Some Comments on Equity vs. Equality

Some Comments on Equity vs. Equality November 1, 2020

Longtime readers will know that I post at this site much less often than used to be the case, what with writing at Forbes and elsewhere instead.  One of my projects is running for school board, which, for the moment, consists largely of collecting signatures for nominating petitions due in December (yeah, I have to get moving on that — you don’t really need all that many, but they have to be exactly right to not get stricken), and following the district more closely, in particular, in the form of a website and a blog — — since, having moved my personal website away from the training wheels of to a shared hosting site,, adding new websites is a lot easier.  As further background, the school district had had a plan to open up with parental choice between returning to school full-time and learning remotely (or parents could elect a hybrid of some classes at home, some at school), but with a week left before school was to start in August, they abandoned that in favor of fully-remote learning, and only in mid-October did they begin to allow students into the buildings, on a rotational basis, 1/3 at a time — but in a manner that cynics would say has been deliberately managed to deter students from coming in, with teachers directing their attention to the remote zoom-ers, so that my son reported that in some classes he was the only student present.  And last Thursday there was a board meeting for which we recorded the livestream (the district does not make recordings available — one of my multiple complaints is their lack of transparency) and I wrote about and, for the key bits, transcribed what the superintendent had to say.

And, when asked about bringing more students into the buildings, what he said was this:

We have right now approximately, depending on the school, anywhere from 85 kids coming in on a daily basis up to I think 356 was the high in one of the buildings.  And so one of the challenges that I’m trying to work through with the team is depending on which school you’re in, you might be able to have different levels and numbers of students come in or come in on a more frequent basis.  And so trying to just work through equal vs. equitable and what that looks like for the different schools in our communities.

Equal vs. equitable — what’s that mean?

Back when they first announced that school would be all-remote, they had said they would prioritize bringing back kids with unsuitable home learning circumstances:  internet connection issues, homeless students.  They didn’t say but presumably also intended that students with other issues — such as crowded apartments without study space or without quiet rooms — would be prioritized.  Students with special needs were also supposed to get priority — but it was never clear whether that meant that kids in the specialized schools or with impairments so great they weren’t mainstreamed were to be moved to full-time sooner, or whether that also included kids with IEPs or 504 accommodations.  And, again, there’s no transparency, so we still have no idea whether there are some kids coming more frequently than 1 out of every 3 days.

So is he referring to kids having an equal shot at coming in vs. the more “equitable” solution of giving kids with greater needs more time in-building?

The superintendent’s reference to differences at different schools suggests this is not what he has in mind.

There are, as it happens, six “comprehensive” high schools in the district, plus some “alternative” or “specialized” schools.  Of the 6 schools, two have almost entirely white upper-middle-class student bodies, with 7% and 12% low income, and 13% and 14% Hispanic, respectively.  At the other extreme are two schools with 29% and 37% low-income, and 44% and 63% Hispanic, respectively.  (See my blog post on the schools’ test scores.)

Which means my guess is that the schools with more low-income/Hispanic students were also the ones with more students taking advantage of the ability to come in to class, because of unsuitable-for-learning home environments.  If each school were to do the math and say, “X% of students able to attend in-person, are choosing to do so, so we can offer more students the opportunity to come up to the point at which we reach a maximum of Y students in the building,” then, due to the different likelihoods of students accepting the opportunity to come to school, each school could offer the opportunity to different proportions of the student body.  “Equal” numbers of students in-building would thus not be “equitable” because students at some schools would have more of a chance to attend than others.

But — assuming that my interpretation is correct and there’s no way of knowing because, again, the school administration is very nontransparent — an effort to be “fair” can mean that the kids at the “middle class” schools lose out, because too-low numbers of students in person is not just sub-optimal but actually detrimental; my son himself observed that, in his first rotation in, there were 4 or 5 kids in a classroom; in his second time in-building, he was the only kid in a couple classes.

So that’s my first observation.

Second observation:  today Kamala Harris tweeted a video about “equity” — finishing with the line that “equitable treatment means we all end up at the same place.”  The first couple times I saw this on twitter I assumed she was just re-tweeting someone else’s video, but, no, it turns out that this is a Biden campaign video, narrated by Harris, and meant as a sort of “closing argument.”

The initial premise of the video, that it’s not sufficient to promise “equal opportunity” when individuals’ starting points are so disparate, is generally accepted.  In this case, the illustration is two people trying to scale a mountain, each given a rope of a certain length, but the disadvantaged mountain-climber starting out in a valley from which the rope is too high to access.  The animation then shows “equity” by means of lifting that climber’s stand-point so he can reach the rope and make it to the top.  The other more common illustration is that “equality” is giving each of three people with different heights a crate to stand on, which is insufficient for the shortest of the three to see over a fence, but “equity” gives the shortest two crates so they are all at the same height and can all see over the fence.  (See this tweet for the picture; a third tweet-er posted a picture of a third scenario in which the fence is removed, and a fourth cynically questions the premise that being unable to see a baseball game over a fence — rather than buying tickets — is an injustice that should be remedied.)  And the usual written analogy is that of a race in which one person has a heard start, or is outfitted with better running shoes, or the like.

But these analogies all fall short because there is a difference between the remedying unequal starting points and “ending up at the same place.”  To be honest, I am even getting a bit irritated with the label “equity” (and especially the buzzword “an equity lens”) because it seems to be contrived and invented, and its adopters don’t seem to be able to differentiate between “remedying inequality in starting points” and “ending up at the same place” — because, I suppose, it is an article of faith that the only reason why one person could have more success (financial, occupational, etc.) than another is by having had a head start.

But what could Harris intend by dropping this two days before the election?  The Biden-Harris campaign has not been promoting the concept of “equity” (so far as I know) or any platform of actions to achieve greater “equity” — that is, such promises exist on the website but the topic is far from having been an overriding theme of their campaign.  But it has also been the case that I have recently been repeatedly seeing promises to end the Trump tax cuts and otherwise boost taxes on high earners, and I wonder if this new ad is meant to be paired with those promises:  the only reason why those people are high earners in the first place is because they have had unfair head starts.

And in any case, the premise that “differences in outcome can only be explained by inequity” is problematic, to say the least.  It’s not just a matter of the extensive degree of spending, and mucking with the economy, that the “equity lens” inspires — even just this single webpage has promise after promise that implement programs such as quotas for minority procurement contracts, a new government credit reporting agency which uses new calculation methods to avoid disparate outcomes in credit ratings, and priority hiring of HBCU/TCU/MSI-grads (that is, graduates of historically black, tribal, and minority-serving colleges & universities) at federal research agencies.  But it also negates the importance of individual effort to achieve goals, and a mindset that differences in outcomes are only ever due to discrimination or preferential treatment, that we can achieve nothing on our own and that our failures to achieve are the fault of someone else’s injustice — when taken seriously, this will make America worse off, not better.


Image:; By MSchottlander1 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

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