Improving equity in education: a critical challenge

Improving equity in student outcomes remains a critical challenge for every country in the OECD.  Even those countries with the lowest levels of inequity must still be concerned with gaps in outcomes that are not related to students’ motivation and capacity, while in other countries the inequities are so large as to pose a fundamental challenge to ongoing security and prosperity.

The new report, Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools, provides a cogent analysis and many ideas for addressing these issues.  The report provides a blueprint for any country that wishes to make genuine progress in promoting equity while also improving quality.  These ideas are well grounded in the best available research evidence (though in some cases that evidence is not as strong as one would want, simply due to insufficient research on many important educational issues).

The larger issue is whether countries will have the will and skill to make these changes.  As outlined in my 2008 book, ‘How to Change 5000 Schools’, knowing what to do is important but not enough.  In many cases we already know what to do, but we do not do it.  As a simple example, consider physical exercise and good eating habits.  Everyone knows these are essential to health, yet many people simply do not do them.  How much more difficult to make changes in a large and complex institution like a school system!

There are two aspects to effective implementation of the right changes.  The first is whether the will exists to make the changes.  In many cases the beneficiaries of the status quo will be vocal in opposing anything that they think might diminish the relative advantage of their children.  Less streaming is one good example of this situation, often opposed by parents and teachers who benefit from a streamed system despite the strong evidence that this practice is, overall, a bad one.  There can be very difficult politics around making some of the changes that would actually benefit students.  These conflicts cannot be ignored; they must be faced directly.

Second, and just as important, is whether systems have the capacity to bring real change about.  As the report notes, real improvement requires real changes in classroom practice.  These do not occur through issuing policy statements, developing new curricula, or even through changes in accountability and testing.  Changing people’s daily behavior takes sustained and relentless attention to the way daily work is done.  This attention must extend over time and take into account everything the organization does.  Very few countries have this capacity.  Very few ministries of education have much capacity to lead and support school improvement.  Very few school leaders know how to do this work.

Countries that are serious about greater equity – and greater quality – will need to consider carefully how they can support real and lasting implementation of the necessary changes.  Luckily, the OECD does offer some examples, in its higher performing countries, of the kinds of organizational measures that are needed to achieve these important goals.  We know this can be done; the question is how many countries will make the required effort.

More information about OECD work on equity in education:
Executive Summary: Equity and Quality in Education – Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools

Photo: School wall mural painting by students, Ontario 

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