Equity Issues

Background of Equity in Education. A Brief History:

Thomas Dorr
When the United States was a nascent Democracy, the issue of educational equity was considered. From the beginning, only white males who were wealthy land owners were allowed to vote. This meant that only a small fraction of citizens had their voice heard whereas the vast majority had no legislative control over their destinies. Thomas Jefferson believed all men should have the right to vote; he also stressed the importance of education for all citizens regardless of socio-economic standing. He felt that in order for a Democracy to thrive, it must have an active citizenry. Ergo, the entire citizenry must be educated so they may, at least, participate. His ideas, initially, fell on deaf ears. It was not until 1842 that the tide began to change; the renegade and wealthy Rhode Island state legislator Thomas Dorr began his fight for the right of all white males, regardless of property stance be allowed to vote. Dorr's rebellion, as it came to be known, created a domino effect across the states in which states shed the ownership of property as as a requirement to vote. This meant that even poor white males needed to have the education in order to be effective citizens. And, so, it was implemented.

Homer Plessy
Plessy v. Ferguson

With the end of the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves in 1865, a whole new group of people were now deemed citizens. Questions concerning blacks and education abounded. The "Jim Crow" laws of 1875 did quite a bit to undermine the reforms which began under President Lincoln and ended with his untimely assassination in 1865. They mandated that blacks should have "separate but equal" facilities in all aspects of life, to include education. Facilities were indeed separate, but they were anything but equal. It was not until 1896, that issues of race and education (by proxy) challenging the Jim Crow laws came to the national stage via the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson. Homer Pleassy challenged Jim Crow by sitting in the white train car, rather than the black. He himself was 7/8ths white. Yet he was deemed colored by the "one drop" rule. He was jailed for refusing to leave the white car. His case was taken all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that the idea of "separate but equal" was indeed constitutional- on trains cars, as well as education. Like Jim Crow, this ruling served only to deepen and "justify" the less than equal treatment of blacks.

Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka.browncoverstory31.jpg
It would take one little black girl (and her parents) with a whole lot of guts to shatter the system. In Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka the plaintiffs demanded their daughter be allowed to go to the white school near their home rather than the black school on the other side of town. They argued it was a dangerous walk to school for their daughter. And in the course of the case, Thurgood Marshall also argued that the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, was unconstitutional. Further, he argued, there was no such thing as an equal education for blacks, not only in Topeka, but throughout the country. On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court announced its decision that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The end result was the often reluctant integration of blacks into white schools.

Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka had a wide sweeping effect on all issues of inequality in the educational system. It paved the way for legislation regarding gender, learning disabilities, physical disabilites and so much more. This is not to say that the system is now equitable: quite the contrary. Equity is a constant work-in-progress as the video below shows.

Today, advancements in technology have made learning easier and more meaningful for people with disabilities and augmented learning for others.

When talking about ideas of educational equity/ equity and technology, there are many factors to consider.

Racial Equity and Technology.

If you google "racial equity in public schools," you will find a host of articles from school systems across the country echoing the same call: the need to seriously address racial equity in their schools. Just barely 53 years after Board of Education, we are still struggling with racial equity and in many instances, we are seeing it fall apart. When we just consider racial equity in relation to technology, the numbers are staggering. The Mid Atlantic Education Commission conducted a study on the disparities between mainstream and traditionally disadvantaged racial/ethnic groups. They found, "[d]isadvantaged groups seem to lag behind in access to those aspects of technology that do affect educational outcomes, but not in access to those aspects of technology that do not affect educational outcomes" (Wenglinsky, 1998).


Unfortunately, segregation is rearing its ugly head again today. Many schools, especially in urban areas, are majority black and/ or Hispanic with only a small population of whites. Studies also show these schools tend to be in low income areas where access to technology at home, let alone in schools, runs much lower than schools in high income communities where technology is readily accessible both at school and at home. When dealing with equity as it relates to technology, the teacher must consider the availability and access to technology, not just at school but at home.

This is a very slippery slope and should probably be dealt with on a case by case, school by school, classroom by classroom basis.

According to ncrel.org, the following is recommended overall for equity in technology.

