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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

‘Fair Is Not Equal’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 17, 2019 21 min read
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The idea that treating students fairly can be different from treating them equally is a phrase similar to the title of a popular education book by Rick Wormeli (who will be “wrapping up” this four-part series with a written commentary). This topic is discussed a lot in schools, but what does it actually look like in the classroom?

Educators will explore this issue over the next few days in this column.

Today, Dr. Rocio del Castillo, Dr. Julia Stearns Cloat, Holly Spinelli, Sabrina Hope King, Joe Feldman, and Dr. Felicia Darling provide their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Julia and Holly on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best “Fair Isn’t Equal” Visualizations and previous posts appearing here on Differentiating Instruction.

Response From Dr. Rocio del Castillo & Dr. Julia Stearns Cloat

Dr. Rocio del Castillo began her career as a school psychologist in Peru and has dedicated her professional career to being an advocate for educational equity and social justice. Her rich and diverse experience includes serving for over 20 years in both public and private school systems, where she has received recognition and accolades for her work in the special education, bilingual, and dual- language settings. Rocio currently serves as assistant superintendent for special services in Huntley Community School District 158 (Illinois) and as an adjunct professor.

Dr. Julia Stearns Cloat has spent the past 25 years working in unit school districts in roles including literacy specialist, instructional coach, and curriculum director and has earned awards for her work in student services. Her areas of expertise and passion include educational equity, literacy, curriculum development, instructional coaching, and RtI/MTSS. Julia currently works as a coordinator in Kaneland School District 302 and as an adjunct professor at Northern Illinois University:

Any parent or teacher of young children is very familiar with a child’s sense of what is fair. To young children running a race on the school playground, fair simply means starting at the same place. It is when students leave the race on the playground and enter the metaphorical race to academic achievement that the difference between “fair treatment” and “equal treatment” becomes crucial.

In the race to education, fair is not equal. Treating students equally means that all students receive the same treatment regardless of their needs. For example, a student who is a native English speaker has access to the exact same materials, resources, instruction, and supports that are available to the emerging bilingual student. Or a student who has a solid foundation in math that was obtained through consistent quality tier 1 math instruction and home support receives the exact same instruction as a student who has had gaps in learning due to high mobility. Equal treatment only works well if the children are starting from the same place.

The reality is that treating students “equally” can only be fair if all students begin at the same starting point and can achieve success with the exact same opportunity, treatment, access, and resources.

Equity is achieved when all students receive what they need, when they need it, so they reach the K-12 finish line of being college, career, and life ready. Furthermore, educational equity means that every student has access to the educational resources and rigor they need at the right moment in their education regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, language, disability, sexual orientation, family background, and/or family income.

Educational equity in the classroom could mean that the student who is a native English speaker has access to the core materials, resources, and instruction, while the emerging bilingual student has access to culturally and linguistically responsive materials and supports that are taught by appropriately certified teachers who learn about their students’ diverse education needs. It means that the student who has gaps in the conceptual-math knowledge has additional resources, supports, and instruction in order to provide the student with opportunities for grade-level success.

The difference between treating students “fairly” and treating them “equally” is a powerful difference. The opportunities we provide students are a reflection of the value that we place on fairness, justice, and individuals getting what they need and deserve in order to reach their full potential. The reality is that students rarely begin the race to education at the same starting point, and in order to change the inequities created as a result of societal and institutional racism, we must put the needs of under-represented students and their families first. As educators, we must provide access, representation, and meaningful participation for all.

Response From Holly Spinelli

Holly Spinelli is an advocate for equality in classrooms with specific focuses in anti-racism, anti-bias, and anti-oppression facilitation. Her approaches to teaching and learning are rooted in strengths-based pedagogical practice in which students’ voices serve as the catalyst for learning and skill development. She is an appointed member of the National Council of Teachers of English’s Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English and she continues to grow this work as an adjunct instructor at SUNY Orange County Community College and as a public high school teacher in the Hudson Valley of New York:

When “Fair” and “Equal” Don’t Measure Up

In its simplest form, setting social and academic expectations for students is one area of education where school administrators, educators, parents, guardians, and community members seem to agree. We all want students to learn and grow in positive, and appropriately rigorous, spaces. The way this occurs is where opinions differ. The expectation for educators is to treat students fairly and equally, but upon closer inspection, these terms are not necessarily synonymous. Why? Because fairness and equality may not render the same results. So, what can educators do to ensure that both fairness and equality exist in their classrooms?

