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Justice First, Achievement Second: Rawls Revisited

by Robert O. Slater - July 22, 2019

The author of this commentary applies John Rawls' principles of justice to K-12 education policy.

For almost a quarter of a century, improving student achievement has been the dominant goal of American K-12 education policy, and standards and testing have been taken as the best way to achieve this goal (McGuinn, 2006; Steiner-Khamsi, Appleton, & Vellani, 2017). But for all of the programs tried, and the billions of dollars spent, achievement gains, measured at least in standard ways (NAEP, PISA, PIRLS, and TIMSS) indicate relatively small and disappointing progress.

Meanwhile, many critics maintain that our policies have not only produced desultory improvements in achievement but have had the side-effect of making schools less caring and just places for children to learn (Koretz, 2017; Noddings, 2005). Perhaps it is time we consider taking the production of just schools instead of achievement as our primary goal.

If we consider all we have learned about justice from the ancients to the present, this strategy of taking justice as our goal is not likely to result in lower achievement than we have already seen, and may well result in higher achievement, because human beings in general and children in particular cooperate better in just than in unjust environments, and cooperation is the sine qua non of successful teaching and learning. Even if this strategy proves no better for achievement than our present one, we can take consolation in knowing that by making our schools more just we do no worse for achievement but better for our country, as our K-12 educational institutions will be more in keeping and less at odds with a society committed to the democratic ideal as its main organizing principle (Scheffler, 1973).

To help us think of how we might achieve more just schools, we could start by revisiting John Rawls two principles of justice. Rawls, said to be the most important normative political philosopher of the 20th century (Kymlicka, 1990), published A Theory of Justice in 1971. The book has since become the go-to guide for judging policy and policymaking in and for a liberal democratic society.


The core of Rawls theory involves two principles of justice. The application of these principles to our schools suggests a number of implications, two of which, by way of example, I will mention in what follows. These are that: 1) in the interest of justice, we should make instruction more differentiated, and ability groups more open, and 2) we should develop equally and in an integrated fashion childrens cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains.



Rawls two principles of justice are about freedom and equality, two pillars of a democratic society.


The first principle deals with liberty and holds that each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others (Rawls, 1999, p. 53).


Now, applying this principle to education, we can say that each student has an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for other students, and, further, that the most extensive scheme of basic liberties in the context of education and educational institutions must include the liberty or freedom not just to learn but to do so as one learns best. Accordingly, on Rawls first principle, a just school would be one that offers different ways of learning or differentiated instruction to accommodate different learning needs or styles.


Differentiated instruction is hardly a new idea but for various reasons it has generally been overly restricted to students cognitive development. But reflection on the principles of differentiated instruction, particularly in the interest of justice, would suggest that it also be applied to the development of the affective and psychomotor domains as well, and not only to their equal development but also to their integrated development. In other words, a just school would focus on the development of the whole human being and not simply overemphasize one aspect at the expense of others.


The affective and psychomotor domains have also been interpreted too narrowly. The former has been viewed as having mainly to do with emotional or socio-emotional development, and while this is true it is also superficial; the use of these terms obscures the connection to moral development, which is much more to the point. Similarly, the psychomotor domain has been restricted too much to physical activity when it more importantly incorporates activities associated with procedural knowledge (Ryle, 1949), knowledge of the type common in good career education. A just school would have a curriculum that addressed all three domains at once and equally for all students.


Rawls second principle deals with equality and says, Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyones advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.


This principle can be applied to a number of educational situations, but a ready example is the creation of ability groups. According to this principle, for example, the teacher may separate students into different groups for purposes of providing them different instruction. Grouping, however, would have to be to the advantage of all, and would be if (a) it provided each student an instructional mode that matched his or her learning style, thus enabling each to learn as he or she best can, (b) if being in one group as opposed to another were done so as to entail no stigma or dishonor, and (c) if membership in each learning group were open to all, i.e., a student were able to move from one group to another.


These examples are only a few of the implications of applying

Rawls principles to education. Following Rawls, if we take the making of just schools as our first objective, and achievement as our secondary goal, we might find in the process that achievement improves more than it has so far.



Koretz, D. (2017). The testing charade: Pretending to make schools better. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kymlicka, W. (1990). Contemporary political philosophy : an introduction. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.

McGuinn, P. J. (2006). No Child Left Behind and the transformation of federal education policy, 19652005. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Noddings, N. (2005). The challenge to care in schools: an alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Rawls, J. (1999). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ryle, G. (1949). The concept of mind. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Scheffler, I. (1973). Reason and teaching. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Steiner-Khamsi, G., Appleton, M. and Vellani, S. (2017). Understanding business interests in international large-scale student assessments: a media analysis of The Economist, Financial Times, and Wall Street Journal. Oxford Review of Education 44(2), 190203.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 22, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22983, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 8:28:46 AM

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About the Author
  • Robert Slater
    The University of Louisiana at Lafayette
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT O. SLATER coordinates the doctoral program in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's College of Education and directs research development for the Cecil J. Picard Center for Child Development and Lifelong Learning.
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