What is Fair?

At church today, our pastor was reviewing the passage in Matthew 20 of the parable of the workers in the vineyard. In this parable, groups of workers agreed to work for the landowner for a certain wage. Some groups were hired early in the morning, whereas others were hired towards the end of the day. When it came time to receive their wages, the ones who worked the longest were angry that they received the same wage as those who worked less. The landowner pointed out that they all agree to work for him for a certain wage, and it was not based on how much they contributed to the workload. The idea of fairness was rooted in the discontent of the workers who put the longest hours in on the vineyard. What is fair in this case? Or are we really talking about equity?

The lesson from the parable made me think of how our educational system is organized and run. Many years ago, I read a book by Rick Wormeli Fair isn’t Always Equal. In it, Wormeli (2006) points out that fairness is based on what each child needs, not on what other children need. This is the goal behind differentiated instruction which focuses on providing learning pathways for students based upon their interests, skills, and academic abilities.

However, no matter how teachers differentiate for students (and trust me when I say that it is very difficult to do that when one has 180+ students), the bottom line is that students are still all judged by the same standard.

That notion seems unfair, no?

Multiple measures are supposed to ensure that students are not judged by one standard or measurement. However, if all students are judged by the same multiple measures, how is that equitable? It may be equal, but it certainly is not equitable.

I struggle with this because I have come across instances throughout my years of teaching when the teacher’s judgment of a student’s academic ability was superseded by this idea of multiple measures. How is it that what a teacher knows from experience with the child is discounted because it doesn’t match with what the “multiple measures” state? This is not an isolated incident, and it doesn’t just happen to me. I’ve seen it occur across other schools and even districts because, yes, my PLN extends beyond just the teachers at my school.

This is a wider problem.

I’ve often heard that we should not treat students as numbers. Yet isn’t that exactly what we are doing when a student’s progress is narrowed down to a score? It’s as if only quantitative measures count. But what about the qualitative data? Qualitative data provides depth that mere numbers cannot reveal. It is my hope, that at some point, what a teacher says will carry just as much weight as “multiple measures.” But perhaps more importantly, I would like to see student voice become part of the measurement process. Their recollections of and reflections on their learning should be counted alongside the teacher’s perspectives. This type of qualitative data will be more revealing about student academic achievement and learning than mere numbers would suggest.

And that, I believe is a fair and equitable way to determine learning.


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