6 Excellence or Equity…Which is More Important?

Jennifer Beasley and Myra Haulmark

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In the United States, the start of the twentieth century marked a movement towards the inclusion of more people than ever into the educational system. In 1900, close to six percent of teenagers graduated from high school. States attempted to increase that number by making that goal more accessible through the construction of more high schools in both urban and rural localities (Wolfe, 2001). Laws were passed that made school mandatory for children until elementary school; later, it became obligatory until they became sixteen years old. However, a good and equal education was not yet widely available to all Americans. Marginalized groups hovered at the fringes of the educational system. African-Americans received unequal and inferior educations as compared to that of whites, as did other minorities and students with limited English proficiency (LEP). Women were discriminated against and the handicapped in being fully included in the educational system. Major developments in the twentieth-century education system include various rulings and acts that promoted a fair and equal education for Americans that had been neglected and marginalized.  In this chapter, we will explore some of the obstacles facing equity in education.

Objectives and Key Terms

In this chapter, readers will…

  • Identify the historical struggles for equity and excellence in education
  • Describe the impact of tracking students in education
  • Provide a brief overview of the struggles for equal educational opportunities for identified groups of students

Key terms in the chapter are…

  • Tracking
  • Equity
  • Equality

Equity and Equality

Educational equity also referred to as “Equity in education,” is a measure of achievement, fairness, and opportunity in education. The study of education equity is often linked with the study of excellence and equity.

Educational equity depends on two main factors. The first is fairness, which implies that factors specific to one’s conditions should not interfere with the potential of academic success. The second important factor is inclusion, which refers to a comprehensive standard that applies to everyone in a certain education system. These two factors are closely related and depend on each other for an educational system’s success.

The growing importance of education equity is based on the premise that an individual’s level of education directly correlates to the future quality of life. Therefore, an academic system that practices educational equity is a strong foundation of a society that is fair and thriving. However, inequity in education is challenging to avoid and can be broken down into inequity due to socioeconomic standing, race, gender, or disability. Educational equity is also based on the historical context of the location, people, and structure. History shapes the outcome of individuals within the education system.

Often, the terms “equity” and “equality” are interchanged when referring to educational equity. Although similar, there can be important distinctions between the two.


Equity recognizes that some are at a larger disadvantage than others and aims at compensating for these people’s misfortunes and disabilities to ensure that everyone can attain the same type of healthy lifestyle.] Examples of this are when libraries offer literacy programs when schools offer courses in English as a second language, and when foundations target scholarships to students from poor families, they operationalize a belief in the equity of access as fairness and as justice.  Equity recognizes this uneven playing field and aims to take extra measures by giving those who are in need more than others who are not. Equity aims at making sure that everyone’s lifestyle is equal even if it may come at the cost of unequal distribution of access and goods. Social justice leaders in education strive to ensure equitable outcomes for their students.


The American Library Association defines equality as: “access to channels of communication and sources of information that is made available on even terms to all–a level playing field–is derived from the concept of fairness as uniform distribution, where everyone is entitled to the same level of access and can avail themselves if they so choose.” (ALA). In this definition of equality, no one person has an unfair advantage. Everyone is given equal opportunities and accessibility and is then free to do what they please with it. However, this is not to say that everyone is then inherently equal. Some people may choose to seize these open and equal opportunities while others let them pass by.

Tracking and Equity

Tracking systems, are selective measures to locate students in different educational levels. They are created to increase the efficiency of education.  It allows making more or less homogeneous groups of students perceive education that suits their educational skills. However, tracking can affect educational equity if the selection process is biased and children with a certain background are structurally located to lower tracks. The effects of tracking are that students are both viewed and treated differently depending on which track they take. It can generate unequal achievement levels between individual students and it can restrict access to higher tracks and higher education. The quality of teaching and curricula vary between tracks and as a result, those of the lower track is disadvantaged with inferior resources, teachers, etc. In many cases, tracking stunts students who may develop the ability to excel past their original placement.

Tracking systems

The type of tracking has an impact on the level of educational equity, which is especially determined by the degree to which the system is differentiated. Less differentiated systems, such as standardized comprehensive schools, reach higher levels of equity in comparison to more differentiated, or tracked systems.

Within the tracked systems, the kind of differentiation matters as well for educational equity. Differentiation of schools could be organized externally or internally. External differentiation means that tracks are separated in different schools. Certain schools follow a certain track, which prepares students for academic or professional education, or career or vocational education. This form is less beneficial for educational equity than internal differentiation or course-by-course tracking. Internal tracking means that, within a single school, courses are instructed at different levels, which is a less rigid kind of tracking that allows for more mobility.

The organization of the tracking systems themselves is also important for its effect on educational equity. For both differentiation systems, a higher number of tracks and a smaller number of students per track is granting more educational equity. In addition, the effects of tracking are less rigid and have a smaller impact on equity if the students are located in tracks when they are older. The earlier the students undergo educational selection, the less mobile they are to develop their abilities, and the less they can benefit from peer effects.

Income and Equity

Income has always played an important role in shaping academic success. Those who come from a family of a higher socioeconomic status (SES) are privileged with more opportunities than those of lower SES. Those who come from a higher SES can afford things like better tutors, rigorous SAT/ACT prep classes, impressive summer programs, and so on. Parents generally feel more comfortable intervening on behalf of their children to acquire better grades or more qualified teachers. Parents of a higher SES are more willing to donate large sums of money to a certain institution to better improve their child’s chances of acceptance, along with other extravagant measures. This creates an unfair advantage and a distinct class barrier.

