Why do teachers treat their students unequally?

Educational equity : "Treat unequal unequally"

At the end of January 2021, a commission commissioned by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation presented measures to combat inequality in the German school system. In the media debate, a long-term perspective was particularly emphasized and declared as the principle: “Treat unequal unequally”. The underlying idea of ​​raising a particularly large amount of resources both for disadvantaged schools and for disadvantaged pupils sounds impressively simple, but it is difficult to implement and is controversially discussed.

This principle poses the question of how resources should be distributed. The perspective taken here is the perspective of distributive justice. The controversy surrounding the principle can be discussed using an example of a good that has limited availability, but whose relevance for academic success can hardly be overestimated: professional pedagogical support from competent teachers. In a schematically simplified way, if X gets a lot of it, then less is left for Y.

Ideally, one can distinguish three variants in democratic societies in which the relationship between professional educational support and actual needs is organized.

Type 1: The watering can principle

The “watering can principle” means that everyone gets the same thing at the same time in the same room. The resource of educational support is here undifferentiated and distributed equally across all.

This is the concept cited by numerous proponents of individualized teaching as an evil to be overcome. The principle is criticized, among other things, because it is based on an imagined means of performance. It cannot do justice to all who do not belong to this center. The under-performing get out and the high-performing get bored.

Type 2: The individualized teaching

The “individualized teaching” model aims to promote all children and young people individually and to structure the teaching in such a way that classes are taught in a way that is internally differentiated. All children should be picked up where they are and supported in developing their full potential. The focus of this model is on the individual who is to be promoted in the best possible way. The educational support resource will continue to be distributed equally over time. All children receive the same amount of educational attention, the only difference being made in terms of content: the high-performing receive different tasks than the low-performing.

The concept of individualized teaching endeavors to recognize differences in school practice and nevertheless to do justice to the principle of equal treatment. However, equal treatment does not automatically have compensatory effects. It does not resolve the empirically well-documented differences in performance between children from socially disadvantaged families and children from privileged parental homes. On the contrary: even if one starts from the empirically unsupported assumption that all children benefit equally from individual care, this only leads to the cementing of the gap that existed at the start of school career.

Since we know from empirical research that children from socially privileged families come to schools with a clear head start, the core problem of social inequality remains: Ascriptive, previously ascribed factors have a decisive influence on school success and thus on the distribution of life chances . This stands in blatant contradiction to the normative models of a democratic performance society.

Type 3: Treat unequal unequal

In the third type, everyone will continue to receive support, but the least favored will receive the most. So the resource of educational support continues to benefit everyone. The teachers also look after the privileged children, albeit less than the disadvantaged children. According to this guiding principle of school policy, decisions are made in such a way that they benefit the least favored the most.

The great strength of this principle is that it strives for social rapprochement and can thus work promisingly against the ever widening gap in social inequality. It is a model that is not exclusively based on individual progress, but takes the socio-political compensation task of the school seriously.

In view of massive social inequalities and related problems, we should not forget that the promotion of equality through unequal treatment, especially in school, promises an increase in freedom for many disadvantaged children and young people. At best, new life chances open up for these children in the form of expanded educational and professional options that would not be open to them without compensatory unequal treatment.

The practical implementation of the principle is, however, prone to conflict. How and on what basis should a decision be made as to who receives how much educational support? Does the performance shown count as a criterion or does the socio-economic background count? And if the less privileged children really get more: where do these resources come from? Will additional teachers be hired or will the educational support effort for the privileged children be reduced?

Corona pandemic as an opportunity to implement ideas for more equal opportunities

Should the principle of “treating unequal unequal” even be applied to individual students? Or would it make more sense to apply the principle to schools? Would this be used to strengthen schools in difficult situations, make them more attractive and perhaps even counteract existing segregation tendencies in the long term? An idea that has already been discussed in numerous debates - for example, when considering equipping schools with more staff in particularly challenging situations.

In the context of the corona pandemic and homeschooling, the problem of social inequality that has existed for decades has once again moved into the focus of public debate. It is to be hoped that some of the proposed solutions that have now been introduced will be saved and seriously discussed in the period after the corona pandemic. Saying goodbye to the principle of equal treatment is a complex proposal that is worth discussing in order to enable more equal opportunities.