Why Is Equity in Education Important? Understanding the Long-Term Impact of Opportunity Gaps

A teacher helps students working in a computer lab.

Promoting equity in education is a matter of justice. Honoring the promise that all students have an equal educational opportunity requires educators to ensure that every student receives the support they need to succeed.

Educational equity differs from educational equality. Broadly defined as treating all students the same, educational equality doesn’t account for the substantial disadvantages that many students face. Educational equity, on the other hand, recognizes that equal assistance does not result in equal educational opportunities and outcomes. Some students need—and deserve—more help.

Causes and Consequences of Opportunity Gaps

Disparities in opportunity, learning, and achievement are interconnected but distinct issues. Understanding the differences between them provides a better understanding of the importance of educational equity:

  • Opportunity gaps are differences in the distribution of—and access to—resources and circumstances that support education.
  • Learning gaps are disparities between how students perform academically relative to one another or compared with age- or grade-level expectations.
  • Achievement gaps are differences in the results and benefits that education provides.

Learning and achievement gaps are the result of opportunity gaps, which can be linked to multiple factors:

  • Socioeconomic hardship. Students who come from economically disadvantaged communities have fewer financial resources compared with their peers from high-income communities. Factors such as health and access to health care; opportunities for educational aids, including preschool education, test preparation services, and tutoring; and access to private schools can affect academic achievement.
  • Language barriers. Students who lack English fluency and literacy because it is not their first language often miss opportunities for full participation in learning. Similarly, bilingual students who come from families where English is not spoken or is not the primary language miss opportunities for out-of-school development and may have fewer adult resources to help them with assignments.
  • Educational support. Students with parents who have not attended high school or college or who place low value on secondary and postsecondary education may receive less support and assistance in their academic pursuits.
  • Economically disadvantaged communities. Schools located in low-income areas typically face greater challenges than schools in affluent areas. Less funding makes it difficult to attract fully qualified teachers, maintain facilities, and provide adequate educational resources—all of which can contribute to lower academic achievement.
  • Prejudice and bias. Biases and stereotyping can lead to fewer opportunities for students of color and other students from marginalized or disadvantaged groups to participate in high-level courses or other educational opportunities.

The Lasting Effects of Educational Inequity

Some of the long-term impacts of opportunity gaps in education are measurable and well documented:

  • Increased education is associated with higher employment rates and higher wages.
  • Educational attainment has a positive correlation with living a healthier, longer life.
  • Students who fail to complete high school are more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system.

Other impacts are harder to measure. Educational inequity is a form of discrimination, which is linked to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. When students are confronted by educational inequity—whether it stems from bias, structural racism, prejudice, socioeconomic status, or other factors—it can instill discouragement that disconnects them from their identity as learners.

Promoting More Equitable Policies

Providing equitable educational opportunities begins with understanding that students and schools have different needs and require individualized resources. In broad terms, however, educational leaders promote equity by advocating for policies and resources that support equitable education, as well as the necessary funding to put those policies and resources into action.

Educational leaders and policymakers employ multiple strategies for promoting diversity and inclusiveness in classrooms:

  • Developing inclusive curricula and learning environments. A curriculum that recognizes and addresses the fact that different learners have different experiences, learning characteristics, and needs creates an environment for all students to feel valued and engaged.
  • Encouraging diverse teaching styles. Students have varying aptitudes, learning styles, and communication preferences. By exploring different learning models and implementing diverse teaching methods, educators reach more students.
  • Implementing inclusive hiring practices. Recruiting people of color and other educators from marginalized groups creates more diverse staffs. A diverse staff holds broader cultural experiences and competencies and provides more students with roles models to whom they can relate personally.
  • Promoting broader representation. Integrating examples of contributions from culturally and socially diverse individuals across all subjects fosters an appreciation of diversity, provides direct role models for more students, and dismantles racially and culturally biased stereotypes.
  • Providing diversity training. Cultural competency training and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs improve teachers’ ability to educate diverse student groups and help them identify implicit biases in existing curricula.

Low-income schools have the greatest need for resources to address educational equity, but they also face the greatest challenges in acquiring and implementing those resources. Schools that serve communities with concentrated poverty have less local tax revenue for funding, which limits their ability to acquire resources and attract and retain the best teachers. Policies that allocate more funds to schools in greater need vary greatly from state to state, and most are inadequate.

Educational researchers, policymakers, and practitioners continue to build their understanding of the causes and impacts of educational disparities, which informs strategies and resources for promoting more equitable access to learning opportunities. Increasingly, the most constant cause of education advocates—acquiring adequate funding for schools—is informed by a deeper understanding: Those with less need more.

Promoting Equity as an Educational Leader

Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership provides aspiring educational leaders with the skills they need to be change-makers. Building cultural competency and leadership skills, the program's curriculum provides students with a knowledge of teaching and learning and the ethical foundation they need to address the biggest challenges in education.

Visit Mills’ online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program to learn more about opportunities to advance your career and create more equitable learning environments for all students.

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FutureEd, “State Education Funding: The Poverty Equation”

Great Schools Partnership, The Glossary of Education Reform

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Profile of the Labor Force by Educational Attainment”

U.S. Department of Education, “Equity of Opportunity”

Waterford.org, “Why Understanding Equity vs. Equality in Schools Can Help You Create an Inclusive Classroom”

National Center for Biotechnology Information, “The Relationship Between Education and Health: Reducing Disparities Through a Contextual Approach”