Fair Isn't Equal



I recently came across the following visual:




The caption shared by Joe Bower on his blog For the Love of Learning was “Fair isn’t equal; fair is when everyone gets what they need.”  This really got me thinking about the concept of fairness. How do we, as a society, determine what is fair?  

Joe’s caption reminded me of a quote from Rick Lavoie, a professional who works with teachers and students with learning disabilities. Lavoie suggests that the definition of “fairness” is really quite different from what most people believe. Most people believe that “fairness means that everyone gets the same”; whereas in reality “fairness means that everyone gets what he or she needs.”

Look at the image; there is nothing unfair about the picture to the right, is there? And yet, nevertheless, it has been my experience that people most often determine fairness through equality.

If you ask my kids, equal is fair.  They each want the same amount of ice cream for dessert. They want the same amount of spending money at the mall. And if one has a sleepover, the other somehow feels entitled to one, too.

Are they right? Is equal the only measure of what is fair? What if one of my kids ate a birthday cupcake from a classmate at school; is it still fair that she have the same amount of ice cream as her brother? 

Let’s extend this concept to education. In a classroom of 4th graders all students are expected to read the same Hebrew prayer and master it by the same due date.  This is certainly equal; but is this fair?  One of the criticisms of inclusion that I have heard most often is of fairness: “It's not fair to have different expectations for different students.” Why not?

Using the same Hebrew example, what if a student hasn’t yet grasped the concepts covered by the assignment? Is it unfair to extend the due date to allow for remediation?  And if a student excels, shouldn’t he have the opportunity to move forward and be challenged?  Meeting each child where they are currently functioning isn't unfair to the other students.

When we determine fairness based on need we capitalize on an educational philosophy that is not only fair, but helps all students to reach their full potential.  Not a predetermined potential that we expect all students to eventually reach; but their own individual potential.  This is the premise upon which differentiated instruction is based. 

Fair isn’t equal.  Fair is ensuring that everyone receives what he or she needs.

8 comments:

  1. Excellent! As a parent, we try to keep things "even" and equal. I don't want to show "favoritism" but there has to be a realization of each individual and their specific needs. I love home schooling because of that very advantage. I love your closing line- FAIR isn't EQUAL- it's ensuring everyone receives what he or she needs!

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  2. Hmmm... I tried to comment a few days ago and it doesn't seem to have gone through. If it did, and you're just running behind checking up on this, please ignore this comment. (Or, if this one seems better, delete the other one :-) )

    I think the problem with "fair" vs. "equal" is that "equal" is easy to point to. Either everyone got the same, or they didn't. Justifying differential treatment as "fair" is much harder. We strive to give each child what s/he needs, but we are really guessing at what that is, and it is also a moving target. Is this child at this time ready to be pushed to the next step? Is "what s/he needs" that extra push, or time to consolidate previous steps? Is the goal to bring the child to some minimum level of competency? To go to college? These are questions which a homeschooling parent can revisit on a regular basis, but a school needs to have a rubric in order to show that this kind of "fairness" actually is fair.

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    1. Thank so much. I agree with you and especially like your thought that striving to give each child what he/she needs is "a moving target". I think, however, that in a conventional school setting, it is the responsibility of the professionals to determine academic need and work to meet it - all the while, ensuring that parents and students themselves understand that this is, in fact, fair.

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  3. Great post. I agree that life isn't fair and just because you do something for one child doesn't mean that you should be expected to do the same for your other children.

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    1. Thanks, Christy! Parenting and educating both require that we pay attention to the balance.

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  4. Great points! Fair and equal shouldn't always be the same! Of course, for children, that is all they understand, but that is why we should help them to understand differently. I have even used a reverse example - Our oldest is expected to do more chores because he can handle more responsibility, so would it be fair to give our 3 year old the same amount of chores? Of course not! Why then should they all receive the same amount of other things as well? Obviously they shouldn't in all things! Education certainly should be considered by needs.

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  5. I'm smart, but forgetful, so my math teacher gives me extensions on homework.

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    1. Anna, that's a great accommodation. I hope that it helps you to succeed in math!

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