Equity in Education during COVID-19 and the Danger of “Microwave Equity”

Equity in Education during COVID-19 and the Danger of “Microwave Equity”

The last two years have been quite challenging for the world and for educators. First, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world for a while, and many learning institutions were closed as a result of the pandemic.[1] At the same time, the increasing strength of the anti-racism movement from the United States and across the world has highlighted the importance of equity, inclusion, and equality in education in such a time as this. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent school closure globally led to 1.6 billion children[2]missing out on education, which has further amplified the inequalities inherent in many education systems. In many regions around the world, for example, in Europe, groups affected by the COVID-19 pandemic on education may include students of minority migrant background, new language learners, disabled students, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and others (LGBTQ+) students. My PhD research study on developing culturally inclusive teaching and learning environments in Ireland, funded by the Irish Research Council postgraduate scholarship and Galway Doctoral Research scholarship programmes, has caused me to reflect deeply on the concepts of equity, inclusion, and equality in education. Furthermore, my research and work with student-teachers, teachers, parents of minority migrant backgrounds, in Ireland and beyond, has further revealed the importance of an understanding that is all the more urgent in the context of the inequalities that will exasperate equitable and quality education for all learners in the era of COVID-19.

What is the difference between equality and equity?

The image to the left is a graphical representation of equality, while the image to the right represents equity 
Image credit: Maryam Abdul-Kareem

 

It is quite challenging to unpack the concepts of equality and equity in education, particularly the differences between these two concepts. It is critical for teachers to know the differences between these two concepts to ensure equitable learning for all students, especially in a time of crisis.

In the left image, everyone is provided with equal support to watch the football game. In the right image, everyone is equipped with differential supports that allow equitable access to the game.

It should be noted that understanding the differences between equity and equality is not straightforward. It is layered with many complexities. Therefore, the above image provides a basic representation of the differences between equity and equality.

In summary, equity is based on needs, that is, responding to students’ individual or specific needs in our classrooms to ensure quality teaching and learning. In contrast, equality is based on fairness, which means being fair to all, without acknowledging the additional challenges faced by some.

UN Sustainability Goals and

the importance of equity and inclusion in education

Many education systems around the world are concerned with the issues of equity and inclusion in policy and practice. However, more work needs to be done in developing and implementing equity and inclusion policies and practices in education, particularly in the current COVID-19 crisis. Equity can be explained as providing students with personalised support that overcomes potential hurdles such as poverty and minoritised cultural backgrounds.[3]While inclusion in education implies that all students, irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds or disabilities, are accepted and fully catered to in mainstream school environments. In other words, ‘inclusion is about all students belonging’ in a classroom.[4] The concepts of equity and inclusion in education are not new. Global educational goals have long sought to advance the principles of equity and inclusion in education systems internationally. For example, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 requires countries worldwide to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030. The SDGs were passed in 2015 by United Nations member states as a holistic approach to ensure that countries around the world achieve equitable and sustainable development in different sectors of society by 2030. [5] However, recent reports by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) tasked with tracking the world’s progress in achieving SDG 4 presented that it is unlikely for the world to meet the targets of SDG 4 by 2030.[6]Unfortunately, the current humanitarian emergency of COVID-19 has further validated the reality of the findings of this new report on the impact of the pandemic in achieving the SDGs[7]

The role of teachers in addressing equity and inclusion in their classrooms

Moving forward, teachers can begin to address equity and inclusion in education with support from other educational stakeholders to ensure equitable learning for all students and developing peer accountability systems. Secondly, teachers can build better working relationships with students and their guardians/parents. Third, they can commit to continuous professional development programmes. Finally, teachers can promote equity and inclusion in their classrooms during this COVID-19 pandemic and beyond by constantly checking ‘whether what they are doing enables or empowers the students to help improve them.’[8]

Avoiding the quick fix of ‘Microwave Equity’

Cornelius Minor, a US-based educator, coined the term ‘Microwave Equity,’ which means teachers and educators attempting to achieve equity quickly or overnight. Instead, he warns, the work on equity in education takes time and patience. In his book, We Got This, Minor argued that to be equitable and inclusive, teachers need to intentionally listen to kids in achieving equity in the classroom, decentralise power by empowering students’ voices, and do the self-work without blaming students.

