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

Improving Education for a More Equitable World

Ratna Ghosh

McGill University

The unprecedented global reach of the impact of COVID-19 has focused the global gaze on inequalities in every corner of the world and in every aspect of social and financial life among and within countries in our planet: the “brutal, structural, social, and economic inequality, (and) callous indifference to suffering” (Roy, 2020). Yet, despite great inequality in how people are positioned in society[1] and geographically[2] in an interdependent world, both peace and our survival are contingent on an equitable and cohesive world because the pandemic has shown us: “a poor person’s sickness can affect a wealthy society’s health” (Roy, 2020).  As Bill Gates has argued:

pandemics remind us that helping others isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also the smart thing to do. Humanity, after all, isn’t just bound together by common values and social ties. We’re also connected biologically, by a microscopic network of germs that links the health of one person to the health of everyone else. In this pandemic we are all connected (Gates, 2020).

This brief paper will begin with a discussion of the rationale for an equitable world and go on to look at the meaning of equality. It then focuses on education: is it a human right?  What is its role in reducing inequality in school and society?  Inclusive education (IE) is suggested as a pedagogical approach to a more equitable world, and its implications for teacher education are highlighted.

The Rationale for an Equitable World.

To have a more equitable world we need to reduce the tremendous inequalities in the world which are at multiple levels.  Economic inequality, among and within countries is directly related to income, wealth, health, and educational disparities. These disparities are the result of history, social, cultural, and religious traditions, and political conditions. They are determined by factors such as gender, age, race[3], ethnicity, dis/ability, sexual orientation, class, caste (in India) and religion, leading to inequalities of opportunity which continue to persist, within and between countries.

The pandemic has not only highlighted the inequalities, but it has further increased disparities in many sectors of society.  Yet the COVID-19 crisis has turned out to be a watershed moment, an opportunity to break with the past and imagine a new, less unequal world.  Arundhuti Roy says:

(The pandemic) is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, out data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us.  Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.  And ready to fight for it (Roy, 2020).

If we want this planet to survive, we need sustainable societies which implies greater equality in standard of living that allows people to lead more sustainable lives.  More than a century ago Horace Mann, a pioneer of public schools in America, is known to have called education the “great equalizer of the conditions of men” (Duncan,2018). As Growe & Montgomery (2003) point out “education has been seen more as a distributor of wealth, making the concept of equality not only a moral/social necessity, but an economic one as well” (p.23).  Recognizing that, most countries around the world joined a global movement led by UNESCO to provide education to all people in all countries[4]Education For All (UNESCO, 1990) which aimed at helping the learning needs of all; The Millennium Development Goals (2000) assisted by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and The African Development bank through programs to improve health and education and alleviating poverty, made considerable progress in increasing educational access although the pandemic has wiped out much of the gains.  The Sustainable Development Goals (2015) are now focused on improving quality and inclusion that prevent equality of opportunity.  So, despite many decades of work to overcome inequalities in “power, income, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, language, abilities, culture, religion, and geo-politics including neo-colonialism” (CIES 2003 website) that have hindered achievement of educational equity, it remains a distant dream for many countries of the world.

 Can countries in this century afford, both morally and economically, to have groups of people left behind?  At this point in the history of civilization, including groups of people who have historically been left behind is not only the right thing to do, but also the wise thing to do.  As a McKinsey & Company Report (2015) says, “inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge… All types of inequality have economic consequences.”  For example, “advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth” (McKinsey & Co., 2015).  When women are excluded, then half the brainpower of society is lost. The same applies when race, religion, caste, or social class is a factor in exclusion.  Not only is considerable brain power lost when marginalized people are prevented from educational access and achievements, unable to contribute to knowledge and the economy, but unequal treatment is detrimental to all. Educational inequality causes income inequality which results in decreased human development (Sakir, 2014). In an interdependent and globalizing world, there is urgent need for social cohesion, but there is unlikely to be cohesion where there are stark inequalities that deprive so many, not only in different parts of the world, but within one country. The Human Development Indices indicate that greater equality in countries lead to greater prosperity. “Equality… [and equity] is integral to human development” (Melamed & Samman, 2013).


What is Equality?

