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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

Student Differences Are Not Deficits

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 18, 2019 24 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One 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.

Today’s commentaries come 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.

Response From Kelly Capatosto, Gina Laura Gullo, & Cheryl Staats

Gina Laura Gullo is an educational equity consultant with GLG Consulting and a researcher of unintentional bias and interventions that serve to lessen the impact of such biases. She also adjuncts and mentors in educational leadership at several Mid-Atlantic universities.

Kelly Capatosto is a senior research associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Kelly’s work focuses on race and cognition—how people’s perceptions of race impact our decisionmaking and maintain social inequities.

Cheryl Staats is an education author and researcher with a background in implicit racial/ethnic bias:

On the surface, our concepts of what is “fair” or “equal” may seem identical. As a result, this subtle yet important difference has sparked years’ worth of rich discussions in the education equity community. In fact, Ed Week has covered this dialogue from various perspectives throughout the years (for example, see When ‘Unequal’ Is Fair Treatment and 5 Steps for Liberating Public Education From Its Deep Racial Bias for more background). Despite the level of coverage, the topic of equality versus fairness is often misunderstood. Additionally, it can be difficult to translate these ideas into practical strategies.

At its core, much of the dialogue has resulted in the following premise: If we treat all students the same (i.e., equally), then students are not receiving a fair opportunity to succeed. In other words, it is impossible to consider the unique experiences and identities students bring with them to the classroom with a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, a poor student who is food-insecure does not approach their educational experience from the same level of opportunity as a wealthy student. The first student may need extra support to navigate these external barriers in order to receive the same degree of benefit from their schooling.

Some areas of education have integrated this principle of fairness directly into local and national policies surrounding student success. In particular, schools’ duty to provide personalized accommodations for students at different ability levels is grounded in this notion. Yet this individualized approach is not so readily applied to other areas of students’ identities and experiences: from navigating races, to gendered differences in students who are encouraged to participate in STEM curricula, to experiences of trauma, and beyond. As a result, a fair and equitable approach requires that we first acknowledge and support students’ diversity of skills, experiences, and identities.

To fully succeed in this approach, we must also challenge the related, harmful tendency to view an individual difference as a deficit. Even if we can agree some students need additional support as part of what would be considered “fair” treatment, it is still necessary to challenge the idea that those students cannot be successful—an assertion that is almost always grounded in stereotypes. For example, we may allude to barriers that students face due to ability status, economic standing, race, or gender as an explanation for underperformance, yet never move toward proactive change to remove the barriers themselves.

To move toward solutions, educators must leverage their own assets to challenge barriers that students face. We must also empower student voices as co-creators of their own success in order to create lasting change. The following personal and professional practices can help educators accomplish this mission:

Self-Reflecting and Committing

  • Prioritize differentiated, holistic approaches rather than a one-size-fits-all model.
  • Work to examine your own biases and preconceptions that may occur across lines of race, class, and/or gender.
  • Highlight steps to build trust and rapport with students, particularly those who may come from a different background or experience than you.

Uplifting Student Voices

  • Encourage participation of students with under-represented identities in gifted and talented programming and offer support for them to succeed.
  • Challenge stereotypes through classroom experiences and learning materials. For example, elevate narratives of the intellectual achievements of students with disabilities, students of color, and other historically marginalized groups. Additionally, use these learning materials to facilitate conversations in which students can share their own experiences and educational accomplishments.
  • Engage students in classroom policies and dynamics in order to facilitate autonomy and empowerment. For example, create a student-discipline council where students can weigh in on the rules and consequences of classroom behavior.
  • Encourage student participation in framing conversations of what constitutes as “fair” classroom practice. For example, get student input on establishing classroom norms and values or ask students their thoughts on how certain classroom policies may favor or disadvantage certain groups of students.

Practicing Accountability

  • Keep a discipline log to record what students are being disciplined and for what reason.
  • Check for any explicit policies or guidelines that determine eligibility for student-leadership activities (e.g., gifted and talented programming or student government) and adjust guidelines that could exclude students who are otherwise interested or may benefit from these activities.

