Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Educational Administration and the Inequality of School Achievement

  • John Clark
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_289


One of the biggest and most pressing educational problems confronting many countries around the world today is the inequality of school achievement. Although the problem has long been with us, in recent times, it has become far more transparent through the use of international measurements such as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), and especially OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). All three report their 3- or 5-year findings in ways which not only rank the performance of the participants from top to bottom, above and below a central standard (e.g., a score of 500) but also identify the range of scores within individual countries between the highest and lowest achievers. Some nations rank consistently well or poorly, while others rise and fall in the rankings; some countries have a very narrow range of scores between top and bottom students, while others have a very wide distribution. For many countries, the range of scores are distributed in ways which reveal that certain groups of children perform well, while other groups of children do not; in countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, white/Asian/middle-class children tend to do well, while brown/indigenous/immigrant/working-class children tend to do less well. The data, although not beyond justified criticism, does point to some uncomfortable conclusions about differences in school achievement which reflect underlying social inequalities.

What to do about the inequality of school achievement in countries where it exists to any significant extent is something which continues to exercise politicians, policy makers, teachers, and commentators, especially when a new set of results is made public. One country has become so concerned about the problem that the Minister of Education not only established a Ministerial Cross-Sector Forum on Raising Achievement but also took a document to Cabinet seeking support for a new initiative, Investing in Educational Success:

New Zealand has an achievement challenge. Our top students are doing as well as students anywhere in the world, but there is a big gap between our top performing students and those who are not doing so well. International studies also tell us that we are not keeping pace with other high performing countries and jurisdictions and are falling short of our own previous results. We must do better and raise the quality of learning and achievement across the board. Doing this requires whole of system improvement. (Parata 2014, s4)

The document continues:

Evidence demonstrates that investing in the profession by raising the quality of teaching and leadership provides the best opportunity to deliver the improved educational outcomes we seek. (Parata 2014, s5)

This captures the problem various countries face.

Addressing the achievement challenge requires two things: explanations which causally account for the inequality and solutions which can have a significant impact on the causes. Given the search for a “whole of system improvement” then educational administration looms large. And never far away from it all lurk philosophical problems. Surprisingly, however, this is an issue which attracts very little philosophical attention, partly because of the scope of the achievement challenge. To be sure, much has been written on discrete elements of the issue (e.g., equality, learning, causal factors, educational administration), but these tend to be treated in isolation rather than connected as part of a coherent and systematic whole. Consequently, there is a dearth of philosophical literature which explores the matter from first to last.

Achievement: Education or School?

Facing up to the achievement challenge depends very much on what sort of achievement is being considered. Sometimes it is cast as educational achievement (Snook and O’Neill 2010, 2014) but this seems to spread the achievement net too wide when education is conceived in the broadest of terms as the qualities of an educated person. Making any progress on this account of achievement would be overly ambitious, even though highly desirable. A narrower definition of achievement, restricted to school learning of the kind which can be measured in some meaningful way, as with PIRLS, PISA, and TIMSS, has the advantage of greater empirical precision but does come at the cost of capturing a very limited range of what students have learned and can do which may not always be to their advantage.

Difference and Equality

Differences are one thing; inequalities are another. Differences abound, in schools no less than other social institutions, but not all differences amount to inequalities. Differences in hair color, when it comes to school achievement, count for nothing. But when differences in school achievement are along, for example, class, ethnicity, or gender lines, then equality comes into consideration, and conceptual trouble enters. Winter (2010) defines the “attainment gap” as “the inequalities in schools in terms of educational outcome between learners with different backgrounds and capabilities” and considers it important because “benefits accruing from an education are substantial and where such a gap exists, it leads to large disparities in the quality of life many young people can expect to experience in the future” (pp. 276–277). She makes reference to “equal educational opportunity,” this being the idea that “every learner should have equal access to an equally good education, requiring on most accounts, the same allocation of educational resources” (p. 277). This requires some refining.

Equality of Access or Opportunity

In a very simple sense, equality of opportunity entails that all are permitted to step up to the starting line and enter the race, so to speak. No one is denied the opportunity of entering but this is about as far as equality of access takes us. Beyond this, future achievement or success is very much a matter of personal effort coupled with a measure of good luck. The problem is that initial inequality is maintained, even exacerbated rather than diminished.

Equality of Treatment

If unequals are treated equally, then it is clear that the initial inequality will be maintained and possibly, in practice, widened. This would be manifestly unjust if the original state of inequality was unjust. It seems reasonable to treat unequals unequally on the understanding that unequal treatment must be to the advantage of the least advantaged child if a measure of equality is to be obtained.

