Two stories with no apparent relationship — making certain “good” teachers are spread “equally” throughout the schools, and the number of deaths in the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.
Look, when militants in Gaza fire rockets at Israel, then Israel has a right to respond, but with some proportionality. More than 200 Gazans have been killed, three-quarters of them civilians, according to United Nations officials; one Israeli has been killed. In any case, Israel’s long-term interest lies in de-escalating, not moving to the ground war it now threatens. –New York Times
Today, the Obama administration is asking states to create plans ensuring that all students have access to effective teachers — and it will publish profiles of all states that will include information about where children from minority and low-income families aren’t getting their fair share of these teachers this fall. –Politico
Like two kids arguing about how to equally split the last piece of cake, we live in a world obsessed with fairness. But is our obsession helping? Or is it ultimately hurting? Let’s look at the these three cases — Israel and Hamas, the distribution of “good” teachers, and the splitting of a slice of cake.
The slice of cake is easy for several reasons. First, it’s a zero sum game for this particular slice of cake; once the cake is eaten, it’s eaten. There may be other cakes, but there’s only so much of this cake. Second, it’s easy to see how much cake there actually is, and to judge that both of the kids want some. So it’s easy to judge the requirements (both kids want some), the resources are finite (there is only one slice of this cake left), and the results (the resulting slices can be weighed and measured to determine if the split is really equal).
The cake might be simple, but what about the distribution of “good” teachers? First, is this a zero sum game? Are there only so many “good teachers” available in the entire world, and only a specific number trained and graduated each year? This rather mechanistic view of humans is not only unreal, but insulting to the teachers themselves. Of course teachers can improve (or degrade) in their abilities over time, and of course more (or fewer) people might choose to become a teacher. So the supply of teachers is not fixed, and the “distribution of good teachers” is not a zero sum game. Second, how do we judge the desire of various school districts for “good teachers?” Is there some way we can survey all classrooms in all districts and determine the proportion of motivated verses unmotivated students? In fact, how do we know the “good teachers” aren’t, in fact, “good” because they are teaching motivated classes, rather than unmotivated ones? Finally, how do we measure the results of “good teacher equalization?” In short, there’s no way to measure the results.
What about the “equivalence” of Hamas and Israel? We’re often told that because more Palestinians are killed that Israeli’s, and because “Israel” has “better weapons,” the “fight is unfair.” But what does “unfair” mean here? When a bully starts a fight, do we really expect the bullied to only do what the bully does — or should the bullied have the option of fighting with all the weapons they have at their disposal? If your daughter is being raped by a thug with a knife, is it “unfair” for her to pull a gun — or call the police (who will bring a gun)? Again, this isn’t a zero sum game at all — lives are at stake, as well as the existence of a nation. “Unfair” doesn’t come into the picture here. Second, do we even bother to judge the desires here? When was the last time you heard that Israel wants two states, and Hamas doesn’t? If motives matter, then why aren’t the motives in play here? Finally, how would you measure the results? Is it really only okay to measure the number of dead, or must we also measure the number of dead within each age group, socioeconomic status, race, and religion? What is a “civilian?”
In the real world, our obsession with “fairness” hurts more than it helps. We think the number of “good” teachers is like a slice of pie that can be split evenly among all possible schools. We think the number of dead should be split evenly between Israel and Hamas, or the “fight is unfair.” The number of dead isn’t what matters — what matters is who attacked whom, for what reasons, and what the response options on the table are.
We need to dump our obsession with fairness, and come back into the real world, where the slice of cake isn’t fixed, and motivations and measurable results count.