Response From Dr. PJ Caposey

Dr. PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of seven books (https://amzn.to/2MArWY5) and currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the award-winning Meridian CUSD 223 in northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

My son received his first referral in 5th grade. He is a good-ish (technical term) kid that had never really gotten into trouble. He was involved in a playground fight with two boys that he frequently played with.

If the intent was to treat everyone equally, then an administrator would have run their finger down the discipline and behavior code until they found fighting or physical aggression, or something to that accord, slide their finger over to first offense, and that action would determine his consequence.

The other option would have been to speak to my son and figure out that while as a 10-year-old he could not articulate he was stressed, it was because I was in quarantine after receiving a massive dose of radioactive iodine to fight cancer, and he was having a really difficult time processing through what was happening.

I imagine that as humans, dealing with kids, it seems very simple that we would choose to err on the side of being fair because not all playground fights are created equal, and many kids, just like my son, have extenuating circumstances happening TO them.The issue is that schools are not conducive to immense amounts of personalization.

While I used an example of discipline—which is commonly what people think about with a prompt of this sort—the bigger issue is that we far too commonly err on the side of equal instead of fair when it comes to the academic part of schooling as well. Moreover, we too often strip the ability to make complex decisions from the adults in the building that know our kids best in order to create a more rigid, streamlined system and process that works exceptionally well for adults.

If there was ever a grand example of equal over fair manifesting itself, it would be the concept of getting through subject matter in a manner to satisfy scope and sequence independent of any regard for student performance. For instance, completing Chapter 3 on trinomials in nine days and moving on even if the pass rate was 54 percent.

We do this ALL the time in schools. The amount of time we spend on a topic is rigid, and learning is optional. We then assign a grade and in far too many instances just move on. Or, in a process which is better but still not good enough, we allow students to “learn” the material and show their growth at a later date BUT only if we issue a penalty to their grade.

Do you know why we only give a portion of points back? To be fair to the students who learned the material fastest!! We are concerned with equal time for all to learn it but concerned with fairness when protecting those who typically do well in school.

With all of this said, schools are working really hard making choices that are better for kids and focused on moving individuals forward instead of hiding behind the excuse of what is equal is fair. And thankfully, individual teachers are changing much more quickly than entire systems are moving forward. They are the true game-changers in the movement toward true equity and fairness.

I truly believe that the over-reliance on “equal” and using equal as a synonym for fair in schools may have been born from an altruistic place. That said, we now know better. And when we know better, we must be compelled to do better.

Response From Ashley McCall

Ashley McCall is a 3rd grade English/language arts educator at Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Back of the Yards (Chicago) where she serves as a teacher representative on the local school council. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna and a member of the Teach Plus Board:

It’s never too early to teach students the difference between fairness and equity. The sooner they learn, the sooner they will be able and willing to recognize when these principles are at play and question the intention behind them. During the first two weeks of every school year, I facilitate multiple activities that allow students to experience fairness and equity, generate definitions for each term, determine when one principle is more appropriate than the other, and discuss why and how we will see these principles at play in our classrooms and lives.

Developmentally, 3rd graders are incredibly invested in the idea of fairness. Unaddressed, their pursuit of justice may result in a half-baked understanding of the role fairness and equity play in our everyday lives as learners and citizens. Our conceptual dive into fairness and equity can be briefly summarized as follows:

Activity 1: Magical Healer

  • I weave together an amusing narrative about my secret powers to cure anything.
  • Each student chooses an ailment (sore throat, stomach ache, paper cut, broken arm, etc.).
  • I enthusiastically commit to healing everyone and pass out bandages to put on the ailing body parts.
  • Unsurprisingly, kids react dramatically and have questions and comments about my proposed solution.
  • Reflection: Connect to terms, connect to class and personal experiences.

