Whole Child Symposium

Equity: The Driver for School Improvement?

What will drive school improvement in the future? Some believe that it will be choice—ensuring that students have choice in what and how they learn; allowing teachers to have greater autonomy in the classroom; and, possibly, providing families expanded choice of schools.

For others the key driver may be ensuring equity. Proponents argue that the biggest barrier to effective education is equity of resources and opportunities. Pasi Sahlberg, currently a visiting professor at Harvard University and the former director general for the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation (CIMO) in Helsinki, has made the case that Finland's meteoric rise has been as a result of a focus on equity, and that this has been consistent across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) high performers (Korea, Canada, and Japan).

Source: "The Finnish Experience and the Whole Child," Pasi Sahlberg, 2013 Whole Child Virtual Conference.

This point was made again by Sahlberg and other speakers across the recent ASCD Whole Child Symposium, a series of three events discussing the future of education:

"In our national policy we should keep our eyes much less on international comparisons and rankings and try to reshape our policies so we are truly [developing and implementing] effective equity-based policies that will be serving and helpful for all of our children."

—Pasi Sahlberg

"There’s a kind of magical thinking that if we just optimize schools and make them better through any of the school reforms, [it will] overcome huge and growing income and opportunity disparities that exist in the surrounding society. It just doesn’t pass the common sense test."

—Paul Reville, Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and former Massachusetts Secretary of Education

"Yes, competition can be a motivator and can be healthy, but is there equity in that? Yes, networking and building resources—that's great, but is there a platform for that to happen equitably for everybody? Because if not, then we're going backwards where there will be some that get and some that do not ... Equity is the most important thing for us to be talking about."

—founding principal of Washington Montessori School, winner of the 2014 Vision in Action: ASCD Whole Child Award

The thinking is that if we increase equity we raise achievement levels for all children. If we work toward ensuring equity, we close the gaps between underserved and served communities, their schools, and their students; reduce conflicts; and increase social cohesion. Then in the long-term, as we have developed a school system that treats equity as paramount, we have additional funds to allocate toward curriculum and instruction as there is a less pronounced need to address the consequences of inequity. This scenario has fewer dropouts, less remedial education, more students graduating, and more eventual employment. It is a "prevention is better than cure" mentality.

So, how do we ensure equity? According to the OECD, it's a ten step plan (PDF).

Ten Steps to Equity in Education


  1. Limit early tracking and streaming and postpone academic selection.
  2. Manage school choice so as to contain the risks to equity.
  3. In upper secondary education, provide attractive alternatives, remove dead ends and prevent dropout.
  4. Offer second chances to gain from education.


  1. Identify and provide systematic help to those who fall behind at school and reduce year repetition.
  2. Strengthen the links between school and home to help disadvantaged parents help their children to learn.
  3. Respond to diversity and provide for the successful inclusion of migrants and minorities within mainstream education.


  1. Provide strong education for all, giving priority to early childhood provision and basic schooling.
  2. Direct resources to the students with the greatest needs.
  3. Set concrete targets for more equity, particularly related to low school attainment and dropouts.
Source: "Ten Steps to Equity in Education" (PDF), OECD Policy Brief, January 2008.

What do you think? Will choice or equity drive school improvement in the future?

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