How we can truly achieve equitable education

How we can truly achieve equitable education

The COVID-19 pandemic not only brought about a major change to the entire world, it also exacerbates an already very present and problematic issue of social inequality.

Andreas Schleicher is a renowned educator, a director for education skills, special advisor on education policy to the secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and an initiator of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). He believes many dimensions are needed to be looked at in order to achieve equitable outcomes in education.

First, there should be equity in financial and human resources, which will ensure every student has access to fundamental requisites supporting their ability to learn.

“Equity is about minimizing the strings of the relationship between social backgrounds and outcomes, ensuring that we attract the most talented teachers to their most challenging classrooms, [ensuring] that every student has access to excellent teaching. And we need to look at the outcomes, the variability in student and school performance,” said Schleicher at  the International Conference on Equitable Education: All for Education, held during July 10-11, 2020.

He also emphasized that learning outcomes should be less associated with students and schools’ social backgrounds.

The PISA results in many countries, including Thailand, show a large proportion of students with substandard performance, both in literacy  and mathematics.

“Of course, there are students who are doing fine as well, but if you just focus on the lower part of the performance distribution, these are significant numbers of young people, even in the highest performing education systems,” Schleicher said. “You look to the four regions in China, or to Estonia, to Singapore, you can still see that there are young people falling through the cracks of the education system.”

What does this wide range of outcomes show?

Schleicher said leading all students to achieve the PISA level 2 – the most essential foundations – is a challenge for everyone. It would show that the students are efficiently trained to be literate, therefore they are skilled enough to learn from their further reading.

“Imagine that goal would be realized, we would be talking about the long-term economic benefit for a country like Thailand of over US$4 trillion, or four times the size of the current economy,” he said. “What this shows us is the high cost of low education performance. So, securing strong foundation skills for every young learner is the starting point for our discussion in equity and outcomes.”


Geography is one of the factors required for equality in educational outcomes. For example, Finland sees only a 5% variation between each school’s performances.

The country, including others that are proficient in aligning resources to their citizens’ needs, believes that “the closest school is always the best school.” This is to ensure parents that there is no need to worry much about which school they should send their children to.

Meanwhile, schools in Israel, Lebanon and the Netherlands show fairly high disparities in their school performances, which greatly affect education quality.

The challenge for Thailand, ranked somewhere in the middle for school quality, is how to make the nearest school become the best school. If that can be achieved, several problems in its education system would be gradually eliminated.

Social backgrounds

The next thing is to ensure that education quality is independent from students’ social backgrounds, such as income or home location.

The OECD’s study about learning outcomes by social backgrounds found that in many countries where there’s a wide gap between family backgrounds, there’s also a wide gap between learning outcomes of students from rich and poor families.

However, Schleicher said that even the poorest children can do very well in some countries. The 10% most disadvantaged students from four provinces of China, Singapore, Estonia and Hong Kong show outcomes that are as good as average students in many countries, sometimes even better than students from the richest families in some countries.

“This shows us that poverty need not be destined,” he said

Besides geography and social backgrounds, teachers are also equally important.

“If you ask yourself what is behind the success of those education systems, it’s often about career perspectives where teachers progress by addressing social disadvantages,” Schleicher said. “If you are a teacher in a high performing school in Shanghai, and you want to become a master teacher or a school principal, the education system will tell you it’s a great ambition.”

But before being able to reach that dream, Schleicher asked to first look back at how to systematically improve the low performance schools and classrooms.

“The system makes a deliberate effort to allocate great teaching to really difficult circumstances, and that can counterbalance [inequality],” he said.

Children from rich families possess a wide range of opportunities. Even if they fail in school, they would still have a chance to be successful in other aspects of their life. Children from poor families, on the other hand, possess a single opportunity in life – the opportunity to enter a good school with good teachers.

Everything is about good education, and good education can be achieved through an efficient allocation of resources, and a proper distribution of teachers to classrooms and schools where they can make differences.

That leads to the next important factor of equity – the variation in financial and human resources.

“Among countries that are not so wealthy… wealth is an important predictor for learning outcomes, but you can also see as countries are becoming wealthier, money and wealth are less important and less predictive for quality,” Schleicher said. “It then becomes more a matter of how do we actually invest our resources for education.”