Activity 2: Money Grab

  • I tape a dollar bill to the top of the door frame and tell students that if they can touch the dollar 2 out of 3 times, they earn $1.
  • I choose three students (three different heights) to participate.
  • Round 1: Everyone reaches with no assistance + whole-class reflection.
  • Round 2: Everyone reaches and everyone gets a short stool + whole-class reflection.
  • Round 3: Everyone reaches and everyone gets a stool of appropriate height to help them reach the dollar + whole-class reflection.
  • Reflection: Connect to terms, connect to class and personal experiences.

Once students integrate these concepts into their own schema, we actively recognize and utilize them throughout the school year in differentiated word study groups, seating arrangements, class job assignments, and instructional levels and strategies.

Station teaching (also referred to as small-group teaching, centers rotations, etc.) in primary, lower, and upper-elementary classrooms is one of the most common ways we see equity at play in our classrooms. As scholars rotate through guided-reading sessions, library, independent reading, differentiated computer programs, word study centers, and more (in an English/language arts specific context), they receive instruction and engage in activities that meet them where they are academically and socially. Even the frequency of small-group instruction sessions with the classroom teacher varies per student. This model of equity seeks to provide each child with what they need rather than assume learners will respond to the exact same instruction in the exact same way.

Response From Orion Nolan

Orion Nolan has been teaching for seven years. She currently teaches 3rd grade in Manville, N.J.:

As a special education teacher working in a general education classroom, it is vital that students, their families, and even colleagues understand the difference between fair and equal.

Every student we serve has different needs in a classroom, whether it’s a general education, inclusion, or self-contained environment. Each child begins and ends a school year in a different developmental and social-emotional space than they came in at. It is important that we recognize and apply this mentality when we see individual students.

I have taught in each classroom setting during my six years as a special education teacher. Creating a learning culture is dependent on first creating a culture of caring and understanding. In an inclusion setting, learning differences can be more apparent. It is vital that students and adults understand that what is fair isn’t always equal. Conversely, what is equal is not always fair.

Equality means that everyone gets the same thing, regardless of need. Fairness means everyone gets what they need, regardless of whether it is equal or unequal to the student beside them.

At the beginning of each school year, I like to do an activity with students that shows them the difference between fair and equal. Each student receives a card that has an injury on it (i.e., cut on arm, broken leg, earache, fever, etc.). Then, I asked each student to imagine themselves as the person on the card. What do they need to be healthy? Answers always vary. However, my response is always the same: No matter what the student says, I give them a Band-Aid. Students quickly realize that a Band-Aid may not help them (or the person on the card), nor does it meet their request. Sometimes, students are loud in advocating for another health aid.

I point out that what each student received is equal to the person next to them. Everyone received a Band-Aid. We discuss the inherent problem with everyone receiving the same, standardized treatment. Students quickly realize that if someone has a broken leg, it is unfair to get a Band-Aid because that is what everyone else received. Students realize through this experience that their classmate with the broken leg needs more attention and a different plan of care than the person with a bruise on their arm. Band-Aids even come in different sizes, depending on the bruise.

A Band-Aid of equality isn’t going to make every student in my classroom learn more or better. That is why we differentiate instruction to meet individual needs. This is why fairness may look like a student reading on grade level independently for a moment (even if they would like 1:1 attention), while a student who is reading below-grade level may be completing the same assignment within a small group or one-to-one with a teacher.

Response From Jen Schwanke

Jen Schwanke has been an educator for 20 years, teaching or leading at all levels. She is the author of You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders, published by ASCD. A second ASCD book will be coming out in March. Schwanke has written for Choice Literacy, Education Week Teacher, Principal, and Principal Navigator and presented at various state and local conferences. An instructor in educational leadership at Miami University of Ohio, Schwanke has also provided professional development to various districts in the areas of school climate, personnel, and instructional leadership. She is currently a principal for the Dublin City school district in Dublin, Ohio. Follow Schwanke on Twitter @Jenschwanke:

Educators get nervous discussing fairness and equality. The words carry heavy connotations, often fraught with difficulty: “Equality for all” has been a battle cry of repressed, marginalized people in our country for—well, forever. Add the topic of fairness, and defensiveness appears, because we fear an accusation, an attack: “It’s not fair! You’re not fair!”

