“Be the change you want to see in the world.” –Mohandas Gandhi
The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence states that “All men are created equal,” the 14th Amendment (1868) affirms equal protection for all citizens, the Americans With Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, and though Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, we are still fighting to ratify it.
So what does equality mean in the United States? This perplexing question is complicated by the fact that we don’t always see people treated equally. If we want to teach our children to treat people equally and to expect to be treated equally, we need to demonstrate examples of fairness and equality.
We are in the #MeToo time where discrimination based on gender has been brought into the forefront and our role models are becoming more comfortable exploring new gender norms. By telling their truth we have begun to make small changes, such as gender-neutral bathrooms and what seems obvious and so simple is just beginning to take hold.
Our children look at the world with eyes that reflect our values, so what are the values we are instilling in our children? With our young students, in large part due to the passage of Title IX, we do not separate children by gender. No more boys’ line and girls’ line. No more teams based on gender. Teachers must be aware of how they call on students to answer questions, giving equal opportunity to all.
It is a change from the era in which some of us grew up, with girls fitting nicely into their stereotyped roles and boys being considered “good in math and science.” Now, the conversations heard on the kindergarten playground are, “It’s okay if boys marry boys” and “girls marry girls.” Our students see this in their lives, in their community, on TV and in movies. Of course, we live in the Topanga bubble where uniqueness is accepted and valued.
“You’ve got to be taught, to hate and fear…”
—From the musical, “South Pacific”
by Matthew Morrison and Oscar Hammerstein II
Daily reports of discrimination based on race—prisons filled with persons of color, communities facing harassment, and schools in minority neighborhoods fighting for a fair share of funding and opportunities—implore us to face the uncomfortable fact that 155 years after the 13th Amendment was passed by the House of Representatives, all people are not free in the same way. We watch people of color being discriminated against and not allowed the same opportunities. How can we teach our children tolerance and empathy, respect for all people regardless of their looks, the color of their skin?
Fortunately, for those of us who teach very young children, we find that they are accepting and judge each other based on commonalities that run deeper than skin color, such as loving the same superheroes, enjoying drawing together, having play dates, being in the same Scout group, and being kind. We can look to children to give us examples of acceptance and kindness, for as long as we don’t teach them to judge and dislike people, they naturally want to be friends with everyone.
In our efforts to promote inclusivity and to recognize that people’s differences do not define them, but can enhance our ability to practice acceptance and tolerance, we acknowledge that people have equal rights that are not dependent on their intellectual or physical abilities. People have constitutional rights and they do not have precursors based on one’s abilities.
In schools we have laws such as Title IX, that states “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” This law changed the way we educate students and allowed girls a path to participate in sports previously not available to them. It expanded opportunities for girls through educational programs.
The classroom has changed too. Students have more opportunities to participate in general education classrooms where instruction is differentiated for students to meet their individual needs: from students who need more support due to lack of experience or learning disabilities to those who are gifted and are ready to progress more quickly.
All students are entitled to an equal, yet custom education. Special education students, after being assessed, have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and parents are informed of educational options for their child; gifted students are identified with a reasoning assessment and then academic and enrichment programs are provided. Programs vary by school, and at the middle school level often involve grouping students.
Equality is “the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities.” We can give our children experiences that promote fairness and give them opportunities to become friends with many different kinds of children. In this way, we can normalize equality. We are at an equality tipping point, and our children are our paths forwards.