Can Unequal be Fair?
This may sound like a no-brainer but when my kids were younger, I used the phrase “fair is not always equal” to justify unpopular parenting decisions. It seemed logical at the time and probably still maintains a modicum of reason in certain situations.
But in the face of the many conversations about the shrinking middle class and America’s increasing income differential, the “fair is not always equal” argument becomes far more problematic and suggests far higher stakes than sibling rivalry. There is no doubt that in America we have built a society of un-equal, or to put it correctly, inequality. In comparison to other countries, we are off the chart.
And everywhere we turn, we hear of its toll on kids…. The Children’s Defense Fund tracks and reports statistics on hungry children in threatening living conditions. The Education Trust details poverty’s impact on national achievement trends. Oregon’s Department of Education finds significant gaps in school readiness among kindergartners between the state’s wealthiest and poorest districts. And educators across the country can detail the increasing impact of poverty on their classrooms.
Our response, meager as it is, has been to add support to those who go without. From food stamps to Head Start, to Title 1, to Obamacare…the nation’s theory of action has been that increasing the opportunities and access among the poor and impoverished will fill the equity gap. But is that enough? Or are these measures necessary but insufficient?
My wonder comes from a 2009 study on income equality that examines health and social challenges through the lens of inequity. The authors found that the biggest toll on health indicators, such as life expectancy, infant mortality, substance abuse, chronic illness, mental health, and education performance , is less affected by going without (although that is huge) and more impacted by the equity gap between those who have, and those who don’t….that fairness thing. How is that? Well, it seems that our bodies hate stress more than other health issues that may need attention. So any reserves we have (and kids who are hungry don’t have a lot) attend first to relieving stress before anything else – such as fighting viruses or other more serious health challenges.
I think about the little things every day that probably seem unfair to kids, all of which are heightened by our electronic world and visual illustration of society’s inequities. And I think about all the ways that we inadvertently contribute to this, even in places like schools which were intended to be the great equalizer. I can think of dozens of ways our system reinforces inequality – from resource distribution between schools, to tracking policies within schools, to even small things within classrooms, like calling on kids with their hands up. (Yes, in one district there is an effort underway to have kids find an alternate, unobtrusive way to let the teacher know they’re ready with the answer that doesn’t shut others down who have not quite got it yet. Simple gestures like a thumbs-up on one’s chest can help all kids feel like everyone’s brain and voice matter.)
So can unequal be fair? At the end of the day, I have to say no, despite what I told my children those years ago. And while I may not be able to change the uneven income distribution, feed all the hungry children, solve the national achievement gap, or get every child ready for school, there are things that I – and each of us –can do to help children feel that at least some corner of their world is equitable. And fair.
Tips to Promote Classroom Fairness
Every teacher out there has strategies to promote equity and we’d love to hear them – we’ll share them in a community blog. But here are a few ideas to add to your repertoire:
Calling Patterns. It is easy to call on those who have the answer, but in doing so we can segregate kids in all sorts of ways (gender, processing speed, extraversion tendencies). Harvard Business School is teaching women to participate aggressively through tall hand-raising or shouting out. But there are other strategies in use that are also effective and fair, some as simple as drawing student names or assigned numbers on sticks to determine who to call on. One teacher we know places the sticks back into the jar after the kids are called on, surreptitiously turning them over so she won’t redraw the same name again. The kids don’t know that, though, and stay alert to the fact that they may get called again.
Language Support. Many students are slower to participate or opt out because of language issues. If you’re trying to get students to explain their math thinking, they may need as much (or more) scaffolding in language as in conceptual understanding. Try posting sentence strips in math (as you might in language arts) that students can turn to when they can’t find the words, such as “I think this because…” or “I agree with ________ because….”
Thinking Routines. Thinking routines give students a language to both organize and communicate their thinking. Once learned and practiced, they become internal graphic organizers that allow all students to enter a conversation. Our favorites come from Project Zerowhere you can even find a whole section of routines labeled Fairness Routines . Start with simple routines, such as See (What do I see?), Think (What do I think about that?), Wonder (What does that make me wonder?) or Connect (How does this connect to something I already know?)Extend (What new ideas do I have that extend my thinking?) Challenge (What questions do you have?)
Group Work Roles. Assigning specific roles and tasks to group work that rotate gives every student an equal chance to learn important group skills and know that they’ve contributed. Some teachers rotate group roles daily; others weekly – but clarity on how and why this happens will boost students’ feelings of fairness. Group roles might include: Resource Manager (collecting all the materials for each group task); Facilitator (ensuring that everyone understands the task and deciding how the group will work together); Captain (making sure everyone’s voices are heard in the process); and Reporter (recording and sharing out where needed).
Learning Groups. How students are grouped together is a strategic instructional decision and one that can have major impact on participation rates and a sense of inclusion. If groups are always heterogeneous, some students may feel reluctant to participate if other, more confident, students are present. On the other hand, if students are always grouped by ability, they miss the opportunity to extend their thinking and recognize quickly how the class has been segregated. One strategy we’ve seen is to ability-group students for skill development and then group them heterogeneously as they apply those skills, where a broad range of perspective and interpretation can extend everyone’s thinking. Regardless of your strategy, we suggest flexibility so that students see their learning environment as responsive and equitable.