroom, where you’re building a community where a student really can tell you, ‘These are the needs that I have, food, physiological, emotional needs’ — we have supports in place and community programs to address those needs.”

Even toward the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, said Ament, the district was making efforts to guide students toward self-actualization.

“At the high school, we have a program that’s called Dare to be Real,” explained Ament. “We’re helping kids of color start to think about who they are, what’s their culture, and how do they lead that work around equity — how do they have those courageous conversations?”

All told, said Ament, Eden Prairie Schools seeks to serve students as individuals.

“Really, what we’re about is understanding who our students are, what their needs are, who their families are, and then providing learning that’s really specific to what they need.”