What Does an Equitable Classroom Look Like?

In my previous post I mentioned Brown and Clift’s AERJ paper to point out how easy it is to criticize NCLB. A second thing worth mentioning is that the paper is another example of the difficulties that arise due to our failure to define or openly discuss what makes an equitable or “fair” classroom.

Brown and Clift reference various schools that focus a disproportionate amount of attention on students who are on the cusp of proficiency. This is viewed as unfair, and the implication is that in a “fair” classroom every student receives an equal amount of attention. However, there are people who would call a classroom is which every student receives equal attention unfair because the strongest students receive the same amount of attention as the struggling students. This disagreement cannot be resolved until we make a real effort to reach a consensus on what type of “teacher attention distribution” we aspire to have.

In a 1988 article in Ethics Christopher Jencks conceptualizes teacher attention as a valuable but limited resource and lays out five types of equality (or equity, or fairness, or whatever you want to call it.)

1. Democratic Equality — The teacher gives every student an equal amount of attention.

2. Moralistic Justice — The teacher gives more attention to those who put in the most effort.

3. Weak Humane Justice — The teacher gives more attention to students who have been shortchanged at home or in their earlier schooling.

4. Strong Humane Justice — The teacher gives more attention to students who have been shortchanged in any way (Jencks was mainly referring to genetics, an idea that remains somewhat controversial today.)

5. Utilitarianism — The teacher gives more attention to the students who perform the best.

I think a case can be made for most or all the rules. It’s legitimately hard to decide what’s best.

Any constructive debate on teacher attention needs to start with which of Jencks’ equalities or combination of equalities is the gold standard. Different states, different districts, and different schools can come up with their own answer, but in order for an outcome to be properly labeled as “bad,” those doing the labeling must first define what is “good.”

A major problem with the formulation of public policy (and education policy in particular) is that we rush into fighting over policy specifies before we reach an ideological compromise on which to base the policies. (I’ve touched on this before here and here.) In the case of teacher attention we have people claiming that something is unfair without first establishing the definition of fairness.

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