What does it mean to have equality?  What is does not mean is that everyone should have the same, earn the same and be the same. As Malamed and Samman (2013, p. 3) point out, “We are aiming for societies to be equitable but not necessarily equal.” Human beings are considered equal in rights and dignity by virtue of their shared membership in the human race, but they are born unequal in multiple ways: in condition and in ability. Even when opportunities and conditions are the same, outcomes are dependent on individual abilities, preferences and values and cannot be equal.

Inequality may have different meanings in different contexts, but generally it means unequal opportunities and distribution of resources. Poverty is the most important among indices of inequality.  Concerted effort by the United Nations member countries have made considerable strides in overcoming extreme poverty in the world from 36 percent in 1990 to 9.2 percent in 2021, although World Bank estimates the COVID-19 pandemic pushed an additional 97 million people into extreme poverty (Peer, 2021). In many countries barriers of poverty, social ostracization and exclusion continue to prevent children from marginalized groups enrolling in schools.  Even if they are at school, the lack of cultural and social capital, class (or caste) discrimination prevents full participation in education. Poverty prevents citizens from participating in fully in society.

Focus on inequality in educational provision nationally and globally ignores the fact that education has important historical, social and cultural, linguistic, and class constructions that enable some to achieve well in schooling, while marginalizing or pushing out those who do not fit the system. This is where the concept of equity is important. Equity refers to fairness whereas equality implies equal treatment or access. Giving all people the same opportunities is worthless to those who cannot avail of them because of differences in cultural and social capital. Rather, the idea is to remove barriers to achievement, not expect people to be equal (Ghosh, in press).

As educators, most of us ascribe to the belief that ability is distributed evenly across populations: that gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or other social groupings are not differently endowed in their ability, although we are aware that social and economic assets are not evenly distributed. Equity suggests similarity rather than “sameness.” Equal opportunity does not imply equal treatment: rather it means fair treatment.  Equality in rights and fairness in treatment are the basis of a just society.

Equality is explained most directly by theories of justice. Philosophers from ancient times have been involved with the question of what a just society might look like. More recently, in his influential work, A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls sees justice as fairness and what characterizes an ideal society.  Charles Taylor’s (1992) argument is that there cannot be a single set of normative principles of distributive justice because choices are socially and historically embedded within one’s society.  Similarly, Amartya Sen (2009), while agreeing with Rawls that fairness is central to justice (Da Silva, 2009, p.62), argues that a single set of “just” principles does not capture the various forms of injustices in our global system. He sees justice at two levels: what constitutes a just society (normative) and, at a more practical level, how to reduce injustice and advance justice. He suggests a comparative perspective on justice that allows for variability in the situations of different groups. For him, the measure of inequality is the outcome and the obstacles encountered in reaching that outcome. His focus is not as much on the skills developed but on what people can do and be (Ghosh, in press).

Is education a human right?

Do we have a right to education? Education is essential for exercising the human rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) document adopted in 1948 by the United Nations[5].  Article 26 of the UDHR states that everyone has a right to education as do the constitutions of many countries such as Canada and the United States.  That means the right to education is legally guaranteed for all without any discrimination. Many argue that the UDHR has no legal authority and therefore, cannot be enforced.  Furthermore, there are human rights violations certainly in many countries who have ratified the UDHR. Amartya Sen sees human rights as justice and argues that we should understand human rights as ethical proclamations, not legal rights (Da Silva, 2009, P.59).  Moreover, UDHR motivates legislation.  At decolonization, the newly independent ex-colonies were guided by the UDHR to write their constitutions.

What is education’s role in removing inequality?

With decolonization the demand for education and the revolution of rising expectations have given rise to the belief in education as being the panacea for removing social inequalities (Ghosh, 2021). In a turbulent world the role of education is not only to develop skills (at the individual level), but more importantly to attempt at reducing social inequalities that would guarantee political and economic stability (at the societal level) and contribute towards the making of resilient communities. 

The neo-liberal ideology, the impact of globalization and the technological revolution have all created opportunities as well as created new forms of inequalities.  There is a contradiction: the commodification and increasing privatization of education have made education inaccessible to many, yet equal access will enable all children to develop their own human capital, and marketable in a capitalistic economic system (Growe et al. 2003. p.23). The global impact of international migrations and refugees has created racial, ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity in previously homogenous societies leading to tensions.  Technologically, the digital gap is widening notwithstanding the potential of emerging technologies.  Technology has increased access to education for many, yet, as Delia Neuman (1991) points, out technology and equity are not inevitable partners.

