What’s Fair

We have friends with three young children.  The youngest of the three has a number of medical problems which require trips to see specialists, surgeries, long recovery periods and rehab.


This special medical treatment requires considerable sums of money and time.  The mom and her youngest child are away from home, sometimes for long stretches.  The medical bills exceed what insurance will pay not to mention the costs of travel and meals away from home.  It adds up.


The two older children, fortunately, are completely healthy.  There medical bills are minimal to non-existent.  Our friends are spending far more money and time to support their youngest child’s health than they do to provide for their older children’s health.


I remember once their oldest daughter – she must have been eight at the time – standing on our porch saying, “I don’t like how much my mom has to be gone with my brother.  It’s not fair.”  She knew her mom was doing the right thing but she also was keenly aware of her own sacrifice.  The money diverted to health care probably cost her in ways she did not know – for instance, the family had less disposable income for their older children.


Our friends’ experience is, perhaps, acute but not uncommon.  Most families with multiple children face situations in which they must make judgments about how best to support their children.  Often, the considered choice leads parents to spend more time and money on one child than on another.  We all learn – heck it’s common sense that even an eight year old understands – that doing the right thing does not always mean being equal in the strictest sense.


Now here’s the thing about our friends.  There youngest child’s health will probably never be as good as the health of the older two children.  All three of their children should have good enough health to lead good lives.  But, bottom line, their youngest child will always have some issues.  Even though they have and will spend exponentially more on the youngest child the “results” won’t be as good.


Every family I know would do the same thing for their children.


I find the experience of our friends useful when thinking about how education dollars are spent.  The reality is that it takes more money to educate some children than it takes to educate other children.  We would like to think that all children are exactly the same – and thus require the same level of support.  But, we all know that is not the real world.


Some children have obvious learning disabilities.  Other children’s learning needs are less obvious.  For instance, some children come from homes in which “habits of learning” are passed on intuitively from parent to child.  Other children don’t develop these “habits of learning” at home and have to play catch up at school.  This takes time and, in some instances, personal attention, which often costs money.


(At the other end of the spectrum, some children need special programming so they won’t be bored at school – but that will be a topic for another time.  It just occurred to me, perhaps we should criticize parents whose children are exceptionally bright because of the extra burden they place on our schools – but of course I’m just being sarcastic, which isn’t terribly helpful. )


Administrators at the private and parochial schools in our community are fully aware that some students require more money to educate than other students.  That is why some private school administrators discourage or prohibit students with extra learning needs from enrolling at their school.  That is why, for instance, some parochial students travel to neighboring public schools for literacy instruction.


I am okay with that.  If a private school isn’t up to the task of educating a child, they should be up front about it.  If a parochial school does not have the resources needed to support a child’s instructional needs, I think it is okay for the community to help out.  Some people may say, “That’s not fair.  We shouldn’t subsidize parochial school students.”  But, I think we do what is best for the children of our community – we can’t let rivalries take our eye off of the children.


Here’s another reality.  We will invest more money in some students than we do in others and yet their academic performance will never match that of many of their classmates.  Just like our friends and their three children.  They spend more money on one child’s health even though his health will never be as good as his siblings.


But, I believe we have an obligation to prepare as many students as possible to be self-sufficient and contributing members to our communities – even if they never make it to the right side of the bell curve.  And, the reality is that there will always, by definition, be a right and left side of the bell curve.  Or, put another way, we have an obligation to help children reach their potential no matter what that potential is.


These are the types of choices we face as a community and as a school district.  We must make choices about what’s fair.  It would be nice if these types of choices were as simplistic as “everyone gets exactly the same.”  But, that isn’t the real world.  Children’s educational needs are no different than their health needs.  They vary.  And, sometimes, some kids need extra time, attention and resources.


Making judgments about how to distribute resources to meet the needs of 24,000 students can be clumsy at times.  We should always investigate ways to improve the system.  For instance, the Poudre (Ft. Collins) school district uses a formula for student needs.  Whatever system we use, common sense dictates that a fair distribution of resources is unlikely to be exactly equal.


9 Responses to “What’s Fair”

  1. Brian Herman Says:

    Every so often in life you get a Shockabuku (A swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever.). This post was one of those moments for me.
    I’ve read it 3 times fully before trying to reply, and in the end I mostly have to say that you’ve changed my way of thinking about fairness in education.
    I’ve often been frustrated at how resources are allocated and that high performing students don’t seem to receive as much attention as the lower performing ones. But after reading this the question becomes am I in this just for the betterment of my own children, the rest be damned, or is the point of public education to raise the condition of all, thereby improving society? I’m sure John Nash’s equilibrium theory would have something to say about all this. The idea that advanced students pose a burden on the system just as lagging students do is a real eye-opener.
    We have tough problems to face with eduction in this country, and I still believe that “no child left behind” is bad idea… sometimes children need to be left behind to try things again, and move ahead only when they are ready, without holding the rest of the group back. But this post has made me consider that perhaps some of my other views on fairness in education are skewed too much for my own children’s gain and not enough on the big picture.
    Would I let my sickly child stay home and suffer while taking my healthy ones to Disneyland? Nope. And if I was the parent of a lagging student, wouldn’t I want every advantage I could find and take every opportunity I could get to keep my child moving forward? Of course!
    So John, thanks for the Shockabuku – I have much to think about.

