Feb. 14-15: Online Days
Feb. 18-22: On-site Days in Washington DC

Can We Achieve Equitable Learning Beyond Hierarchical Measurement? Challenges in the Era of Lifelong Learning

Shoko Yamada

Nagoya University

Introduction: The Discourse on Educational Equity and the Global Market Mechanism of Schooling

The concept of equity has become increasingly important to educationists in recent years. But can equity be achieved simply by reducing the disparities among nations and social groups in their access to school education, its quality, and their students’ relative success in passing diploma exams? Since the UN passed its Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the assumption that the right to education is achieved through school attendance has gained traction worldwide. This seemingly commonsense equation between schooling and education has been accepted without much question by both policymakers and individual parents, teachers, and students. Accordingly, to ensure that the right to education was distributed “equitably,” the school system has prevailed in every corner of the world, including remote villages and urban slums in developing countries. Since the 1990s in particular, under the banner of Education For All (EFA), international development partners have concentrated their financial and technical assistance on countries with lower educational indicators to improve their access to and quality of basic (primary and lower secondary) education. As a result, as of 2018, the global net school enrollment rate, including developing countries, had reached 89% in primary education and 66% in secondary education (World Bank 2022).

Such interventions to increase access to schooling are well-intended, and in fact, evidence from various sources demonstrates the positive effect of a few years of schooling, compared with illiteracy, for social and economic development (Hahn and Truman 2015; Teles and de Andrade 2004). Despite the positive outcomes they report, however, these studies fall into the trap of equating schooling with literacy, numeracy, and other essential life skills, including an understanding of health, sanitation, and child-rearing. It is not merely the number of years spent in school but also the knowledge learned during this period that helps improve people’s lives and contributes to alleviating poverty.

If the purpose of education is solely to acquire knowledge, learning can occur outside the institutionalized school system, and the granting of any formal diploma becomes a minor issue, if not entirely unnecessary. However, in reality, young people and their families aspire to stay longer in school and, hopefully, in a prestigious one. Dubbed the “diploma disease” decades ago (Dore 1997), this die-hard phenomenon has been observed in almost all societies: even today, the desire and competition for schooling are strong, particularly in societies where education systems were introduced later and therefore the opportunities are still limited.

In response to such phenomena, two contrasting views have arisen on the global expansion of the modern school system. The first considers this expansion a sign that most people have equal learning opportunities. The other contends that it instills in the minds of educated individuals a thirst for even further chances. According to the latter view, school certificates are tokens to be exchanged for income or social status, and education is desired only as a commodity, not for the value of the knowledge gained. Not only students and their parents want higher “exchange value” of schooling;[1] the governments of developing countries invest significantly in school-based education in the hopes that increasing the population’s average number of years in school will raise the value of human capital and boost their economies.

Economists and educationists disagree in their conceptions of the social function of schooling. If we admit, as economists propose, that learners and their families desire schooling only for the certificate it bestows, that means they internalize the framework of commercial valuation, believing in the global economic system of school education. In the competitive market that results from such an attitude, people with better certificates are evaluated more favorably and gain better chances of success. Because of these prospects, individual consumer-learners demand more and better opportunities for schooling. Meanwhile, educationists argue that the role of the school is not only to grant certificates. In addition to imparting knowledge from its curricula, it also helps students develop their individual personalities and fosters a sense of unity among youths who are exposed to common social norms. In fact, scholars agree that secondary and higher education were key in the development of postcolonial leaders, who shared a vision of nation building and social advancement (Foster 1966; Yamada 2018).

However, it is not the purpose of this paper to discuss the school’s role in creating culture and values. Instead, let us return to the issue of equity, which many educationists consider a building block of educational rights. Figure 1 depicts the view of equity often found in the reports of international organizations and other development partners. The illustration conveys the powerful message that equity does not mean providing the same service (in this case, the box to climb) to everyone regardless of need, but instead ensuring the same results (being able to see the baseball game at the same eye level). Ensuring equity is a more demanding task than achieving equality because one cannot easily predict the outcomes of an intervention, and there is no common formula to estimate the equitable outcomes of educational interventions. More importantly, the assumption that everyone wants the same thing may be a bit simplistic. If everybody is eager to watch the baseball game, it is because they have all internalized the shared belief that what goes on behind the wall is universally interesting. Anyone should be free, for example, to play soccer or to leave sports behind entirely, but the concept of equity assumes that everyone, without exception, wishes to watch the baseball game in the stadium behind the fence.

