Making education more equitable

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills 

Most of us think of education as the great leveller; but are our education systems really doing all they can to ensure that boys and girls from all backgrounds have an equal shot at a high-quality education? As this month’s PISA in Focus reports, some countries have been more successful than others in levelling the playing field for their students.

PISA results consistently show that socio-economic disadvantage is linked to poor student performance. On average, an advantaged student scores 88 points higher – the equivalent of more than two years of schooling – on the PISA reading test than a disadvantaged student. But results from the assessment also show that countries and economies vary in the degree to which performance is linked to socio-economic status. That fact demonstrates that the link can be weakened, usually by putting the right policies and practices in place.

Even more encouraging, education systems don’t have to choose between equity in opportunity and high performance. In the PISA 2009 survey, many of the countries and economies with the greatest equity are also top performers. Students in Canada, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong-China, Iceland, Korea, Liechtenstein and Norway score above the OECD average in reading while, at the same time, the difference in scores between advantaged and disadvantaged students is less than 70 points.

Many countries and economies have made notable progress in reducing the difference in performance between advantaged and disadvantaged students while simultaneously improving overall performance. For example, comparing results from the PISA 2000 and 2009 surveys reveals that, in Albania, Chile, Germany and Latvia the relationship between students’ socio-economic status and their reading performance weakened and students’ overall reading performance improved. In Germany, the performance gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students narrowed by more than 25 score points over the period while the average reading performance improved by 13 points. Canada, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong-China, Mexico and the United States also narrowed the performance gap between these two groups of students, but there was no concurrent improvement in overall performance between the two assessments.

Education policies than can foster improvements in equity and performance include giving more and better support to disadvantaged students who start school with deficits in their education; ensuring that all schools provide high-quality instruction; and offering additional educational opportunities to disadvantaged students, as their parents might not be able to provide them. Broader social policies that limit the differences in the life experiences between advantaged and disadvantaged students either at home – crucially, before students enter formal education – or in school can also promote both equity and high performance.

That some countries and economies have weakened the link between socio-economic status and performance in school proves that it is far from inevitable that students from disadvantaged families perform poorly in school. If disadvantage deprives a student of access to the educational opportunities advantaged students enjoy, then these opportunities should be provided by the school system. In other words, all students – regardless of their background – should have the same opportunities to succeed in school.


For more information on PISA:

PISA in Focus No. 25: Are countries moving towards more equitable education systems?

Photo credit:   Mark Herreid /

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