Costs of education

The extraordinarily high cost of the many prestigious high schools and universities in the United States makes an attempt at a “level playing field” for all students not so level. High-achieving low-income students do not have the means to attend selective schools that better prepare a student for later success. Because of this, low-income students do not even attempt to apply to the top-tier schools for which they are more than qualified. In addition, neighborhoods generally segregated by class leave lower-income students in lower-quality schools. For higher-quality schooling, students in low-income areas would have to take public transport which they can’t pay for.  Fewer than 30 percent of students in the bottom quarter of incomes even enroll in a four-year school and among that group, fewer than half graduate.

Race and Equity

From a scientific point of view, the human species is a single species. Nevertheless, the term racial group is enshrined in legislation, and phrases such as race equality and race relations are in widespread official use. Racial equity in education means the assignment of students to public schools and within schools without regard to their race. This includes providing students with a full opportunity for participation in all educational programs regardless of their race.

The educational system and its response to racial concerns in education vary from country to country. Below are some examples of countries that have to deal with racial discrimination in education.

  • US Department of Education: The Commission on Equity and Excellence in Education issued a seminal report in 2013, a blueprint for making the dream of equity, and a world-class education, for each and every American child a reality.

The struggle for equality of access to formal education and equality of excellent educational outcomes is part of the history of education in this country and is tied up with the economic, political, social history of the peoples who are part of it. From the beginning of this nation, there were many barriers to the schooling and education of girls and racial, national origin, and language groups not from the dominant culture. Approaches and resources for achieving equality and equity in the public schooling of girls and ethnic, racial, and language minority groups are still evolving.

  • Asia-Pacific Region: Globalization of the economy, increasingly diverse and interconnected populations, and rapid technological change are posing new and demanding challenges to individuals and societies alike. School systems are rethinking the knowledge and skills students need for success, and the educational strategies and systems required for all children to achieve them. Within the Asia-Pacific region, for example, Korea, Shanghai-China, and Japan are examples of Asian education systems that have climbed the ladder to the top in both quality and equity indicators.
  • South Africa: A major task of South Africa’s new government in 1994 was to promote racial equity in the state education system. During the apartheid era, which began when the National Party won control of Parliament in 1948 and ended with a negotiated settlement more than four decades later, the provision of education was racially unequal by design. Resources were lavished on schools serving white students while schools serving the black majority were systematically deprived of qualified teachers, physical resources, and teaching aids such as textbooks and stationery. The rationale for such inequity was a matter of public record.

Gender and Equity

Gender equity in practicality refers to both male and female concerns, yet most of the gender bias is against women in the developing world. Gender discrimination in education has been a very evident and underlying problem in many countries, especially in developing countries where cultural and societal stigma continues to hinder growth and prosperity for women. Global Campaign for Education (GCE) followed a survey called “Gender Discrimination in Violation of Rights of Women and Girls” which states that one-tenth of girls in primary school is ‘unhappy’ and this number increases to one-fifth by the time they reach secondary schools. Some of the reasons that girls provided include harassment, restorations to freedom, and an inherent lack of opportunities, compared to boys. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) understands Education as a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It promotes individual freedom and empowerment and yields important development benefits.

Gender-based inequity in education is not just a phenomenon in developing countries. An article in The New York Times highlighted how education systems, especially the public school system, tend to cause segregation between genders. Boys and girls are often taught with different approaches, which programs children to think they are different and deserve different treatment. However, studies show that boys and girls learn differently, and therefore should be taught differently. Boys learn better when they keep moving, while girls learn better sitting in one place with silence. Therefore—in this reasoning—segregating the genders promotes gender equity in education, as both boys and girls have optimized learning.

Impact of gender discrimination on the economy

Education is universally acknowledged as an essential human right because it highly impacts the socio-economic and cultural aspects of a country. Equity in education increases the workforce of the nation, therefore increasing national income, and economic productivity. It reduces fertility and infant mortality, improves child health, increases life expectancy, and increases living standards. These are factors that allow economic stability and growth in the future. Above all, female education can increase output levels and allow countries to attain sustainable development. Equity in the education of women also reduces the possibilities of trafficking and exploitation of women. UNESCO also refers to gender equity as a major factor that allows for sustainable development.

Challenges in Educational Equity

The long-term social and economic consequences of having little education are more tangible now than ever before. Those without the skills to participate socially and economically in society generate higher costs of healthcare, income support, child welfare, and social security.

While both basic education and higher education have both been improved and expanded in the past 50 years, this has not translated to a more equal society in terms of academics. While the feminist movement has made great strides for women, other groups have not been as fortunate. Generally, social mobility has not increased, while economic inequality has. So, while more students are getting a basic education and even attending universities, a dramatic divide is present and many people are still being left behind.

For more information, explore the following sections:


What did you learn from your reading that sheds new light on this topic?

Dig Deeper

The following resources are provided when “digging deeper” into the chapter.

“Equality and Equity of Access: What’s the Difference?”. Ala.org. May 29, 2007. Retrieved November 19, 2014.

“Teaching boys and girls separately”. The New York Times. Retrieved November 19, 2014.


Modified from “Educational Equity” on WikiBooks.




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