Equal is Better: What’s Missing From the Debate On Education Reform

I wanted to follow up on what I wrote last week about the American Mathematical Society article, “Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance.” As you’ll recall, the data suggested that gender disparities in mathematics performance are entirely attributable to social factors, and not indicative of a fundamental biological difference between the sexes. However, that’s not all the study told us. A close look at the very last graph of that paper suggests something very interesting:

The horizontal scale plots the performance of different countries on the gender equity index, where 100% suggests perfect equity between males and females. The vertical scale plots two values, the solid dots represent the percentage of students scoring over 400 (a low pass) and the open dots the percentage of students scoring over 550 (a higher achievement). What’s interesting is that as gender equity improves, the overall achievement of students (i.e., both genders) improves.

And this is true both at the high and low ends of academic achievement. To translate this into letter grades for illustration purposes, this graph is telling us that in countries with better equity, more students at the lower end of achievement are achieving Cs and Ds rather than Fs. At the higher end, a greater percentage of students is achieving As rather than Bs. This graph was first brought to my attention by physicist Ethan Siegel’s analysis of the report.

Of course we always have to be wary about jumping to the conclusion that A causes B when we see a relationship like this. But I’ve heard this story before. Consider the recent US visit by Finnish education guru, Pasi Sahlberg. Finland has been doing something right, or several somethings, for some time. And it seems like US reform measures — be they “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top” or the current American charter schools fetish — miss the point.

Finland didn’t get to where it is now by pitting schools, districts or even different educational models against each other. Its focus from the start was eliminating social inequity. In Finland it doesn’t matter where you live or how much money your family has. Sahlberg tells us that every child will receive an equal education. And international rankings like the PISA tell us that this education is premier in the world.

They achieve this through cooperation rather than competition. While in the US, rich parents send their kids to the most prestigious private schools and poor parents desperately enter charter school lotteries, Finland works hard to ensure that the specific school a child goes to is irrelevant to a child’s future success. The country has maintained its high international standing even as immigration has drastically increased, suggesting this approach to education works for everyone, no matter what social, ethnic or economic group they are coming from.

Could it be a coincidence that closing the socioeconomic gap has also improved educational achievement for all students? In the United States, greater and greater social stratification has gone hand-in-hand with reports of failing schools. As Occupy Wall Street dominates headlines, simultaneously we are seeing the biggest  (but most directionless) shake-up in US education reform in decades.

What does the correlation mean? Does improved equity (whether it’s gender equity or socioeconomic equity) automatically improve schools? Perhaps the privileged group is less likely to coast when they aren’t given every advantage and told they’re the “elites.”

Or does improved school instruction automatically improve equity? Perhaps the students with the most disadvantages have more to gain by better educational opportunities.

I submit that it doesn’t matter. What we can take away is that making schools better and making schools equitable go hand in hand. Since both things are desirable (to most of us, I hope), we have really good news. It’s possible to have better educational opportunity for everyone. Surely we can all get behind that. Is it finally time to reconsider the sink-or-swim, laissez-faire economics approach some politicians are promoting?

Read more:

Girls Can Do Math Just Fine, Thanks

Four Reasons Finland’s Schools Are Better Than Ours

Bloomberg Targets Teachers’ Unions in State of the City Speech

Photo credit: woodleywonderworks


Sue H.
Sue H7 months ago

Thanks for re posting this 2012 article. Is C2 trying to show us that we used to have something meaningful to say ?

Pat Mencke
Pat Mencke5 years ago

There are good ideas here about education but the there are ideas missing from this discussion. Education is just for the purpose of helping the society produce lots of products and money.

Good education would also instill in students a love for learning for the joy of it. That is the way to produce people who do not burn out of jobs but seek new horizons for themselves. On a personal basis, it is the basis for a broad understanding of the world and for enormous personal enrichment. We need teachers who themselves have realized these ideas and who are good at teaching them to students. I personally believe that people who understand their world and love to learn new things about it, are more able to be good citizens opting for positive attitudes and compassion for fellows.