  • School and district technology plans reflect two intentions: equitable access to technology for all students and educators, and comparable levels of education technology for all schools.
  • District and state budgets have explicit rules and regulations that provide for the equitable allocation of funds for education technology at the classroom level.
  • Schools and districts integrate education technology into the curriculum to create classroom applications that are learner-centered and that support high curriculum standards for all students.
  • Each district supports or has access to at least one "bleeding edge" site, school-based project, or classroom so that students, teachers, parents, administrators, community members, and other stakeholders can explore the potential capabilities of a variety of education technologies.
  • Professional development for the use and integration of education technology figures prominently in school and district technology plans and represents a significant proportion of the total budget for technology implementation.

Another issue regarding racial equity is the recent ruling by the Supreme Court (PDF) in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 05-908 takes racial quotas off the table in considering admission into public schools. The argument is basing admission solely on race and quotas in not fair to other students of different races. However, this decision, claims critics, will put Brown in real jeopardy.
Justice Clarence Thomas

Justice Clarence Thomas had this to say in his own separate opinion regarding Brown and this case:
"What was wrong in 1954 cannot be right today," Thomas said. "The plans before us base school assignment
decisions on students' race. Because ‘our Constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,' such race-based decision making is unconstitutional."

A New study out from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), called "A National Consideration of Digital Equity" (PDF) tackels this issue head on. The ISTE points out that the digital divide is a reality in today's schools. Looking for the silver lining in this ruling, they issue the challenge to government and school districts to help foster real digital equity in schools which are historically in low income communities. The hope is that through this ruling, creating an equitable learning environment will mean bridging the digital divide through a greater focus on technology. Susan Patrick, executive director of the North American Council for Online Learning also sees the possibilities:
"Many families cannot [afford to] move and might not have access to the best education available in their geographical areas... by allowing students to transcend time and place... " they are able to meet diverse students through online course "in a color-blind environment--giving students choices to pursue a high-quality education from any location, instead of having a very limited choice ... decided by others."

For more information on technology and racial equity, please visit the following links:

Critical Issue: Ensuring Equitable Use of Education Technology
Case Study: Northbrook Middle School, Texas
Tucson Unified School District, Tucson, Arizona
Hawaii State Department of Education
Racial Equity and Higher Education
eSchool News online article on racial equity and technology

Gender & Equity

According to the Association of American University Women (AAUW) Education Foundation, there are large gaps between the percentages of males and females who take advanced computer science courses in high school and who eventually pursue careers in technology-related fields. These are based on statistics from the year 2000. This disparity is attributed largely to the widespread stereotype that males are more computer-minded.

Because of this gender disparity, the Commission on Technology, Gender and Teacher Education, formed by AAUW (2000), proposed the following goals:
1. Draw more women and girls into computer science and related technical fields. This includes encouraging their participation in the appropriate courses to get there.
2. Make women and girls more comfortable in the culture of technology, emphasizing relationships with technology regardless of eventual occupational, social, or family goals.
” (AAUW, 2000, p. 4).

Educators can take steps to help resolve the technology gap:
  • When choosing software, they should consider the varied learning styles of students and make attempts to select software that accommodates their various learning styles.
  • Choose software with both male and female characters and that covers many levels and provides opportunities for problem solving.
  • They should recognize that different software styles will appeal to different students and bear this in mind when making their selections.
  • Use technology in all subject areas to provide varied and multiple opportunities for exposure.
  • They should incorporate technology into a variety of activities; this can show how technology serves many interests.
  • They can use gender when grouping for technology-related activities. This will prevent some females from feeling undue pressure and will make them more likely to explore freely.
  • They should allow more flexibility on how learners perform their technology assignments. This will also enable females to feel less pressure and to experiment more freely.

For more information, please see the following links:

Educating Girls in the Tech Age: A Report on Equity

Assistive Technology

Technology can enhance learning for all students. Therefore, it is important for technology to be accessible for individuals with disabilities. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), assistive technology is both a service and a device. In other words, it includes any technological devices that a student may require to maintain or improve her capabilities and it includes the services necessary in assisting the student with the use of those devices. Depending upon the type of disability, different resources will be required to meet the different needs of the students.

The following questions should be considered when selecting assistive technological devices:
  • Can it be incorporated into the student’s IEP?
  • Can it withstand technological changes and be upgraded, if necessary?
  • Is it easily maintained and is there technical support and maintenance readily available?

Visual Impairments:

Those who are visually impaired can include individuals who are totally blind, legally blind, have low vision and are partially sighted. Visual impairments also can include difficulty with decoding skills, which children with specific learning disabilities may have.