The push to introduce more equity in education is badly needed, but it comes at a time when teachers are already facing significant challenges and additional responsibilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Equity and the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic

Teachers are crucial to achieving equity and inclusion in education, and the current crisis has further affected teaching and learning. The pandemic has denied millions of learners access to equitable and quality education.[9] Teachers, to a large extent, are critical stakeholders in helping to manage the crisis. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has further changed the nature of teachers’ work, e.g., many teachers were expected to switch to online teaching quickly. The burden of additional responsibilities placed on teachers in a crisis is not new. Research has shown that all humanitarian emergencies have affected teachers’ work. For example, in post-conflict Liberia, teachers’ responsibilities included serving as second parents, humanitarians, role models, parents, counsellors, guardians, unifiers, and psychologists to help students affected with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). [10] From the case of Liberia and in similar contexts, teachers can be adequately supported and performance improved when education stakeholders possess a deep understanding of the factors that limit their capacity to function effectively.[11] Therefore, placing the responsibility for achieving equity and inclusion solely on teachers is problematic. Educational stakeholders and the entire education system must be involved to make equitable and quality learning for all students a reality, even in the current era of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, school leaders in the United Kingdom took proactive steps and initiatives to provide support for teachers and promote sustainable good practices during the global pandemic. The research study finds that school leaders developed effective and pragmatic approaches to engage other stakeholders such as parents, pupils and policymakers, allowing learning to continue during the pandemic.[12] It is hoped that more attention will be given to having discussions on what equity and inclusion in education really mean in different contexts and levels of education. For example, regional educational research associations such as European Educational Research Association (EERA)  can engage existing platforms such as the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) conferences, within their network for educational researchers to continue to engage in discussion and research on issues of equity and inclusion in European education systems and globally. This knowledge and understanding will undoubtedly help concerned educational stakeholders working on equity and inclusion in education to address the challenges of ensuring an even playing field for all learners.
Seun B. Adebayo

Seun B. Adebayo

PhD Researcher, Research Supervisor, Teaching Assistant, NUI Galway

Seun B. Adebayo is currently a PhD Researcher, Research Supervisor and Teaching Assistant at the School of Education, National University of Ireland Galway, Ireland (NUI Galway). His PhD study explores developing culturally inclusive teaching and learning environments in Irish schools.

Aside from his research study, Seun organises workshops on culturally responsive pedagogies for student-teachers at NUI Galway.

His research interests include education policy, teacher education and professional development, culturally responsive pedagogy, equity and inclusion in education, progressive education reforms, practitioner/action research, education in conflict/post-conflict contexts, and quality education.

Seun has extensive work and research experiences with Aflatoun International, UNESCO HQ., UNESCO Office in Monrovia (Liberia), the European Research Council Executive Agency of the European Commission, the UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti, VSO International, Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE), Education Development Trust and UNDP in New York.

ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Seun-Adebayo

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Royalseun

Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.co.uk/citations?user=anOwtUQAAAAJ&hl=en

References and Further Reading

[1] UNESCO (2021). Education: From disruption to recovery. https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse 

[2] Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (2022). Prioritizing learning during COVID-19. https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/114361643124941686/pdf/Recommendations-of-the-Global-Education-Evidence-Advisory-Panel.pdf 

[3] Waterford (2020). Why Understanding Equity vs Equality in Schools Can Help You Create an Inclusive Classroom. https://www.waterford.org/education/equity-vs-equality-in-education 

[4] Giardina (2019). What does an inclusive classroom look like? https://inclusiveschools.org/what-does-an-inclusive-classroom-look-like/ 

[5] https://sdg4education2030.org/the-goal 

[6] UNESCO (2020). Inclusion and education: ALL MEANS ALL. Global Education Monitoring Report. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/in/documentViewer.xhtml?v=2.1.196&id=p::usmarcdef_0000373718&file=/in/rest/annotationSVC/DownloadWatermarkedAttachment/attach_import_d3682741-8fe5-4012-98c6-66d2bb13b7f0%3F_%3D373718eng.pdf&locale=en&multi=true&ark=/ark:/48223/pf0000373718/PDF/373718eng.pdf#p29 

[7] Shulla, K. (2021). The COVID-19 pandemic and the achievement of the SDGs. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s43621-021-00026-x 

