Equity in Education: Race, Poverty & COVID

Equity in Education
How COVID Lockdowns Disproportionately Impacted Students’ Learning Along Racial Lines

The quality of education a student receives is directly correlated with the quality of life that student experiences as they get older. Therefore it is crucial that both political bodies as well as educational institutions, ensure that any barriers which may prevent a student from gaining an equitable education, are promptly removed. While equity in education has remained a constant problem despite advances from institutions and educators, the recent COVID lockdowns have further exacerbated those divisions. Before we discuss the effect school closures have had on student learning, it is important to understand what equity is and how it is different than equality in the context of education. 


Equity vs. equality, is there a difference?

For many individuals the terms equity and equality are often used interchangeably. While it may appear that there is little distinction between the terms, there is in fact a considerable difference. Equality refers to a state of being equal, where every individual receives the same rights, opportunities and access to resources. [1] While equality is clearly beneficial, it doesn’t address an individual’s specific needs. That is to say, if a school gives every student an iPad to do their homework on, it doesn’t mean that the student may be able to do their homework, as the solution (giving iPads) doesn’t address specific issues a student may face such as: lack of internet, language barriers or demotivating at-home environments. 

Equity on the other hand, provides students with the resources they need that best address the problems they face given circumstances they currently find themselves in. The World Health Organization defines social equity as “the absence of avoidable or remediable difference among groups of people.” [2]

Equality does not lead to equity; every individual must be examined based on their own unique circumstances and ensure they are treated justly. 


Equity vs. equality in education

Many educational institutions focus on what is known as horizontal equity; which is to treat students, who are already assumed as being equal, the same way. [3] However, that definition can only be correct if schools are homogenous, which is to say that  every student is given the same opportunities in life. That is unfortunately, not the case. Most students come from a variety of backgrounds where some may be more privileged than others. Therefore, it is prudent that educators utilize vertical equity; which assumes that students have different needs and are provided specific resources to address those needs. [4]

One of the biggest blockades to equity in education remains poverty. According to a recent study, nearly 60% of students classified as disadvantaged come from low-income households & communities. [5] Schools in impoverished areas, or students who lack financial means may not have access to the resources they need to succeed in the classroom. 

When the lens of race is applied, the divides are even more striking. According to recent US Census data, 25.8% of African Americans live in poverty compared to 11.6% of Whites. [6]


Race & COVID lockdowns; the impact on education

In a recent McKinsey study, the chronic achievement gaps between disadvantaged groups namely African-Americans & Hispanics compared to Whites grew as a result of COVID school closures. “The average Black or Hispanic student remains roughly two years behind the average white one, and low-income students continue to be underrepresented among top performing students.” [7]

According to a study we at Kritik ran, nearly 60% of students said their education suffered as a result of online learning. That is bracketed by a 2015 study by Stanford that found online learning does not deliver the same academic results as in-person classes. [8] Online learning is less effective than in-person classes & greater learning loss is experienced along racial lines. 

In a recent Curriculum Associates report, nearly 60% of low-income students were likely to log on and engage with online learning, that is compared to nearly 90 of high-income students. [9] When race is factored in, given that underperforming schools are located in low-income areas, Black students are disproportionately affected. McKinsey estimates that the learning loss as a result of COVID school closures is roughly 10.4 months for black students compared to just 6 months for white students. [10]


Time for change

Addressing these challenges is no easy feat, especially given the government mandates imposed on higher-ed institutions as a result of COVID. But there are modifications instructors can harness which promote equity in their classrooms and can address the learning gap as we head into the fall semester. 

  1. Develop more asynchronous learning opportunities

Given that one of the main factors in the learning gap McKinsey alluded too, occurred as a result of students disengaged with the material and unwilling to log on. Students may not be available during the day, perhaps they have allocated more time to work at their part-time jobs, or some family members may have been laid-off. Professors that allow for flexibility in how they students learn can retain student engagement. Kritik offers instructors discussion features & creative assignments that allow students to take learning outside of the classroom. 

Team-based learning is also a tool instructors can deploy to keep their students engaged with the course and other students while studying remotely. 

  1. Peer assessment & curating diverse opinions

Students often feel that their voice isn’t heard or that it may not matter. Being able to see the work of their peers and evaluate it based on their own circumstances and unique perspectives is a powerful motivational tool that allows students to feel that their opinion matters. 

Professors are also able to crowd-source course content ideas from students. Case studies, assignments and class discussion topics can be submitted by students and evaluated by each of them to ensure diverse ideas are continuously being put forward. 

Educators may not have control over whether or not their school will be online, in-person or hy-flex, but they do have the ability to foster an equitable classroom student environment that engages students & ensures diverse opinions are heard and appreciated.


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  1. Just Health Action. Part 1: Introduction to Environmental Justice, Equity, and Health. http://justhealthaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/JHA-Lesson-Plan-3-How-are-equity-and-equality-different-final.pdf.
  1. World Health Organization. WHO | Equity. https://www.who.int/healthsystems/topics/equity/en/.
  2. Catapano, J. The Challenges of Equity in Public Education. https://www.teachhub.com/challenges-equity-public-education.
  3. Ibid.
  4. OECD Observer Staff. Ten Steps to Equity in Education. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, January 2008, pp. 1-8.
  5. US Census. Poverty rates for selected detailed race and hispanic groups by state and place. https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2013/acs/acsbr11-17.html#:~:text=By%20race%2C%20the%20highest%20national,poverty%20rate%20of%2017.6%20percent.
  6. McKinsey & Company. COVID-19 and Student Learning in the United States https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-student-learning-in-the-united-states-the-hurt-could-last-a-lifetime
  7. Standford University. 2015 Online Charter School Study for Research on Education Outcomes.https://credo.stanford.edu/
  8. McKinsey. Ibid.
  9. ibid

Chris Palazzo
Marketer & Educator. Blending the two here at Kritik

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