This essay originally appeared in educational Horizons 2005, VOL 84; 1, pages 8-14

What's Fair? Equity in Educational Practice

by Gary K. Clabaugh and Alison A. Clabaugh

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in
a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin
but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
—Martin Luther King, August 28,1963

edited 9/2/11

We humans divide ourselves into a bewildering variety of pseudo-species based on race, ethnicity, nationality, and so forth. But which, if any, of our differences should an educator regard as relevant? Should they concern themselves with skin color, for example? If so, how much should it matter? Should it supersede concerns about poverty, for instance, or overshadow personal character?

The Courts and Congress

In Brown v. Board of Education (1954) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schooling violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In consequence, educators could no longer legally discriminate against youngsters of African-American descent.

Then in 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. It provided that "no person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color or national origin,be excluded from participation in,be denied the benefits of, or be otherwise subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving financial assistance" from the U.S. Department of Education. The provision widened the prohibition against school-based discrimination.

Educators were facing new ground rules. Now every public school child, or at least those who weren't significantly handicapped, had to be included in a way that promoted fair play.

Fair Play/Fair Share

Both Brown and the Civil Rights Act rest on a fair play conception of justice. It requires that everyone be given the same chance to compete under impartial rules. (Professional sports, for instance, typically are fair play endeavors. Allowances are not made for individual differences.)

Matters changed dramatically in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11246. It required that "certain employers take affirmative action to ensure that all qualified applicants and employees receive equal employment opportunity. Affirmative action, or positive measures, must also be taken by covered employers to recruit and advance qualified minorities and women for jobs in which they are underutilized relative to their availability."1

The federal government's concept of justice had transitioned from non-discrimination to positive discrimination—affirmative action—and from fair play to fair share. The fair share conception of justice requires favoring those who have previously been targeted by discrimination. The intended goal is to promote diversity by ensuring adequate representation of groups underrepresented due to past discrimination.2

Significantly, handicapped children were not included. No fair share for them—not yet. They were either accommodated in a halfhearted way or prevented from attending public school altogether. Congress put a stop to that in 1975 by passing Public Law 94-142 (Education of All Handicapped Children Act). It mandated that in order to receive federal funds, states must develop and implement policies that guaranteed a free appropriate public education to all children with disabilities. It also required an individualized educational plan for every disabled child.3 Fair share had been extended to special needs children.

The triumph of fair share educational policy at the federal level, coupled with widespread demands to undo the consequences of past prejudice, created a favorable atmosphere for changes in higher education admission policies. By the early 1980s colleges and universities throughout the United States were carrying out special recruitment and retention programs that favored minorities and disadvantaged the majority.

Legal actions, usually citing the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, challenged the constitutionality of such "quotas." Some had limited success. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), for instance, the Supreme Court ruled that racial admission quotas were unconstitutional, but consideration of an applicant's race is permissible if the goal is to pursue racial diversity.

More recently, voters in Washington and California banned race-sensitive higher education admissions policies altogether. More such reconsiderations are likely.


The developments just highlighted have significantly reduced every educator's freedom of action. Entire "protected classes" of people, legally defined by age, sex, race, national origin, disability, creed and religion, now must be given special consideration. Additionally, some states and even cities protect additional special classes against other kinds of discrimination, such as that based on sexual orientation.

Despite these limitations, however, educators must still regularly choose either fair play or fair share in everyday practice.

Trouble Either Way

The trouble with making these choices is that they are seldom easy. Suppose a teacher opts for fair play — the same homework rules for everyone, for example. Fail to get it done and pay the price. No exceptions. But suppose some youngsters aren't getting their homework done because they don't have a real home in which to do it? Is an inflexible, one-size-fits-all policy fair in that circumstance?

On the other hand, if an educator opts for fair share, the difficulty is deciding what to make allowances for. Should students be granted special consideration because of race, ethnicity, economic status, level of intelligence, special talent or interest, sexual preference, appearance, health, physical disabilities, emotional stability, learning disabilities, or what?

One can at least begin deciding by distinguishing characteristics that are achieved (accomplished through personal effort or free choice) from those that are ascribed by reason of age, sex, ethnic or family background, or any other factor outside the control of the individual. and those that are inherited (genetically passed from parents to offspring).

Students might not do their homework, for example, simply because they choose not to. That's an issue of personal achievement. They also might not do it because of what they have absorbed from a role model or because their innate intelligence is insufficient for the task. In which case is an exception to the rules merited? Perhaps for the behaviors not freely chosen — but how can the educator be sure of that?

Neglected Considerations

Fair share educators face other difficulties. Social psychological research has consistently demonstrated, for instance, that many genuine handicaps are seldom even considered. Here are a few of them.

Physical Attractiveness

In a study entitled "What Is Beautiful Is Good," researchers from the American Psychological Association experimentally documented a phenomenon referred to as the physical-attractiveness stereotype. Investigators showed photographs of attractive, average, and unattractive people to university undergraduates. The students were asked to rate the people in the photos on various personality traits and behavioral tendencies, based solely on their appearance in the pictures.

