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Equal vs. Fair

A large part of any school psychologists' job duties are to plan specific, increasingly intense interventions for children who are not succeeding in the classroom.  These interventions are designed to offer that child some additional assistance they need to preform at a level comparable to their peers who are not receiving such interventions.  In other words, the interventions offer the struggling student with the support he or she needs to keep up with his or her classmates.

One of the most commonly sited arguments against special education interventions is "but, that's not fair!"  This statement was usually proceeded by an educator's comment of allowing additional assistance to another student in class, while the remainder of the students did not receive that assistance.

Let's take a 5th grade reading class outside to read.  Everyone loves reading in the sunlight, but nobody likes sitting on the grass.  Roger, a physically handicapped child is physically incapable of sitting on the grass, due to paralysis in his lower body he cannot hold himself upright.  Would anyone in the class object to Roger remaining in his wheelchair to read outside?  Of course not. 

On the other hand, Amy has difficulty in reading.  She's been receiving help from the school's reading specialist, and is showing improvements.  However, Amy's reading materials are often 1-2 grade levels below her actual grade level.  Her peers get upset when Amy is still reading picture books, while they must read chapter books for the same credit.  This is a time when a child would often argue, "but, Mr. Wright, why does Amy get to read kid's books and I have to read long books?  That's not fair!"

Sports are judged fairly.  We pay officials to do this for us; these officials are supposed to be unbiased and interpret the game rules equally for both sides.  However, even within sports, there are times when an official gets to make decisions that alter the course of the game.
  • Golf, while equally challenging, offers men and women different tee off locations.  This is designed to allow both sexes to participate at an equally challenging course.
  • Basketball has different 3-point shot lines surrounding the goalpost.  Again, it's to allow for equality between the abilities of each sexes.  Court dimensions may also vary.
  • Soccer referees are given the ability to create "stoppage time" at the timed end of a match to add back lost time to both sides.  Here, the referee is allowed to lengthen the game beyond the technical last second of play.
  • Soccer referees are also allowed to signal for "play on" or "advantage" when a play that would otherwise be stopped for a foul, would be allowed to continue because stopping the game would be beneficial to the offending team.  In this case, the "foul" was ignored in order to preserve the spirit of the game.
The above examples demonstrate that even in professional sports, it is sometimes necessary to make exceptions to rules in order to make the game fair to both sides.

In short, being "fair" does not mean being "equal."  As George Orwell's classic Animal Farm so clearly states, "All animals are equal, but some animals are move equal than others."

Being fair does not mean the same as being equal.  Children are often offered different requirements in order to be fair across the classroom.  Fairness is not measured by equality. 

In graduate school, I professor of mine would often tell us that, "In order to treat students fairly, you have to treat them differently."

I'll conclude this page with a story I heard a parent retell at a SIT meeting.  The parent told his son that, "Life isn't fair.  A fair is a place you go to; you get dressed up and take your girlfriend."  Well said, knowledgeable parent.  Well said.