Equity and Excellence: PISA 2015 Says These Two Can Coexist

Middle School Math teacher Barry Garelick writes in an article, "How Attempts To Force Equity In Math Classes Can Protect Kids From Learning", that current attempts to reduce achievement gaps, for instance, between poor and rich children, are eliminating achievement. The idea that equity and excellence can not coexist is a notion quite attractive to a number of people. This notion, however, is not supported by evidence. In fact, the latest results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) demonstrate that school systems can achieve excellence without sacrificing equity.

This is shown convincingly in the following graph:

Above copied from
OECD (2016), PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education, OECD Publishing, Paris.
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264266490-en
The x-axis in the above graph represents equity in education. A value closer to zero corresponds to school systems in which the scores of a pupil are not correlated with how poor or rich the student is. The y-axis is the score in the Science section of the test. The proof that equity and excellence can coexist in a school system is highlighted in the blue region - These are countries that score very high in the test, yet do not show very large achievement gaps between the poor and the rich. These high-equity and high-performing schools are found in Australia, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Vietnam, Japan, Finland, Estonia, Canada, Korea, United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Hong Kong, Macau, and yes, the United States of America (It barely made the list). Worth noting, as illustrated in the excerpt shown with the figure above, is that this list includes Vietnam and Macao. These are school systems where a high percentage of students who perform well in the test (76% for Vietnam and 65% for Macao) are among the poorest pupils.

Being fair by extending learning opportunities to all children and achieving excellence in education are clearly not mutually exclusive. One might claim that Japan, Finland, Korea and the Netherlands have much lower income disparities than other countries so naturally, their educational systems are more equitable. One might likewise claim that richer countries can more easily afford equitable education systems. Vietnam shows that this is not necessarily true. Vietnam, a poor and highly socio-economically diverse country, has managed to achieve an excellent yet equitable school system. It is possible even in Science, a subject that is highly demanding on resources.