Over that last two years, the challenge of COVID-19 has been unprecedented because of a fundamental shift in ground realities. In countries of the global North and South, all modes of functioning have been transformed due to the need to avoid people-to-people contact so that anything that can be done online is being done remotely including the delivery modes of teaching and learning. Technology has taken on a sudden and unprecedented significance during the pandemic particularly in education. With face-to-face learning suddenly halted in all levels of education and in all regions and countries in the world, education (learning and teaching) moved online. While inequitable access to computers for marginalized groups – which include minority people, females, handicapped people, those in inner city schools and rural areas – was evident and inevitable given the inequality in different areas of the world and within each country, the gap between internet access and social inequality has burgeoned during the pandemic. Access to computers is taken for granted in online education. However, not only are computers not available to all who need them, but broad access for teleconferencing and interactive programs are out of reach in many countries of the South and in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities of countries of the North including Canada. This will inevitably lead to further inequality in society, in educational opportunities, and in future life chances (Ghosh, in press).

The global challenges of the 21st century require education to prepare future generations to be able to cope with the scale, scope and complexity of the transformations that will shape our future.  The impact of globalization (global economy, international migrations, and displaced persons) and the technological revolution (automation, computers) had already necessitated the learning of new skills not only for employment but to anticipate future work-skills.  Climate change has forced a change of perspective in what to value (e.g. sustainable development).

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (e.g. Artificial Intelligence such as driverless cars) implies that “We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another… We do not yet know just how it will unfold…” (Schwab, 2016).  Preparing future generations for an uncertain future requires social and emotional skills in addition to cognitive skills. Active participation as citizens in a democratic society involves core values of justice, equality and equity, life, and liberty. These are values that should  permeate the curriculum, to be inculcated and developed, not subjects to be taught.  Affective and cognitive skills can both be developed in schools; they are not mutually exclusive. Students must see how history has shaped present social and economic inequalities, and perhaps how students, as historical actors, can impact future conditions. Social-emotional learning is crucial for both immediate and long-term benefits for academic achievement as well as ethical and responsible behavior.

Educational thinkers like Tagore (1961) and Freire (2000) believed that education involves a moral engagement that implies the development of a compassionate collective ethos towards consciousness and awareness of existing inequalities and injustices in the world at various levels (Ghosh, 2021).   Soft skills such as social and emotional learning are difficult to cultivate through online teaching although the development of technologies that attempt to do so are increasing exponentially.

In comparative and international education, we need to conceptualize inequality not as a result of individual or cultural deficiency/ inability, but as the intersection of historical, social, cultural forces and individual effort that reinforce each other.  Democratic societies are not based solely on meritocracy.  We need to develop a dual consciousness that both meritocratic elements (e.g. hard work) and non-meritocratic elements (e.g. race, family, wealth) play a role in social mobility (Parkhouse, 2019).  For example, gaps in school achievement cannot be explained merely through variability in the efforts or abilities of students but that societal and institutional factors have impact.

Inclusive education (IE)

Inequality implies exclusion from opportunities.  So, our attempt must be to include all those who are excluded.  Inclusion only has meaning when it is juxtaposed with exclusion. Inclusion is the opposite of exclusion which is based in various societies on different factors such as race, ethnicity, culture, gender identity or preference, religion, language, socio-economic status, geographical location, dis/ability.  Inclusion, the need to be recognized, is fundamental to equal dignity (Taylor, 1992). With that awareness, there is a global consensus that all children in all societies need to be provided educational opportunities regardless of their differences because education will improve individual life chances as well as a society’s health and wealth.  Millions of children do not get the opportunity to go to school in many areas of the world, while many others are either pushed out by circumstances or by the system because they are marginalized. Children with special educational needs have even less or no opportunities to receive education. This has led to the concept of the inclusive school that welcomes all children irrespective of their socio-economic position in terms of class, caste, gender, religion, language, sexual orientation and physical or mental challenges.

Including all learners and providing equal opportunity to all children involves access, quality, and an unfettered learning environment. Although considerable success has been achieved in access to schools across the world, the problem of inclusiveness and educational quality pose tremendous problems. In addition to economic constraints in many countries, lack of trained teachers, inadequate physical facilities (buildings, textbooks, furniture, toilets, science and technology labs, etc.), insufficient instructional technology and band width make equality in education a distant goal.  In countries where teachers and physical infrastructure are not particular issues, social inequality due to pockets of poverty and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, culture, language, and religion make equality of opportunity in schools difficult to achieve.

