Equity vs. Equality?

by Jay Hill

July 1, 1998

Walter Secada, in his article "Educational Equity Versus Equality of Education: An Alternative Conception" poses some interesting and thoughtful new ideas in how education can be made fair for all. He makes numerous strong arguments that "equality" is not synonymous with "equity" and, thus, rather than striving for equality amongst groups of people we should work towards equitable inequalities that reflect the needs and strengths of the various groups. Although Secada's arguments are strong, they are predicated upon a certain resignation to inequity in other areas.

Given mathematics as it is currently taught, a field that is the "sole creation of a few, singularly brilliant (white male) individuals" (Volmink, 1994, p. 51), Secada would argue that it is inequitable for all groups to achieve equally in such an elitist field. Certainly, people should not be expected to compete equally in an area which does not validate the qualities and contributions of the group with which they identify, but does this mean we should consign ourselves and our students to unequal achievement in this field? It seems that it would be more effective to adjust the field itself to a more realistic and equitable view that acknowledges the contributions of all groups and points out the everyday participation all people have in this field. In this way we can show math as "one way of putting a structure on our experience" (Volmink, 1994, p. 57), a structure that can be adjusted and applied by all groups and, more importantly, individuals within those groups.

Secada goes on to say that, because of the school's function as a means of preparation for future employment and the consistent inequity between groups in terms of resultant incomes (even when educational level is controlled), "it is possible to argue for inequality in educational outcomes in the reverse direction of what has been classically found" (p. 77). This raises the question, "Is it the responsibility of the schools to create equality in the work force beyond providing equally qualified participants to fill the job pool?" For years, the educational system could be blamed for contributing to the unjust treatment of minorities in the work force due to unequal training and even blatant discrimination. Even now, inequalities exist in the educational system that continue to perpetuate society's equity problems. It is not unreasonable to argue that, like working with a balance, it is appropriate to overcompensate... to move the weights of educational achievement past the point of equality until the scale tilts towards the traditionally under-represented. However, this analogy assumes that the weight will then be moved back, this time a little closer to center, until, ultimately, true balance is attained. Here, equity is served through temporary inequalities, but the ultimate measure of justice in this area is when equal education and training mean equal compensation in the work force regardless of group membership. Secada's goal is equity through inequality, but if inequality is permanently maintained, there is an inherent inequity (or injustice) present either by requiring certain groups to be more qualified for equal positions, or by creating more highly qualified groups and displacing others from reaching their potential in employment.

Secada's arguments against grouping in and of itself are well taken. Students must be dealt with on an individual level. Unfortunately, human beings are creatures of bias and, thus, certain inequalities are bound to exist. When these inequalities can be identified along a particular group's lines, it is important to examine the source of the inequality and determine the reasons for the inequality. Possible the inequality is an equitable result of the given source or topic. But how does that seemingly dichotomous result reflect upon the source itself? In the case presented earlier of mathematics as an elitist field, this dichotomy would indicate that the popular view of the subject itself should be changed to reflect the importance of mathematics in everyday life and the contributions of all groups to its development. Were this to be achieved, equality in achievement would become an appropriate measure of the equity of the system's treatment of the subject.

Ultimately, equity is what we, as educators, seek. Unfortunately, equity is not a very quantifiable measure. By looking to equality and understanding the reasons behind inequalities, we can adjust our schools, our subjects, our very understanding to create equity and move toward a world where equality in the aggregate is a true indicator of justice.


Secada, W. G. (1989). Educational equity versus equality of education: An alternative conception. In Secada, W. G. (Ed.), Equity and Education, pp. 68-88. New York: Falmer.

Volmink, J. (1994). Mathematics by All. In S. Lerman (Ed.), Cultural Perspectives on the Mathematics Classroom, pp. 51-67. Norwell, MA: Kluwer.

If you have any information you think might be helpful or if you have any questions or comments, please email me, Jay Hill.

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