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Can We Achieve Equitable Learning Beyond Hierarchical Measurement?

Shoko Yamada

Nagoya University

Will equity of education be attained if there are fewer differences among nations and social groups in terms of access to and quality of school education, and the pass rates of the terminal exams to grant diplomas? Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), an assumption has been shared globally that the right to education is achieved through school attendance. This equation between school and education was common-sensual and accepted without much question at the policymaking level and by individual parents, teachers, and students. Accordingly, to ensure such rights in “equitable” manners, the school system has prevailed in every corner of the world, including remote villages or urban slums in developing countries. Particularly since the 1990s, under the banner of education for all, international development partners have concentrated their financial and technical assistance to countries with lower educational indicators to improve access to and quality of basic (primary and lower secondary school) education. As a result, as of 2018, the global primary net enrolment rate, including developing countries, had reached 89%, and in secondary education, 66 %.

Having worked in this field, I recognize the positive effects of such interventions. With the raised average years of schooling, most of the population acquires basic literacy and numeracy, which help them find solutions to their problems. The school would also provide basic knowledge about health, sanitation, and other important skills for life. Further, the school may contribute to social inclusion by fostering common values among school attendants in a society.

After considering all these advantages, I still would like to point out that the expansion of schooling has globalized expectations on school certificates as a commodity, which can be exchanged with employment, income, and social status. “The higher the level of certificate, the better the chance of success.” Based on such expectations, parents and the youths aspire for more schooling. Governments hope to boost their economic growth by investing more in school education. Employers often use the level of the educational certificate as the criteria for screening applicants or deciding the salary scale.

This widespread myth about school certificates suggests that the prevailing school system has incorporated people across the world, even minorities or rural inhabitants in developing countries, into a unitary hierarchy that ranks people according to years of schooling, making them compare themselves against others’ positions and feel disparities. In other words, international educational development, which has been carried out under the names of human rights and equity, may have just globalized the evaluation of people along a relative axis of school attendance and curricular attainment, which never treat everyone equally. This structure is sustained by both the higher and lower performers in which the latter cannot escape disappointment and craving.

Meanwhile, no matter how monolithically globalized schooling has become, the knowledge that school leavers would need in life and work is diverse, depending on the situation. The knowledge-based economy shortens the life cycle of knowledge demanded in economic activities, and without the ability to constantly update their knowledge, people will find it difficult to keep their jobs and adapt to societal changes.

In other words, learning has become a lifelong process. Thus, in SDG4 also, the vast learning opportunities outside school are clearly recognized. Seeing such realities surrounding knowledge, I question whether standardized indicators such as enrolment and completion rates can capture the truth of relevant and equitable education for individuals and societies. How can we, on the one hand, admit the importance of lifelong and adaptive learning and, on the other hand, try to measure equity by applying common yardsticks to societies across the world?

COVID pandemic forced schools to be closed down at a massive scale both in developing and developed countries. This became a painful but unique opportunity for us to reflect on the meaning of school and learning. What would it mean not to stop learning while face-to-face schooling was pended? A new kind of educational gap emerged, depending on the availability of the facilities and equipment, such as tablet computers and the internet, to continue learning at home. At the same time, educational programs enabled by information technologies personalized the process of learning, which adapt the paths, contents, and levels according to individual interests and progress. Such a personalization potentially leads to a contrasting notion of learning from curricular-based schooling which is designed to teach children of the same grade level collectively effectively.

In the global discourse on educational development, it has been said that equity in opportunities, quality, and outcomes of education should be ensured across the school-aged population regardless of socio-economic backgrounds, gender, ethnicity, and culture. However, as we face changes in realities, it would be useful to ask ourselves if it is meaningful to objectively measure equity 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 the one we face in our lifeworld, as school education is criticized for failing to nurture basic social skills and 21st-century competencies sufficiently.