The size of a class

Although it seems irrelevant, the size of a classroom is actually very important.

The US and China have similar student-teacher ratios and invest somewhat equally in their education systems. The difference is classes in the US are small, while in China they are very large.

“Intuitively we often say smaller classes are nicer for teachers, for students and so on, but there’s a price for this, and that price is that teachers in the United States don’t have much time for anything else other than teaching in the classroom. They have to run from one classroom to the next to do all the teaching hours, because the classes are small,” Schleicher said.

“China, teachers teach about half of the time that the American teachers teach, but they have a lot more time to work with individual students out of the classroom. They can look after disadvantaged students. They can contact the families. They can collaborate with other teachers. They can take part in research and inquiry.”

He further explained that although Chinese teachers teach in larger classrooms, they “have a much more intellectually, interesting job profile.” They have much more time to spare, not only for getting to know the subject they are teaching, but also understanding each student’s different process of learning.

Schleicher said knowing both their subjects and students well is an “important dimension of equity.” This is because education is not a simple transaction. Students are not consumers, and teachers are not just broadcasters. Education is a “relational experience.”

Thai classrooms are ranked in the middle, both for sizes and quality, but there are efforts to balance the resources. It is not just about the amount of money spent, but also about how to invest it and how to prioritize the resources needed.

“If you have to make a choice between a better teacher and a smaller class, go for a better teacher,” Schleicher said.

The volume of time

We often associate the better learning outcomes with longer hours, which is not always true.

Schleicher said students in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) spend nearly 60 hours of learning per week, while in Finland they spend only half of that time.

“But when you look at productivity, you can see that in Finland students learn a lot in very little time, whereas in the United Arab Emirates they spend a lot of time and learn very little,” he said. “So, once again, equity is not just about the volume of learning time. It’s how we utilize that learning time. Learning outcomes are always the product of the quantity and the quality of learning experiences.”

The same goes for Thailand. The challenge is not to increase the hours, but to manage the time to develop the quality of students’ learning experiences, for underprivileged students to have an opportunity to access better curriculum and teachers.

“The idea of an equitable education system is to ensure that the neediest students have access to the best kind of resources,” he said. “But you can see very clearly, only a very few countries have mastered this. There are only very few countries where actually the most talented teachers teach the most difficult students, and where the best education material is available to the students in greatest needs.”

‘Growth mindset’ trumps money

Money is not the ultimate answer to the quality of education. What’s more important is a receptive attitude toward learning, or the “growth mindset” in students.

Estonia, an OECD member ranked No.1 in the PISA test, believes educational success doesn’t happen just because of social backgrounds, or intelligence, or physical appearances. They believe it comes from efforts.

“When we asked students, ‘What do you believe makes you successful in mathematics?’ Nine out of 10 students in Estonia say it’s about hard work. If I invest my time and the effort, [if] my teacher is going to help me, I’m going to be successful,” Schleicher said.

When asking the same question to Indonesian students, he said most replied that they were not that talented in mathematics and better off studying something else. Similar answers were also given by Thai students.

“If we want to improve equity in education, quality in education, we not only need to change the environment, but we very much need to also change the mindset that success is something that is earned, that is actually part of our own investment in the learning environment,” he said. “That’s something that has to do with the instructional core, with the climate, the dispositions that we create in our education system. That growth mindset is not just about academic learning.”

Schleicher said students with a stronger growth mindset will have ambitious learning goals, and they can see the value in education.

“They were more likely to be motivated to master difficult tasks. They had a greater sense of self-efficacy. They were less afraid of failure, and that is important in the 21st century,” he said. “Success in education needs to be about being able to be creative, to take risks, to innovate, and that means we have to accept that sometimes we will not succeed. If we do not accept failure, then it’s going to be hard to be creative.”

These factors are basic, but very important prerequisites that will ensure all students benefit from high quality education. Equity in education will create and encourage more learning opportunities, which is one of the most fundamental challenges of education.

“International comparisons show us that it’s an achievable goal, if we align resources with needs,” Schleicher concluded.


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