Fair isn’t Equal


Here’s an interesting little experiment. It’ll only take a second. Type this post’s title into Google and look at what comes out.

For three little words with no direct link to teaching and learning, there’s a considerable number of education and child-rearing results generated. In fact, you could be forgiven for assuming this is a catch cry in education that borders on cliché.

It’s not though, at least, not in my experience. In fact, I was only introduced to the concept late last year when I heard, of all people, an ex NFL head coach Herman Edwards recalling his usual welcome-to-the-season speech.

“I told them all, I said, ‘I’m going to treat y’all fair but I’m not goin’ to treat y’all equal.’”

I heard Herm say this and instantly thought to myself, ‘This is useful! This has practical applications in my profession! This comment summarizes elegantly some of the inconsistencies I struggle with in the area of school rules and policies.

I could write for ages on examples here but I’ll try to be brief and only use one of the more interesting cases that I think illustrates the point.

Two years ago I was sitting with colleagues discussing a slightly bizarre problem that highlighted the pitfalls of strict enforcement of school policy.

One particular student was the focus of attention for a variety of reasons. His punctuality to school and class was gaining him unwanted attention, his attitude to work was inconsistent, his uniform was usually haphazard and his hair (brace yourself) was in dread locks. Not surprisingly it was the hair that was attracting the most immediate disapproval from some members of the discussion group and, if nothing else, this at least could be fixed in the short term. There was a view that he should be told to smarten up and get a haircut.

However there was a problem here. The hair policy of this school was that haircuts are deemed unacceptable if they are considered ‘extreme’, in the view of the Campus leaders and the Principal. If they announced that this boy’s hair was extreme and must be cut, than they were saying all dreadlocks are unacceptable and this had ramifications for other students.

Classifying the hairstyle as extreme had direct implications for one of our best students. He was conscientious and a high academic achiever. He was also a member of our student council, and gifted musician who was occasionally asked to perform at college functions. He wore the uniform perfectly every day and clearly took pride in it. He also had dreadlocks. This young man was less than a year away from completing high school and pursuing a music career where his hairstyle fitted in completely with his peers.

So, here was a situation where applying a strict and conservative interpretation of school policy on hair could easily achieve consistency and equity. No one argued with that…but some of us felt it sacrificed fairness’.

For the record, the students involved in this scenario completed their schooling satisfactorily and without their hairstyles ever being more than the catalyst for a philosophical discussion.

That’s what I first thought of when I heard Herm Edwards. I could have just as easily thought about the quote’s implications for pedagogy. If you teach a mixed ability class is it fair to assess them by the same standard? By teaching equally to all in your class are you in fact being unfair to students who can comprehend but need to process things slower than the rest? Maybe.

So there was my revelation. Fair isn’t always equal. I mentioned the phrase at work last year once and a few colleagues pricked up their ears to it the same way I had originally. I even caught up with a friend over the holidays, who, teaches at another school, and he’d heard Herm Edwards also and asked if I’d noticed the expression. It was as new and interesting to him as it was to me.

So, this week I thought about what to post on the blog and I reflected on all of this. ‘I must use this!’, I thought to myself, ‘This will be a brilliant blog post where I announce universal truth and wisdom to the world!’ Then I google the quote just to see if I can give Herm credit for coining the phrase.

Ha! Not only is he nowhere near the start of the search list, educationalists are all over the idea and Rick Wormeli has already written a book on it. So much for imparting new wisdom! I may as well stop a passing cyclist and inform them that there are these amazing engineering principles called ‘levers’, ‘gears’, and ‘wheels’, and if we put them together we might make something really useful.

Ah well, it’s a worthy idea and it was genuinely new to me so I’ve written about it regardless. I also have two new books to add to this year’s reading list so a lot of good has come of it already.

“Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assess & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom” Rick Wormeli

“You Play to Win the Game: Leadership Lessons for Success On and Off the Field” Herm Edwards

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