  • Partially sighted indicates that an individual has some sort of a visual problem that requires special education.
  • Low vision means that the individual has a severe visual impairment. These individuals cannot read print even with the aid of eyeglasses or contacts. They typically use other senses combined with vision to learn and frequently may need special adaptations in lighting or print size. They may occasionally use Braille.
  • Legally blind means that the individual has less than 20/200 vision in his better eye that cannot be improved with corrective lenses. Also someone whose field of vision is less than 20 degrees diameter is considered legally blind.
  • Blind. If an individually is totally blind, he learns using Braille or other non-visual media.

There are numerous assistive technology devices that make learning more attainable for those who visually impaired. There are computer programs that run on almost any computer and which can speak the text for those who are blind. The screen reader is a device used by those who are visually impaired that allows them to hear, by means of a speech synthesizer, what is on the screen of a computer. The text-to-speech synthesizer translates what is displayed on the monitor. The user can adjust the speed of the voice according to his or her preference. The user does not use the mouse but rather the number pad to indicate where the text is that is to be translated. Some disadvantages are that the individual is unable to “read” the layout of the page, and therefore lose some of the meaning. Also, he can “read” or hear just one word at a time. The screen reader, however, saves individuals with visual impairments a great deal of time and work. It is also available in many different languages. There are also computer programs that can enlarge the text for those who are partially blind or have low vision. This can be done either in word processor, a web browser or an email program.
Video Magnifier

Devices such as videos magnifiers, also known as closed-circuit television systems, are valuable tools for those who are partially sighted or have low vision. The material which the user wishes to be magnified is placed under a video camera, often on a moveable table. The image is then enlarged and transferred onto the monitor, thereby enabling the user to read the material. (See photo to the right.) Similarly, cameras with zoom lenses can be used to enlarge reading material. These can either be handheld or mounted on a stand.

For those who are blind or visually impaired and read Braille, there is technology available that allows them to retrieve information on their computer screen in Braille. The Braille display, located typically near the keyboard, can show them in Braille what is on a portion of the screen. There are also available printers that print on paper that is embossed in Braille.

Braille Lite Millenium Series M20 $3,595
Notetakers can fulfill the role of a laptop for individuals who are blind. Notetakers, or PDAs, are smaller and more portable than laptops, typically having only seven to nine keys. These allow the users to combine speech and Braille. The individuals type notes on the keyboard using Braille. They can store the notes, or print them out onto embossed paper in Braille. They can also have the notetakers translate the text into spoken text. The notetakers can be purchased to speak in more than one language. Examples of notetakers include Braille ‘n Speak, BrailleNote, and Braille Lite Millenium Series M20. Type ‘n Speak provides a more standard keyboard, as do a few other notetakers.

Speech and Language Impairments:

Technology today is growing in the ability to provide aids to speech. A famous example we see of this is in the case of Stephen Hawking. A specialized computer allows words and sentences to be put together, and spoken by a simulated voice. While this is a helpful to allow for speech, those whose speech is impaired might also have physical impediments. In such cases as with Hawkings, who suffers from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, movement might be very limited. He is able to compose words by stopping a cursor which sweeps across letters on the screen, done by a pressing a switch. Computer recognition of word beginnings can help to expediate the formation of words, which are put together into sentences and read by the computer. Thus, it is possible to speak, write documents, and browse the internet with even very limited movement.

Hearing Loss:

According to a 2005 survey by American hearing expert Sergei Kochkin, over 31 million Americans are hearing impaired. Among children aged 18 and under, over 1.4 million have hearing impairments. In fact, his survey showed that one in ten school-aged children has a hearing loss of some degree. There are a number of assistive technology devices that can be used for those who have hearing loss. Many of these are used in schools to enable those with hearing impairments to have more equal access to educational opportunities.

An FM, or “frequency modulation,” system is widely used in educational environments. The FM system permits the user to hear the voice of the instructor by means of a small FM receiver that he wears on his person. The classroom instructor speaks into a microphone that is typically clipped onto her clothing. The voice is transmitted to the receiver, which is tuned to the same frequency. Hearing aids are used by many hearing impaired help to amplify sound. The volume on these can be adjusted by the user. These do not filter sounds out and so make some noises too loud. A hearing loop can be used by those with hearing aids to help eliminate background noise.

