The Unfairness of Equality

875413_balanceIn what has turned out to be some of the best comment-produicing material on this blog, I wrote about Asperger’s Syndrome early this month. Amidst the comments, G. Broaddus dropped this little gem:

Fairness in the classroom is not always about giving equal tasks; it is sometimes about giving students an equal chance to succeed, and clearly a student with Asperger’s will need a different way to demonstrate learning than his or her “typical” peers.

He then later fleshed out that idea on his own blog with the post Fairness and equality in the classroom. Please check out his post to read some of these thoughts.

As we take this break and get ready to go back into our classes in January, I want to challenge you to reflect on how you may be being unfair in your quest to provide equality for your students. Though the subjects in the two linked posts deal with disabilities, I contend that equality is unfair for most people in most circumstances. This is why communism is such a flawed concept. Equality is, in many cases, counterproductive to the concept of hard work.

Speaking of fairs, the 204th Carnival of Education was posted this morning!

About Joel Wagner 522 Articles
Joel Wagner (@sywtt) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. So You Want To Teach? is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

11 Comments on The Unfairness of Equality

  1. Thanks for the link, Joel.

    A comment, though: There is certainly an application in my post for all teachers, regardless of whether you have special ed students in your classrooms. (In fact, I don’t think there will be any special ed students in any of my classes for student teaching this semester, across three grades and two schools.) The notion of accommodating students with disabilities – something that is relatively uncontroversial in education, I think – is merely a jumping-off point to think about the issue. Once we think about how unfair we can be to students of very disparate abilities, we can start to see the shades of grey in the middle.

  2. I believe that many recognize the inherent truth that equality isn’t equal. It’s just never been that bluntly stated. Multiple Intelligences theory, learning styles, phonics, & whole language are just a few of the ways our profession has tried to help individuals emerge with a similar mastery of concepts. On a more subtle note, whether you call on certain students or not, how you address the same misbehavior in the first-time offender vs. the repeat offender are automatic ways we are ‘unfair’ in order to be ‘equal.’ It gets sticky when you have to explain that it “IS TOO!” fair to let the kid who needs noise (and self-talk) during a test go in the hall so that the kid who has to have much quiet (and for me to read some problems to him) during the test can get his needs met too. I have a very small group, so supervision of both is no problem. They all have to have math, but some need tools & support to help them do it, and some don’t. Eliminating math doesn’t make it equal, altering the standards of or conditions of performance for those who need it does.

  3. You’re right on the money, Margaret – in fact, Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory and learning styles were on my mind even though I didn’t mention them. But it is useful to state the truth clearly so that we are all aware as educators of why we ought not to always strive for equality in at least one sense. Should we value each student equally? Of course. Must we demand equal work from all of our students? That’s where this conversation has been useful, I think. So I think we’re in agreement on the issue.

  4. In reading the posts the distinction appears to me to one of definition of terms. I would combine the two words to read as equally fair with the implication being equally fair treatment of each student. In my area, mainstreaming is the norm so in virtually every class there is one or more special needs students. Many of them come to class with their One on One Coach in tow.

    Just for me, the whole dichotomy surrounding fairness and equal treatment is artificial in nature. It reminds me of the mass production mechanics so typical of factories and I say this as a former member of the UAW and Teamsters. One of the reactions I have seen thus far is to advocate for individualized lesson plans. To me, this is impractical to an extreme and approaches the insane. However, there are viable solutions to the problems presented in a classroom with a wide disparity of individual student learning potentials. Custom tailoring a lesson plan for every student is not the answer and the tactic of “Robbing Peter to pay Paul.” in terms of time and resources is not the answer either.

  5. My daughter has a learning disability. She is repeating kindergarten in a mainstream class, but has been in the special ed system for a few years now.

    The experience of raising her, loving her, and helping her through the school system has certainly made me more sensitive to my students with learning difficulties. I used to take a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, but I have been learning to modify that for certain students.

  6. Hello – I have been following this good-reading blog for a while now and would like to comment on this. I am a student teacher and have worked as a paraed for the last few years. I fully agree that in order to see that all kids have equal opportunity to learn, that they most likely will not need “equal” learning environments. Though some may find it “sad”, I would see it as all right to take a student out of the class so they can learn in ways that are different from the rest of the majority of the class. But, additionaly, it would be nice to see more teachers work different learning environments into a single classroom to give all their students a chance to learn. By varying the working environment throughout the week (i.e. quiet worktime vs group work time, small learning groups and then whole class learning groups, etc)as well as how lessons are taught and work is accomplished, then this would give all students a good chance of learning.

  7. C. Lawson: I fully agree that in order to see that all kids have equal opportunity to learn, that they most likely will not need “equal” learning environments.

    Hmmm … actually, in order to insure maximum opportunity for learning to take place for all students the learning environment cannot be homogenous. So, the whole issue of which “one size fits all” model meets the needs of all is moot as it is a fiction. When I use the word “equal” in terms of the educational process I mean the best possible situation that is conducive to learning for each student. For instance, some of my students have a preference for, and seem to learn at a higher level, when they are listening to music. Other students seem to require something like a monastery environment in order to fully focus. My solution? iPods.

    I have a couple of special needs students who remain on a more emotional even keel if they listen to a specific piece of music. I had the sound track they like burned and it repeats for the entire 90 minutes long Mod. Works for them … so it works for me. To the casual observer my class presents as a 3 Ring Circus. Closer observation reveals a coherent unifying structure. The same lesson is being taught, it’s just being taught through multiple delivery vehicles.

  8. Frank: To the casual observer my class presents as a 3 Ring Circus. Closer observation reveals a coherent unifying structure. The same lesson is being taught, it’s just being taught through multiple delivery vehicles.

    Actually, that is what I was meaning … and I see how you support your students individual style of learning and giving them the best chance possible. That is the type of classroom that I hope to achieve. When I was a para working with special ed, we were always working toward keeping the students in the classroom as much as possible even though it was apparent that some students needed the time away from the classroom to do their best learning. Compromise can be a good thing and tayloring programs for students should be something we always consider.

    I really like your ipod idea … are the ipods the schools or the students? Do the students get to choose the music they listen to?

  9. Something I did along the same lines as the iPod is to allow students to record themselves playing when they are practicing by themselves either before or after school, or when we get occasional opportunities to do that during class. They aren’t supposed to have phones (or iPods for that matter) out during the school day, but when they are using the recording function rather than the phone function, I have no problem with it.

    Frank, have you by chance run that by the admin? I ask only because I know it could become a problem if a student complains about a certain song that another student was listening to or whatever. Sometimes it’s better for the principal to have some heads up before opening that can of worms…

  10. Hello Joel:

    Run it by Admin? Oh hell no!! There is a school wide ban on iPods, cell phones, skipping down the hallways … So long as I leave it alone, Admin is content to pretend it’s not happening. My one rule with the iPods is that I can’t hear what is playing when I walk by. I had a couple of Death Metal fanatics try to push it early on … we’re cool now.

    I like your self recording thing as I think it serves an instructional purpose and holds the potential for providing some positive strokes for students. I really don’t have any play with this approach. Chemistry just isn’t very “dynamic” in sight or sound.

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