First, both terms need clarification. To treat students fairly requires educators to meet students at their current social, emotional, and learning levels and to then create appropriate, individualized pathways for these students to learn and grow at a pace and with materials and strategies that make sense for those students’ social, emotional, and learning needs. Treating students equally offers all students at all social, emotional, and learning levels the same materials, timetables, and pathways to achieve the same learning goals. The simple solution for this is to rely on differentiation. But what happens when differentiation is already in place and lessons require something more?

Knowing the difference between “fair” and “equal” is a major step toward building classroom expectations. Unfortunately, the notion of treating students “fairly” can fall by the wayside, unless it is required by law to adhere to students’ IEP needs. For example, if a student without an IEP is struggling to complete an assignment, the educator may provide this student with extra help or supplemental materials to finish the assignment. If this student completes the assignment and earns a higher score than other non-IEP students in the same class who did not receive the supplemental materials, others can view this as “unequal” treatment. Some may deem the educator’s action as “unfair” because not all students were offered the supplemental materials. This scenario could become an “equal” practice opportunity if the educator offers all students in the class the optional supplemental materials to complete the assignment. The problem with this is that not all students may need the supplements, or, conversely, students in the class may benefit from higher-level learning supplements to complete the assignment to the best of their abilities. Time and available resources may cause educators to default to “equal” practices for all students, which could, in turn, create “unfair” learning conditions for students who require different approaches and materials to grasp learning concepts.

So, when should “equal” practices apply? This can be difficult to determine, especially when considering logistics, such as time and materials. Educators must use their best judgment when creating “equal” classroom practices; however, there are scenarios where equality certainly applies. For instance, if all students are expected to communicate kindly and respectfully to one another, then all students should be given the appropriate communication tools and protocols to do so. Furthermore, all students should be provided with the tools and protocols that help them feel safe when speaking up for themselves and each other when they see themselves or others being treated poorly. No child should be held to a different standard from another. All children deserve to be spoken to in a respectful manner and all children deserve educators who will listen. Equal classroom practices can also apply to more concrete aspects of learning, such as classroom materials. For example, classroom libraries with equal representation can and should include works whose authors and protagonists represent different races, genders, occupations, social classes, and sexual orientations.

The nuance of “fairness” and “equality” can be challenging to navigate but not impossible to reconcile. Educators who take the time to get to know their students well, and who create classroom spaces where all participants are understanding of one another’s different social, emotional, and learning needs, can strike the right balance of fair and equal treatment in our classrooms without losing sight of our common goal: to create safe learning spaces where all students can learn and grow.

Response From Sabrina Hope King

Sabrina Hope King, Ed.D. leads ATAPE Group, LLC, a firm specializing in culturally relevant teaching and learning. Her commitments and expertise in urban education derive from her experiences as a teacher, school and district leader, and professor and belief that all children can learn:

The question “What is the difference between treating students fairly and treating them equally?” often arises. Equal means the same. Fair means just and equitable. But for educators committed to educational equity, we need to reframe that question and ask, “How do we treat students fairly so that we have equal educational outcomes?”

In order to treat students fairly, educators must have an equity mindset. An equity mindset begins with an understanding that our country’s unequal educational outcomes are a function of embedded, structural inequity that result in low expectations, deficit beliefs, substandard practices, and limited educational opportunities. This is a reality prevalent in many communities of color and communities affected by poverty. An equity mindset is needed to champion a new reality where all students—regardless of race or background—have access to the right educational opportunities which provide what they need in order to be successful in school, throughout college, and in life (King, 2018). The right educational opportunities are always rigorous, culturally relevant, and engaging. Armed with an equity mindset, treating students fairly can really happen. Here are important ideas to keep in mind:

  • Treating students fairly means providing students with everything they need in order to be successful.
  • Treating students fairly means providing students with equal access to the specific kinds of support and depth of support that they need.
  • Treating students fairly means providing students with rigorous, culturally relevant, and engaging learning (Ladson-Billings, 2009) experiences because every student deserves to be challenged, to see themselves in the curriculum, and to enjoy learning.
  • Treating students fairly means holding high expectations for every child’s achievement and providing each student with unlimited opportunities for success.
  • Treating students fairly means showing every child exemplars of success and supporting each student along their journey to create work products that demonstrate their brilliance.

