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Measuring Equity in the Classroom

July 24, 2018
by Michael Strambler

Over the past few years, a great deal of attention has been given to the role of bias and inequity on the educational outcomes of children. Last month, I helped to facilitate a session on this topic at the National Research Conference for Early Childhood (NRCEC). The session, Measurement of inequitable experience in the classroom, was organized by Dr. Jason Downer from University of Virginia. The presenters were Dr. Walter Gilliam from Yale Child Study Center and Dr. Stephanie Curenton from Boston University. My role was to highlight and comment on important points regarding their work—some of which I share in this blog.

Dr. Gilliam and Dr. Curenton both make the important distinction between equality and equity: equality focuses on providing the same resources for each individual, whereas equity focuses on providing the necessary supports for each individual, relative to his or her strengths and needs. For example, when children vary in terms of their early literacy skills, providing all children with identical learning opportunities promotes equality rather than equity.

Drs. Gilliam and Curenton’s presentations focused on recently-developed classroom observation measures for early childhood. These tools rely on trained observers to systematically rate learning environments in relation to certain domains. Dr. Gilliam spoke about a measure that he developed with Dr. Chin Reyes, the Climate for Healthy Interactions for Learning and Development (CHILD). This tool was designed to capture the mental health climate of a learning environment, and one of its core components concerns the equitable treatment of children. Dr. Curenton’s measure, Assessing Classroom Sociocultural Equity Scale (ACSES), was designed from a sociocultural perspective and aims to capture positive adult-child interactions such as those that promote warmth and cultural appreciation.

The session raised a philosophical question: what should be our level of tolerance with regard to inequitable treatment of students in the classroom? On the face of it, this question may sound insensitive, if not downright uncompassionate. One might be inclined to insist that no amount of inequitable treatment is acceptable. And yet, on some level, we all engage in and experience inequitable treatment on a regular basis. One of the great lessons from psychology is that humans are wired to be highly biased. We effortlessly jump to unwarranted conclusions, misinterpret others’ behavior, and oversimplify nuanced phenomena. Essentially, we’re natural stereotypers rather than natural truth-seekers.

This fact doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t do anything about inequitable treatment—we certainly should. But this unfortunate reality of human nature requires us to use the tools of reason and science to understand reality and to help us solve problems. Systematic measurement of students’ learning environments can help us get a better gauge on reality than our limited senses can. Observational measures like the CHILD and ACSES are promising tools in the effort to quantify how much inequity is present in learning environments.

Another implication of our human nature is that we must decide where to draw the line in terms of what biased treatment is tolerable and what is not. Over the decades, we have come to conceptualize many different forms of bias and discrimination: overt racism, aversive racism, colorism, microaggressions, unearned privilege, and implicit bias, to name a few. Yet, different forms of bias likely affect children to different degrees. Similarly, different forms of bias likely require different modes of intervention. For instance, intentional and overt forms of inequitable treatment likely impact children differently and require different intervention than those that are unintentional and subtle.

Perhaps the collection of direct evidence on equitable characteristics of learning environments can help guide us in understanding how to improve. Using the CHILD and ACSES measures to study the links between classroom equity and children’s outcomes, and most importantly, the size of these associations in terms of short-term and long-term outcomes, may help us gauge just how much weight we should place on these factors in supporting children’s education and wellbeing.

I’m excited to see where measures like the CHILD and ACSES lead us in the future. We are at a moment in history where, as a society, we are more fearful of each other, more cynical about others’ motives, and less compassionate towards those not in our circle. In this sense, efforts to measure equity in learning environments are timely and may eventually aid in promoting the conditions that help children learn and thrive.

Submitted by Joanna Meyer on July 25, 2018