How to Achieve Equity in Schools:
A Triage Model

Hello and welcome.

Do you feel the urgency to achieve equity in schools?

I hope so.

But, I want you to recognize that, if you are not careful, you might inadvertently dig the hole of inequity deeper.

Give me a few minutes to tell you a cautionary tale from history.

Equity Tool: Classroom Climate Formative Assessment

Equity vs Equity Video: Why is the difference between equity and equality controversial?

Cautionary Tale

It is about the “Nuisances Removal and Contagious Disease Prevention Act” in 1848. 

A policy addressing an urgent issue that was very well-intended and seemed successful for years but ultimately backfired with tragic results.

London in the mid-1800’s had been growing at an exponential rate for decades to become the most populated city in the world with over 2 million people. 

The place was packed with both humans and the animals they kept: horses to get around, cows, pigs, sheep, and goats for food, and the keeping of pets was just coming into fashion. 

Remember, all those 2 million people and all of their animals poop.

The most common places to dump the poop, when they didn’t just throw it in the street, was in cess pools that were dug into vacant lots nearby or in their basements.

The place was permeated by an unavoidable stench.

They called those bad smells, miasma.

Most people in the world in the 1800s believed that the miasma caused epidemic diseases, like cholera.

Ridicule and scorn met those who were bold enough to assert that the cause of cholera could be invisible particles in the water. 

An hypothesis that was later proven to be true.

In 1854 the worst outbreak of cholera ever in the world, before or since, occurred in London. 

Dr. John Snow was one of the ridiculed champions of the then unpopular idea that we now call germ theory.

After the outbreak started, Snow visited one neighborhood where it was raging and met the local clergyman named Henry Whitehead.

Whitehead believed in the miasma theory of disease, but agreed to help Snow in order to prove him wrong.

Together they collected enough clear and compelling evidence to prove to Whitehead, and many others, that the disease could not possibly have been spread through the air. 

The mass death in the Reverend Whitehead’s neighborhood was caused by something in the water, specifically from the Broad Street pump. 

Patient zero was an infant.

But the true origin of that outbreak was a soiled diaper.

It was thrown into a leaky basement cesspool that contaminated the water in the Broad Street well, which was, ironically, reputed to have the best water in the city.

Now, back in 1848, six years prior to that outbreak, the Water Board of London had felt the urgency to address the issue of the Great Stink that arose from all that poop and other wastes.

They passed the “Nuisances Removal and Contagious Disease Prevention Act,” legislation to rid the city of noxious materials that were fouling the air. 

The act authorized a large-scale project to get that waste out of sight and out of mind by sending it into the storm-water system, an underground system of pipes. 

They missed the cess pool where patient zero’s infected diaper ended up, probably because it was hidden away in a basement.

But, even if it had, that might have made things worse, not better.

Those storm-water pipes eventually dumped their contents into the river Thames, which lay at the heart of the city and provided the drinking water for two-thirds of the city’s residents.

Now, remember that the Water Board KNEW that it was the smells that caused cholera.

That Water Board felt the urgency of the issue and inadvertently created a worse problem by ensuring that germ-laden sewage would contaminate the drinking water for most of the city’s residents.

Also remember that for about six years they felt very good about how much of the stink they were eliminating.

Their removal of the nuisance smells was obviously successful, but they did not realize that their strategy for preventing disease made that problem worse.

Achieve Equity in Schools While Avoiding an Ignominous Mistake

My name is Don Berg. 

I want you to avoid the ignominious fate of solving one problem only to inadvertently make another more important problem worse.

Closing the achievement gap and the engagement gap are both important tasks that are somewhat related.

In the same way that the problems of the Great Stink and the cholera were also somewhat related. 

The achievement gap is a Great Stink of today. 

Disengagement is an epidemic, not only in schools but in workplaces, too, therefore it is the cholera in this analogy.

Will universal academic achievement solve all our educational problems?

Absolutely not.

Academic achievement is a cheap substitute for being educated. 

Education is about enabling students to mentally map their reality.

No achievement, award, grade, or test has ever been able to accurately indicate whether or not someone is educated. 

In a population there would be a correlation between achievement and education, but a causal relationship between academic achievement and being educated is unlikely. 

However, the scientific evidence suggests that a causal relationship DOES exist between engagement, governance, and education. 

The inequities in our school system are a result of confusing the ability to use a particular tool with a more general task that the tool enables the user to accomplish. 

Where academics is the tool and the more general task is governing your own and other people’s behavior in order to better map reality.

Imagine Ditch World Schools

To get a better handle on this, imagine that you live in Ditch World.

In Ditch World the main occupation is digging ditches.

There are lots of ditch diggers and even though they have needs that cannot be met through ditch digging, those tasks are not as highly valued.

The economy of Ditch World values digging with shovels the most, but digging can also be done with other tools like pick axes which are looked down upon by the shovelers.

Now let’s imagine the schools of Ditch World.

In their schools both popular opinions, and legislated requirements, make it clear that shoveling is the most important skill to have. 

They teach all their children to use shovels.

But they treat some students in ways that make them ashamed of being shovelers.

Some other students live out their lives in situations where a shovel is just not the right tool to use.

And still others are prevented from digging at all, despite being required to learn shoveling.

It is an inequitable system.

They can tell because they have achievement gaps.

Kids from disadvantaged groups do not learn shoveling as well as their advantaged counterparts.

