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

Realities and Perspectives: Improving Education for a More Equitable World

Mark Ginsburg

University of Maryland at College Park

The theme for the 2023 CIES conference, “Improving Education for a More Equitable World,” calls to mind many important issues.

First, there is no question that educational systems, policy, and practice could benefit from improvement. However, we still face a situation where schools do not include millions of potential students. According to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, at the end of the 2017-2018 school year approximately 258 million children and youth were out of school, including 59 million children of primary school age, 62 million of lower secondary school age and 138 million of upper secondary age (UNESCO, 2022). And we should note that these figures pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic, and thus do not reflect numbers of children and youth who likely have not returned to school when they re-opened following the almost universal closures in March 2020 (Ginsburg & Grob-Zakhary, 2022).

Second, there are many perspectives on what it means to improve education. Many would focus on improving the quality of education, but there are diverse conceptions of what quality education is. For example, we can understand quality in terms of inputs, processes, outputs, and/or outcomes, as my esteemed former colleague, Don Adams, once articulated (Adams, 1993). Others would focus on the efficiency or effectiveness of education. Still others would focus the need to improve the equity of educational access as well as educational inputs, processes, outputs, and outcomes. With respect to equity, one would need to examine the extent of differences across groups (defined by race/ethnicity, sex/gender, social class, rural/urban location, and special needs) within countries but also across countries (e.g., by geographic region, wealth).

The third issue is signaled by the last-mentioned conception of quality as well as by the second aspect of the theme, “a more equitable world.” This is the issue of what constitutes equity. From my perspective, equity is not synonymous with and does not require equality. Indeed, creating equity in education and more generally in the world necessitates inequality in the distribution of resources. That is, equity requires inequality, providing greater benefits to individuals in any country who are members of historically disadvantaged or oppressed groups. Similarly, equity requires inequality, providing greater benefits to countries or regions that have historically been colonized, neo-colonized, underdeveloped, impoverished, or otherwise pushed to the periphery of the world system.

This, of course, raises fourth issue, that is, the question of the degree of inequality that is necessary to achieve an equitable or fair distribution of resources. I don’t have a clear answer to this question, but I would observe that contemporary scene does not reflect the degree of inequality that is necessary to establish equity among groups within most nations or to establish equity among nations – either in terms of education or with respect to other sectors of human experience. Indeed, it appears that more often resources are distributed in ways that reinforce or reproduce the differences across groups and across nations.

I look to Cuba as an example of a country that has moved closer to achieving equity in providing quality education (Ginsburg & Garcia Batista, 2019), despite the U.S.’s continuing economic and media war – and other hostilities – against this nation (Ginsburg, 2022;). For instance, up until 2006, Cuban 3rd. 4th, and 6th graders substantially outperformed other Latin American countries on tests of literacy and numeracy, but also showed basically only small inter-group differences in performance across parents’ educational levels and rural vs urban locations (LLECE, 1998 and 2007). By the 2019 study other Latin American countries had closed the gap or surpassed Cuba on some of the assessments – of the sixteen countries participating in the study, Cuba was first in 3rd grade mathematics and 6th grade science, but 4th in 3rd grade literacy, third in 6th grade literacy, and ninth in 6th grade mathematics ((ONUECC, 2021, Tables 7-9). Nevertheless, the impact on student performance by family socioeconomic status and urban-rural residence was relatively small, though statistically significant, and there were no significant differences between male and female students on either 3rd grade or 6th grade mathematics performance (ONUECC, 2021, Tables 6.1 and 6.2).

I would also point to Cuba’s contribution to adult literacy internationally, highlighting its “Yo, Si Puedo” (Yes, I can) instructional method and materials (in Spanish as well as Ayamara, Creole, English, Portuguese, Quechua, and Swahili) that since 2000 have been used in 30 nations to help more than 8 million adults develop basic literacy (Martínez, 2014). Similar to Cuba’s international medical solidarity, including sending doctors to dozens of countries to combat COVID-19 (Wylie, 2021), Cuba’s adult literacy materials and technical support are provided for free tolow-income countries and at a low cost to other nations.

I conclude by noting that I very much look forward to the individual presentations as well as panels organized at the 2023 CIES conference in Washington, DC that address – from different perspectives and within different contexts – these and other issues. I especially hope that Cuban colleagues will be able to obtain visas and thus be able to attend the conference. I should remind colleagues that financial support for Cuban’s CIES conference attendance is available through the José Martí Travel Fund administered by the Latin American Special Interest Group.



Martínez, Ivan (2014, October 30). Cuban Literacy Program Benefits Over Eight Million People. Radio Havana Cuba. Available at: https://www.radiohc.cu/en/noticias/nacionales/37890-cuban-literacy-program-benefits-over-eight-million-people.

Adams, Don (1993). Defining Educational Quality. Educational Planning 9 (3): 3-18.

Ginsburg, Mark (2022, in press). Economic and Media War against Socialist Societies: The Case of U.S.-Cuban Relations. International Journal of Cuban Studies 14 (2).

Ginsburg, Mark and Garcia Batista, Gilberto (2019), “Reforming Education and Teacher Education in Cuba: Revolución and Perfeccionamiento.” In Carlos Ornelas (ed.), Politics of Education in Latin America: Reforms, Resistance and Persistence, pp. 215-243. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Ginsburg, Mark and Grob-Zakhary, Randa (2022, in press). Editor’s Introduction. Special Issue of the Journal of Education in Emergencies on “Education in Pandemics.” Available at: https://inee.org/journal.

Laboratorio Latinoamericano de Evaluación de la Calidad de la Educación (LLECE) (1998). Primer estudio internacional comparativo sobre lenguaje, matemática y factores asociados en tercero y cuarto grado. Santiago: LLECE de UNESCO.

Laboratorio Latinoamericano de Evaluación de la Calidad de la Educación (LLECE) (2007). Segundo estudio internacional comparativo sobre lenguaje, matemática y factores asociados en tercero y cuarto grado. Santiago: LLECE de UNESCO.

Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Educación, la Ciencia y la Cultura (ONUECC). Estudio Regional Comparativo y Explicativo (ERCE 2019): Reporte Nacional de Resultados: Cuba. Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000380245.

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2022).  Out of School Children and Youth. Available at: http://uis.unesco.org/en/topic/out-school-children-and-youth.

Wylie, Lana (2021). Cuba’s response to COVID-19: lessons for the future. Journal of Tourism Futures. 7 (3): 356-363.