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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 Means Providing What They Need’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 20, 2019 20 min read
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(This is the final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

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?

In Part One, Dr. Rocio del Castillo, Dr. Julia Stearns Cloat, Holly Spinelli, Sabrina Hope King, Joe Feldman, and Dr. Felicia Darling provided 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.

Part Two‘s commentaries came from Kelly Capatosto, Gina Laura Gullo, Cheryl Staats, Dr. PJ Caposey, Ashley McCall, Orion Nolan, Jen Schwanke, Marisa Nathan, Carol Bruzzano, Keisha Rembert, and Tatiana Esteban.

Part Three‘s contributors were Dr. Debbie Silver, Gloria Brown Brooks, Tasha Moyer, Barbara Blackburn, and LaChawn Smith.

The series will be “wrapped up” today with answers from Rick Wormeli, Pedro A. Noguera, Ph.D., Elizabeth Stringer Keefe, Ph.D., and Dr. Sheila Wilson.

Response From Rick Wormeli

Rick Wormeli is a longtime teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Va. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. His new book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Second Edition (Stenhouse Publishers), was released in 2018, and his other new book, Summarization in any Subject: 60 Innovative, Tech-Infused Strategies for Deeper Student Learning, 2nd edition (ASCD), co-authored with Dedra Stafford, was just released in 2019. He can be reached at rick@rickwormeli.onmicrosoft.com, @rickwormeli2, and at www.rickwormeli.com:

“Fair” and, “equal” are among the most misapplied concepts in education today, and they are often defined situationally, as in whatever is most convenient for the person in power, which is usually the teacher or parent, rather than finding utility through their true meaning. Throw in “equitable,” and we have well-intentioned pedagogy but functional disarray.

Dr. Rick Lavoie (Video: “How Difficult Can This Be? The F.A.T. City Workshop,” 1989, and, www.ricklavoie.com/fairnessart), refers to Harvard University’s Laurence Kohlberg and his moral- development research, which says that most children define fairness as “everyone gets the same.” Many teachers and parents succumb to this same definition in most uses. If there are three cookies and two children, each gets exactly one and a half cookies. If one child gets to spend 30 minutes in a favored activity, all other children in the room also get 30 minutes in their favored activities. This, they declare, is fair.

What happens, however, if a child has a different need, and the equal allotment of time, energy, approach, or resources among all children won’t be sufficient for this child to learn, or he learns it quickly and has no further need for these elements, yet the rest of the class does? Hiding behind one-size-fits-all or equal-treatment-for-all-prepares-him-for-the-working-world sentiments in such a situation is not only ineffective and deeply flawed, it’s malpractice.

We’re hired to teach so that students learn, not merely to present curriculum and document whether or not they can swim with it and claim our job is done. That’s a, “gotcha” enterprise, unworthy of a conscientious educator. If one or more students need more or less time, learning methods, support, resources, or teacher creativity to assure academic success, we provide it. Hiding behind a uniform timeline, arbitrarily imposed on all students regardless of learning need on the false assumption that such adherence cultivates personal responsibility, respect for deadlines, and time management is seriously ignorant of what we know about how to cultivate these attributes.

No research in any forum declares requiring all students to learn the same content on the same timeline and in the same manner as their classmates as sovereign. Again, we’re pragmatists: We do whatever it takes for students to learn and find success, even it’s different from what we do for other students, how we learn ourselves, or what the pacing mandate declares.

We’re human, though, and humans like orderly schematics: We like to move through our lesson sequences in a logical fashion. It helps with accountability measures and lesson planning. Learning among humans, however, is a messy thing, not effectively cast into unyielding steel molds.

This is frustrating when we are tired educators in survival mode. It’s so easy to do the same (equal) thing with all students, as adjusting anything a little or a lot takes too much energy and creativity we don’t have. It’s easier, too, to blame the student for his lack of competence when he fails. He was the weakest link in this equation, we think, if only he had tried harder, did his homework, didn’t talk so much, asked questions when he was stuck, showed up for class, really listened, learned last year’s curriculum better, didn’t focus so much on football/Fortnite, and on and on. The uncomfortable realization here, though, is that WE are the ones trained in how students of this age learn, not our morphing, insecure students. We’re the adult in the room: We own the student’s learning or lack thereof.

