Skip to content Skip to navigation

Equality and Adequacy

Many people agree that education is an important good. Education is valuable, people claim, because it is a pathway to knowledge, to well-paid work, to full membership in political society and to flourishing. Because so much is at stake when it comes to educational opportunities we must ensure that such opportunities are distributed fairly, but what will that look like?

Two competing views about how to distribute educational opportunities have emerged. The first demands equality in the distribution of educational opportunities. These views may take the shape of one of the conceptions above or they may insist on equal educational outcomes or equal per pupil funding. Other views draw on a distinct distributive idea. They hold that education’s only or primary goal is to ensure an adequate education, which is consistent with unequal achievement and unequal per pupil funding. Some have held that once an education is adequate to equip a child with certain basic skills, inequality is not objectionable. Many accounts of adequacy have been defended, some of which are more inspired by ideals of social equality than others.

Debates about this topic concern the best account of adequacy in education and the question of whether any account of adequacy can specify a desirable account of educational justice when many of the benefits of education are positional, that is, they rely on one’s position relative to others with respect to education and not on how well educated that person is, whether badly or very well educated. The meritocratic distribution of jobs, where the most qualified candidate is appointed, ensures that positionality is decisive in many cases. Being better qualified than any other applicant, whether well qualified, very well qualified or poorly qualified, is what is decisive. Overlooking this fact is thought to be a flaw of adequacy approaches, but more sophisticated adequacy approaches attempt to address this issue. However, it is important to note that not all of the reasons we have to care about education are positional. For example, it may not matter whether some have more civic education than others so long as each has enough. Balancing concern for positionality and adequacy is a key aspect of this debate.


Anderson, Elizabeth . Fair Opportunity In Education: A Democratic Equality Perspective. Ethics, Ethics, 117, no. 4 (2007): 595-622.
Notes: This paper argues that debates about conceptions of opportunity in education should be focused on adequacy rather than equality. Anderson argues that an education adequate for a democracy will qualify students from all backgrounds to attain high positions.
Brighouse, Harry , and Adam Swift. Educational Equality Versus Educational Adequacy: A Critique Of Anderson And Satz. Journal Of Applied Philosophy, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 26, no. 2 (2009): 117-128.
Notes: This paper defends a conception of equality of opportunity in education against adequacy in education by appealing to some key advantages of equality and education as a positional good and also argues that inequalities in opportunity amongst those who have an adequate education can therefore be disturbing.
Brighouse, Harry , and Adam Swift. Equality, Priority, And Positional Goods. Ethics, Ethics, 116, no. 3 (2006): 471-497.
Notes: The paper discusses the idea of positionality of goods and the way that inequalities with respect to such goods (including education) can be justified if they are required to improve the position of the least advantaged.
Gutmann, Amy . Democratic Education. Princeton University Press, 1998.
Notes: This book argues for a democratic threshold principle for opportunity in education, which aims at securing for all the conditions under which children can become adults capable of participating effectively in a democracy. The book addresses issues such as higher education, primary education and democratic participation.
Jacobs, Lesley A. Equality, Adequacy, And Stakes Fairness: Retrieving The Equal Opportunities In Education Approach. Theory And Research In Education, Theory and Research in Education, 8, no. 3 (2010): 249-268.
Notes: This paper defends conception of equality of opportunity that is linked to stakes fairness, that is, how consequential certain choices or experiences are in determining our life prospects, as being better than adequacy approaches in evaluating schooling policies beyond school finance.
Koski, William S, and Rob Reich. When "adequate" Isn't: The Retreat From Equity In Educational Law And Policy And Why It Matters. Emory Law Journal, Emory Law Journal, 56, no. 3 (2007).
Notes: This paper emphasizes the positional aspects of education and the superiority of equality of opportunity in education, over adequacy approaches, in addressing them.
Reich, Rob . Equality, Adequacy, And K12 Education. In Education, Justice, And Democracy. Education, Justice, And Democracy. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Notes: This chapter provides a conceptual clarification of the differences between equality and adequacy approaches against a background of legal history and practical policy debates about schooling.
Satz, Debra . Equality, Adequacy, And Education For Citizenship*. Ethics, Ethics, 117, no. 4 (2007): 623-648.
Notes: This paper argues that an account of educational adequacy that focuses on equal status of citizens and allows some inequalities of funding, so long as it stems from private rather than public sources, is superior to many equality approaches to education.
White, John . The Dishwasher's Child: Education And The End Of Egalitarianism. Journal Of Philosophy Of Education, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 28, no. 2 (1994): 173-182.
Notes: The paper argues that some equality based approaches to education fail to meet relevant criteria but some sufficiency, or adequacy, based approaches do. The paper then draws out the implications for schooling.