The unfairness of education

Today (or, rather, within the next half-hour) I am going to take up the idea that education is at least somewhat unfair at the core. In the many discussions I have heard about “education for all,” those who say “education is never for all” end up playing the role of lone heretics. So my purpose here will be to take examine this claim and follow it where it might lead.

Let us define fairness as the principle of giving to each according to his or her deserts. Let us also assume that each student deserves a good education as much as the next. (Each of these assumptions could be contested, but let’s leave them for now.) Thus, fairness in education would consist of offering each student a good education.

Already, there is a complication: education is not only an offering; the student must also participate in it. More about that shortly.

Consider this basic truth (forgetting for the moment about qualifications): Any given lesson, no matter what it contains and how it’s taught, will be more helpful, appropriate, interesting, or accessible (physically or intellectually) for some than for others.

You can mitigate this unfairness by “differentiating” instruction or by dividing students into homogeneous groupings. Each of these solutions brings its own drawbacks, its own kind of unfairness. Differentiating can fragment instruction; tracking can result in limited opportunities for those in the lower tracks.

As a student, you can mitigate the situation by altering your own situation. For instance, if your class isn’t challenging enough, you can seek out additional challenge. If it’s too difficult, you can seek assistance.

None of these adjustments takes away the basic unfairness of the setup. This unfairness has a hidden good: although not all students receive the same thing from a lesson, it remains an offering; in other words, there is something to be received from it. In addition, quality and “reach” are not always at odds with each other; a course can begin by reaching only a few students and end by reaching the majority, simply because of the influence of the instruction.

So I will posit that the unfairness of education should not be eradicated across the board; to the contrary, educators should consider which aspects of the unfairness to preserve, and which to discard or mitigate.

Let us take the controversy over the “specialized” high schools (that is, elite public high schools such as Stuyvesant) in New York City. There is currently great pressure on these schools to increase their racial and ethnic diversity. This brings up a dilemma.

On the one hand, there’s good reason for them to retain their admissions standards. The entrance exam does test math and reading proficiency and mental stamina–prerequisites for the academic work that the schools require. Granted, any single test is an imperfect measure, for a variety of reasons–but once you get into “multiple measures,” you risk lowering the standards for admission. On the other hand, there are plenty of highly intelligent, competent, and focused African American and Hispanic students. It’s worth asking what could be done to admit more of them to the specialized schools.

(For instance, Brooklyn Latin had a practice–and maybe still does–of working with students who just barely fell short of the cut on the test. Another option would be to adopt a double measure: the test and a piece of academic work, for instance.)

In other words, there are several kinds of unfairness at work here. Some kinds are essential to the nature of the specialized schools; other kinds could be eradicated.

In short, certain kinds of unfairness in education are inevitable, even good, while other kinds are not. Making education completely fair will destroy its essence; complacency with all unfairness will make it brittle and cruel. One must sort out the different kinds of unfairness and decide which ones should stay and which should go.


  1. The general tendency of education throughout history has been to increase inequality.

    By the way if the Ivy League were to go to a purely meritocratic test-based admissions process they would start to look a lot like Stuyvesant High School.

    I work for a company which is mostly owned by Chinese and I have a lot of Chinese coworkers. They are well aware of the discrimination against East Asians in the Ivy League and other universities and they deeply resent it.

  2. Apropos of your comment about working with those who just missed the cut score, the service academies have had, for decades, prep schools to prepare bright kids (usually enlisted personnel) who haven’t had all of the necessary coursework for Academy work. I have no problem with something like that – intensive summer programs tailored to each selective HS, for instance, prior to HS – for kids just missing the cut. HOWEVER, such programs would need to be open to all students within the “close to making the cut” group (however that’s defined). MIT used to have a summer program, post junior year IIRC, for URMs only and had to open it up to anyone because of legal issues. Not all kids work equally hard and I think AA, as currently practiced, discourages that. Over 20 years ago, the URMs in my older kids’ classes were very open about the fact that they didn’t have to take the APs or have the same GPAs/SATs as their white and Asian classmates – and these were kids who came from the same professional families and lived in the same upper-middle-class areas. These kids should have to meet the “real” standards, since they are in no way disadvantaged.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    “Let us also assume that each student deserves a good education as much as the next.”

    But let us not assume that what is good for one student is good for every other one. Filet mignon with sauteed mushrooms, mashed potatoes with butter and salt, and seasoned green beans is many people’s idea of a good–no, a great–dinner. But it’s is not good for a vegetarian. Or someone who doesn’t want a lot of fat, or salt, or carbs.

    Unfortunately, most people who make decisions in education believe that the best dinner is that steak dinner, and the only good dinner is something like it. The best education is something like Harvard; the only good education is one that eventually leads to a college degree.

    But that just isn’t true. And because we are so narrow-minded about what is a good education, we deny many kids the ability to get an education that is good for them.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Education is, after a fashion, a sort of tool.

    Tools magnify existing abilities.