In his “How Difficult Can This Be?” video, Dr. Lavoie uses the analogy of someone having a heart attack, but the facilitator at the front of the room declares he knows CPR and could apply it and save the person, but he doesn’t have time to do it for everyone, so he’s not going to do it for the one suffering the attack. Absurd, right?

Contrast that thinking with real classroom demonstrations of fairness, i.e., providing what students need, regardless of whether or not it’s the same as what we do for others in the class:

  • Some students are provided additional “frames,” graphic organizers, and practice problems because they need them, but other students do not, so they don’t get them. This means some students will get more homework/classwork than others, and that’s just fine.
  • Some students get more time to finish their learning while others do not. Again, they didn’t need it.
  • Some students get one set of choices for their projects, while other students get another set of choices, depending on where they need to be challenged.
  • A student is chronically ill and forced to stay home for a whole school year. The school hires a homebound teacher at full salary just for this one student, spending way more money per student for this one student than they do per student on the healthy students attending school daily.
  • Some students get to redo learning and assessments multiple times in order to become just as competent as the students who learned the content in their first attempt, and these later- performing students’ grades are just as legitimate as the grades of the earlier-performing students.
  • ELL students are assessed via their native language so as to not distort the accurate reporting of what they have learned about the content being assessed.
  • Some students are granted alternative ways to demonstrate learning because they don’t have access to the same resources after school hours. Alternatively, if requiring a laptop and internet access, low-resourced students are provided with both in their homes by the school at no cost.
  • If impoverished, hungry students come to school without lunch, we feed them at no cost to them and without casting blame upon them. If the high cost of registration and equipment is keeping impoverished students from playing a favorite sport, we find funding for those costs just for those students.

In order for this “fairness doctrine” to work effectively, the parent must also understand the difference between “need” and “want.” Stephen Glenn, noted author and parenting expert, helps us understand this delineation in the following dialogue between a mother and her 14-year-old daughter, as quoted in one of Dr. Rick Lavoie’s blog posts:

Daughter: “Mom, I need a pair of stone-washed “Guess How” designer jeans. I need $55.”

Mom: “Nope. I have checked your closet and I agree that you need a pair of jeans. However, you want a pair of designer jeans. I will gladly provide you with what you need. Please accept this check for $35, which will buy you the jeans that you need. If you want the designer jeans badly enough, I am sure that you will find some way to add $20 to my $35.”

In our classrooms, fair means providing what they need, not what they want. The problem, of course, is remaining ever attentive to perceiving those needs, even when students are not aware themselves, and to have the courage to act upon them, even when it circumvents school policies and practices. Yes, the student didn’t learn the content by the February test date, but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn and get full credit for it when he does. Yes, she didn’t do well with the material on the traditional test format, but she expressed it via another medium and demonstrated every required proficiency, so she gets the same, legitimate “4.0" as everyone else.

The standard doesn’t stipulate, “When reading on-grade-level text silently and alone,” in the evaluative criteria for, “Can analyze rhetoric,” or, “understands how literary devices enhance the reader’s experience,” so we can’t limit students to these false presumptions of evaluative criteria when assessing their work. If students hear the same text read aloud with proper vocal inflection by someone who knows what they are talking about, they have a much higher level of comprehension and thus are able to demonstrate these other proficiencies. Fair means we focus on the standard itself, not some false convention or protocol that’s not really evidence of the standard.

This can actually get in the way of accurate demonstrations of the student’s proficiency, and distorting the truth of students’ learning is not only unhelpful, it’s unethical. When math students do word problems, for example, we’re really testing reading comprehension more than mathematics. If the student had the problem read aloud—or translated into their own language if English is not their native language, then we could really assess their math proficiency without language or reading getting in the way of their expression of mastery. Our reports would be accurate and, thereby, helpful.

This means that “fair” usually means we disaggregate data as much as we reasonably can, listing individual standards at the top of each test, quiz, test, writing, or project, and students receive unique scores for each one, eschewing the aggregate percentage, letter grade, or rubric number normally seen there. Our assessments become, “revelatory,” (“reveal story”), so as to reveal the student’s story regarding his learning. Students can demonstrate very different proficiency profiles across multiple standards yet all end up with the same mathematical average or score based on how the teacher aggregates them all into one mark. These students are telling very different stories about their learning, however; and as a result, teachers should respond differently to each of them. They can’t do that, though, if the input data is not disaggregated. In order to be fair, then, we have to disaggregate data and respond to students’ unique profiles of performance.