I've just opened a petition to remove gender bias from any and all forms where demographic info is requested. True neutrality can't be achieved as long as the old knee jerk attitudes are allowed to continue. And now with the War on Women we need to pull together to keep our children from having to fight this yet again.

Chad A.
Chad A5 years ago

As an educator for a little while now and someone who has always been involved in educational issues, these results seem intuitive and non-controversial. There certainly is a logic for loading students with homework, for dividing people and treating them differently, for using authoritarian methods in the classroom, for forcing competition in education, but this logic is simply not born out by results.

The emphasis of your educational system will determine what it is good at, as well as its failings. It is impossible to speak of a "system" in the US because there are so many different ones in the US. In South Korea there is intensive pressure forcing people to spend their entire high school period focusing on a sigle high-stakes test. This is accepted, but there are many complaints about the system from students, parents, teachers, and employers. Students become good at memorizing incredible amounts of information, learning discipline, but not necessarily at learning useful job skills. Employers have responded by demanding a bewildering number of skill certification tests so that many university students now have a parallel track where they use all of their vacation and free time collecting special licenses and certifications so that they will be prepared to compete for a job when they graduate.

Hubert K.
Hubert K.5 years ago

@Tony C. I'll be tolerant and won't rant about your opinion, but I personally believe that it is the worst possible thing that one could do. Children graduating from american high schools are considered half retarded in some countries, when it comes to subjects like math, geography, biology etc. Children should be FORCED to learn, they should increase their workload in those subject and take away calculators. The brain is a muscle, the more you use it the easier it'll be to learn and think creatively. If you give them enough work, and the sanctions will be sufficient for them not to ignore them, then the children will thrive, and our future generations will be better prepared to lead the world.

Tony C.
Tony C5 years ago

A class in RESPECT AND RESPONSIBILITY should be taught from Grade one to graduation, children should be taught that anything is permissible as long as it does not hurt themselves or anybody else. Common sense would dictate that if children are taught at a very early age that every child has their own strengths and weaknesses and that they should use their strengths to help not tease or bully others.
Later on Sex Education should be taught from Contraceptives, Masturbation,LGBT and all forms of sex. Let us face it whether we like it or not children are curious and are having sex earlier and earlier. They should be taught the joys and the consequences of having sex ( Pregnancy,STD, AIDS ) But you say when will this be taught. Cut out Geography or History early on then put it back in and remove Geometry and Algebra. They can learn this in college if need be. I believe this is a solution. Nipping it in the Bud so that Bullying, Sexual Assault, and many others will be greatly diminished if not eradicated. It is my belief that when children graduate with these principals where they are taught RESPECT for themselves and others and to take RESPONSIBILITY for their actions. Within a few generations this world would be a much better place to live in.

Linda T.
Linda T5 years ago

Nothing beats a good ole common sense approuch to education as the finnish schools are proving. Quality teachers in every school is the answer.

Isabel Ramirez
Isabel Ramirez5 years ago

Go Finland!:) We should do the same!

Dr Clue
Dr Clue5 years ago

It would almost seem intentional that the products of our educational system have just enough education to operate the machines of production and to fill out the forms of obligation and not much more.

A mechanized assembly line where those with brilliant minds grow bored and those not suited for the pace fall behind thus loosing product at both ends.

I've grown over time to believe that our educational system should be more cellular , allowing students to progress at individual rates and within some guidelines pursue those topics of interest to them.

Those with an interest in the sciences should have that interest leveraged and be given more science. Those interested in trades should be given more study in that area.

Education should also be available to anyone who wants it at any point in their life, as it is has been documented that the more education you have the more earning potential you have and the more value you have in driving the economy, while at the same time having an overall reduced need for government services.

Dave C.
David C5 years ago

thank you, very interesting and sensical!

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W5 years ago

Well said, Sofia.