Equality of Outcomes

If unequal treatment is to be justified, it must be on the grounds of achieving some end state such as the equality of outcomes cashed up as the life chances all children should enjoy which neither significantly advantages nor disadvantages them by virtue of their gender, social standing, economic wealth, health status, religious conviction, political status, or right to human happiness.

A Simple Model

A simple (and perhaps simplistic but nonetheless useful) model helps to understand the various parts of the problem and how they connect, albeit in complex ways:
$$ \mathrm{Inputs}-\mathrm{Process}-\mathrm{Outputs}-\mathrm{Outcomes}. $$
Outputs: Where things begin, being that which children produce as a result of learning – their performances in, for example, PIRLS, PISA, and TIMSS.

Outcomes: The sorts of lives children will live in the future when adults which will be marked by differences in health, wealth, housing, status, influence, longevity, and the like. Philosophers have had much to say, too much to list here, about the aims and ends of education, of living a good life, of being life-long learners, of being good citizens, and the nature of a good society.

Process: Learning lies at the very heart of the inequality of school achievement – the external world is experienced through our senses (as inputs) and captured in learning, while the outputs are produced from learning stored in memory.

Inputs: From the stimulation of our senses, we posit things beyond us, in the world, to account for the sensory experiences. So is built our theory of the world, of what exists, and it is from this that we begin to explain what we learn and how we learn.


Addressing the achievement challenge requires careful consideration of the causes of and solutions to the inequality of school achievement. One of the most detailed analyses of the inequalities in school achievement is to be found in the collected work of Nash (2010) who provides a painstaking realist account of a very wide range of causal factors. Another is Reardon (2011). However, all too often the issue is framed by the within/beyond school dualism: within-school factors include teacher and leadership quality, curriculum and assessment, school learning environments, and various reform initiatives such as charter schools, while beyond school factors include family circumstances (income, health, housing, neighborhood), employment conditions (business decisions), and government policies (taxation, revenue distribution). However, the distinction is flawed.

Snook and O’Neill (2010) examine the within/beyond school distinction in some detail. They point out that there is both a strong relationship between home background and educational achievement and that teachers can make a difference to student achievement. What is at stake, however, is the relative weight to be given to the two sets of factors. They make some important observations: (1) consideration must be given to both the broad social patterns at the macrolevel of analysis and specific individual lives at the microlevel if a full account is to be given of why it is that many children in poverty underachieve, but not all, and why some children underachieve when not impoverished, and (2) although the focus is on the mechanisms of social class which generate the inequality of school achievement, this may lead to identification of “broader social and economic policy that also need to be changed” (p. 12). They conclude that radical changes to schooling have a limited effect on achievement inequality, and while schools can make a difference, this is not enough.

The within/beyond distinction, largely accepted by Snook and O’Neill, comes in for criticism from Brighouse and Schouten (2011) who identify some problems with the dichotomy. They argue that while some important factors fall neatly into one side of the dualism or the other, others do not: some fit neatly into neither category, and others seem to fit into both. An example they give of the latter is the lengthening of the school day and year which is clearly a within-school initiative but is also a neighborhood-changing reform impacting on parents where their longer periods of employment can earn them more money and their children have less time for risky activities. They conclude “…because many policy and practical interventions influence what happens both within and outside the school, the dichotomy does not help” (p. 508). But they offer no alternative theoretical conception.

Clark (2011) does. He rejects the dualism, advancing instead a proximal/distal continuum as a more powerful explanatory account of causal factors. The proximal (closest to the action) grade off to the distal edge. The proximal need not be the most powerful explanatory factors and the distal least so. Some furthest out may be some of the most important causal mechanisms. All relevant factors range across the continuum with weightings distributed where they fall, varying from one student to the next within the general class of all students. This would allow for fine-grained explanations of individual student achievement contained within larger groups of differentiated achievement.

Deficit Theory

The extension beyond within-school measures to include beyond school factors means, as Nash (2010) made plain, fronting up to the charge of “deficit theory” leveled against those who seek causal explanations in families and communities rather than in schools. Deficits, in a descriptive sense, arise when something is lacking which is needed in order to proceed to something else. If a new entrant child lacks some prior learning (phonic awareness) required for more advanced learning (competent reader), then there is a learning deficit, and this is an empirical matter. So too is the cause of the deficit, usually located in the home such as parental illiteracy which itself may be a causal consequence of factors further out in the distal past (low parental school achievement in a climate of poverty and unemployment). Intervention with remedial programs in the school can go some way to alleviating the deficit, but not all the way. More is required well beyond the school.