  2. Annette Higgins Says:

    I went to this conference and this eloquent speaker, lawyer, mother of a child with “special needs” commented that in your journey you will often be told that you have given society a burden. If you dwell on this you will not be able to successfully advocate for your child. I had times when I struggled because I did have this thought and I was ashamed, not of my child, but that I had this thought, about my amazing gift. I have always been taught that as we accept and absorb all members into our community. In turn we have a rich and robust and amazing community. So… since I have learned to tune out the conversations about your child versus my child, because they only take away from my child being able to accomplish and succeeded in life, because I have allowed others to tell me that my child does not have the same value as other in the community.
    We had a friend Ray Bassett when asked about his children he would respond. “ I feel like a turkey that hatched peacocks.”
    What parent does not feel like that about ALL their children?
    Thanks for the post John!

  3. kent willmann Says:

    John your most recent blog entry has made an appearence on our blog: cybercamp.edublogs.com
    Here is my comment posted there:
    John is a great advocate to have on the school board. In 28 years of teaching he is the first board member who came to our lunch room and listened to what we had to say.
    His children analogy is right on, but a tough sell in an admosphere where the most vocal and active parents are organized to get what they can for their kids–and who can blame them. The Poudre approach is designed to help alleviate that and to serve students who are school dependent for their advocacy. Not a bad idea schools competing to bring in tough to educate kids in order to get more funding. It sure beats what is happending now—school trying to import their test scores (by competing for the best performing students) instead of improving them.
    I do have one argument with John, while the bell curve is a natural state, it is not the given outcome. Our task as teachers as John suggests is to prepare all kids to be productive citizens–good teacher do just that. “A bell curve is nature lots of kids succeeding is nurture.”

  4. Bud Hunt Says:

    John – Quick correction – the blog Kent’s referring to is this one:
    Your post here is a thoughtful one. I thank you for it.

  5. Jerome Says:

    A very insightful look at the challenges of distribution of resources, rational and thought provoking. A great basis for a dialog toward implementing curriculum allowing all students to reach their potential.

  6. Annette Higgins Says:

    I would like to reply on Mr. Willman’s comment that “…where the most vocal and active parents are organized to get what they can for their kids–”…
    So in advocating for our children we are hurting the children that do not have advocates?
    As an example when I advocate for literacy instruction, I ask for researched based curriculum based on recommendation by the National Reading Panel, (i.e. phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, fluency vocabulary….) I am simply pushing to get my son what the district acknowledges that ALL children need in order to learn to read.
    I can not tell you how many times the teachers have caught me in the hall or emailed me and told me that what I am asking for is going to not just help my son but help others.
    That is my goal, nothing less!
    I feel that I am also advocating for the teachers. I get it your job is hard and you have very limited resources.
    It continually confounds me how often I am told that I am hurting others by advocating for me son.

  7. Brad Jolly Says:

    It appears that two concepts have gotten munged together here. The first is whether “special needs” students deserve additional funding, similar to what Mr. Creighton’s friends (and nearly all other rational parents) do for their child with unusual health challenges. Everybody agrees this is reasonable to a point.
    The second issue is whether parents of “typical” children who fail to instill the “habits of learning” in said children should expect the district to take funding from other “typical” children to make up for their own parenting deficiencies. The district has been doing this for many years, but the children in the underfunded schools still blow the doors off the children in the overfunded schools (see chart and explanation at http://denver.yourhub.com/Longmont/Blogs/Education/Education-General/Blog~477836.aspx .)
    I disagree with Ms. Higgins that the district has “very limited resources.” Thanks to Amendment 23, per-pupil operating revenue has outpaced inflation every year for the lion’s share of a decade now.
    Finally, I thank and admire Ms. Higgins for contributing ideas “that ALL children need in order to learn to read.” Public education is one of the few areas where laypeople can easily contribute ideas that are vastly superior to current practice.
    As examples, Ms. Higgins mentions “phonemic awareness” and “alphabetic principle.” “Phonemic awareness” is the 50¢ phrase for the 1¢ concept that children can learn words better if they think about and work with the way words sound. “Alphabetic principle” is the unremarkable concept (nearly 5,000 years old) that letters have sounds and that you can often use these sounds to figure out what a printed word is.
    Both of these ideas were considered too obvious to mention several decades ago, but now they are considered novel and innovative.

  8. Annette Higgins Says:

    Hey, Brad.
    In the past a person with Down Syndrome that could read was the exception. Today that is note the case. Why is that?
    Maybe because these obvious ideas were incorporated in to some of these kids day? And what happened? They started to read!
    Maybe because astute educators and parents acknowledged that these were not trivial points, and took great pain to incorporate them into the lessons.
    I agree we have known for a long time how to teach people to read. Now we must look at the populations that we support and make sure that cultural barriers, cognitive barriers are not in place that keep the students from reaching their potential.

  9. Brad Jolly Says:

    Annette, you are 100% right on in wanting all children to reach their potential. If we as a society are getting better at educating students with Down Syndrome, that is a very good thing.
    My concern is around the fact that the educationists have drifted so far off course over the years. As a result, we now have to give fancy names to what used to be self-evident observations in order to give the illusion that something new has been discovered.
    In my lifetime, we will see somebody invent a term for the idea that children should realize that the number 3 stands for this many objects: XXX and the number 4 stands for this many: XXXX.

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