Mac OS X Quick Time
Numerous devices making it possible for the hearing impaired to read spoken text are available. Closed captioning is the text that people frequently see on the bottom of a television screen. These subtitles allow individuals with hearing impairments to read what is heard by others. Some software companies provide closed captioning for computers as well. Mac OS X produces QuickTime which allows those who are hearing impaired to create a closed captioning text that they can view on their computer monitor. Rapidtext, Inc. has produced a system whereby students in a classroom can view on a computer monitor the words the teacher is saying. A stenographer enters the words onto a keyboard which then appear on the screen for the student to read.

TTY (text telephone)

TDDs (telecommunication devices for the deaf) enable those who have hearing loss to communicate with each other through the telephone using text. The phones, called text telephones (TTYs) often resemble small typewriters. They have a handset on a cradle and an LCD screen. In order for a person to use the TTY, the person at the other end must also be using a TTY.

Assistive technology has provided software making it possible for the hearing impaired student to translate what she cannot hear into written language or sign language. iCommunicator is a software program that will translate oral language either into written text or to sign language on a computer. The user can respond to the text by using the keyboard which can be read by someone or which iCommunicator can then speak in a computer-generated voice. The communication is done between the student and the others in the class with iCommunicator as the interpreter and the computer as a medium.


Students with autism frequently have difficulty with communication skills, understanding their environment, and social skills. They typically process BoardMaker.jpgvisual information more easily than they do auditory information. For this reason, technology that uses visual representations will be useful for an individual with autism. Boardmaker, created by Mayer-Johnson, is an educational software program for both Macs and Windows. It allows the user to access the Picture Communication Symbols, which are internationally understood and which enable the individual with autism to understand his environment better. Picture It is another software program designed to help those who need the assistance of pictures to add meaning to text or to their environment. The makers of Picture It recommend it for students with varied disabilities.

Attention Deficit Disorder:

The company Cyberlearnings has created its Smart Braingames as a way of helping those who suffer from ADD. Adapted from NASA simulations used to improve pilot focus, a helmet monitors brain activity, and incorporates this information into the game. The speed of a car, as an example in one game, is a direct result of the mental activity picked up by the sensors. The more focused the players, the faster they are able to go. This allows users to have very tangible effects from their level of attention. Use of such games then can help a player improve their ability to focus for extended periods of time.

Learning Disabilities:


Technology offers many aids to the dyslexic. Typing on a word processor, with its spelling and grammar feedback and corrections, can help to reduce difficulty with typographical errors. The capacity for computers to convert written words into spoken words can also avoid the difficulty that can come with reading.

Legislation Concerning Assistive Technology:

The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 was enacted to provide technology-related assistance to individuals with disabilities and to ensure that all individuals with disabilities could have equal access to technological opportunities for purposes related to school, home, work and community. This law was amended and extended in 1994. It defines assistive devices as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” Similarly, The Assistive Technology Act of 1998 was enacted “to provide financial assistance to States to undertake activities that assist each State in maintaining and strengthening a permanent comprehensive statewide program of technology-related assistance, for individuals with disabilities of all ages.” This law was amended in 2004 to grant even greater support to programs providing assistive technology.


American Foundation for the Blind. Assistive Technology. Retrieved October 16, 2007 from http://www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=4&TopicID=31

Assistive Technology Act of 1998. Retrieved October 16, 2007 from http://www.section508.gov/docs/AT1998.html

Duhany, L. M. & Duhany, D. C. (2000). Assistive Technology: Meeting the Needs of Learners with Disabilities. International Journal of Instructional Media, 27, 393-402.

Education World. Educating Girls in the Tech Age: A Report on Equity. (2004) Retrieved October 24, 2007 from http://www.educationworld.com/a_tech/tech/tech028.shtml

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory: Learning Points Associates. Indicator: Gender Equity. (2007) Retrieved October 24, 2007 from http://www.ncrel.org/engauge/framewk/equ/gender/equgenin.htm

A publication of the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. (2004). Visual Impairments. Retrieved October 18, 2007 from http://www.nichcy.org/pubs/factshe/fs13txt.htm

Stokes, S. Assistive Technology for Children with Autism, Written under a contract with CESA 7 and funded by a discretionary grant from the WI Department of Public Instruction. Retrieved October 16, 2007 from http://www.specialed.us/autism/assist/asst10.htm

The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, Retrieved October 16, 2007 from http://www.resna.org/taproject/library/laws/techact94.htm[[http://www.wati.org/aboutus/aboutus.html