Results showed that compared to unattractive people, attractive people were assumed to possess a higher number of positive traits. The students rated them confident, strong, assertive, candid, warm, honest, kind, outgoing, sensitive, poised, sociable, exciting, and nurturing (Dion, Berscheid, and Walster 1972). Startling as these results may be, the physical-attractiveness stereotype is robust, replicated in several different experimental paradigms (Feingold 1992). As Aristotle noted, "Personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction."


Weight is another, often overlooked, physical characteristic associated with discrimination and unfair treatment. Social psychological research on attitudes toward overweight people has shown they are often perceived as lazy, unintelligent, slovenly, and unattractive (Grover, Keel, and Mitchell 2003). Several studies have demonstrated that such negative attitudes toward obese individuals may contribute to discrimination in the work place. Specifically, obese people are not hired as often as people of normal weight (Roe and Eickwort 1976); are less likely to be promoted (Larkin and Pines 1979); and often report being discriminated against by managers and peers (Rothblum, Brand, Miller, and Oetjen 1990).

Short Stature

Height, particularly in men, is another physical attribute associated with negative stereotypes and discrimination. A 1992 study by researchers from Michigan State University demonstrated that short men are often judged inferior to tall men in several personal attributes. People tend to judge taller men as more socially attractive, higher in professional status, more masculine, more athletically inclined, and more physically attractive than short men (Jackson and Ervin 1992). Similar studies have found that short men often experience discrimination in professional settings. For example, short job applicants are not hired as often as taller applicants (Bonuso 1983); short employees earn less, on average, than taller employees (Loh 1993); and short political candidates lose elections more often than taller candidates (Gillis 1982).

Some Other Factors

Social psychological research also indicates that people with red hair color are often stereotyped as "clownish" and "weird" (Heckert and Best 1997). Negative stereotyping based on language and dialect (i.e., Southern accents, ebonics) also is a common occurrence (Anisfield 1972). Additionally, children who wear brand-name clothing and shoes are judged "popular," "wealthy," and able to "fit in with their peers" compared to children who do not wear name brands (Elliot and Leonard 2004).

What does such research have to do with equity in the classroom? The answer is "Everything." If unattractive, obese, or short people, for example, experience discrimination in a broad setting, it is very likely that they experience similar discrimination in an educational setting. So shouldn't fair share educators be prepared to apply compensatory measures for any student victimized by prejudice? Why should some students qualify for fair share treatment just because their particular group has more political muscle?


Instead of focusing on skin color or other group differences, perhaps educators should embrace the character-based vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. If they have the freedom to do so and if they can overcome the natural human tendency to stereotype, perhaps they should focus on each child's individual humanity, rather than his or her race,ethnicity, or what have you. After all, in the end, isn't character, not group membership, the most important quality of all?

Related articles:
Fair Share vs Fair Play
Justice Through Testing



1. Statute Summary, Executive Order 11246. Employment Law Implementation Network,<>.

2. "Affirmative Action," Wikipedia Encyclopedia, < wiki/Affirmative_action>.

3. Education Law, <>.


Bonuso, C.A. 1983."Body Type:A Factor in the Hiring of High School Leaders." Phi Delta Kappan 64: 374.

Dion, K., E. Berscheid, and E. Walster. 1972. "What Is Beautiful Is Good." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 24: 285–290.

Elliot, R., and C. Leonard. 2004. "Peer Pressure and Poverty: Exploring Fashion Brands and Consumption Symbolism among Children of the 'British Poor.'" Journal of Consumer Behavior 3: 347–359.

Feingold, A. 1992. "Good-looking People Are Not What We Think." Psychological Bulletin 111: 304–341.

Gillis, J. S. 1982.Too Small,Too Tall. Champaign,Ill.:Institute for Personality and Ability Testing.

Grover,V.P.,P.K.Keel,and J.P.Mitchell.2003."Gender Differences in Implicit Weight Identity." International Journal of Eating Disorders 34: 125–135.

Heckert, D. M., and A. Best. 1997. "Ugly Duckling to Swan: Labeling Theory and the Stigmatization of Red Hair." Symbolic Interaction 20: 365–384. Jackson,L.A.,and K. S. Ervin. 1992."Height Stereotypes of Women and Men:The Liabilities of Shortness for Both Sexes." Journal of Social Psychology 132: 433–445.

Larkin, J. E., and H. A. Pines. 1979. "No Fat Persons Need Apply." Sociology of Work and Occupations 6: 312–327.

Loh, E. S. 1993. "The Economic Effects of Physical Appearance." Social Science Quarterly 74: 420–438.

Roe, D. A., and K. R. Eickwort. 1976. "Relationships between Obesity and Associated Health Factors with Unemployment among Low Income Women." Journal of American Women's Medical Association 31: 193–204.

Rothblum, E. D., P. A. Brand, C. T. Miller, and H. A. Oetjen. 1990. "The Relationship between Obesity, Employment Discrimination, and Employment-Related Victimization." Journal of Vocational Behavior 37: 251–266.