When Fairness Is Unjust

Sunday, July 30, 2000

Whenever I hear about "fairness" in education, I think back to my own education half a century ago in Harlem. I think particularly of one teacher, Miss Simon.

Miss Simon was from what I would call the General Patton School of Education. She was not my favorite teacher at the time, and I’d be very surprised if I were her favorite student. Miss Simon required us to write every misspelled word 50 times. Not in class, but at home, along with all the other homework that we had from her and all the other teachers with similar attitudes. So if you misspelled four or five words, you had quite an evening ahead of you. There would be no "Lone Ranger" that night.

Many years later, on the streets of San Francisco, I ran into a Harlem neighbor and we caught up on old times. It turned out he had become a psychiatrist and owned a home and property in California’s Napa Valley. He is currently retired, living overseas with servants.

One of the things he mentioned was that over the years his secretaries have commented that he seldom misspells a word. And I said, "You know, my secretaries make that same comment. But if they knew Miss Simon, it would be no mystery."

Our choice is between requiring students to do something hard now, or having make-believe equality and letting them go out into the world doomed to fail.

Suppose, however, that instead of Miss Simon we’d had teachers with the enlightened views of today. Our teachers would have said, "It’s not right to force these kids to be able to spell all these words. Their parents don’t have the kind of education that parents in other neighborhoods have. They don’t have books and magazines in their homes. These are tougher words for them than they are for other people."

I wonder what would have happened to my neighbor and me in that case. Perhaps we would have ended up on welfare or in prison. People perfectly capable of achievement would have been turned into clients, supplicants, mascots—symbols of other people’s goodness.

I thought about that some years ago as I looked at the math textbooks my nieces in Harlem were using. What they were being taught in the eleventh grade I was taught in the ninth grade. But probably the teachers felt very good about themselves for being so "fair."

In education today there’s a widespread notion of "fairness" in some cosmic sense—not in the sense of treating everyone the same, but in the sense of trying to redress pre-existing inequalities.

There’s no awareness of the cost of this notion of fairness—not only to the educational system but to the very people we’re trying to help. It’s an empirical question whether what we’re giving disadvantaged people by treating them this way outweighs what we’re taking away from them in terms of their own accomplishment. But it’s an empirical question that is almost never asked. Because to do-gooders, the results are less important than feeling noble about offering "help."

For instance, the College Board is now trying to fudge the results of SAT tests—to "race-norm" the scores—on the grounds that blacks and others have a tough time if they are held to the same standard as other people. It so happens that a hundred years ago in Washington, D.C., standardized tests were given in the academic high schools. There were four high schools at that time, three white and one black. The black high school came in ahead of two of the three white high schools on the standardized tests, and they did not race-norm the scores. That was 100 years ago. Today, no one is so utopian as to hope for any such thing.

When you tell people things like this, they say, "Oh, those were middle-class kids." You will be quite unpopular if you ask a follow-up question, "What speck of evidence do you have showing that’s true?" It so happens I have more than a speck that it’s false. A survey was done of the occupations of those kids’ parents: They included 52 laborers and just one physician.

Still people say, "Oh, but that’s where doctors and lawyers sent their kids." As one of the former principals told me, "If this school was for the doctors and lawyers, how come we had 1,400 black kids here at one time?" In fact, the data have been available publicly for a quarter of a century: There were far more kids whose mothers were maids than whose fathers were physicians.

And so it’s very hard to convince me that black kids can’t do what they’ve already done. The same thing applies with Hispanics. I went to school with Hispanic kids who spoke English every day of the week. Hispanic kids today can learn to speak English.

Is it fair? No, it’s not fair. It would be much fairer if they were born into a family where everyone already spoke English. But we have no control over that. That kind of fairness has never been an option. Our only choice is between making them do something that’s a little harder right now, or having make-believe equality and letting them go out into the world foredoomed to fail.