Equality: A Parable

Author’s note: I fully acknowledge that the fundamental principles behind standardized testing and initiatives similar to No Child Left Behind are problematic, and that the scenario I’m about to present is idyllic and, for the purpose of the analogy, ignores many of the issues facing today’s educators. Just roll with it, people.

So there’s this Elementary School teacher.

Now, the board of education is caught up in the latest craze, and that craze is Standardized Testing. ‘All your kids have to take the same test,’ they say to the teacher. So the teacher decides that the most fair way to prepare her students for this test is to present the same material in the same fashion to all of them. Within the controlled environment of the classroom, everyone is presented with the same material. Everyone is given the same books to read. Everyone has access to the same tools, so all that’s left for the teacher to do is present the material to every student the same way. And so, she does.

Test day comes around. Now, some of the children, whose parents actively help them with their homework every night, who live near a library, who have access to computers, the internet, and various other resources outside of the classroom, or who just have an intuitive understanding of the material being taught, do extremely well on the test. Other students, however, don’t do particularly well. Some of these students have a lot of chores at home and don’t have a lot of time to study as a result, live in remote areas and can’t get to the nearest library reliably, don’t have access to the internet or other resources outside of the classroom, or just simply don’t learn the same way the other kids do. The teacher sees these results, but concludes that all she can do is continue to foster her perfectly equal classroom environment, and hope that things even out over time.

So it goes, a few weeks later, and it’s time for the next round of standardized tests. This time, the results are similar; the students who did well on the last test, still having the same advantages outside of class that allowed them to succeed, continued to do well, while the students who lacked those advantages continued to do poorly. There were some exceptions; some of the higher-achieving students allowed themselves to get complacent, and so their grades were average, and some of the lower-achieving students were able to find ways of overcoming their disadvantages, also achieving average grades. The teacher saw these marks, and concluded that her method of equality must be working, as the distribution is slightly more even now, and hopes that this trend will continue.

Come the third test, and these results are almost identical to the first test. The privileged students who allowed their grades to slip last time around decided to pull their figurative socks up, while the underprivileged students who did better last time were unable to reliably maintain their workarounds for their disadvantages. At this point, the end of the school year is approaching, and it’s looking like a lot of the disadvantaged students may have to repeat this grade. She alters her classroom routine to dedicate more time and attention to the disadvantaged students. She even assigns some TAs specifically to work with some of these kids to prevent them from falling behind. She holds meetings with some of the parents of these kids to work out arrangements where they can get more help outside of the classroom as well.

The end of the school year arrives, and with it, the last circulation of standardized tests. This time, many of the students who previously did poorly ended up doing much better, some even surpassing the kids who were always high-achievers. As a result, all of the students successfully advance to the next grade.

Two students, both of whom were consistently high-achievers throughout the school year, are talking on the bus ride home.
“I hated our teacher,” says one. “She played favorites and spent all her time with the dumb kids”.
“You said it,” agrees the other. “It’s like she didn’t even notice how good we did on ALL the tests!”