Equality of educational opportunity


Equality opportunity is a stipulation that all people should be treated similarly, unhampered by artificial barriers or prejudices or preferences, except when particular distinctions can be explicitly justified. The aim according to this often complex and contested concept is that important jobs should go to those “most qualified” – persons most likely to perform ably in a given task – and not go to persons for arbitrary or irrelevant reasons, such as circumstances of birth, upbringing, friendship ties to whoever is in power, religion, sex, ethnicity, race, caste, or involuntary personal attributes such as disability, age, gender, or sexual orientation. Chances for advancement should be open to everybody interested such that they have “an equal chance to compete within the framework of goals and the structure of rules established”.

Equality of Educational Opportunity

Equality of educational opportunity is one of the enticing and difficult concepts in educational administration. The concept emerges with two possible interpretations that still appear very difficult to comprehend for adequate procurement. The two basic interpretations are as follows:

Equal opportunity to (right) education

As an interpretation of the concept is seen by philosophers as non–problematic, this is because the term equality does not make much difference to the general meaning of the claim that every person has a right to education naturally. It derives from a more fundamental right conferred by a common citizenship if the Constitution spells it out. However, even if the Constitution does not spell out the right to education, the fact that the human being is born into a social entity has to socialize its members that socialization alone will certainly amount to education. Thus by virtue of being born, the social right to education is obtained equally. The emphasis here is not on the type of equality of education but on the natural right to education, and everyone, whether slave or master receives some form or another as of equal right. This type of equality is vague as it does not take cognizance of the ability or interest or the learner. Also, this type of equality does not worry about the quality or education, does not worry about the relevance or the education to the particular learner or the importance or the implication of the education to the society. The important and notion emphasis is on the fact that no individual is denied access to education, while the emphasis on the educational implication for the individual or society is not matters of any concern.

Right to equal education

This second interpretation seeks to show everyone has right to obtain educational opportunity. The emphasis is on the benefits one obtains from education. However, it may be interpreted to imply that everyone, no matter the need, background, and interest shall be subjected to the educational experiences, facilities, and outcomes. The argument to support this type of interpretation is that unless such a practice is engaged in, discrimination will set in. Nonetheless, if discrimination is not involved the practice will be guilty of treating equals, unequally and equal equally. The practice will be unethical, unhealthy and undesirable. Application of the measure will be the enthronement of mediocrity and brazen disregard of individual difference. The way out is to articulate the background, environment, interests, needs, and capabilities as factors that need to be positively compensated in the provision of educational opportunities. This is referred to as a positive discriminatory approach to equality of educational opportunity.

Access to Quality Education

Early childhood learning and development: Every jurisdiction provides Kindergarten programs, whether full-day or half-day, mandatory or voluntary. Six of the provinces offer full-day Kindergarten, with others considering it. Statistics Canada numbers show that in seven provinces, school districts offer junior Kindergarten for four-year-olds. Over 90 per cent of five-year-olds are attending Kindergarten across Canada.

Elementary and high school systems: The vast majority of the school-age population from 5 to 17 years of age is attending school. At age 15, this is 95 per cent and at age 17 it is 91 per cent, including registrations in college and university. In 2010, the attainment rate for youth under 25 had risen to 78.3 per cent. When those over 25 are included, the rate rises even higher, indicating the strength of adult educational offerings. The early leaver rate has also been decreasing over the past 10 years. International tests have revealed the high overall scores achieved by students in Canada. As well, indicators of an equality of educational opportunity included the narrow gap between the scores of the highest performers and those of the lowest performers and the high proportion of students scoring at the high levels and fewer at the lower levels in comparison with other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Factors such as socioeconomic status of students had less of an impact than in other countries.

Postsecondary education: According to the Joint Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, and Statistics Canada report, Education Indicators in Canada: An International Perspective, 2009 figures for highest level of education attained indicate that about half of the population aged 25 to 64 have successfully completed a program of postsecondary education, far above the average for OECD countries. One-quarter (24 per cent) have a certificate or diploma from a college, while 25 per cent has earned a degree. Further research indicated that the level of parental education is a strong determinant for student participation in postsecondary education. Aboriginal populations showed much lower levels of access to and graduation from university than the non-Aboriginal population, but have similar rates of college completion.