    If you give me a sword, and you give my wife a sword, you haven’t done anything to equalize our combat abilities, because I’ve spent years training with swords. You’ve made me probably seven times as deadly and made her maybe 40% more deadly.

    When you provide a child who has a library at home and educated parents and who has been raised in a culture of logic and reflective thought, say, a year’s worth of education, and you give that same year of education (in terms of opportunity) to a child who has spent their life watching TV when they weren’t running across the street to get cigarettes for their parents and dodging blows to the head, you’ve made the former kid probably 70-80% more formidable, intellectually, but you’ll get lucky if you get 15% in the latter case.

    And because education is a process that extends over 12 or more years, the differences grow — like compound interest.

    It’s not that education is unfair. It’s that *life* is “unfair”. Physics is unfair. Math is unfair.

  5. Endless and growing resentment is the most characteristic feature of multicultural societies.

  6. The unfairness is that certain children are expected to review all year while others get to learn. Those that dont have a way out -specialized public school, private school, homeschool, afterschool -are stuck. And guess what,…that includes a lot of rural white kids.

    • Very true. The unfairness also extends lots of kids who are willing to behave and to work but whose classrooms are too chaotic to enable teachers to teach; a direct consequence of the failure to enforce appropriate disciplinary standards – thanks to admins and politicians at all levels, including the current DOJ and its focus on “disparate impact” in disciplinary actions against blacks and Hispanics. They don’t seem to care that the victims of the miscreants are also disproportionately black and Hispanic. There’s also the insistence of full inclusion of spec ed kids, some of whom should not be in regular classes, since their behavior is too disruptive.

  7. I take certification exams in my field (I.T.) on a periodic basis (2 to 3 years, on average), and the exam doesn’t care about how I feel about it, there are only two options when you take it, pass or fail (and this is done on computers, and I have to pay the testing fee, usually 60-125 dollars, or more).

    If I pass, whoopee, if I fail, I have to study harder (and take my lumps).

    Education should be exactly that way…no more, no less.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      There I have to disagree with you, Bill.

      Education for professional adults — whether engineers, techies, soldiers, or whatnot — is a very different sort of beast than education for children, who come into this world utterly dependent on adults and without much in the way of a clue.

      One might think (correctly, I venture) that education shouldn’t be about mere success or failure, but about cultivating growth, about making opportunities for risk-free failure (and the learning that comes with it), and taking the time to “invest” in something that may or may not pan out.

      • It is different, in some ways, for adults, but schools are not teaching the fundamentals (all disciplines) in ES, and insisting on mastery of them. Kids – who are dependent on the adults because they don’t know what they should be learning – are being shoved along regardless of their performance, until they arrive in HS hopelessly behind.

    • The same applies to licensure/certification in many fields; Professional Engineer, RN and the various specialty certifications in nursing, CPA, CFA/CFP (Certified Financial Analyst/Planner), many other financial certifications, bar exams, medical licensure and specialty board certifications – which is why such entities are respected; they have to be EARNED. That is the reason that many HS diplomas and college degrees are no longer respected in the real world; they no longer represent the knowledge, skills and standards they once did.

  8. Ann in L.A. says:

    I’d like to see the Asian communities here start a purely-meritocratic university. They wouldn’t be biased in favor of Asian students, they’d just take top students regardless of national heritage…and if the school ends up predominantly Asian, so be it. Would the other top universities let those students go, or would they change their policies to allow more Asian students through their “holistic” admissions system.

    • Jewish donors started Brandeis to provide an option for Jewish students shut out of elite schools by quotas.

  9. Ann in LA – If such a university were to exist and accepted applicants from the entire US it would probably wind up over 90% East Asian with most of the remainder being whites.

    • cranberry says:

      Only if the college were perceived to be prestigious. There are perhaps 20,000 students of Asian heritage in the US each year who score above 700 on the verbal portion of the SAT, to judge from the latest data tables available at the college board. There are about 50,000 white students who score at that level.

      So if everything were only determined by scores, and the students all found it equally desirable, I’d expect there to be 2.5 X as many white students as Asian.

      However, most students scoring at that level will prefer the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, U Chicago, Johns Hopkins, UVa, etc. Remember, for high scoring kids there are also significant financial incentives to choose one school over another.

      I would not expect a “best test scores” university to win the battle of prestige. After all, the University of Chicago reportedly tried that approach for decades; recently, its admit rate has dropped swiftly, after the adoption of holistic admissions.

      • I’m sure East Asian students who could get into the schools who mentioned would go there but quotas would exclude most of them. An alternative meritocratic admission school would have a large pool of potential applicants from the East Asian population.

  10. Education is only considered “fair” or “unfair” because many believe that an acceptable life isn’t possible without education. We need to give up that notion and focus on providing jobs without pretending education will help improve the employment possibilities for the kids who don’t care or aren’t interested in school.

    Mark–It’s worth remember that Vonnegut saw Glampers as the hero, not Harrison. He wrote the story in 1961, long before affirmative action, because as a skinny nerdy guy he resented talent. I got the point, though.