To me, arguing the difference is a moot point, because fairness and equity are completely dependent on the individual perspective. Everyone should have equality in how they are treated, respected, and cared for, but we can’t build our classrooms in pursuit of an equal experience for all. Instead, learning environments should be built on a sense of fluidity, adjustment, understanding, and empathy.

In other words: Differentiation.

Should there be components of equity? Sure. Fairness? Of course. Can one exist without the other? Probably not. Can they exist together? Absolutely.

Let’s look at a simple, all-too-common example.

Students are offered 10 points for bringing in a box of tissues. Fifteen students bring the tissues. They get their 10 points. From their perspective, this is completely fair and equal.

The other 15 don’t bring the tissues. There are 15 different reasons. Some forgot. Some of them have parents who scoffed at the requirement, seeing no connection to academics and eschewing the whole thing. Some don’t have parents. Some are on a budget, and tissues are just not in the plans. Some had jam-packed evening schedules and didn’t have a chance to get to the store. These 12 students start the semester 10 points down, and they haven’t learned a thing. For them, this is deeply unfair and unequal.

Let’s take an academic example.

A math assignment is given, to be graded on completion, not on accuracy. Some students do their best, working hard on the assignment during their study hall. Some students give it a whirl but don’t check their answers for accuracy or logic. Still others just plug numbers into the answer boxes. The teacher collects them. A quick glance tells her every student has an answer in every box, so right then and there, she adds a grade to the online gradebook. Then, as students watch, she tosses the worksheets in the trash.

It could be argued the teacher was fair and equal: After all, she was straightforward and honest about the expectations and the grade, and everyone was held to the same standard. It could also be argued as unfair: Why did they all get the same grade, when effort was so deeply unequal?

I’d argue this scenario is fair, equal, neither, and both. The only solution for both is to look at each child’s situation and responsiveness individually and adjust our expectations accordingly.

When I think of my own decisions as a school leader, I avoid categorizing anything as fair or equal. These words can launch arguments of nuance that divert the conversation away from the real issue. Differentiation is the key. It’s difficult to argue against every student needing to be met at their developmental, emotional, academic, and social place and time.

Of course, I try for fairness and equality. Does everyone receive the same clear, coherent message? Are expectations reasonable and attainable? Are students at the focus of our mission and practice? Do we have a rationale for decisions in which everyone is treated the same and, likewise, decisions in which some students are treated differently? Does that rationale tie directly to individual student growth?

Here’s the bottom line: Getting lost in “fair” vs. “equal” isn’t possible if we combine those two words into one and differentiate instruction and support for each of our students, all the time. It seems the only way to be truly fair and equal.

Response From Marisa Nathan

As Confianza’s lead consultant, Marisa Nathan brings 20 years of expertise in advocating and serving multilingual learners. She is a former English-language development coordinator for a large school district outside of the MIlwaukee area. Marisa has presented at a number of national and international conferences, sharing her asset-based philosophies grounded in family and student engagement, curriculum and instruction and assessment for language. She holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and human relations as well as a master’s degree in ESL from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.:

The difference between treating students “fairly” and “equally” is where the discussion around equity begins. In order to be fair, we must be equitable. If we treat all students equally, that does not mean we are treating them fairly; it means we are treating them the same. As educators and change agents, we must ensure that our students have an equitable opportunity to access the systems they are working in.

We start with equitable practices in our classrooms by not watering down the curriculum. We must keep high expectations for ALL students and allow them to access rigorous content and academic language. In order to do this, we must support our students with scaffolds and supports in order for them to work at their zone of proximal development. We must also remember that all of our students are academic-language learners. In supporting our students using a language lens, it helps support our academic-language learners at the word, sentence, and discourse level. Any time new content is introduced there is new language to learn. It is our job as educators to be explicit about the language of content that we teach and hold students accountable in using it so they are able to use this language in academic discourse while accessing new content knowledge.