Adult learning and skills development: A 2008 study, the Access and Support to Education and Training Survey, revealed that between July 2007 and July 2008 almost half of the Canadian population aged 18 to 64 had participated in some type of formal education credit program or training, with 18 per cent in formal education and 34 per cent in training. The vast majority of training programs were supported by an employer. The level of previous education had a strong influence on participation in training.

Some Indicators of Equality of Educational Opportunity

Achievement Gaps

The Coleman report also found higher achievement for both low- and high-SES students was associated with a higher average SES student body. The findings on composition were used extensively to promote policies that would increase both racial and socioeconomic integration of schools. The findings were part of the reason for Coleman’s initial support for busing and his support for policies that increased the socioeconomic integration of schools. Coleman later dropped his support for busing, believing it led to “White flight”—that is, Whites’ departure from cities to escape busing plans (Coleman, Kelly, & Moore, 1975). However, longer term research has suggested that busing affected the pace but not the ultimate extent of changes in White urban school enrollments (Wilson, 1985).

Schools effect

In the early 1980s, Coleman revisited the issue of school effects with new research on Catholic and other private high schools. Using a 1980 national survey called High School and Beyond, Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore (1982) and Coleman and Hoffer (1987) reported that Catholic and other private high schools produced higher achievement than public high schools. Moreover, achievement was more equitably distributed by social class in Catholic than in public schools. Interestingly, the political characterization of Coleman’s findings shifted from his earlier work. In the 1960s and 1970s, liberal policies were threatened by the (incorrect) perception that “schools don’t matter; families do.” Meanwhile, conservative policies were bolstered by the emphasis on families as the source of inequality. By the 1980s, when Coleman did find school effects, his results were embraced by conservatives who favored vouchers for private schools, whereas liberals questioned the purported private school advantage.

While there is a contradiction in the popular responses to the 1966 and 1982 Coleman studies, there is no contradiction in the research results, despite the limited school effects found in the Coleman report and the positive school effects found in the later high school studies. Coleman et al. (1966) found a limited effect of school resources based on a study of public schools. In his 1982 and 1987 studies, Coleman expanded his sample to include public and private schools and found a positive effect of private schools on student performance.

The Status of Equality of Opportunity in Recent Educational Policy

As described in Coleman report and the follow up by Jencks and the Rand corporation informed Americans that public schools were not as powerful relative to outside educational influences as they had traditionally assumed, and that simply equalizing traditional input measures such as facilities, curricula, and teacher quality could not be counted on to equalize the disparate academic success – rates of different ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

It is difficult to demonstrate a direct causal claim between the “schools don’t make a difference” studies and the development of major compensatory education programs such as head start, title one, and upward bound because two of these programs predate the publication of Coleman’s study. However, the connection between Coleman’s thesis and the justification of new compensatory education programs sought to make the overall educational opportunities for children of different social groups more equal by compensating for inequalities in such children’s academic preparation that arise from non–school sources such as families and neighborhoods. These compensatory programs are still in existence and are the subject of yearly budget debates on the part of policy makers with different understandings of, or levels of commitment to, quality educational opportunity.

The ethos of equality that characterized educational policy making in the 1960s and 1970s was dramatically overwhelmed by the rise of excellence,” typically interpreted as higher standards for all students, as the reigning ideal of the early 1980s. During the earliest wave of excellence-oriented reform, the idea of raising standards was intertwined with a back – to t- the basics” motif. Frustrated by what they perceived as an understanding, relativistic, individualistic curricular trend perceived as an undemanding, relativistic, for longer school days and school – years, increased instructional time in core subjects like an academic achievement. Or, as Gretchen Guiton and Jeannie Oakes put it: “more of the same as a way to improve education” (1995, p.324).


Akinpelu, J. A. (1981) An introduction to philosophy of education: London, the Macmillan press Ltd.

Coleman, J. S., Campbell, E. Q., Hobson, C. J., McPartland, F., Mood, A. M., Weinfeld, F. D., et al. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Coleman, J. S., Kelly, S. D., & Moore, J. A. (1975). Trends in school segregation, 1968–73 (722-03-01). Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Okeke, C. C. (1989) philosophy of education: Owerri

Woods, R. G. and Barrow, R. C. (1975) an introduction to philosophy of education: London Methuen and Co. Ltd.

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