Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University
Ultimately, whether or not to group students by ability is a question of justice. But there are two very different conceptions of what is just: fair play and fair share. What is the difference?
With fair play no one is granted special consideration regardless of their circumstances. In professional sports. for instance, special allowances are not made if a participant is physically handicapped, unusually small, or otherwise at a disadvantage. All prosper or perish under the same set of immutable rules
But there also is the “fair share” conception of justice. Here, as in handicap horse racing, little league baseball or amateur golf, the rules are designed to even things up. In handicap races, for instance, the horse with the slowest previous times is assigned the least weight while the fastest horse is loaded down. Similarly, in handicap golf the worst golfer gets the biggest built-in advantage, the best gets none. The point of all this is to give those with less ability a reason to compete and a chance to win.
As an educator it is often difficult too decide which conception of justice to employ. The choice is exquisitely sensitive to circumstances. When it comes to assigning report card grades, for instance, whether the student is a first grader (fair share looms larger) or a graduate student (fair play gets the nod) enters into the equation. It also puts weight on the fair play side if the grade counts for something like college admission. If it just ends up on a middle school report card we might favor fair play.
I once taught in a middle school where sections were ranked by ability. School policy required students in the lowest sections, J and K, receive no report card grade higher than “C.” This was intended to preserve the value of an “A.” That’s fair play in action.
Harry — a pleasant fourteen year old who had already been held back twice and a spillover from SPED, was one of my students. He was in the very bottom section. “C” was the highest report card grade I was supposed to assign.
He was both very slow and psychologically troubled. At times he even believed that he was a famed boy evangelist. In fact during study hall he sometimes wrote “sermons” that he said he would deliver in a crowded local sports arena. One, “sermon” on teenage Christians read simply, “Hi, my name is Harry and I am a teenager and a Christian.” I asked him, “Is that the whole sermon Harry?” He replied, “Yep, that’s it.”
Before deciding on his grade, let’s learn more about Harry. His home life was a disaster. His father, a trash man, was the town “clown.” He had repeatedly been thrown out of local funeral homes, for example, because he insisted on mourning people whom he didn’t know. And year after year he tried to lead the forth of July parade even though he had been severely warned to stay out of it.
Harry’s mother, a toothless woman who wore the same filthy dress for days, was said to be “nuts” That was harsh, but when she attended a parent-teacher conference, I literally could not understand what she was trying to say to me. Non-sequiturs mingled with long pauses and pointless references creating a totally puzzling experience.
But Harry was as diligent as he was dull. If, for instance, his homework wasn’t right the first time, he always sought my help. If he got it wrong a second time, he was back again. And if he finally did catch on, he would then try to teach what he had learned to his slower classmates — even when they didn’t want to know.
It was obvious that Harry was making heroic efforts. And he was a model citizen in the bargain. No doubt about it, judged in a fair share way, Harry deserved an “A.” Sadly, though, compared to my brightest students he deserved a fair play F. Should I violate the school rule? What grade should I assign?
After much soul-searching, I went with fair share and awarded Harry an A. He was doing more with what he had than any other student. Besides, this was seventh grade and Harry’s report card would count for little outside the school. But as soon as the principal saw Harry’s grade he ordered me to change it. “School policy permits nothing higher than a C.” he chided.
I told him I was aware of the policy, but out of fairness I respectfully declined to change Harry’s grade. I tried to explain, but the principal interrupted, saying, “I’ll change the grade myself!” He turned and started to walk out, then paused, laughed, and said, “I guess it won’t matter; everyone else gave him an F.”
Given a fair play conception of justice, the principal was right, I should have given Harry an F. But does that seem right to you?
It is very true that adopting a fair share stance is fraught with problems. One difficulty is deciding what criteria to use to select people for compensatory breaks like the one I gave Harry. There are many possibilities. Lack of native intelligence, extraordinary effort, impoverishment, dysfunctional family life, and physical handicaps are obvious possibilities. Which ones should we choose and which ones should we ignore? And once we decide which handicaps count, there still is the problem of deciding how much of an advantage to allow. If intellect is to be compensated for, for instance, we then have to decide how slow a youngster must be before we grant him or her special considerations?
Finally, we have to decide how much weight each criterion deserves. For instance, should being intellectually challenged count for more or less than living in a horrible family situation?
These are such difficult issues that educators often are tempted to bag the whole fair share thing and, adopting a fair play stance, make no special allowances for anyone. But when fair play is totally unmitigated by any fair share considerations, all special accommodations disappear. And that results in a Dickensian world. “You’re deaf and need someone to sign for you, kid? Why don’t you just forget about school altogether.” “Can’t get up the school stairs to your next class in that wheelchair, son? It sure sucks to be you!”
The fair share or fair play question isn’t just about grades either. Educators choose between these competing principles of justice every time they decide how to apportion any limited resource. Consider a teacher’s time. If he or she spends a lot of time on one troubled youngster, other kids end up without enough attention. Yet if the teacher chooses a strictly fair play assignment of time, kids who desperately need extra attention are left to take on water and sink. Similarly, if fair share concerns cause a school district to spend a great deal more per student on special education, kids in general education suffer. But a strictly fair play assignment of resources eliminates special education altogether.
The fair share vs. fair play tension plays out on the national political scene as well. The affirmative action debate, for example, essentially involves choosing between fair share and fair play priorities.
It would be nice if educators didn’t have to choose between fair play and fair share. But they do — all the time. The best we can hope for, then, is that they make these choices wisely. Given that a lot of educators don’t even recognize that these two competing conceptions of justice even exist, however, one wonders how often such wisdom prevails.