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The Just Distribution of Educational Resources: Children's Judgments about Differential Treatment by Teachers


The aim of this study was to examine children's reasoning about the fairness of differential treatment by teachers and to determine if there were circumstances under which children may consider differential treatment to be acceptable. Participants (n = 76), ages 6 to 11 years, evaluated hypothetical stories entailing unequal distributions of different educational goods: quantity of work, turns to read aloud, and individual attention from the teacher. The teacher's rationale for the differential treatment was systematically varied in order to determine whether it altered participants' evaluations. In addition to a condition in which no rationale was given, four different rationales were proposed to underlie the differential treatment: differentiating instruction for high achieving students, differentiating instruction for struggling students, preferential treatment for favored students, and preferential treatment for boys.

The findings showed that differential treatment in the form of individual teacher attention was most acceptable to students, followed by differential assigned work, and lastly differential turns to read aloud. Children drew a distinction between the condition in which no rationale for the differential treatment was provided and the conditions in which they were. When a rationale was not presented to explain the teacher's behavior, the majority of participants rejected the differential treatment. When rationales were introduced, participants were significantly more likely to endorse differential treatment for struggling and high achieving students than for favorite students or boys. Participants were also significantly more likely to endorse differential treatment for struggling students than for high-achieving students. Analysis of justifications supporting children's evaluations of differential treatment indicated that children drew a distinction between differentiated instruction and preferential treatment.

The presence of age differences in children's judgments of differential treatment depended upon the particular educational good at stake and the teacher's rationale. When no rationale for the differential treatment was provided, 6-7 year old participants were significantly less likely to endorse differential treatment than either 8-9 year old or 10-11 year old participants. When a rationale for differential treatment was presented, there were only two conditions (out of twelve) in which significant age differences emerged. Although the majority of participants favored modified work for high achieving students, 6-7 year old participants were significantly less likely to favor it for high achievers than 10-11 year old participants. Further, 10-11 year old participants were significantly less likely to favor extra turns for struggling readers than 8-9 year old participants.

Previous research had not yet examined justice reasoning as applied to the distribution of educational opportunities in the form of differential treatment. The present study found evidence that children as young as 6 years did not equate fairness with simple equality of treatment, but recognized that special needs may warrant an unequal distribution of the teacher's individual attention, extra opportunities to read aloud, or a modification of assignments. The findings add complexity to the view that the justice concept of equality emerges earlier in ontogeny than the justice concept of merit or need. In this study, participants across ages 6 to 11 years considered claims to equality, merit, and need (i.e., the acceptability of differential treatment for high achievers and struggling students). The results present a more nuanced picture of children's justice conceptions than has been discussed in earlier work.

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