Inequality in Education: A Critical Analysis

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Several leading development agencies had posited education and equity as key themes at the onset of the 21st century. The United Nation's Millennium Development Goal (MDG) No.2 “Achieve Universal Primary Education” and MDG No.3 “Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women” are devoted to educational attainment and equity on a global level. UNESCO's Institute for Statistics (Sherman & Poirier 2007) recently published a book that compares education equity among 16 of the world's largest countries. Although the focus of this UNESCO volume was limited—using access to formal schooling and allocated resources to education as operational definitions of equity in the case countries— the selection of this topic by UNESCO emphasizes the urgency of education inequality analysis by and for educators, researchers, and policy makers. The World Bank's World Development Report(WDR) features a global development issue thought to be especially timely. The WDRs are generously funded and typically of high professional rigor. The discipline of economics is always well reported as expected. The WDR for 2006, in a line of such reports dating back to 1978, is titled Equity and Development. Equity or equality and its ubiquitously maligned antonym, inequality, is a theme that appears with uniform regularity in the publications of major development agencies as well as finding a home in the development prospectus of the smallest nongovernmental organizations. Linking equity to development in the title of the WDR 2006 will provide grist for the mill of only the most hardened of World Bank critics. Like us, many development professionals recognize the World Bank, with its enormous reach and prestige, for placing equity front and center on the development stage.

But why the urgency now? And, in any case, should our concern with equity go beyond the ideal of social justice to the heart of a development agenda? What is the known relationship, if any, between equity and development? And what role, if any, does inequality in educational attainment or learning achievement play in a nation's development ranking?