[8] Adebayo and Chinhanu (2020).  Ubuntu in Education: Towards equitable teaching and learning for all in the era of SDG 4. NORRAG. https://www.norrag.org/ubuntu-in-education-towards-equitable-teaching-and-learning-for-all-in-the-era-of-sdg-4-by-chiedza-a-chinhanu-and-seun-b-adebayo/ 

[9] Moss and Bradley (2021). Education in a Post-COVID World: Creating more Resilient Education Systems. https://blog.eera-ecer.de/resilient-education/ 

[10] Adebayo S.B. (2019). Emerging perspectives of teacher agency in a post-conflict setting: The case of Liberia. Teaching and Teacher Education. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0742051X18300143?via%3Dihub 

[11]Tao, S. (2013). Why are teachers absent? Utilising the Capability Approach and Critical Realism to explain teacher performance in Tanzania. International Journal of Educational Development, 33 (1): 2-14 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257243592_Why_are_teachers_absent_Utilising_the_Capability_Approach_and_Critical_Realism_to_explain_teacher_performance_in_Tanzania 

[12]Beauchamp, G., Hulme, M., Clarke, L., Hamilton, L., & Harvey, J. A. (2021). ‘People miss people’: A study of school leadership and management in the four nations of the United Kingdom in the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Educational Management Administration & Leadership49(3), 375-392. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1741143220987841 

The Experiences of Irish Teachers in England

The Experiences of Irish Teachers in England

Emigration has become common for many Irish teachers due to the often precarious and casual nature of employment many recently qualified teachers face in Ireland. England, the nearby neighbour, has proved to be a popular destination for many. England has faced a severe teacher recruitment and retention crisis for many years and recruiting teachers from countries such as Ireland, often facilitated by recruitment agencies, has become a common practice.


Current Research into Irish Teachers in England

Ireland is now one of the top providers of teachers to England but, despite the volume of Irish teachers passing through the English education system, very little is known about their experiences in and perceptions of English schools. We often hear unpleasant anecdotes in Ireland or read complaints on social media channels and online platforms about teachers’ working conditions in England. Still, in terms of scholarly literature on Irish teachers’ experiences in and perceptions of English schools, it has until recently been confined to one published report.

My qualitative research adds to this report and offers a voice to an under-researched but common group of teachers in England. It may be of use to practising and pre-service teachers in Ireland considering moving to England, school leaders in England during the teacher recruitment process, and researchers and policymakers in both countries and beyond. The full research paper, where for the first time Irish teachers’ experiences and perceptions of autonomy and accountability in England are documented, is available here.


Teaching in England

To set some context, what it means to be a teacher in Ireland is very different from what it means to be a teacher in England. Internal and external policies, discourses, pressures, and inspections, to name a few, mean that the nature of teachers’ work differs significantly between the two countries.

England’s education system is widely regarded as one of the most high-stakes systems in the world in terms of accountability. It has been described by others as being ‘notoriously driven by accountability measures’, as having ‘one of the strongest accountability systems in the English speaking world’, and being the ‘mother ship of high-stakes, performativity-focussed types of evaluation’.

The reality for many teachers is that they work in low-trust environments characterised by heightened and oppressive top-down control and micromanagement, frequent and stressful inspections and audits, and intensive and unsustainable requirements and demands. In contrast, however, accountability is less of a feature of Irish schools, and the working conditions are more benign.

It is well documented in the literature that a teacher’s identity (i.e. his/her professional beliefs, values, and principles, and the professional self-image he/she holds) is closely linked with his/her past experiences of education. In my research I proposed that the cultural change for Irish teachers who move to England would be challenging for them and their professional identities given their previous experiences of school in Ireland. Here are some of the challenges that Irish teachers report facing in England:

Challenges for Irish Teachers in England

Profuse accountability

The Irish teachers I interviewed were overwhelmingly negative about their experiences in English schools. They contended that they did not exercise much autonomy, but endured too much accountability, including for aspects that they felt were beyond their control, such as the behaviour of students and the grades they obtained. A common way of holding teachers accountable was through what interviewees referred to as ‘learning walks’ where senior staff members enter their classrooms unannounced to observe their practice and to engage in dialogue with students. A second method was through inspections of their ‘marking’ or corrections of students’ written work.