Response From Carol Bruzzano

Carol Bruzzano has 27 years experience in education as a classroom teacher, Title I supervisor, and staff developer. She is currently a student-teacher supervisor at William Paterson University:

Do educators require all students in a group to wear glasses when only a few students require them? This would be considered equal treatment but quite unfair (for obvious reasons). This extreme example illustrates how fair treatment is not always the best option when the objective is to ensure “equity” in access to opportunities for learning. But what does “equity” in access truly mean, and how might “fair” treatment serve as a process for ensuring it? Responding to this additional question clearly answers the main question involving the difference between fair treatment and equal treatment in the classroom.

In primary-grade classrooms, educators may choose ergonomic seats for fidgety students needing to improve their focus during instruction. In middle-grade classrooms, educators may include explicit strategies instruction during lessons with easy access to references for students struggling with retention and retrieval. Fair may also include limiting options for several students during project-based tasks because of previous behaviors interfering with learning. Redesigning assignments for certain students since previous attempts at similar tasks resulted in students’ frustration and a lack of effort is another example of “fair” treatment. In high school classrooms, fair may include activities that utilize the more outgoing, verbal students’ strengths in “teaching to learn” designs. It may also involve voice recorders for students struggling with speaking tasks or the use of word-processing programs for typed responses as opposed to handwritten responses for students with writing difficulties. These “fair” approaches make learning accessible to all students, ensuring “equity” in opportunities for mastering content and skills and demonstrating their learning.

Ultimately, fair treatment ensures that all students have equal opportunities for personal academic success in the classroom. By viewing “fair” treatment as a process and “equal” treatment as one of the main goals in education, the difference between fair and equal treatment is more clearly defined for educators who make on-the-spot instructional decisions throughout a school day. By keeping the bigger goal of “equity” in learning in mind, informed and effective decisionmaking during instruction clearly results in fair treatment that supports equal opportunities for learning.

Response From Keisha Rembert

Keisha Rembert is an 8th grade English and U.S. history teacher at Clifford Crone Middle School in Naperville, Ill. Keisha feeds her love of learning by continually refining her craft and has been the recipient of several grants affording her the opportunity to take courses at some of the world’s most renowned universities. She has recently been named Illinois’ History Teacher of the Year for 2019:

What are some examples of how this looks in the classroom? My fair treatment of a student might mean there may be some perceived inequality. For example, I give a writing assignment in class. I know that one student is a phenomenal writer who has mastered the skill the assignment is measuring. In fairness, I don’t subject that student to busy work; instead, I consider what is the next level skill or confer with the student to see if there is a skill they’d like to refine or practice and create a new assignment for that student. I am being fair by not making the student do something they have already shown me in multiple ways they can do and the assignment is not equal to that of his/her/they peers. I find I frequently take this approach to discipline. My individual approach to discipline is not equal but always fair.

Response From Tatiana Esteban

Tatiana Esteban, M.A. Ed., has taught ELL, gifted. and special education students in various classroom settings since 2007. Currently, she is embarking on a new curricular adventure as a phonics interventionist at Gulliver Academy, an independent school in Miami, while continuing to grow her knowledge base in her passion of curriculum and instruction design and implementation:

Whenever I think of fairness versus equity in the classroom, I think of a drawing I was shown at a training many years ago. The drawing was actually two cartoons. Both images showed two kids standing to look over a fence. In one, both kids were standing on the same-size crate, but one of the children still needed to stretch up to their tiptoes to get just barely over the fence, while the other child stood comfortably with a clear view. In the second image, the children were standing on different-sized boxes, allowing both of them to get a clear and comfortable view over the fence. Equity in the classroom is having different-sized boxes (supports in place) for kids to stand on (succeed) as needed.

Thanks to Kelly, Gina, Cheryl, PJ, Ashley, Orion, Jen, Marisa, Crol, Keisha, and Tatiana 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.

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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Race & Gender Challenges

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Best Ways to Begin the School Year

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