IE implies more than just mainstreaming special education students.   The challenge is not merely to integrate those who are discriminated due to socio-economic differences, but include them as part of the school’s culture. The most disadvantaged have been physically and mentally challenged children, especially those in poor and marginalized sections of society due to prejudices around disability.

Inclusiveness in education implies a paradigm shift because it comprises ideological, philosophical, and structural transformation. It requires a radical alteration in one’s worldview.  Inclusion is intrinsic to a democracy – it is about human rights of all citizens.  It does not imply assimilation, but it is about acceptance of difference. Inclusiveness challenges schools to develop a child-centered pedagogy that successfully involves all children in the learning process, including the hitherto socially and economically marginalized in society and those who have disabilities. It means new methods of teaching and learning such as critical multicultural pedagogy, enquiry-based learning, and construction of knowledge rather than rote learning. If successful, an IE would provide quality education to all children, confront discriminatory attitudes making learning accessible, create a safe space where all feel they belong, and develop an inclusive society. A dramatic change in social perspective is critical because the shift is from looking at marginalized groups as a problem to seeing their potential.

IE is based on the right of all learners to a quality education that meets basic learning needs and enriches lives…to develop the full potential of every individual.  The ultimate goal of IE is to end all forms of discrimination and foster social cohesion (UNESCO).

Teacher Education

If the medium is the message (McLuhan 1964) then teachers are the focus in IE and crucial to making education an experience that involves both the cognitive and affective domainsTeachers must develop a student-centered philosophy of teaching so that they enable students to see the relevance of what they learn, can construct their own knowledge, see the complexity as well as importance of diversity, and develop a critical understanding of the world and global interdependence yet develop a sense of belonging to the society, and a sense of responsibility towards preserving the planet.

Most importantly, teacher education programs need teachers to examine their own assumptions, ways of knowing, biases and prejudices which may be difficult to do but is essential before they try to deal with and understand their students. Changing from an assimilationist system of teaching and learning to an inclusive and critical multicultural perspective implies a total reversal of worldview. An inclusive worldview should permeate all courses and activities in all teacher education programs which must include many ways of teaching such as dialogical methods.

Most Western countries that were previously ethno-culturally homogeneous are now heterogeneous and diverse in terms of culture, religion, language not to mention socio-economic and gender divisions.    Since identities are constructed relationally, it is of utmost importance how teachers treat difference (Ghosh, 2021). It is also important to recognize that many active teachers have been schooled during times when racism and inequality (inequity) were not normally questioned. It is also unlikely, during those times, that dialogical and participatory methods of teaching were the prevailing experiences in school. As a result of this, and not entirely of their own shortcomings, these teachers have not challenged the dominant group’s privileges or the many inequalities that have been normalized in their societies.


There is urgent need to re-conceptualize teacher education to teach students what they will need in the world they will live in. COVID-19 has shown that inequality in the world is not only a moral issue, but also an economic issue, an environmental issue, and, most importantly, an educational issue.  The pandemic has highlighted the inequality of online learning for those who have no money (poverty and homelessness), not only in countries of the South but also in remote areas of countries of the North, and for those who are physically challenged and marginalized. Sensitivity to these inequalities is required by teachers who may not be aware how differences must be recognized.  There is growing evidence that pre-service teachers are not prepared to educate students in this fast-paced and rapidly changing world (Demulder, Stribling, & Dallman, 2016.  We need to seize this historical turning point presented by the pandemic to reconceptualize the content and methods of teaching, but most of all, we need a dramatic change in worldview.


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[1] social class, caste in India, gender, religion, language, sexual identity, etc.

[2] Global North and South – countries divided along socio-economic status

[3] While race is not valid a concept in genetic terms, it is very much a sociological concept that is used to differentiate people.

[4] G8 finance ministers agreed in 2005 to make up the debt owed by very poor countries in order for the banks to redirect resources for programs in health, education and poverty alleviation.

[5] In 1948, of the 56 member states of the United Nations, 48 nations voted for, and none against the UDHR.  But eight countries abstained, and they were six countries in the Soviet Union, South Africa (which was then an apartheid state) and Saudi Arabia. At present all 192 members states of the UN have signed on in agreement with the UDHR.