Imagining Equity Literacy

Equity literacy moves us beyond cultural competency, allowing educators to create and sustain equitable and just learning environments for all families and students.


Cultural competence: I learn about Latino culture so that I can communicate effectively with my Latino students’ families.

Cultural proficiency: Acknowledging the tremendous diversity among Latino families, I learn about the cultures, identities and home lives of each individual student in order to design curricula that are relevant to each of them.

Equity literacy: I engage students in conversations about the absence of Latino voices in their American literature textbooks and fight to ensure that Latino students are not placed unjustly into lower academic tracks. 

I remember when I first heard the term, “cultural proficiency.” I never understood the hoopla surrounding “cultural competence,” mostly because “competence” seemed to me like a pretty low standard. Should I be satisfied reaching some minimum standard for understanding my students? Cultural proficiency demanded more of me. It required a cultural immersion. It required a deeper understanding, not just of generalizations about the culture of this or that group, but of the identities and lives of individual students and families. It also required me to consider whether larger school cultures were inclusive of a diversity of students and families. Cultural proficiency raised the bar, and many of my teacher friends, along with their schools, started working up to its expectations.

I would like to suggest, though, that, if we are committed to creating equitable, bias-free learning spaces, cultural proficiency describes only part of the skill set we need. In fact, when it comes to equitable education, cultural proficiency has a few limitations. For example, like many of the recent models for teaching with diversity in mind—culturally relevant teaching, cultural competence and intercultural communications—cultural proficiency focuses primarily on culture and cross-cultural knowledge. However, I wonder whether we have become so focused on culture in education that we have failed to address inequities like heterosexism, ableism or racism sufficiently.

Consider, for example, the “culture of poverty” approach for understanding low-income youth and their families or, as another example, descriptions of rigid culture- or identity-based “learning styles.” For years, these two hypotheses about the significance of culture in our classrooms have dominated conversations about diversity in education. Unfortunately, both are bogus. We now know it is impossible to predict anybody’s preferred learning style based on a single dimension of her identity and that nobody, regardless of identity, learns the same way regardless of what he is learning. Neither can we presume to know anything about somebody’s “culture” based solely on the fact that she or he is poor. Moreover, neither of these approaches to diversity addresses the biases or inequities experienced by people whose cultures they purport to explain.

This is why I advocate, not just for cultural proficiency, but also for equity literacy. Building from Katy Swalwell’s conception of equity literacy, I define it, broadly speaking, as the skills and dispositions that enable us to recognize, respond to and redress (i.e., correct for) conditions that deny some students access to the educational opportunities enjoyed by their peers. Equity literacy also describes the skills and dispositions that allow us to create and sustain equitable and just learning environments for all families and students.

I offer here a sampling of the core principles of equity literacy as I attempt to practice it in my own teaching.

Recognizing inequity: The most important skill for equity-literate teachers is the ability to recognize subtle and not-so-subtle biases and inequities. In recognizing inequity, they:

  • reject deficit views, such as the “culture of poverty” view, that locate the sources of inequalities as existing within, rather than as pressing upon, the most powerless students.
  • recognize tremendous diversity within identity groups and, as a result, never presume to know anything about somebody's culture, learning needs or communication style based on a single dimension of her or his identity.
  • notice even subtle bias, not just in classroom materials, but also in classroom interactions and school policies.
  • know and teach about how notable people from their subject areas have used their knowledge to advocate for or participate in just or unjust actions, such as how some scientists endorsed eugenics.

Responding to inequity: Equity-literate teachers have the skills to respond effectively and in an equitable fashion to school and classroom inequities. In order to do so, they:

  • build the facilitation skills and content knowledge necessary to intervene effectively when issues like gender and sexism, class and economic injustice or other equity concerns arise in the classroom.
  • engage students in critical examinations of bias in classroom materials, classroom interactions and school policies.
  • foster discussion about equity concerns, such as heteronormativity, with colleagues.  

Redressing inequity: Equity-literate teachers are committed to the elimination of inequities in their classrooms, their schools and their communities. They:

  • advocate against inequitable school practices, such as tracking, as well as policies, such as religiously-biased dress codes.
  • never confuse celebrating diversity with equity, such as by responding to racial inequities with cultural celebrations.
  • teach about issues like racism, sexism, economic injustice and heterosexism.

Creating and sustaining an equitable learning environment: Finally, equity-literate educators endeavor to create and sustain equitable schools and classrooms. They:

  • express high expectations for all students through higher-order pedagogies and curricula.
  • consider how they assign homework and communicate with families, understanding that students have different levels of access to resources including computers and the Internet.
  • teach and model for students how to think critically, not just about curricular content, but also about the structure and purpose of schooling.

Equity literacy reflects a shift in commitment for me as an educator. It reflects my acknowledgement that, although learning about my students’ individual cultures, beliefs and values is important, it does not necessarily prepare me to create and sustain an equitable learning environment for all of my students. It removes vague notions of “culture” from the center of the diversity discussion and replaces it with ideals of equity and justice. And, in that way, as I become more equity-literate, I also become a better advocate for my most disenfranchised students.

(For a more detailed description of equity literacy, read Paul C. Gorski’s new book, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, or download the free equity literacy handouts from the EdChange website.)

Gorski is an associate professor of Integrative Studies and a Research Fellow in the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University.