Some readers may be familiar with the $5 analogy first published in this blog. It makes the case that “fair” also means we do things like assigning different homework, or no homework, to different groups of students on any given day based on what kind of practice after school hours that might need, and it provides a vivid way to convince student’s of the value of such a policy. It’s worth reading.

Fairness often compels a closer look at equity. In her highly recommended book, Rethinking What We Say About—and to—Students Every Day (2017), Mica Pollock writes,

“Equity efforts ... provide supports to give every young person and all groups of young people a full chance to develop their vast human talents. Equity efforts treat all young people as equally and infinitely valuable. ... [T]hey seek to remedy any situation where opportunities for some are insufficient or expectations low, particularly when young people have long been underserved by schools.”

This is a catalyst for teacher agency with every student. To do so takes courage of conviction; it’s not for the faint-hearted. So, ever the pragmatists and feeling a moral outrage when students and their learning are diminished by fixable things, we do whatever it takes for every single student to learn, not just the easy ones, regardless of whether or not it messes up the lesson plan, is hard, is or is not school policy or practice, colleagues approve or not, or other students’ parents complain.

Candidly, incompetence in learning is never preparatory or maturing for what’s to come. Nor is any student being diminished by racism, classism, punitive grading, or one-size-fits-all-ism. To be competent, students will take different paths from time to time and across time, with each experience facilitated by us teachers. If we claim to be equal student to student, however, we are complicit in challenged students’ lack of success. Pray parents and students see us as fair, not equal, then, and that we have the pedagogical fortitude and versatility to manifest it daily.

Response From Pedro A. Noguera, Ph.D.

Pedro A. Noguera is Distinguished Professor of Education and faculty director, Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies:

Many schools claim to be committed to equity but continue to rely upon practices that ignore the differences among students and treat them all the same. In part, this occurs because schools often confuse treating students fairly and treating them equally.

This confusion is most evident in the way many schools handle discipline. More often than not, schools disproportionately discipline the students with the greatest needs. This includes students with learning disabilities, English-learners, black students (especially males), students in foster care, students who experience homelessness, and students who are behind academically. In most cases, these students are punished for infractions such as fighting, disrupting the classroom, defying a teacher, etc.

The equity dilemma stems from the fact that we are more likely to respond to the behavioral infractions than to address the underlying cause of the problems. For example, students who have trouble academically may occasionally be disruptive when called upon to read or to solve a math problem because they are embarrassed by their difficulties and seek to draw attention away from their learning needs. In the typical school, such students will be asked to leave the classroom and may even be subjected to more severe punishment. Unless the cause of the behavior problem is addressed, it is unlikely to go away because a child has been referred for discipline, and the academic difficulties may even get worse.

Educators generally feel it is important to treat all students who violate rules in the same manner, even though we know they are not the same, and some have much greater needs than others.

A more equitable approach to discipline starts by acknowledging the differences among students, understanding how the unmet needs of students may influence behavior problems, and devising discipline strategies and consequences (there should be reasonable consequences for discipline infractions) that teach and reinforce the appropriate ethical lessons we want students to receive so that the behavior changes, while minimizing the degree to which we deny students learning time.

This is complex, and I don’t mean to make it sound simple. Many schools lack the resources (counselors, social workers, psychologists, etc.) to address the underlying causes of behavior problems. However, if we are serious about using education to expand opportunity for all children, particularly those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged, we must be more creative and equitable than we are now in how we handle and respond to discipline problems.

Response From Elizabeth Stringer Keefe, Ph.D.

Elizabeth Stringer Keefe, Ph.D., (@ProfKeefe) is an associate professor/director of graduate teacher education at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. Her research focuses on teacher education, special education teacher preparation, and education policy. She is co-author of Remixing the Curriculum: The Teacher’s Guide to Assistive and Digital Technology (Rowman & Littlefield) and Reclaiming Accountability in Teacher Education (Teacher’s College Press):

We frequently grapple with the difference between “fair” and “equal” in education, and the familiar go-to is simply that equal means everyone gets the same thing and fair means everyone gets what they need. These definitions signal that we shouldn’t use these terms interchangeably, but they also make the concepts seem mutually exclusive—when in fact they are powerfully complementary. Equality can help to create the conditions for fairness: As an incredibly important historical concept in our country, “equal” accelerated the political and moral belief that no one person is superior to another. The “equal” tenet also served as a guide to establishing equitable conditions in public schooling, instead of segregating students by race or excluding them on the basis of ability. Equality is a useful start.

