Can we operationalize moral and philosophical concepts in global monitoring agendas? the example of equity in education

Montjourides, Patrick (2018). 'Can we operationalize moral and philosophical concepts in global monitoring agendas? The example of equity in education' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


By many accounts the Sustainable Development Agenda represents a new form of global development agenda. Roles and responsibilities of stakeholders have evolved and so has the definition of global development (Bexell & Jönsson, 2017; Scholte & Fredrik, 2017). In education at least two key differences between the Sustainable Development Goals and the Millennium development Goals (MDGs) can be highlighted. The first is the heavy development of the monitoring framework and the increasingly important role of data and indicators in the global development structure. A second difference lies in the expanded definition of educational development that comes out of the scope and wording of SDG 4. The explicit focus on learning and education quality as well as the substantial emphasis on equity are probably the two most influent features of this new agenda. At the intersection of these two differences stands a particularly important yet neglected issue; how do we move from philosophical concepts, such as equity in education, for which no universal account is agreed upon, to a monitoring framework that holds countries accountable, will shape power relationships and form the basis for a benchmarked reality construct.

Quantifying has been described as a two stage process which implies first to agree upon conventions of quantification to enable common and agreed understanding of the actual measurement. And the action of measuring, associating a quantity to a phenomenon, comes only once these conventions have been agreed upon (Desrosières, 2014).

Equity differs from other dimensions of the education monitoring agenda as it appeals to quantifying social justice and fairness, concepts of political philosophy, as opposed to the more traditional and more easily conceptualized inputs, outputs and outcomes of education systems. Learning outcomes, for instance, the other main focus of the global monitoring agenda, is subject to debate with regards to which set of skills and competencies should be measured but the general construct remains well defined and methods of measurement are relatively clear. Equity however, and in particular equity of education systems is associated with fairness of processes and outcomes in education. A domain for which there are even reasons to think that mechanisms of choice and dialogue towards global consensus have yet to be refined. How does one associate a valid quantity to a philosophical concept? Is the global education community promoting a specific conceptions of equity in education? An external observer might wonder which conception of equity in education is agreed upon at the global level and to what extent the global monitoring approach is fitted to measure equity in education. The question has been asked for instance of the definition of fairness in education brought forth by the OECD in its policy documents (Bøyum, 2014). It is extended in this paper to the view implied by the Sustainable Development Goals agenda.

This paper compares the conception of equity in education brought forth by the SDG agenda with two accounts of social justice: the recent developments of the capability approach into a partial theory of social justice (Nussbaum, 2000; Walker, 2006) and the Rawlsian approach exposed in A Theory of Justice (Rawls, 1971) and subsequent writings; a resourcist conception when it comes to the distributional aspect of education, which has influenced many researchers notably with the notion of fair equality of opportunities. Following Bøyum (2014) the paper uses a simplified normative analysis to discuss the view of equity and fairness constructed through the SDG agenda and its monitoring framework.

The paper demonstrates that defining equity in education from Rawls amounts to seek pure procedural and relative justice while the capability approach associates with imperfect procedural and absolute justice (Barry, 1965). On the one hand the equitable nature of the distributional process can be measured while on the other hand it is more complex and uncertain despite the fact that the equitable nature of the outcome can be assessed. Furthermore, while both theories seem to converge towards the need for a minimum set of educational capabilities, both as an end in itself (for the capability approach) and as instrumental to achieving other capabilities and basic liberties, this minimum set has yet to be properly defined. Turning to the SDG agenda, the paper advances that the absence of a conceptual framework for approaching equity in education at the global level leads the proposed monitoring framework to both violate initial guidelines provided by Member States, and to impose a fraught definition of equity in education.

This paper thus shows that in the process of quantifying equity in education the critical step of agreeing upon theoretical grounding for conventions of measurement becomes very complex and is an issue that academics have yet to solve. This in turn raises questions about the development of the global monitoring agenda as the apparent simplicity and decisiveness of the operational framework is reached at the expense of strong conceptual groundings despite the importance of social justice theories in upholding human development values and the substantial consequences that the indicator framework will engender. This raises a number of follow-up research questions. Can the pragmatism associated with the development of global monitoring agenda be reconciled with more thoughtful thinking about measurement? Is it at all possible to propose articulated rules and principles for education equity indicators on the model of what has been done for poverty and economic inequalities for instance?

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