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Equity and Quality in Education

Support key policies that lead to better schools and better student achievement. (urbancow/iStockPhoto)

Support key policies that lead to better schools and better student achievement. (urbancow/iStockPhoto)

The highest performing education systems are those that combine quality with equity. Equity in education means that personal or social circumstances such as gender, ethnic origin or family background, are not obstacles to achieving educational potential (definition of fairness) and that all individuals reach at least a basic minimum level of skills (definition of inclusion). In these education systems, the vast majority of students have the opportunity to attain high-level skills, regardless of their own personal and socio-economic circumstances. Within the Asia-Pacific region, for example, Korea, Shanghai-China, and Japan are examples of Asian education systems that have climbed the ladder to the top in both quality and equity indicators. In North America, Canada is among such countries as well. The United States is above the OECD mean in reading performance but below the mean with regard to equity.

One of the most efficient educational strategies for governments is to invest early and all the way up to upper secondary. Governments can prevent school failure and reduce dropout using two parallel approaches: eliminating education policies and practices that hinder equity; and targeting low performing disadvantaged schools. But education policies need to be aligned with other government policies, such as housing or welfare, to ensure student success.

Eliminate Policies and Practices that Contribute to Failure

The way education systems are designed can exacerbate initial inequities and have a negative impact on student motivation and engagement, eventually leading to dropout. Making education systems more equitable benefits disadvantaged students without hindering other students’ progress. Five recommendations can contribute to prevent failure and promote completion of upper secondary education:

  1. Eliminate grade repetition.
  2. Avoid early tracking and defer student selection to upper secondary.
  3. Manage school choice to avoid segregation and increased inequities.
  4. Make funding strategies responsive to students’ and schools’ needs.
  5. Design equivalent upper secondary education pathways to ensure completion.

Help Disadvantaged Students and Schools Improve

Schools with higher proportions of disadvantaged students are at greater risk of low performance, affecting education systems as a whole. Low performing disadvantaged schools often lack the internal capacity or support to improve, as school leaders and teachers and the environments of schools, classrooms, and neighborhoods frequently fail to offer a high-quality learning experience for the most disadvantaged. Five policy recommendations have shown to be effective in supporting the improvement of low performing disadvantaged schools:

  1. Strengthen and support school leadership.
  2. Stimulate a supportive school climate and environment for learning.
  3. Attract, support and retain high quality teachers.
  4. Ensure effective classroom learning strategies.
  5. Prioritize linking schools with parents and communities.


This article was adapted from the report, Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools. The report is by the OECD Education Directorate with support from the Asia Society as a background report for the first Asia Society Global Cities Network Symposium, Hong Kong, May 10-12, 2012. Asia Society is grateful for OECD’s leadership in international benchmarking and for our ongoing partnership.