Finally, one day it becomes clear that, despite popular opinion and legislated requirements, it is not the techniques of shoveling that their students needed to learn after all.

What their students needed to learn was the ability to assess whether or not a hole was needed and, based on the job that needed to be done, picking whatever tool was appropriate.

Can you imagine what it would be like to be the leader of a Ditch World school committed to shoveling after that discovery is revealed?

Most principals and superintendents today are leading schools committed to the tool of academics, but their students should have been learning the tasks of governance in order to more reliably attain an education.

Two Tools to Achieve Equity in Schools- Needs Defined

I want to give you two crucially important tools that you need in order to map out a clear path to achieving equity without making the existing INequities of schooling worse.

The first is a clear science-informed definition of equity and the second is what I call an Equity Triage Model.

You have probably heard lots of different definitions of equity. 

Most of them are probably reasonable on their face.

But, unless they address needs, and what counts as needs or not, then they may lead you down the garden path of making, or continuing to make, an ignominious mistake.

Inspired by a combination of the consensus definition of equity from the National Academies of Sciences in 2019 and the psychological foundation for all of my work, Self-Determination Theory, I propose a three-part definition that will enable you to avoid a major mistake.

Equity is, first, about achieving a parity among groups with regard to need satisfaction.

Equity is, second, about distributing resources fairly with regard to meeting needs.

And finally, equity is about removing barriers to need satisfaction.

You might have noticed that, in my definition of equity, “meeting needs” is central. 

That also means that without a clear and credible definition of needs then we will not be able to achieve the goal of equity.

Throughout my work I talk about Primary Needs, Secondary Needs, Particular Needs, and Derivative Needs. 

There are eight primary needs: air, water, food, shelter, sleep, relatedness, autonomy, and competence.

The first five probably seem obvious to you, while the final three have been verified by decades of empirical research.

Primary needs are the universal causes of well-being for us humans.

Secondary needs are universally nice to have, but do not cause well-being to diminish if they are not met.

Beneficence, or benevolence, is a need that was, a few years ago, proposed as a new primary need. 

More recent research showed that when people did not experience support for their beneficence need their well-being did not decrease.

That means that beneficence is nice to have, but not missed when it is not met, therefore it was downgraded to being a secondary need.

Particular needs are the things that affect your well-being but only because you occupy a specific situation. 

Those specifics may be either cultural or uniquely personal.

The movements to promote cultural competencies and personalization of learning are about meeting particular needs.

Derivative needs are the result of mixing and matching the various other kinds of needs.

Recent research on meaningfulness has shown that after you control for meeting the needs for relatedness, autonomy, competence, and beneficence the effects of meaningfulness on well-being is zero.

There is nothing left over that would suggest meaningfulness makes a unique or additional contribution to well-being, beyond what primary and secondary needs already provide.

Therefore, it is OK to talk about meaningfulness as a need, but satisfying it is actually just addressing some combination of the other needs from which it is derived.

One final insight that you should know about is that learning is deeper when needs are satisfied and shallower when they are not.

All of the educational inequities that raise our hackles are the result of shallower learning.

Based on this scientific understanding of needs we can predict that there will be easier and harder ways to go about addressing inequities.

It will be easier to overcome inequities if we address universal primary needs before we address particular needs based on cultural groups and/or the unique features of individuals.

If the need supports that are missing are universal, then those will probably be easier and less expensive to meet than needs that are unique.

That does not mean we give up on developing cultural competencies or personalized learning. 

But it does mean that we should have a triage process in which we evaluate the situation and address the most urgent issues before moving on to less urgent issues.

Two Tools to Achieve Equity in Schools- Triage Model

The term “triage” arose from the need to prioritize treatment of men wounded in battle. 

The front line medics saved the most lives by making difficult decisions about the order in which injured soldiers would get to see a doctor, based not on arbitrary characteristics like their rank, race, social status, etc., but on their medical condition.

You are not facing the same short term intensity of life-and-death consequences, but your decisions will, over the long haul, affect both students and teachers quality of life, and more importantly, their quality of learning. 

Based on the science of needs and how important well-being is to learning, here is an educational equity triage model that you can use to judge what matters most to your school situation.

First, support life and death physiological needs.
[onscreen: air, water, food, and shelter]

Second, support mental well-being needs.
[onscreen: sleep, relatedness, autonomy, competence, and beneficence]

Third, support learning needs.
[onscreen: specific cultural and individual challenges within your schooling situation]

A quick side note: Maslow’s hierarchy is wrong. 

This triage model is NOT a hierarchy. 

You can meet whatever needs you want in any order you want and you will have a positive effect.

What I am arguing here is that meeting the needs in this order will be easier and less expensive than in any other order.

And let’s be clear that you probably will not be able to pull off operating strictly in the order I propose because of the politics of your situation.

It would be foolish to think your path to equity would be a straight line. 

This triage model is a guidance system for creating ever more equity in your school, district, or network. 

The truth is that equity is not a destination, it is a direction.

And, it is a direction like East or West, not so much North or South.

There is no Equity Pole where you will arrive someday.

If you are not already familiar with the difference between equity and equality I suggest you check out my take on the misguided controversy around it.

Equity Triage is about enabling you to always be headed in the right direction, even if the terrain of politics forces you to navigate away from the most direct route now and then.

You can learn more at

Thanks for watching.

For an in-depth look at how the OECD recommendations for creating equity in schools, click here

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