 

Negative views

The participants reported working very long hours that went beyond early starts and late finishes and extended into weekends and school holidays. The feeling was that teachers’ work in England is dominated by administrative tasks that distract teachers from their teaching duties. The accountability and accountability-driven workload provoked various negative emotions and, notably, it was felt that school leaders in England were overly critical and unsupportive, which gives rise to fear and anxiety among teachers in English schools. As negative as the Irish teachers were towards the internal accountability regimes they faced, they were more critical of the external inspectorate which they recognised as being the source of their problems due to the pressure placed on schools in England. Irish teachers appear to have very strong views on the motivations of English schools, and they considered these schools to be more concerned with the needs of the organisation than the needs of the students.

 

Identity clash

Significantly, all participants experienced some form of identity clash or crisis.  The typical perception that English schools prioritise looking good over doing good, the discourses of what it means to be a ‘good’ teacher in England, and the feeling of being constantly watched produced many struggles. Some spoke of complying, but the adoption of coping strategies whereby teachers strategically give the impression of conformity was common. Worryingly, this means that students do not receive ample attention – to reduce their workload participants spoke of feigning peer-assessments, assigning oral tasks, and providing feedback on work they had not read. A quote from one participant, a female teacher who had recently left the teaching profession but remained living in England, always stands out for me and exemplifies how many teachers lose sight of their students’ needs due to their fight for survival. This participant acknowledged the students as not being ‘the main concern anymore’, and while resenting what she had become, she justified her behaviour through her vulnerable position in an accountability-driven system:

 

What I went into teaching for was to be with the kids. I wanted to help them, and at the end, I know this sounds horrendous but the kids actually became an inconvenience – they were getting in the way of everything else I needed to do… At the end of the day, I was being judged as well. So I was marking the kids’ work but my work was being marked by senior leadership so I was still a student.

 

Indicative of how Irish teachers experience and perceive professional autonomy and accountability in England is how, despite having a clear desire to eventually return to Ireland to teach, the participants would not be willing to work as teachers in Ireland under similar conditions. While there is a need for further research in this area, for now, it appears that Irish teachers have overwhelmingly negative experiences in, and perceptions of, life inside English schools. This is not to say that teachers from England do not struggle in these high-stakes and low-trust accountability-driven environments too – many do. Still, with their previous experiences in Irish schools, teachers from Ireland are perhaps more likely to find these conditions challenging and problematic.

Craig Skerritt

Craig Skerritt

Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection, Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland

Previously educated at University College Cork and University College London, Craig Skerritt is a researcher at the Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection in Dublin City University.

Craig is also the Dublin City University School of Policy and Practice Scholar, the Policy and International Programmes Manager at the Royal Irish Academy, and a member of both the British Educational Research Association and the Educational Studies Association of Ireland.

Craig’s research interests include education policy, teacher identity, student voice, and class-based inequalities in education, and he has published articles in journals such as Policy Futures in Education, Research Papers in Education, Irish Educational Studies, Improving Schools, Journal of Educational Administration and History, British Journal of Sociology of Education, International Journal of Leadership in Education, and European Educational Research Journal.

Twitter: @CraigSkerritt

References / Further Reading

Brady, J., & Wilson, E. (2020). Teacher wellbeing in England: teacher responses to school-level initiatives. Cambridge Journal of Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/0305764X.2020.1775789

Page, D. (2017). Conceptualising the surveillance of teachers. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38(7), 991-1006.

Perryman, J., & Calvert, G. (2020). What motivates people to teach, and why do they leave? Accountability, performativity and teacher retention. British Journal of Educational Studies, 68(1), 3-23.

Ryan, L., & Kurdi, E. (2014). Young, highly qualified migrants: The experiences and expectations of recently arrived Irish teachers in Britain. London: Social Policy Research Centre, Middlesex University.

Skerritt, C. (2019). Discourse and teacher identity in business-like education. Policy Futures in Education, 17(2), 153-171.

Skerritt, C. (2019). Irish migrant teachers’ experiences and perceptions of autonomy and accountability in the English education system. Research Papers in Education, 34(5), 569-596.

Skerritt, C. (2019). ‘I think Irish schools need to keep doing what they’re doing’: Irish teachers’ views on school autonomy after working in English academies. Improving Schools, 22(3), 267-287.

Skinner, B., Leavey, G., & Rothi, D. (2018). Managerialism and teacher professional identity: Impact on well-being among teachers in the UK. Educational Review. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2018.1556205