Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Why Equity can be a bad word for Education

By on February 11, 2010

As well intentioned as it is, the goal of equity in all branches of education is doing a disservice to the goal of, well, equity. I’m searching for a word here. Maybe I need to make one up. I need a word for “the negative solution that results in the attempts to be equitable.” Hmmm….Neguity? We’ll go with that for now.

We in education banter the word equity about like it’s this golden chalice, but is trying to achieve it 100% of them time in the best interest of our students? I’m starting to think not.

After all, a teacher who wants to start a new club, pitch a program, even just work hard to keep his or her job, is disallowed from investing in themselves because we are shackled by a system set up to reward people based on their hire date, not on their achievements, ability, or effort.

As adults, our equity should be in our opportunities to show how well we can do our job. We should all be given the same chance to do our job well, to contribute to our school community, to help our students achieve.

But in this day and age, when student achievement is so vital and we so struggle to be taken seriously as a profession, I find myself perplexed by this need to be equitable.

Because this concept of neguity appears all over the place in education. I’ll share some examples from my own site:

For one thing, there’s the seniority list that is present in every district. At lunch, for instance, I peered over the shoulder of the person in front of me as she clutched the seniority list. We know there are layoffs coming and the circled names on the list are those who are threatened. Some are great teachers, hard working teachers. My two teachers who I mentored for BTSA are circled, even though one has become a Fellow of the Writing Project since her hire, and between the two of them, they’ve brought History Day, Peer Helpers, and Girls Volleyball to our school.

So we are watching great teachers be bumped from schools by possibly lesser colleagues whose only claim to fame was that they were hired a year before. It is a system that is set up to reward “good enough” with the same equity as “blood, sweat, and tears.” The resulting neguity disallows a school or district to create a staff that is made up of the best candidates it can score. Thus, this has become bad for students.

A lesser example is the fact that I cannot speak to students and pitch my elective program because a couple of teachers do not feel comfortable talking to students about theirs. The result is neguity, because now students will not be given the chance to make decisions with all the knowledge at their disposal.

There is also an issue about pullout collaboration time and professional development on my site. With limited funds, we were told that there would be no collaboration time next year because there was no way to be equitable to all departments. But many of my Language Arts teachers asked, “How is our work load equitable?” And they have a point. You cannot compare the workload of a core teacher to that of a PE teacher. You cannot compare the time it takes to grade 200 essays to the time it takes to run 200 scantrons through a machine.

So why can’t equity be a more fluid thing? The result, instead, is neguity. No support for those who really need it in the name of fair-and-balanced.

So when did education’s commitment to giving students equity, minors who cannot fend for themselves, also mean that we needed to grant it to teachers, any teachers, all teachers? When did teachers begin insisting that they get treated the same, despite different workloads, despite different efforts, and despite different outcomes?

The result is neguity: rewarding those who don’t work hard for the school community as much reward as those who do, But still many people propose we assess teachers based on test scores, a process which is hugely inequitable. As is school funding, how funds are allocated between states and districts, and the fact that some students are still not being given equal opportunities. Is this not neguity too? Or is it just inconsistent, arbitrary uses of the concept of equity?

What does it gain when a teacher who works hard is not rewarded over a teacher who doesn’t? What does this encourage? We as adults all have the right to work hard. We all have a right to have our achievement speak for itself, our efforts and our dedication speak for itself.

If civilizations cut down the contributors who aspired and reached and dreamed and pushed, all because not everyone wanted to be that level of contributor, that civilization would remain stagnant. So is it true for education.

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  1. Nancy Flanagan
    February 11, 2010

    I’ve written similar blogs–speaking to the necessity of better tools for identifying the value added by individual teachers to a school’s core mission. And I’ve personally been on both ends of the “who gets booted when times are tough?” equation. Seniority is not the criteria for making those decisions–but before you can call for change, be careful about snap judgments on who stays and who goes. I don’t see your rubric here for cutbacks–and trying to create one will give you a giant headache (some of which may be caused by blows from PE teachers who work with 300 kids/day).

    Who gets to say what working hard looks like? Your principal? The other teachers in your building? Tenure is designed to keep schools from following the path of least financial resistance, and keeping only the cheap newbies.

    You’ve got the right idea–now you need to flesh it out with something more than a new word.

    • Tweenteacher
      February 11, 2010

      You’re absolutely right that the next step is in solving, not just ending in venting. But for me as a teacher in the trenches, there is a morale issue that must be addressed, an acknowledgment of what’s happening and who is being lost. I don’t think that I need to solve each problem I post within that post. It becomes a place to start and return to later.

      Here’s what I think: tenure must be reformed, not eliminated (see my earlier post), and the rubric for cutbacks should be reformed. I am not privy to every part of the equation; I speak from the POV of a teacher watching good teachers pack up their boxes. I speak from the POV of a teacher in a district with little turn-over who could, despite her 8 years in this district, could see her own job in jeopardy due to my number (#176, by the way) on the list.

      We know that teacher evaluations must be revised and reevaluated. We know that all of this plays a part in teacher safety and in teacher quality. But the day-to-day life of school, and its current darkness, is sometimes what dictates my posts and their topics.

      It is my reality. And I don’t have a solution for every problem I pose. But I promise you, I spend time trying…

      Thanks for commenting. As always, you give me much to think about.


  2. Lisa S.
    February 11, 2010

    First of all– love the term “neguity.” Definitely we’ve conflated fairness with sameness. Treating everybody the same =/= fairness.

    Do you have any ideas about how to improve the system? I’m not a fan of the seniority system either. At the same time, I see what’s happening in New York City schools, where principals hire-and-fire at will and where experienced teachers are endangered because they’re more expensive.

    And as a teacher who is very often walking out to a very lonely parking lot in the evenings, the idea of being paid for the extra effort I put in is, well, more than appealing. I just can’t figure out how it could be done RIGHT.

    • Tweenteacher
      February 11, 2010

      I wish I had a solution, I really do. Here’s what I know:

      tenure, seniority lists, teacher evaluations,professional pay, unions, administration…

      …they are all related topics. As I’ve said above, tenure needs a good reform, not abandonment. Due process is far more important to have, and administrators must have the courage and persistence to go through it. Teacher evaluations must be tied into higher standards for teachers as a means to place them on a different kind of list, one made up of teachers that district would be foolish to lose, a list not based on hire but on quality. And a district cannot be allowed (back to this issue of due process) to fire a teacher for their level of pay, but for proof of their inadequate abilities. I have no idea who makes those decisions yet. I think about this topic a lot.

      There should be a way to earn based on effort. There should be a way to have job security even if you’re new at the job. There should be a way to have job security even if you’re higher paid (notice I didn’t say “highly”) for the job.

      I’m not sure where the answer lies, but I promise you I’ll write about it through my own process of figuring it out!

      Thanks so much for touching base and participating in the conversation.


  3. Tony
    March 9, 2010

    I’m reminded of a quote (don’t know the author): “Water the plants, not the rocks.” A garden isn’t equitable. The plants need to be watered because they’re the ones that are growing. The rocks just sit there. No need to waste water on something that will not grow.

    • Tweenteacher
      March 9, 2010

      That’s fantastic! I love this quote! And it’s dead on what I’m talking about.

      It was a pleasure to meet you at CUE. Your website, http://www.tipsbytony.com is great and I will be sure to add it to my RSS feed.

      Take care and check back in again!

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