Equity is not a zero sum game

Accelerated learning and the ‘curb-cut effect’

By Paul Miller, US Country Lead, Whizz Education

Author Kat Holmes, an award-winning designer and technology executive, opens her bestseller Mismatch, a book about inclusive design, by observing ‘for better or worse, the people who design the touchpoints of society determine who can participate and who’s left out. Often unwittingly.’


This description is strikingly apt when applied to the design of primary and secondary education across the globe over the past century, from low to middle income countries to more advanced economies like the US and the UK.  

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, even as trajectories for overall education attainment were improving, disparities in education outcomes persisted for many students based on family income levels, race/ethnicity, gender, or disability status.  Many other students experienced exclusion due to the inability to access rigorous content in a language of instruction matching their home language.

Attempts to address these disparities often faltered as system leaders, curriculum publishers and other key stakeholders, relying on principles of ‘universal design’, focused on designing learning environments and/or curriculum that can be accessed and used in the widest possible array of situations without the need for adaptation- a one-size-fits all approach.

When students were then subsequently left behind, or excluded from meaningful learning opportunities, the challenges would be attributed to their status as part of a particular ‘subgroup’. Conversations about equity, framed in this manner, would thus focus on identifying interventions that can offset or mitigate these persistent barriers to access.   

From one-size-fits-all to one-size-fits-one

Inclusive design suggests that we should take a different approach and view the challenges faced by these students not as a product of their individual biographies, but rather as ‘mismatches’ between the students and the design of their learning experiences.  This emphasis on inclusion shifts the focus from the students themselves, to the educators, policymakers, and other key stakeholders who are designing the learning environment.  

Mismatched interactions, as Holmes notes, arise when we create solutions with only one way to participate. Inclusive design implies shifting the focus from one-size -fits-all to one-size-fits-one.  For educators the aim then becomes designing a multitude of ways to participate so that everyone has a sense of belonging.  

Equity is not zero-sum

Investments in inclusive design do not solely generate benefits for those who were previously excluded from participation. Done well, designing for inclusion generates benefits for everyone.  

As attorney and civil rights advocate Angela Glover Blackwell observed in her seminal paper The Curb-Cut Effect

There’s an ingrained societal suspicion that intentionally supporting one group hurts another. That equity is a zero sum game. In fact, when the nation targets support where it is needed most—when we create the circumstances that allow those who have been left behind to participate and contribute fully—everyone wins. 

Ms. Blackwell observed that when disability advocates pushed for curb cuts in the 1970s as part of a focused effort to help people with mobility impairments and disabilities access things that many took for granted, something remarkable happened: parents pushing strollers, business travelers carrying luggage, and workers pushing heavy carts all took advantage of the new affordances of these adjustments to the built environment. 

Nowadays these minor indentations in sidewalks are ubiquitous and considered a key design feature in a more equitable society.  As Ms. Blackwell observed regarding the often overlooked benefits of targeted equity investments- “cut the curb- and we create a path forward for everyone”. 

The implications for accelerated learning

This approach to equity has significant relevance for the redesign of primary and secondary education as we continue to emerge from a global pandemic. The past 18 months have seen widespread learning loss. Students already marginalised have, sadly and predictably, been affected most acutely.

As a result, school systems across the globe are investing in a variety of solutions to drive accelerated learning. Increasingly this takes the form of high-dosage virtual or in-person tutoring.  In one sense, individual or small group tutoring, by its definition, embodies the principles of one-size-fits-one. It targets students based on their individual needs and pace of learning. It is tailored to meet students at their point of need.  

Even within this context key questions can be asked about inclusive design. Are the services designed to be scalable and economically sustainable, or do the human costs make them dependent on one-time government outlays? Are they accessible to students in their home language? How well do they serve neurodivergent students or students with learning disabilities? How well do they serve students that are, as yet, unable to access vaccines?

Adopting a ‘curb-cut’ mentality it is easy to observe that integrating accelerated learning into the regular structure of instruction will have positive externalities on all students. A growing body of evidence suggests, for example, that increasing access to virtual tutoring is likely to benefit advanced students as much as students who were previously at risk-  creating a path forward for everyone.

Students that had previously attained proficiency according to grade-level standards, but who became disengaged over the course of the past year, can now be re-engaged. Students who are more advanced can use the opportunity to engage in self-directed learning refining key executive functioning skills like goal-setting and persistence.  

While the current focus on accelerated learning is directly linked to recovering from the pandemic, in the emerging future we will look around and accelerated learning will seem as ordinary, necessary, and quotidian as those few inches of cut concrete that allow us to push a shopping cart towards the car.   

If we seize this moment and commit to ensuring that students who have previously been excluded from opportunities for educational success have new and diverse ways to participate in accelerated learning, the benefits to all students, families, and communities will be vast.