Figure 1: The difference between equity and equality. Source: Interaction Institute for Social Change 2016 (copyright free)

The spread of schooling has thus globalized the assumption that all societies desire the same outcomes for their school-age populations. Behind such a belief lurks the modernist fantasy that all societies are striving for modernization, which they will all eventually achieve. This view perceives differences among societies not as distinct characteristics but as indicators of their relative distance from a common goal. Through the modern project of school expansion, educationists and proponents of a rights-based approach, albeit unintentionally, have contributed to the development of the global school certificate market, propelled by the thirst of customer-learners.

1. The World Culture of Schooling and Hierarchical Measurement

One of the major scholarly domains among comparative educationists describes the mechanisms by which certain forms and models of education spread across different societies. One group of scholars examines policymakers’ practice of copying educational ideas from elsewhere and adapting them to their own systems, describing it as policy borrowing (Phillips and Ochs 2003; Auld and Morris 2014). In order to explain the diffusion of some policy ideas to multiple societies simultaneously, world culturalists have pointed to the shared assumption that a certain type of school model is a precondition for national development, an assumption that in itself constitutes a “world culture” (Benavot et al. 1991; Meyer and Ramirez 2000).

Many scholars have highlighted the role of international tests in triggering such policy convergences. For example, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (Baker and LeTendre 2005) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (Waldow and Steiner-Kyamsi 2019) both involve students from member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). International tests are the main tool for evaluating the efficacy of the education systems in different countries under a common framework. Students of the same age or in the same grade in primary or secondary schools participate, and their test scores (learning outcomes) are ranked by country. Despite scholars’ warnings and criticism, the media of participating countries report PISA rankings sensationally, influencing the discourse of not only the public but also policymakers. For example, Finland, consistently a top ranker on the PISA, welcomes so many study tours to learn from its education system that educational tourism has become an important industry. In addition, many countries have revised their school curricula to encourage the type of problem-solving competencies that the PISA measures. The standardized measurement of learning outcomes has a boomerang effect, with the result that the national curriculum, pedagogy, and education system as a whole are similarly standardized. In this way, countries’ education systems continue to converge, as their methods of evaluation become increasingly homogenized.

Global agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals, the Millennium Development Goals, and EFA also play a part in setting common targets to be pursued by all countries, regardless of the diversity of national contexts. Multilateralists study the processes by which organizations with different motives and characteristics interact with each other and formulate the shared norms and agendas of international educational development (Chabbott 2003; Mundy 2010). This “global governance” of education, as they would call it, formally and informally defines goals and targets, and articulates the indicators by which progress toward achieving them can be monitored. Particularly after the rise of data science—which was influential in the discourse on the SDGs and international education as well—in the 2010s, quantitative evidence based on big data analysis has been preferred, spurring on the standardized measurement of various indicators in education, from inputs and quality to outcomes (Yamada 2016).

In this highly standardized “world culture” of education, the promotion of equity can easily become mere lip service from the human-rights faction of policymakers and educationists. The convergence of educational models and the reliance on large-scale quantitative measurement place individuals and countries on a common comparative axis, according to which they are ranked. We compare because there are differences. These rankings display countries’ relative positions in an irresistible format and spur lower-ranking nations to reach higher. However, evaluation along a relative axis of school attendance and curricular attainment never treats everyone equitably. Both the higher and lower performers in this ranking system perpetuate the structure, while the latter cannot escape disappointment and covet the greater opportunities higher-ranking nations possess.

2. The Diversity of “21st-Century Competencies” and Equity

While schooling has become increasingly homogenized and globalized, the knowledge that graduates need in life and work varies depending on their situations. Our knowledge-based economy shortens the life cycle of the knowledge required in economic activities, and without the ability to constantly update their knowledge, people find it difficult to keep their jobs and adapt to societal changes. Today, the media often report an urgent need for adult workers to upskill in order to keep up with industries’ demands, and various educational service providers advertise programs for adult learners in skills for improved performance at work, such as computer programming, foreign languages, and management. Some of these programs are offered by traditional educational institutions like universities and lead to degrees and diplomas, but most are for people pursuing the use value of knowledge for specific applications. Learning has become a lifelong process, which means that a significant portion of it occurs after leaving school, regardless of the length of time spent in the education system. Moreover, learners can select the content and modes of learning according to their interests, needs in work, and circumstances.

