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What is fair?


Posts on explore: 

DEEP LEARNING: How we might renovate our instructional approach and achieve for preK-12 teachers and students a wholesale transition to 21st century teaching and learning

QUALITY LEADERSHIP: How we might apply the best aspects from the public, private, and charter sectors to make U.S. public schools and districts the best in the world; or 

LIVING FAITH: Intersections of faith and public life, so that we might "act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).

What is fair?

Tyler Thigpen

We all have resources.

But exactly how and for what reasons we should be generous is not always clear and might depend on our circumstances.

Sometimes it makes sense for us to close our eyes to the interests and welfare of others and simply treat people the same. Sometimes it makes sense to assess many options and go for the option that helps the most. Sometimes it makes sense to pay close attention to people’s interests and welfare and make nuanced decisions about distributing resources.

But the three scenarios I just mentioned have limits; they usually work best when the average welfare for all is fairly high.

Often things aren’t average.

Leaders, in particular, face difficult and sometimes unpopular choices when helping disadvantaged groups. 

What arguments can leaders make? What rationale can they embrace?

Strike, Emil J. Haller, and Jonas F. Soltis (2005) address these and other questions in their book The Ethics of School AdministrationIn their chapter “Equal Educational Opportunity,” they explore the nuances of equal opportunity in education, asking Who should decide what is equitable? What does fairness actually demand?

The following are key terms from their work:

  • The principle of equal treatment - In any given circumstances, all people who are the same in some respects relevant to how they are treated in those circumstances should receive the same treatment. A corollary is: People who are relatively different should be treated differently. Think of this example: Which of two kids who scored the same on admissions tests should we admit to college?

  • The principle of benefit maximization - This concept looks at a dilemma in terms of maximizing some good, and sometimes over other goods. It involves carefully selecting resources. In reality, this can be a threat to basic rights when the average welfare for all is not as high as possible. If on average things are better, then this principle might be appropriate; but often things aren’t average.

  • The principle of equal respect - This is looking at a dilemma in terms of relevant and irrelevant characteristics and then treating equals equally and unequals unequally. For example, denying someone based on irrelevant characteristics can be denigrating. And lastly...

  • The maximin principle - This is the idea of maximizing the welfare of those who receive the minimum share - i.e., the disadvantaged. This principle is preferred when there is conflict between the principle of benefit maximization and the principle of equal respect.

Overall, the authors think we need to move from the limited and thus insufficient principle of equal treatment to that of equal educational opportunity. To do this, they think decision-makers can make leverage either...

  1. The principle of benefit maximization;
  2. The principle of equal respect; or, even better, when the first two are in conflict...
  3. The maximin principle. Some decisions, they argue, require that we trade the welfare of some for the welfare of others. The maximin principle is especially attentive to the disadvantaged and thus is social justice oriented because it allows for some inequalities only when everyone benefits as a result of some decision. And it seems to respect everyone equally.

Elsewhere I have tried to show how things aren't average in U.S. education today. And so sometimes it makes sense to maximize the welfare of the disadvantaged, of those receive the minimum share. And personally I find the idea of developing relevant and nuanced criteria to arrive at equal educational opportunity and achieve a win-win challenging (cognitively) and helpful (morally).

Now is an opportune time in U.S. education to search out systems of institutional oppression and inequity and ally with others to tear those systems down and raise up the oppressed.

As a Christian, I am convinced this is an area is where Christians can shine. Christians benefit from the exemplary generosity of a cloud of witnesses that have gone before, who have given freely to the oppressed. Attending to the disadvantaged and embracing a social-justice-oriented stance is where Christians today can closely align with Jesus’ ministry of making himself of no reputation, and of encouraging and elevating the downtrodden.

Now is a time that is ripe for searching out such opportunity.