Yet we know from our increasingly diverse classroom communities, rich with differences—race, ethnicity, culture, gender, class, linguistic, and learning needs, among others—that treating students equally does not automatically guarantee they can achieve the same outcomes. That’s because despite equal schooling protections and conditions, there are other factors which influence students’ societal positions. As a result, we have to do more in classrooms to ensure that equal and fair work together. Here’s an example:

Classroom scenario: Students are studying the Industrial Revolution, aligned to the U.S. history standards. They utilize the same textbook. They read aloud from letters penned by the Lowell Mill girl workers. They visit the site of the Lowell Mill to learn about the working conditions, noise levels, and the impact on gender roles. For one assessment, students are asked to describe factory conditions and provided the choice of doing a presentation, penning a letter, writing an essay, or developing a role play.

Equal: Students are provided with the same textbooks, curricular standards, and instruction.

Fair: Students are offered multiple opportunities to demonstrate how they understand what they have learned.

While students are provided with equal materials and curriculum, differentiated instruction supports fairness by offering multiple options for learners to derive meaning and understanding from the content. Expecting all students to benefit from the same methods of instruction can keep student achievement stagnant, inadvertently favoring some students and disadvantaging others. Today’s classrooms require instructional methods that are as diverse as our students. Assessment is flexible, based on whether students can show what they know based on learner strengths rather than static procedures. In other words, the student who is a strong writer can leverage that skill to demonstrate their understanding of mill working conditions; the student who is very creative can construct a short play which illuminates their understanding of mill working conditions. The same assessment would have diminished students’ unique abilities and ignored powerful differences instead of embracing them.

Using equal to leverage fair can help teach our students important lessons about diversity and individual differences that can extend beyond the classroom.

Response From Dr. Sheila Wilson

Dr. Sheila Wilson is a native New Orleanian. She currently works as a 5th grade teacher in Virginia. In addition to instructional leadership, she serves to improve the capacity of students, teachers, and families through her roles as grade chair, lead mentor teacher, and family-engagement liaison.Dr. Wilson is also an adjunct professor, conference presenter, and self-proclaimed lifelong learner. She is passionate about amplifying instruction, school leadership, and equity:

When we consider educational equity in today’s schools, most people would likely want to believe that all students should be provided with the resources that would enable their success in the classroom. However, assumptions in this case can often prove to be false. When I consider equity, it is seeing a need and finding a way to meet that need! One challenge in education today is the belief that “one size fits all” and that giving everyone who needs a pair of shoes a size 10 is OK. I believe that when we find the shoe sizes of each student and provide them with the correct fit, then and only then are we providing equity which constitutes fairness.

For more years than I can remember, the conversation in education has always been framed around the provision of equal access to services for all students. Each year, stakeholders in education speak about closing or decreasing the achievement gap between subgroups. Yet each year, the gap remains and is a glaring reminder of the lack of equitable access of services, support, and even professionals who are vested in making a true difference.

Teachers must facilitate a dialogue with students about the distinction between fair and equal. As a teacher, I have this conversation early in the year with my class because this mindset will undergird the climate that I create for my students. Every great lesson, whether academic or social, comes with a hook! To get the fair/equal discussion started, I’d bring two students up and give each student extra multiplication problems. This is of little help to students who have already mastered their facts. That’s because each student does not need the same thing. I’ve shared with my students countless times that we are all different and have varying needs. While true, students must discover how this plays out in their world. Therefore, we must teach our students the difference between fairness and equality. I would continue this dialogue with similar examples driving home the point that each person has unique needs, and therefore, providing equally (the same) is not the answer. Once students begin to embrace the difference, I would have them develop their own real-world scenarios that address fair-vs-equal. Moving from this shared understanding and acceptance, students are less likely to question situations that will certainly arise in the classroom.

Thanks to Rick, Pedro, Elizabeth, and Sheila for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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