    I don’t think we should have gifted and talented public high schools these days. If we do, the tests should be randomly scheduled, with an unknown format and content matter, and a significant essay portion that’s also random in prompt and format.

    As for the Asian university, I think it’s a great idea. But I do not think the idea means what you think it means.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Mark–It’s worth remember that Vonnegut saw Glampers as the hero, not Harrison. He wrote the story in 1961, long before affirmative action, because as a skinny nerdy guy he resented talent. I got the point, though.

      I figured you (among others) would get the point 🙂 And, yes, I remember reading an old interview a few years ago where Vonnegut expresses sadness that readers didn’t get his point to that story.
      Unfortunately, if we (as a society) every get very serious about closing the achievement gap, the only really effective way to do so will be to drag down the folks on top.

    • I agree, the testing should be non-predictable and also should consist of many rounds, where only a few best attempts are registered. And the test review should be double blinded, where reviewers are chosen randomly from the pool, unknown to the public as well as the school administration, and, in turn, could not know whose test they are reviewing. Better still, if the test consists of several independent parts, as it should, each part has to be assigned to the reviewers independently.
      And if we let the gifted and talented public schools go, along with them we should get rid of all music bands, varsity teams and theatrical groups, because none of them is exactly equitable and serves the goals of the basic public education.
      As for the jobs that do not require formal education, I again, agree that almost anything could be taught, learned and mastered based on experience alone. And the first thing to get to those is to get rid of innumerous governing bodies (and unions), that insist on people getting licensed or certified to perform every simple basic task.

  11. It is pretty much universally accepted that not all kids/people are equally talented in the arts or in sports; hence tryouts and cuts for the band, orchestra, dance team, drama productions and sports teams. It is also universally accepted in the arts and in athletics that much practice is necessary for success at even a moderate level and that practice must be done correctly. Only in academics is achievement supposed to be unconnected to either innate talent or to practice; hardly reflective of the real world.

    • “Only in academics is achievement supposed to be unconnected to either innate talent or to practice”

      That is because to admit this would force one to confront some very unpleasant demographic realities.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Strictly speaking, I think academics is supposed to be about *training*, not achievement.

      Which is kind of a shame, because we give “honors” to high school students who didn’t really need to go to high school, and fail other students who weren’t really ready to leave junior high.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        What’s the difference? If you have been successfully trained, you can show achievement in whatever you were trained for. (Though your achievement may also reflect things the training had nothing to do with.)

        Of course, the achievement that is assessed may not be the achievement that is desired. E.g., short-term memorization instead of understanding or “critical thinking.”

  12. cranberry says:

    Assume one group of students spends significant time at cram schools to prepare for a test, while another group does not. In such circumstances, one cannot conclude that the first group is superior to the second. That would ignore all other confounding factors.

    It would be great if random tests were to be administered. Adding an oral exam component would be interesting, too. Unfortunately, it seems it is hard to create and grade essay exams on a large scale–witness the credible stories of test tutors teaching students to memorize high-scoring essays ahead of time for the SATs.

    Given the cheating scandal(s) at Stuyvesant, I do not believe that a one-test system produces the “best” student body. It produces a student body which believes acing standardized tests is very important. See:

    Changing to a holistic admissions system would admit a different array of students. You’d have more children with hobbies other than cramming for admissions tests. However, you wouldn’t necessarily get a better student body. The Harvard Alumni Magazine published an article in March of 2010 with the title “Nonstop.” The students described in that article seemed too busy with hobbies and resume-building to focus on academics.

    • The comment I made just prior to your last one was not meant to address “The Test” for magnet schools, in any specific sense. To that end, I will mention that the Thomas Jefferson Science/Tech magnet, outside of DC, has – under pressure – recently developed a more “holistic” admissions method (which was not a single test, like the NYC exam schools) to increase the “diversity” of the school. The result of that was the need to add freshman remedial classes (for TJ) for those kids unprepared for the regular work. I do have a problem with that; if a kid cannot do the regular magnet work with only a summer prep school, he shouldn’t be admitted into the freshman class. As I said above, a year-long prep school would be another option; one that would not weaken the magnet program.

      • cranberry says:

        The only student I’ve encountered in our circle of acquaintances to take advantage of a postgrad year at a prep school for a Service Academy was a recruited football player. He did not come from an underprivileged background; I’m sure his previous prep school prepared him well for college. He was a year older, and bigger, after the year.

        Internet searches turned up references to the need for remedial classes in English at TJHSST, due to students from Korea in particular needing more instruction.

        It would make more sense to expand the number of magnet schools for science and technology, than to artificially try to select the winners–particularly when the school draws applicants from overseas. Set a cut score for students who can “do the work.” Admit everyone over that cut score. Distribute them randomly over as many schools as needed. Same curriculum.

        As it stands, even with the current holistic system, reading parent and news postings online, the current admissions system is being gamed.