Here is what can be done in the classroom:

  • Provide daily opportunities for students to read, write, speak, and listen.
  • Provide additional support to students who may not have support at home by asking for a volunteer in the school to mentor, read to, or tutor a child.
  • Implement culturally relevant read-alouds that allow students to access grade-level text with relevance to them and ensure that students have multiple culturally relevant texts at their independent reading levels (King & Friedman, forthcoming).
  • Reallocate your time so that you can spend more time with individual students or small groups of students so that you know them and can help them with what they need.
  • Teach students about equity and equality and the difference between fair and equal so that they understand classroom decisions and practices.
  • Secure resources through organizations like Donors Choose for your students to supplement what is available and to open access for students who, because of their personal circumstances, need books, supplies, computers, exciting trips, etc.
  • Work with your colleagues to develop an assessment policy that allows for multiple opportunities for students to redo their work so that every child understands the high expectations you hold for everyone’s success.
  • Affirm effort, progress, and the human being in each child daily.


King, S.H. (2018) Advancing the Practices of Millennial Teachers of Color. In Millennial Teachers of Color, Edited by Mary Dilworth. Harvard Education Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2009), The Dream Keepers.

King, S.H. and Friedman, T. (forthcoming) Using Culturally Relevant Text to Deepen Student Engagement.

Response From Joe Feldman

Author of Grading for Equity (Corwin, 2018), Joe Feldman has worked in education at the local and national levels for over 20 years in both charter and traditional pubic school contexts, as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. Joe is currently CEO of Crescendo Education Group (crescendoedgroup.org), a consulting organization that partners with school and districts to help teachers use improved and more equitable grading and assessment practices:

This dichotomy I’ve more often heard is “equity” vs. “equality"—and I think that’s because people have so many different interpretations, opinions, and arguments about what is “fair,” while the word “equity” gets at the same issue but has a narrower definition and can be more objectively described. So assuming I can make that substitution, what’s the difference between treating students equally and treating them equitably, and what should we be more concerned about as teachers and administrators?

First, let’s examine the idea of treating students equally or treating all students the same. As teachers, we don’t want to have favorites or give students different amounts of attention, resources, or support. Yet treating students equally is problematic for several reasons. First, it’s impossible as a practical matter. The heart of teaching and learning is the student-teacher relationship, and because teachers are human beings, not robots, the relationship a teacher has with each student is dynamic and unique; we couldn’t treat them equally even if we wanted to.

But there’s a more profound problem with even the goal of treating students equally: that stance ignores history. We work within an educational system that, since its inception, has not served (and actually intentionally discriminated against) entire groups of students. Since the United States’ inception, certain rights, opportunities, and privileges were awarded only to upper-class white men and withheld from people of color and lower income. Our educational system was one critically important mechanism to create and preserve racial, class, and gender hierarchies. Our current and persistent achievement and opportunity gaps flow directly from this history, and we won’t address these gaps by assuming that all we need to do is we wipe the slate clean and treat every student the same.

Students who come to our classrooms may be from families with less educational background or income, or whose first language isn’t English, or who face racial discrimination whenever they leave their house—but because of our historical unequal treatment, those characteristics are strongly predictive of lower achievement. We must create classrooms that help every student succeed regardless of her circumstances, but to do so, we have to teach, implement curriculum, assess, and grade them in ways that are tailored and responsive to students’ circumstances, and when we do it in ways that recognize and help to counter-balance our historical devaluing and unequal treatment of certain groups, we are equitable. To do otherwise—to treat students equally, or worse yet, to simply teach in the ways that we were taught without critically examining and reimagining how we can teach equitably—not only ignores historical disparities but replicates and even reinforces institutional biases.

A helpful way to think about equality and equity is that our goal in schools is that every student should have an equal opportunity to succeed, and that ensuring equal opportunities requires equitable treatment. Here’s an example in grading and assessment: All students in a class take an assessment. One student does poorly and earns a D on that assessment. In the name of treating students equally, the teacher doesn’t let that student retake that assessment—each student gets one chance at the test and receives the grade they earned regardless of circumstances or needs. And even if she chose to provide a retake, the teacher would limit the student’s improved grade to a B, believing that it certainly wouldn’t treat students equally to allow that student to earn a grade on a retake that is higher than other students’ grades on the initial exam. But this approach is actually inequitable and perpetuates achievement disparities.

