I don't think I'm alone in saying that I am a teacher who has struggled to appropriately distinguish between the terms equal and fair. I was moved to post about this a little over two years ago in reference to an AP teacher who believed entry into AP classes should be competitive. Recently, I've been thinking about these concepts because of my interest in standards-based grading. Like one of the participants mentioned over on the edubloggers wiki discussion of standards-based grading, a teacher may view giving a student a zero for a late assignment as fair. The other students turned in their work on time---how can it be fair to allow another student more time and the equal opportunity for a grade? I think that these kinds of concerns are among the biggest barriers to adoption of the standards-based philosophy at the secondary level.
I've been reading Fair Isn't Always Equal: Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom by Rick Wormeli. I like this example he gives in order to illustrate the difference between equal and fair:
Two students are seated at the back of the classroom. One of them is nearsighted and cannot see anything clearly that is more than a few feet away. He wears glasses. The teacher asks both students to read, record, and learn the same information written in small print on the front board, on the opposite side of the room. In order to make things equal, however, the teacher removes the nearsighted child's glasses and asks both students to get started. The child needing glasses squints but can't read anything on the board.
The idea here, of course, is that the teacher has made the conditions equal (as well as the expectations for learning), but unfair in the sense that one student is at a disadvantage: s/he needs some "scaffolding" in order to meet the expectations set by the teacher. Okay, I think I have a better grip on things.
Next question: Will kids have the same understanding of equal and fair?
Yes, I know I can help them shape these; but I'm thinking about the perspectives they may hold at the beginning. I certainly understand how I have looked at it as a teacher. I also have had plenty of experience with the familiar teen whine of "That's not faaaiiirr." Can I help them see that although my expectations for all of them are equal (they must meet the standards), that to be fair I will respect their individual differences in getting there? Will I have a lot of hurt feelings to sort out if some students have additional opportunities to show what they know? Will they understand that it's fair for students to earn grades in different ways---and honor my discretion to do that? Should be interesting for us to find out.