Fairness and equality are not the same thing, and at times really represent opposing value systems. I’ve found myself having often to weigh fairness and equality in the context of education, and in most instances fairness has won out. Allow me to provide three examples from athletics, student discipline and supporting complex student needs.
At Handsworth, our basketball program has tried to encourage as many students as possible to participate in grades 8 and 9. At the bantam level in particular, equality of opportunity is prized most, and is even included in the rules of play across the North Shore. During the first three quarters of games in grade 8, players are rotated in and out every 4 minutes. This gives every player an equal opportunity to participate during the first three quarters and to develop their skills in a game situation. Once players hit grade 10 our program focus moves from participation to competition. At the junior and senior levels we try and field the most competitive team possible. Playing time is no longer necessarily equitable, but rather determined by attendance & effort at practice, maintaining an acceptable academic standing, demonstrating sportsmanship, adherence to the student code of conduct and, ultimately, skill. Competitiveness and fairness for all become the modus operandi of the team. Students who do not attend practice regularly are not given the playing time that those who do attend are. That’s fair. Students who have dedicated more time and effort to developing themselves as players are given a greater opportunity to perform, because it’s fair. Students at any level who are unable to demonstrate good student citizenship may have their extra-curricular privileges curtailed, which is also fair.
A big part of being fair as a coach is providing transparency. There’s nothing more frustrating as a player than not being given an opportunity, but also not understanding why. Student – teacher, and coach – player relationships work best when there’s a mutual understanding of fairness. Providing clear instruction at the beginning of a season or school year about expectations can help provide a sense of fairness for all.
Student discipline has taken up a greater portion of my time than I had hoped or anticipated this year. And the conversation around discipline has, in many instances, turned to a conversation about what is perceived as fair or equitable. In almost every instance of student discipline I end up referring back to our school’s Student Code of Conduct. This is a document created and revised regularly with input from not only staff, but also parents and students themselves in order to enhance its quality of fairness. One section of the code that is particularly relevant for this discussion goes as follows:
“Disciplinary action, whenever possible, will be preventative and restorative, rather than merely punitive. The administration will take into account factors such as the severity and frequency of the offence(s), as well as the age, maturity, and ability of the student in question.”
By factoring in these variables, we can see that that spirit of the Student Code of Conduct is really to provide discipline that is fair before it is equal. Expectations for student behaviour and decorum increase as students (hopefully!) mature in the later grades. And students who repeatedly break the code of conduct should be dealt with using progressive discipline. A first time offender is typically not treated with the same level of discipline as someone who makes a habit of poor decision making.
We should always endeavour to treat students fairly, to support them, and assist them in making good decisions for themselves. A similar, yet different, system that comes to mind with thinking of equality vs fairness is the justice system. This system, despite providing progressive consequences for repeat offenders, I would argue, prizes equality before the law above fairness.
A final example of equality versus fairness in the education system is the way we support our complex learners. Many of our students have unique learning challenges that require additional support. If we were to prize equality for all, then the supports offered to all students would be the same. But this is not the case. The value we place on fairness is seen in the additional supports in terms of personnel, and adaptations or modifications provided to students that help them to find success at school. While not equal, this is certainly what is fair. In a just and democratic society, we should endeavour to see that all our students find success, not just some of them. Our communities will certainly be stronger for it. The support we offer our learners with unique challenges is a prime example of the education system demonstrating the value it places foremost on fairness.
Fairness and equality are two very different things. In education, I think fairness more accurately represents the value system we want to prize. Equality, while ostensibly a noble virtue, doesn’t always provide our students with the support they need to excel in extra-curricular areas, promote positive decision making, and support their academic success.