If a student comes to the content with stronger prior knowledge, or has more resources to support her learning the content, or is more confident taking exams, she is more likely to score higher on the exam. The student who has fewer supports or a weaker education background is less likely to score well on that exam. But we know that this student can learn the material with more time and support. Therefore, after the exam, we can allow her to continue learning and to show that learning on another assessment of that content and then give her the grade that reflects her ultimate learning. To deny her that chance makes academic success in our classroom tightly connected to a student’s privileges, rewarding those students with resources and disadvantaging students without them, and we thereby reinforce and replicate historical inequities. Grading and assessment is more equitable when students aren’t penalized for taking longer to learn or for needing more support.

Response From Dr. Felicia Darling

Dr. Felicia Darling is a first-generation college student who has taught math in grades 7-14 for 30 years. She leads workshops for K-14 educators and is the author of Teachin’ It Breakout Moves that Break Down Barriers for Community College Students:

Students come from a variety of backgrounds and have different identities, so their needs are widely diverse and are as unique as thumbprints. Our goal is not to treat students equally but to treat students fairly and equitably. Treating students equally would mean providing every student with identical supports, materials, and scaffolding regardless of what they actually need to be successful. If we give students the same support, some students will get what they need, but others will not. On the other hand, if we treat students fairly or equitably, we ensure that each student receives exactly what they need in order to actualize their full learning potential.

Inquiry-based, group learning: Using inquiry-based, group learning with low-floor, high-ceiling, open-ended tasks that have multiple-entry points is one of the best ways to teach fairly. This approach taps into all students’ prior knowledge and maximizes the number of students learning in their reach zones, thus giving all students equal access to the content.

Participation: Valuing all students’ contributions is treating them fairly. While faster-processing students may be frantically waving their arms to respond, a teacher can provide a few extra seconds of wait time for students who need more time. For example, if Rita needs more time, the teacher says, “Rita, I will ask you for your thoughts on number 7 when we get there.” In this way, the teacher holds all students accountable. When students share out in class discussions, teachers can consistently scribe or paraphrase each student’s contribution and respond with a “Thank you.” To support introverts, teachers can do Think-Write-Pair-Shares. This gives reticent students time to think and write about what they are going to say. Also, teachers can explicitly praise introverts for their contributions in groups, “Thanks to the introverts who are intently observing and noticing what assumptions are being made.” This is treating students equitably.

Behavior/Anxiety: Some students are challenged by staying on task. For example, my class was solving a distance/rate/time problem. The whole-class discussions were repeatedly interrupted with peripheral comments from two students like, “My dad bought a new blue Nissan.” And “My 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Grayson, did not know how to add...” These students required behavior contracts that included using cards that said: “Before I ask a question, I will ask myself: (1) Is this related to the math we are learning?; and (2) Can I answer this by myself or with my textbook or notes?” These students received different supports from the other students, but they were grateful for the explicit instruction around participating in large groups. It enabled them to act with agency without negative consequences. One of these students experienced recurring anxiety episodes and needed the freedom to stand up while working, step away from his group for a minute, put his head down, or do his secret, superhero pose with his hands. Every student in class is not going to require this level of bodily autonomy. However, for those who do, it will make a huge difference in terms of actualizing their full potential as powerful learners.

Assessments: Teachers can evaluate student progress with a variety of assessments in addition to the typical quizzes and tests. These include projects, self-reflections, participation quizzes, peer-evaluations, journals, concept maps, poster sessions, portfolios, or exit tickets. Some assessments can be ungraded and untimed. Also, teachers can shift to more frequent assessments instead of just a few high-stakes assessments. Finally, teachers can provide a menu of options for final assessments, so a student can choose which final assessment fits them best (eg., a project, essay, presentation, or exam).

Universal Design: Universal design is when a teacher adapts instruction to make content accessible to the largest number of students possible. For example, it is common practice to have students take their own notes and receive a notebook grade. However, what if three students have disabilities that require the teacher “to provide notes”? The teacher can ask all students to take turns being the class notetaker—and then upload the notes to the course site for everybody. This supports the students with disabilities as well as students developing note-taking skills or those missing notes.

Thanks to Julia, Rocio, Holly, Sabrina, Joe, and Felicia for their contributions.

(This is the first post in a four-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the difference between treating students “fairly” and treating them “equally”? What are some examples of how that looks in the classroom?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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