The charge of “deficit theory,” however, often carries with it a pejorative element that those who locate the causes of inequality in the family and community are also laying blame on parents and communities for the deficit, when the culpability really lies with schools. But moral responsibility is inescapable for it is human conduct which creates the policies and distributes the resources which generate and reproduce the inequalities. It is easy with the within/beyond school dualism to apportion blame such that all of it is attached to teachers and principals and none on politicians and educational administrators, but the proximal/distal continuum places blame where it may fall, be it the waywardness of the child, the neglect of the parents, the poverty of the community, the policies of governments, or their implementation by officials. In short, this is not to blame the victim, the child, but to hold to account all those in the causal chain deemed culpable and, giving due weight to each, hold them all variously responsible for what they have done and what they could do.


Learning lies at the very heart of the inequality of school achievement. What children learn (inputs) and remember becomes important at some other time (sooner or later) when they informally (response to a teacher’s question) or formally (PISA) demonstrate the extent of their learning. An important distinction comes into play – the etiological and the constitutive, with the senses being the boundary. The former are all those factors which fall along the proximal/distal continuum, for it is they which bear directly on experience and are learned, remembered, and forgotten, drawn upon to display learning (outputs) which impacts on the outcomes where they too are located in the etiological. The constitutive is where learning takes place, and here things get philosophically murky. Davis (2004), for example, is critical of brain-based learning, advocating instead an explanation of learning in terms of mental states (intentional ones about real things) and propositional attitudes, or the attitudes we have towards propositions (e.g., hope, wish, believe). Others are more sympathetic to the claims of neuroscience. Schrag (2013) is one such. He offers a reasonably balanced view of the strengths and weaknesses of neuroscience for teachers. Neuroscience may do better at explaining learning as a neural activity which on occasions may generate new findings which feed into decisions about enhancing learning. It is more unlikely that neuroscience will make new classroom pedagogies available to teachers. In short, neuroscience is strong on explanations of learning which contribute to the background information teachers draw upon to make practical decisions about learning and teaching but on its own it has much less to offer by way of practical interventions which can improve teaching practice to effect raised student achievement. Yet all is not lost for neuroscience and brain-based theories of learning, as the use of cognitive enhancers (medicines such as those used with Alzheimer’s patients being taken by students to improve their short-term memory in high-stakes assessments) indicates.


All too often, the policy initiatives proposed, and sometimes implemented, are disconnected from the causes and so fail to do the work required of them. It is noticeable how “solutions” come and go while the achievement challenge remains because the interventions do not home in on the causes of the inequality (Brighouse and Schouten 2011; Snook and O’Neill 2010). The reason for this has much to do with the stranglehold that the within/beyond school dualism has on thinking about the inequality of school achievement. It is easier for politicians and policy makers if solutions are restricted to the within-school variety for responsibility can then be placed firmly on schools and their teachers to be held accountable for the success or failure of their students. Interventions take various forms, for example, curriculum reform (Winter 2014), new types of schools (charter schools), behavioral change programs, innovative learning environments (flexible, digitally based, open-plan classrooms), school-based initial teacher preparation courses, in-service workshops to raise teaching and leadership quality, and the like. Like the pillars of ancient Greek temples, each initiative stands in isolation, disconnected from the rest so there is no coherent and unified strategic approach.

A better way to proceed is to adopt the idea of a web where all the parts are interconnected. Initiatives right across the board form a seamless whole, ranging from those which have a distinct school flavor (such as those above) to those far removed from schools but which impact so significantly on the inequality of school achievement (government policies and resource provision in such things as health, employment, welfare, job training, and the like). If the State is to successfully address the inequality of school achievement, then it must address the wider inequality embedded deeply in the social fabric of society.

Administrative Action

What are educational administrators at the national level to do if they are to introduce systems-level interventions designed to significantly reduce the glaring and growing inequalities in school achievement of a nation State? A very clear message has emerged, early and late. Evers (1993) observed that administration includes “a grasp of the politics necessary for understanding what is required for implementation” (p. 259), while more recently Snook and O’Neill (2014) argue that “There must also be changes in the wider community and this will require changes in social and economic policy” (p. 38) which include but are not limited to parental support and the enhancement of family and community well-being. And it is here where educational administrators come face to face with an unwelcome reality:

The widespread acceptance of the essentially political view that the educational system is responsible…for social disparities in achievement makes it unnecessary in certain respects to develop an account of the mechanisms that actually generate the inequalities it fails to correct. If the initial disparity is actually rooted in home resources and practices, then…the implications for educational policy are minimal. (Nash 2010, p. 256)

If educational administrators at the national level are to confront the achievement challenge, then they face their own achievement challenge when it comes to whole of system improvement designed to redress the problem of the inequality of school achievement.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Massey UniversityPalmerston NorthNew Zealand