Recent academic discourse identifies the ability to respond to an employer’s or society’s demands, such as to perform an activity or solve a problem, as a key competency of living in the 21st century (OECD 2005; UNESCO 2013). This competency involves different types of mental skills, including cognitive, metacognitive, and noncognitive skills (Anderson and Krathwohl 2000).[2] SDG4’s targets relating to individual learners’ skills reflect this trend to highlight the competencies of learners as an aim of education. For example, target 4 focuses on job-related skills of youths and adults, target 6 on literacy and numeracy, and target 7 on various noncognitive and behavioral skills necessary for living a sustainable life in a democratic society. This is a fundamental change from earlier educational goals, including those of EFA, which mostly focused on providing better education services to more students but paid little attention to the competencies these students gained.

It is good news that SDG4 recognizes the importance of competencies, as it suggests that key actors in global education governance have shifted their focus from the material taught in school and the management of the school system to the learners and what they learn. However, it is highly concerning that a primary indicator of learning outcomes is still standardized written test scores, such as the national certification exams conducted at the end of primary or secondary education, or international tests like PISA. Even though the necessity of adaptive, lifelong learning and the multidimensional and context-dependent nature of competencies have been recognized, learning outcomes are still measured by school students’ test scores. As someone who has worked in this field for some time, I understand the difficulty of collecting data on the learning outcomes of people who do not attend school. Furthermore, even if a researcher should assess the competencies of some working adults in one society, such a localized measurement would not be suitable for global comparison. Unless global comparisons and rankings are possible, however, international development agencies and experts cannot make competent decisions or justify the priorities of their aid programs. A series of technical, administrative, and political factors perpetuates hierarchical comparison based on the “world culture” of schooling. Nevertheless, it is necessary to separate these operational concerns from academic debates on educational equity in today’s changing world.

What does it mean to ensure equity when the modes of learning and the very meaning of knowledge are diverse and in flux? The scholarly discourse on competency inherently recognizes that there is no single stadium where the baseball game of everybody’s interest is played. Needs for knowledge vary from person to person and from society to society. Thus, the challenge for our generation is to achieve equity by beginning from learners’ perspectives and, at the same time, to abandon the inclination to find superficial commonalities and use them as yardsticks to rank education systems and nations against each other. Unless we break out of the trap of this type of false equity in schooling, we will forever be arguing over the necessary years of schooling and educational services, and the pursuit of more and more of the same thing will not cease.

Final Thoughts: The COVID Pandemic as a Turning Point

The COVID pandemic forced schools to shut down on a massive scale in both developing and developed countries. This became a painful but unique opportunity for us to reflect on the meaning of schooling and learning. What would it mean to continue learning while face-to-face schooling was suspended? A new kind of educational gap emerged, one stemming from the availability of the facilities and equipment, such as tablet computers and the internet, necessary to continue learning at home. At the same time, educational programs based on information technologies personalized the learning process, adapting the mode, content, and level of learning according to individual interests and progress. Such personalization could lead to a notion of learning at odds with curricular-based schooling designed to simultaneously teach children of the same grade level.

Previously, constructivist educational ideas such as those of John Dewey or A. S. Neill were considered important philosophies and interesting experiments in particular schools, but not feasible approaches for ordinary schools. Researchers generally thought that only a few well-trained, competent teachers in a controlled environment would be able to provide the proper stimulants to meet learners’ interests and let them accumulate knowledge through experience. These approaches take too much effort on the teachers’ part, they thought, and would render educators able to handle only a very small number of students. This attitude was most likely the reason that the “learner-centered approach” was often treated as a set of techniques for class management in school rather than an educational philosophy, even though it was promoted globally as a means of active learning. Today, albeit unintentionally, constructivism has joined ranks with education technology, and they seem to be a good match. Providing the education that learners look for and that is based on their interests and progress may not be unrealistic idealism but has the potential to become a reality for the masses. Technology also makes it possible to track learners’ progress quantitatively. Of course, the concept and method of measurement would need to be fundamentally changed from standardized testing, but evidence-based constructive learning may no longer be a fantasy.

