Equity and Education Policy: Ensuring Personalized Learning Opportunities for All Students

Topics: Education Equity, Education Policy

This post was written by Terrance Sullivan, former KnowledgeWorks director of state policy.

We have all seen the picture, or a variation of it. The one that shows the difference between equality and equity. In the most common picture, three people (an adult, a smaller person, and a child) are behind a fence watching a baseball game. In the first image, labeled equality, each of the viewers have a box they can stand on that is of the same height and same dimensions. This demonstrates what it looks like to be equal, providing the same path or supports in order to in theory level the playing field. What the image actually shows, however, is much different. It shows the adult a full waist above the fence that would otherwise obstruct their view, while the shorter person can barely get their head over the fence and the child is stuck still seeing the fence with no hope of seeing over it.

Then comes the picture around equity. In this version, the blocks are redistributed so that the adult, who needs no blocks, has no block to stand on and the small child has received his block and can now see the game.

Illustrating equality versus equity.
Illustration by Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire

Overall, this graphic is important in all facets of life, but very much so in education. When we look at current educational systems, we often see the practices geared more towards the first picture of equality. That is, current models aim to treat children equally and teach them equally with the premise that they in turn have an equal chance to succeed.

In reality, education models should be the blocks that provide each child with what they need individually to be successful. In looking through state policies, as they move across their shift to a more personalized system, one important thing to consider is “is this policy equitable?” Ingrained in any adopted model that places students at the center, should be the thought that no matter what, we want to make sure these children’s needs are attuned to in a fashion that does not exacerbate gaps in outcomes, but rather closes gaps while giving each child what is in their best interest in the hope of sustainable growth and success.

Looking across policies and practices for personalization, certain things should be taken into consideration. Could these policies favor certain types of districts or demographics over others? Will these policies create environments that welcome all types of districts and students to the table and do they empower local districts to best determine what works for their kids?

In creating policies that are truly personalized, the application should ensure flexible learning environments that are always mindful of the students at the center of them. Education models should empower all students by removing the misconception that all kids will learn the same way and at the same time, and instead focus on methods that speak to that individual child and what they need. Equitable practice in policy does just this and lawmakers and state officials should be mindful at all times of the potential to increase equity across the board for students.

As we continue working with The State Policy Framework for Personalized Learning and states who have partnered with us to examine their polices and their journey to expand personalized learning statewide, equity is one principle that will remain top of mind. In analyzing existing policies, we will note how they increase equity and flag policies that create the potential for inequitable application. For any policy recommendations for further expansion of personalized learning, equity will be a driving factor in how they are shaped.

As others have noted, the illustration of equality versus equity merits a third panel where the wall or fence is removed entirely or as much as possible. As policymakers work to transform learning in their state, there will be opportunities to eliminate all barriers. And in situations where that is not an option, we must personalize learning so that education can, at a minimum, provide each child the blocks they need to stand on to see the full game.

The State Policy Framework for Personalized Learning is designed to help states build awareness of what it will take to evolve policy systems to support exploration, replication and ultimately statewide transformation to ensure personalized learning opportunities for all students.