Equality is Not Enough – Why We Need Justice in Education.


Equality in education means treating everybody the same – everybody gets the same shot. But what if your success in later life is not only based on effort, but also on factors that you cannot control?  Were you born into a rich family? Did your parents put you in kindergarten? What was your pre-term birth weight? Shouldn’t we help low performing students more, given that they may experience such disadvantages?



  • How equality and justice are fundamentally different from one another.
  • Pre-school factors such as pre-term birth weight and early interventions affect a students’ later academic performance.
  • The good become better, the bad become worst –  a.k.a. the Matthew effect.
  • How countries differ with regards to equality and justice.
  • Justice is a question of attitude.


Equality and Justice – They Are Not The Same

agvpB66_700bEquality and justice don’t seem very different from each other, but they actually differ fundamentally in how we treat individuals in our society, especially in our education systems. These two words – equality and justice –  can become very polarising in that people either stand behind one or the other, not both. What does it mean to treat everybody equal or just?

Equality means, for example, that all students get the same exam, the same deadline for handing in an essay and the same treatment by teachers. It also means that the state spends the same amount of money on each student. Getting into a prestigious university or landing that high paying job would be 100% based on your effort, which was higher than all other applicants. Pat yourself on the back because you deserved it!

Justice on the other hand acknowledges that there are factors that contribute to later success that lie outside of an individuals’ influence. The idea is that if you get to the top it is not solely due to your effort, but due to clear advantages that you had, but others didn’t. Justice means that teachers spend more time with low performing students and that state funds are distributed unevenly to help the disadvantaged.

Whether you stand with equality of justice depends very much on your belief: Should all humans be treated equal or should we account for dis/advantages that some might experience? I want to show you research findings that exemplify how a students’ ability can be influenced by things that lie outside of their control – factors that affect their success irrespective of their efforts.


Pre-School Factors – Pre-Term Birth and Early Interventions

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 15.21.53There are factors that influence a childs’ later academic achievement from as early as their birth. For example, pre-term born children showed lower cognitive abilities when in school compared to full-term born children (Source).  The “Cases” in the graph refer to pre-term births, which clearly have a lower birth weight and also lower cognitive test scores than the “Controls” (full-term births). It is astonishing that something as early as your birth weight can influence your later cognitive abilities. Thankfully, our genes have not been found to influence academic success to this point in time (Source).

Early interventions such as kindergarten can also have an effect on students’ later academic performance. A meta-analysis revealed an effect size of 0.47,  which means that 33 out of 100 students show greater academic achievement in school if they experienced a form of early intervention such as kindergarten (Source). It is not vocabularyexactly clear why kindergarten might be beneficial, but we can make pretty reasonable assumptions. For example,  I mentioned in a previous post (here) that parents with a professional background speak much more with their children than parents with a welfare background. As a consequence, the vocabulary of children can vary by approx. 500 and 1,00 words by the age of 3  (see chart). This  can have a dramatic impact on later academic success in schools (Source). Children that go to Kindergarten are more exposed to spoken language on a day-to-day basis compared to children that stay at home. By the time kindergarten kids reach school they may already be able to read.


School Factors – The Good Become Better, The Bad Become Worse

Prior achievement is an incredibly good predictor for future academic performance. Think of our kindergarten example from before. These kids will have superior language abilities, start reading books at an earlier stage and get placed in an advanced class where they are challenged more. In contrast, kids that struggle with reading will fall behind, unable to keep up with the rest, eventually repeating a grade. Having said that, the good students will become better and the bad students will become worse – they drift apart and create a wider spread in performance. The accumulative advantage of high performers is also known as the Matthew effect and it’s an effect to be reckoned with.  Prior achievement “…will lead to gains in achievement on 48 percent of the occasions [effect size = 0.67],…” (Source). It is possible for low performing students to become a high performer, but you are much more likely to do so if your parents are wealthy. “…the children of educated or wealthy parents who scored poorly in the early tests, had a tendency to catch up whereas children of worse off parents who scored poorly were extremely unlikely to catch up and are clearly shown to be an at-risk group” (Source). 


Pushing For More Justice – Looking at Other Countries

agvpB66_700bFrom pre-term birth weight, to kindergarten and ones’ socio-economic status, a students’ achievement is strongly influenced by factors the they cannot influence. It is hard to argue for an equal society if you know that performance can be dependent on so many different things. In the end, it doesn’t matter WHY students perform better or worse than other students. The only thing that matters is the fact that some students perform worse than others and that this may be due to a disadvantage they experienced in their lives. A more just education system would allocate more resources to the ones that need them the most so that the disadvantages are countered.

Take a look at this striking paragraph from Amanda Ripley’s book “The Smartest Kids in the World”:

“In Finland and all the top countries, spending on education was tied to need, which was only logical. The worse off the students, the more money their school got. In Pennsylvania, Tom’s home state, the opposite was true. The poorest school districts spent 20 percent less per student, around $9,000 compared to around $11,000 in the richest school districts.
That backward math was one of the most obvious differences between the United States and other countries. In almost every other developed country, the schools with the poorest students had more teachers per student; the opposite was true in only four countries: the United States, Israel, Slovenia, and Turkey, where the poorest schools had fewer teachers per student” (Source).


A good education system does not only foster top performers, but also helps low performers with catching up. What needs to change is the attitude we have towards low performing students. They are not simply lazy, but their current abilities are the sum of all factors that influenced them over the years. Giving them extra support would create a more just education system. Treating kids in such a way also sends a powerful message: your success is partly based on advantages that others didn’t have. Support others that haven’t made it as far as you have.

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