The global discourse on educational development states that equity in opportunities, quality, and outcomes of education should be ensured across school-aged populations, regardless of socioeconomic background, gender, ethnicity, and culture. However, as we face our new, post-pandemic reality, it is useful to ask ourselves if it is meaningful to measure equity objectively by separating knowledge acquisition from the learner’s own motivations and needs in life. What, then, does equity in education mean? This question is not a mere metaphysical exercise, but one we face in our daily life, as school education is criticized for failing to nurture basic social skills and 21st-century competencies.


[1] Generally, a competency is a broad concept describing an individual’s capacity that cuts across specific domains of knowledge or skills and is accumulated through experience, while skills are the building blocks required for competencies to flourish (Westerhuis 2011).

[2] Lave and Wenger (1991) outline two types of value found in school education: use value and exchange value. The former refers to learned knowledge to be used in daily life, while the latter regards the certificate as a token for economic exchange.


Anderson, L. W. and D. R. Krathwohl, eds. A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objects. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000.

Auld, E. and P. Morris. “Comparative Education, the ‘New Paradigm’ and Policy Borrowing: Constructing Knowledge for Educational Reform.” Comparative Education 50, no. 2 (2014): 129–55.

Baker, D. P. and G. K. LeTendre. National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Benavot, A., Y. -K. Cha, D. Kamens, J. W. Meyer, and S. -Y. Wong. “Knowledge for the Masses: World Models and National Curricula, 1920–1986.” American Sociological Review 56 (1991): 85–100.

Chabbott, C. Education for Development: International Organizations and Education for All. New York: Routledge Falmer, 2003.

Dore, Ronald. The Diploma Disease: Education, Qualification and Development. London: Institute of Education, 1997.

Foster, Philip. “Chapter Title.” In Education and Social Change in Ghana, page numbers of chapter. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.

Hahn, Robert A. and Benedict I. Truman. “Education Improves Public Health and Promotes Health Equity.” International Journal of Health Service 45, no. 4 (2015): 657–78.

Lave, J. and E. Wenger. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Meyer, J. W. and F. O. Ramirez. “The World Institutionalization of Education.” In Discourse Formation in Comparative Education, edited by J. Schriever, 111–32. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2000.

Mundy, K. “‘Education For All’ and the Global Governors.” In Who Governs the Globe?, edited by D. D. Avant, M. Finnemore, and S. K. Sells, 333–55. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

OECD. “Definition and Selection of Competencies (DeSeCo).” Accessed July 25, 2022. https://www.oecd.org/education/skills-beyond-school/definitionandselectionofcompetenciesdeseco.htm

Phillips, D. and K. Ochs. “Processes of Policy Borrowing in Education: Some Explanatory and Analytical Devices.” Comparative Education 39, no. 4 (2003): 451–61.

Teles, Vladimir Kühl and Joaquim de Andrade. “Public Investment in Basic Education and Economic Growth.” (July 2004). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=573301 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.573301.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “EFA Global Monitoring Report 2012. Youth and Skills: Putting Education to Work.” Paris: UNESCO, 2013.

Waldow, Florian and Gita Steiner-Khamsi, eds. Understanding PISA’s Attractiveness: Critical Analyses in Comparative Policy Studies. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.

Westerhuis, A. “The Meaning of Competence.” In Knowledge, Skills and Competence in the European Labour Market, edited by M. Brockmann, L. Clarke, and C. Winch, e-book (no page number available). London: Taylor and Francis, 2011.

World Bank. “World Development Indicators.” Accessed on June 25, 2022. https://databank.worldbank.org/source/world-development-indicators.

Yamada, Shoko. ‘Dignity of Labour’ for African Leaders: The Formation of Education Policy in the British Colonial Office and Achimota School on the Gold Coast. Bamenda: Langaa Publishing, 2018. pp. 315.

——-. “Post-EFA Global Discourse: The Process of Shaping the Shared View of the ‘Education Community.’” In Post-Education-for-All and Sustainable Development Paradigm: Structural Changes with Diversifying Actors and Norms, edited by Shoko Yamada, 67–142. London: Emerald Publishing, 2016.