Skip to main content

The Power of Circumstance: A New Approach to Measuring Education Inequality


In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the issue of inequality. Part of this resurgence can be traced to new evidence of persistent and widening wealth gaps. Average incomes may be converging globally as a result of high growth in emerging markets, stronger growth in many poor countries, and slow growth in rich countries. However, the evidence also shows that within countries a parallel process of income divergence, marginalization and rising inequality is also taking place. Put differently, the rising tide of global prosperity is not lifting all boats.

Much of the international debate on inequality focuses on the distribution of income across and within countries. Other dimensions of inequality have received less attention. This is unfortunate. Amartya Sen has described development as “a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy” by building human capabilities or their capacity to lead the kind of life they value. Income is a means to that end but it is a limited indicator of well-being. Moreover, a person’s income reflects not just personal choice but also their opportunities for improving health, literacy, political participation and other areas. Education is one of the most basic building blocks for the “real freedoms” that Sen describes. People denied the chance to develop their potential through education face diminished prospects and more limited opportunities in areas ranging from health and nutrition, to employment, and participation in political processes. In other words, disparities in education are powerfully connected to wider disparities, including international and intra-country income inequalities. This is why education has been identified as one of the most critical factors in breaking down the disadvantages and social inequalities that are limiting progress toward the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—development targets adopted by the international community for 2015.

Understanding patterns of educational inequality is critical at many levels. Ethical considerations are of paramount importance. Most people would accept that children’s educational achievements should not be dictated by the wealth of their parents, their gender, their race or their ethnicity. Disparities in educational opportunities are not just inequalities in a technical sense, they are also fundamental in equities—they are unjust and unfair. In an influential paper, John Roemer differentiated between inequalities that reflect factors such as luck, effort and reasonable reward, and those attributable to circumstances that limit opportunity (Roemer 1988).1 While the dividing line may often be blurred, that distinction has an intuitive appeal. Most people have a high level of aversion to the restrictions on what people—especially children—are able to achieve as a result of disparities and inherited disadvantages that limit access to education, nutrition or health care (Wagstaff, 2002). There is a wide body of opinion across political science, philosophy and economics that equal opportunity—as distinct from equality of outcomes—is a benchmark of egalitarian social justice. The theories of distributive justice associated with thinkers such as Amartya Sen, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin and John Roemer argue, admittedly from very different perspectives, that public policy should aim at equalizing opportunity to counteract disadvantages associated with exogenous circumstances over which individuals or social groups have no control. Given the role of education as a potential leveler of opportunity, it is a national focal point for redistributive social justice.

Considerations of economic efficiency reinforce the ethical case for equalizing educational opportunities. Education is a powerful driver of productivity, economic growth, and innovation. Econometric modeling for both rich and poor countries suggests that an increase in learning achievement (as measured by test score data) of one standard deviation is associated on average with an increase in the long-run growth rate of around 2 percent per capita annually (Hanushek and Wößmann, 2010; Hanushek, 2009; Hanushek and Wößmann, 2008). Such evidence points to the critical role of education and learning in developing a skilled workforce. Countries in which large sections of the population are denied a quality education because of factors linked to potential wealth, gender, ethnicity, language and other markers for disadvantage are not just limiting a fundamental human right. They are also wasting a productive resource and undermining or weakening the human capital of the economy.

International development commitments provide another rationale for equalizing educational opportunities. This is for two reasons. First, the commitments envisage education for all and achievement of universal primary education by 2015. Second, there is mounting evidence that inequality is acting as a brake on progress toward the 2015 goals. Since around 2005, the rate of decline in the out-of-school population has slowed dramatically. Based on current trends, there may be more children out of school in 2015 than there were in 2009. Caution has to be exercised in interpreting short-run trends, especially given the weakness of data. However, the past three editions of the UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report (GMR) have highlighted the role of inequality in contributing to the slowdown with governments struggling to reach populations that face deeply entrenched disadvantages (UNESCO, 2008, 2010, 2011). Therefore, picking up the pace toward the 2015 goals requires a strengthened focus on equity and strategies that target the most marginalized groups and regions of the world (Sumner and Tiwari, 2010; UN-DESA, 2009; UNESCO, 2010). It should be added that disparities in education relate not just to access, but also to learning achievement levels.

Accelerated progress in education would generate wider benefits for the MDGs. Most of the world’s poorest countries are off-track for the 2015 MDG target of halving income poverty and a long way from reaching the targets on child survival, maternal health and nutrition. Changing this picture will require policy interventions at many levels. However, there is overwhelming evidence showing that education—especially of young girls and women—can act as a potent catalyst for change. On one estimate, if all of sub-Saharan Africa’s mothers attained at least some secondary education, there would be 1.8 million fewer child deaths in the region each year. Thus while education may lack the “quick fix” appeal of vaccinations, it can powerfully reinforce health policy interventions.


Kevin Watkins

Former Brookings Expert

CEO - Save the Children UK


Get daily updates from Brookings