Education Quality: Equity or Achievement

Do we seek excellence, differentiation or do we want everyone in the class to perform to a certain standard?

Meeta Sengupta
Updated: Jan 31, 2014 08:43:24 AM UTC

Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at

“Who is the best doctor here?”

The question echoed down the hallway. I could understand the need for wanting to be treated only by the best. Then I wondered about all the rest - peers to this best doctor. Were they substandard? Clearly not. Would it not be less stressful to know for sure that all doctors were of the same calibre and one was safe wherever one went for treatment? Wasn’t it better for all if equity of output was the goal of all education?

Is that the desired goal of an education system or institution? Do we seek excellence, differentiation or do we want everyone in the class to perform to a certain standard? True equity in education could equally be measured in terms of outcomes.

Is it even fair to expect everyone to perform to the same level? This has been the key question in the equity vs. equality debate. Is it fair for a school or university to educate people to exactly the same level? This denies merit, talent and extra hard work that some candidate manage to invest. Many agree that excellence is fostered by competition, and without competition the result is likely to be a slide beyond mediocrity. It is the differentiation, the need to win that motivates us to work harder and evolve. school

Image: Shutterstock

The question matters now in India as we come to almost a universal acceptance that the quality criteria as defined by school inputs under the RTE (Right to Education Act) will certainly need to be changed. A school is not good just because it has the right amount of land, or because its teachers received certain certificates. A school is good when its students learn and achieve. We all agree so far, but this is when the troubles begin.

First - what do we mean by student achievement. Average scores in examinations? Should that average reflect the achievement of all the children - does a good school ensure that all students get similar success? Or should a school foster excellence and invest in those who show greater potential? Is a school that has a few super achievers better than a school with many average performers? Equity demands that all students be given an equal chance and equal attention (inputs again!) but the achievement focus helps a school work towards maximising every student’s potential. Both high up in the fairness rankings.

Choosing between those two is not easy. Can both not be attained? Of course every honest teaching institution tries to make sure that equity and achievement are both fostered. Excellent schools achieve this with large monetary and non monetary investments. But even the best schools will only be able to give assurance that their basic minimum standards were maintained - no one can guarantee equity in outcomes. Everyone would have achieved to a certain standard, with outliers. This is how we judge the institution, do we not? By the success of its students - outliers and average.

I hypothesise that the institution gains a reputation not because its graduates perform to the same predictable level, but because it has a consistent record of excellence. The demand for admission to that institution depends upon this reputation. When we choose a school for our children we want the best, a place where they will be given a chance to shine. Not just one where everyone will achieve to a common standard.

When it comes to designing a measure for judging school quality, one cannot deny that input criteria are important too. Inputs do affect outputs, but these are not solely a function of inputs. It is not just your resources, but what you do with them that matters. The best schools are often accused of cherry picking at the time of admissions which accounts for their excellent results. A school with a better playground, better trained teachers, laboratories and libraries is clearly superior. But a qualified teacher who spends their class contact time knitting or catching up with administrative tasks will probably count as a great school input on paper, but it is highly unlikely to have much impact. What matters more to a student is the quality of school time.. what did they learn when they were at school? Did they learn to be confident? To communicate well? Did they learn to learn? The value add that the school provides is a better measure of quality than either input or output measures. This can be further refined to allow for consistency over time.

The real debate begins here - does the value add of the school get measured only in student achievement in standardised tests? Or should it be a more holistic measure that includes a wider range of achievements? Does one include benefits to wider society? These are questions for policy makers to ponder on as the next five years in education in India promise an emphasis on quality.

All the discussion on quality and equity is at its peak at the time of admissions. For now, I have a simple rule of thumb - ask the market. The school with more applicants per seat available is judged to be doing a better job. The task now is to tabulate and articulate this sense of value into a rigorous metric, so that we students of education, can understand what true value add is in the eyes of its consumers and seek to embed that value across the spectrum.

This very battle between quality and equity is being played out in admissions in Delhi again this season. Schools that are much in demand have a very high number of applicants. The state has legislated on entry criteria with no discretion given to schools. Centralised criteria seek to deliver on equity but end up effectively restricting choice both for schools and students. Schools would ideally like to be able to focus on quality while still offering fair access are forced out of the dialogue. The battle between equity, access and choice continues real time in this arena.

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