January 25, 2021

How Equity Barriers in Education Hold Students Back

GoGuardian Team
An illustration of 5 students holding stacks of books over their heads

Equity in education is a concept that’s been quietly picking up momentum in recent years. As a society, we’ve spent the past several decades learning the merits of striving for equality and diversity. When it comes to our public school system, however, equality can be a misguided goal. Instead, we should focus on creating equity—the means for each student to achieve despite their unique, individual circumstances, including both the advantages and disadvantages they may face. Education equity is more important than ever before—but that doesn’t mean it is easy to achieve.

Equity, Not Equality

Equity in education means recognizing each student’s different assets, resources, and other circumstances of their home and academic life and designing protocols for them to achieve comparable results to those of their peers. Where equality focuses on the many, equity focuses on the individual. But why is equity important in education—perhaps even more important than certain aspects of equality? Let’s take a closer look at education equity, what it means, and why it is so important.

Equity is vital to educational processes because every student has unique needs that must be met for them to realize their full potential. For example, some students enter the public school system with a leg up in reading, while others are still learning to speak, read, and write English as a second language.

With the unrelenting rise in wealth inequality in America, equity is getting harder and harder to achieve at the classroom level. Today’s students face often massive barriers to personal and education equity. And, children start to learn racial biases at around the same age they enter public school. Racial biases learned from peers and faculty can affect students of different ethnic backgrounds in the form of microaggressions, which are defined as statements or actions of perhaps more subtle—but nonetheless harmful—discrimination, prejudice, or racism toward marginalized and ethinically diverse individuals.

Not all barriers to equity occur inside the classroom though. Many students face challenges at home that directly affect their performance at school. Poverty, neglect, abuse, and hunger are all very real experiences that follow students from home into their classrooms.

Non-fluency in English

English Language Learners (ELLs) are one of the largest student groups in American schools today. Keeping up with English-fluent peers is a constant struggle for young ELL students. They not only have to learn all the curriculum of their English-speaking classmates, but ELLs must also learn to speak and understand English, a very complicated language filled with odd rules and exceptions.

The language barrier creates all sorts of secondary difficulties. ELL students who are having a hard time grasping a new mathematical concept, for example, might opt to remain silent instead of attempting to communicate their struggle. Conversely, they may have made a recent breakthrough but are too embarrassed to raise their hands and share their new knowledge with others in their class. All of these challenges can lead to self-esteem issues, which have a compounding effect on the rest of an ELL student’s academic career.

Mental Health Concerns

According to the Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, about one in five Americans will have a diagnosable mental health disorder before they turn 18. Mental health is a difficult barrier to cross in public school because the term itself is so nebulous and often derogatory. When used in a classroom setting, the most common mental health issues that come to mind are probably Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or autism. Other concerns like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder can—and often do—go undetected until a much later age. Students who act out by becoming combative or aggressive and others who are withdrawn or antisocial could have an undiagnosed mental illness.

Food Insecurity

It’s something that isn’t always out in the open, but millions of students experience food insecurity. In 2011, the USDA determined that over 20 percent of U.S. households were food-insecure. Students who can’t get enough to eat can see their performance at school suffer in multiple ways.

The first and most obvious point is that it’s just too difficult to learn effectively while hungry. This is doubly true during the first few years of public education when students are essentially “learning for the sake of learning.” Hungry students also find it difficult to maintain their focus and are more likely to be irritable with teachers and peers.

Students who don’t get enough to eat are more susceptible to illnesses and are therefore more likely to miss school days, putting them even further behind. In addition, when basic physiological needs are not being met, academics can easily take a back seat.

Poverty and Homelessness

According to a report on Child Trends, 1.4 million students were homeless during the 2016–17 school year. Poverty and homelessness have an enormous impact on how well children learn. For starters, children living in poverty are far less likely to have had an early education (Pre-K) experience. They are more likely to relocate and change schools and districts multiple times throughout their childhood. Low-income students are also at higher risk of being victims of child abuse and neglect.

Poverty and ethnicity are strongly correlated in the U.S. The median white family has a net worth of $171,000, while the median Black family has one of just $17,150. Hispanic families experience a similar wealth gap when compared to white families. Since the 2000 school year, the gap has only widened.

Many Students Face Multiple Barriers

Read the list of barriers to equity in education as a whole, and you might realize something: many of these barriers are connected. Children who live below the poverty line are more likely to suffer from mental illness and experience food insecurity. Students of color or those living in immigrant, non-English-speaking families are more likely to live below the poverty line than their white peers.

Achieving equity in our schools involves changing the way we teach—and advocate for—all of our students. But true equity requires changes outside the walls of our schools. Childhood poverty and racial inequality are challenges we must face collectively, as a society.

As educators, we can do our part to create more equity in our schools. By getting to know each student on an individual basis, we can work to create and utilize systems to ensure they have more opportunities for achievement. When we understand our students’ hidden struggles, we can learn to support them in a more personalized, equitable way.

To learn more about equity in the classroom and what you can do to improve it, visit the GoGuardian blog.