5 principles to guide measuring of equity in learning

Unequal levels of learning pose a threat to the world’s global education goals. So what are the key approaches that we can take to measure if children have the chance of a level playing field in education?

June 18, 2018 by Rachel Outhred, Itad, Rachita Daga, IFC, and Stuart Cameron, GPE Secretariat
11 minutes read
Students line up in the courtyard at the Model Government Primary School in Khulna, Bangladesh. Credit: GPE/Daisuke Kanazawa
Students line up in the courtyard at the Model Government Primary School in Khulna, Bangladesh.
Credit: GPE/Daisuke Kanazawa

Only a few of us may not have heard the clarion cries for equity or equality in education, with politicians and others calling for ‘equitable education’ or ‘equality of opportunity’ or ‘equal outcomes’, with such terminology often used interchangeably.  

In the Handbook on Measuring Equity in Education published by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), we took a step back to look more in depth at equity and set out a conceptual framework for its measurement.

Defining the differences between equity and equality

Equity and equality are contested terms, meaning very different things to different people, and the way you see them depends on your own starting point. Are you focusing for example, on education financing, differences in access to schools, or how much – and how well – children learn?

Some researchers define inequality of educational opportunities as the extent to which things you can’t control (sex, poverty, being born in a rural area, etc), as opposed to the things you can control (effort), affect how much you learn or which grade you reach in school.

Inequality due to factors beyond one’s control are defined as unfair and priorities for policy change. But this way of framing the issue involves a dubious moral distinction. Are young children to be held responsible for the extent of their hard work when assessing whether an education system is fair or not?

The language of equal opportunities is problematic when applied to children, especially when effort and the ability to take advantage of opportunities depend on other circumstances, such as the need to work in the household or differences in school quality.

An equitable approach recognizes that some people, because of an accident of birth or circumstance, need more help than others to achieve their goals in life.

Equitable approaches aim to address or compensate for the obstacles that would otherwise hold disadvantaged children back, so they can attain the same levels of learning enjoyed by other children who are more fortunate.

The moral and political reasons to measure equity

We posed two key questions in the Handbook: why does equity in learning matter so much? And how do we measure it? It matters, firstly, for moral and political reasons: equity by definition is about whether the distribution of education is fair, just and impartial.

It may also matter for instrumental reasons. Policy and programs to improve learning outcomes for all will often require resources to be targeted towards those who are worst off, and the most unfair systems are often those that produce the worst average outcomes.

Unequal levels of learning pose a threat to the world’s global education goals, specifically SDG 4, target 1, which calls for good learning outcomes by 2030.

While total equality in learning outcomes for every individual may not be feasible – each child has different abilities – equity in learning gives each child the chance of a level playing field in education.

And this is where the second question comes in: what approaches can we take to measure whether that playing field is truly level?

There is a long history of political, philosophical and ethical debate on this very issue. Equity itself is a political concept and because different political visions will shape its measurement, it cannot be divorced from the prevailing political climate around fairness and justice. We can, however, work with the grain of political realities. So we focused on five principles that already have some degree of traction and recognition: meritocracy, minimum standards, impartiality, equality of condition and redistribution. We explored how each of these relates to concepts such as equality of opportunity in the philosophical debate and their implications for measuring equity in learning.

Five principles to guide measurement

In a meritocracy, educational opportunities are distributed on the basis of merit. The children judged most able, on the basis of high-stakes exams, have the best chances of making their way smoothly through the education system. But the measurement of merit is often contested, as exam scores are not always the best guide to a student’s real abilities – or their circumstances. However, meritocratic principles can co-exist alongside egalitarian principles in an education system. Here, universal access to primary education may be driven by an egalitarian desire for a more inclusive society, and opportunities at higher levels of education may be driven by a desire to build up a cadre of experts. It is possible to measure whether a supposedly meritocratic system is truly meritocratic, or if a selective system merely serves to recreate social inequalities.

A minimum standards approach sees education through a binary lens: a child is either enrolled in school or not, and literate or not. This is the approach of earlier development goals. Such an approach insists that such criteria should be fulfilled for every child. Here, measuring the proportion of children who meet the minimum standards, i.e. being in school and being literate, could be taken as a basic equity measure. Equity is achieved when all the children are equal in the sense that they have met the minimum standard.

Minimum standards, however, are not enough in the era of the SDGs, with their tighter focus on equity. Which brings us to impartiality. Goal-setting in the SDGs compares groups such as boys and girls, rural and urban areas, and rich and poor, with the explicit aim that group differences in educational outcomes should be reduced and eventually eliminated. (At the risk of adding to the already large jargon heap, we suggest ‘impartiality’ is a better name for this type of equity than the loaded and problematic ‘equality of opportunity’).

Impartiality approaches can be used to check that minimum standards are being met equally across different groups, to trace differences in learning outcomes across groups, and to ensure that an outwardly meritocratic system is not being used to justify an unfair distribution of opportunities. Above all, impartiality measures point us to the most disadvantaged groups, who can then be targeted by policy.

While impartiality considers how educational variables relate to a child’s circumstances, an equality of condition approach looks at the distribution of the variable across children, regardless of their circumstances. For example, we can look at the number of years of education and chart a curve, starting with those who have the least education and ending with those who have the most. The flatter the line, the greater the equality of condition. Such measures require only one variable and provide equity indicators that are comparable over time and between countries. 

If the aim is impartiality or equality of condition in educational outcomes, governments may move towards redistribution of educational inputs. This means sharing inputs unequally to compensate for existing disadvantage. Here, the measurement of equity could be the extent to which public education expenditure compensates for regional poverty rates, for example. There is debate on which characteristics merit differential treatment in a redistributive approach. But even at a basic level – education spending – the measurement of redistribution tells us whether the poorest receive their fair share of government spending on education.

Our aim in the Handbook was to set out a theoretical overview of the concepts of equity, and how these could be applied to the measurement of equity in learning. The good news is that some of these concepts – particularly impartiality and equality of condition – are being put to practical use, as outlined in a recent blog by Carina Omoeva, Wael Moussa and Rachel Hatch of FHI 360.

In this series, read also:

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