Friday, June 13, 2008

Fairness in Educational Practice

Affirmative Action in Educational Practice: Neglected Considerations

Educators who plan to take affirmative action to undo the effects of past and current unjust discrimination should take the following into consideration . Social psychological research has consistently demonstrate that many genuine handicaps are seldom even considered when administering such a policy. Consider the following as possible sources of unjust discrimination and ask why affirmative action should not be extended to these and similar classes of people.

Physical Attractiveness

In a study entitled "What Is Beautiful Is Good," researchers from the American Psychological Association experimentally documented a phenomenon referred to as the physical-attractiveness stereotype. Investigators showed photographs of attractive, average, and unattractive people to university undergraduates. The students were asked to rate the people in the photos on various personality traits and behavioral tendencies, based solely on their appearance in the pictures.

Results showed that compared to unattractive people, attractive people were assumed to possess a higher number of positive traits. The students rated them confident, strong, assertive, candid, warm, honest, kind, outgoing, sensitive, poised, sociable, exciting, and nurturing (Dion, Berscheid, and Walster 1972). Startling as these results may be, the physical-attractiveness stereotype is robust, replicated in several different experimental paradigms (Feingold 1992). As Aristotle noted, "Personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction."

Obesity

Weight is another, often overlooked, physical characteristic associated with discrimination and unfair treatment. Social psychological research on attitudes toward overweight people has shown they are often perceived as lazy, unintelligent, slovenly, and unattractive (Grover, Keel, and Mitchell 2003). Several studies have demonstrated that such negative attitudes toward obese individuals may contribute to discrimination in the work place. Specifically, obese people are not hired as often as people of normal weight (Roe and Eickwort 1976); are less likely to be promoted (Larkin and Pines 1979); and often report being discriminated against by managers and peers (Rothblum, Brand, Miller, and Oetjen 1990).

Short Stature

Height, particularly in men, is another physical attribute associated with negative stereotypes and discrimination. A 1992 study by researchers from Michigan State University demonstrated that short men are often judged inferior to tall men in several personal attributes. People tend to judge taller men as more socially attractive, higher in professional status, more masculine, more athletically inclined, and more physically attractive than short men (Jackson and Ervin 1992). Similar studies have found that short men often experience discrimination in professional settings. For example, short job applicants are not hired as often as taller applicants (Bonuso 1983); short employees earn less, on average, than taller employees (Loh 1993); and short political candidates lose elections more often than taller candidates (Gillis 1982).

Some Of The Other Factors

Social psychological research also indicates that people with red hair color are often stereotyped as "clownish" and "weird" (Heckert and Best 1997). Negative stereotyping based on language and dialect (i.e., Southern accents, ebonics) also is a common occurrence (Anisfield 1972). Additionally, children who wear brand-name clothing and shoes are judged "popular," "wealthy," and able to "fit in with their peers" compared to children who do not wear name brands (Elliot and Leonard 2004).

What does such research have to do with equity in the classroom? The answer is "Everything." If unattractive, obese, or short people, for example, experience discrimination in a broad setting, it is very likely that they experience similar discrimination in an educational setting. So shouldn't fair share educators be prepared to apply compensatory measures for any student victimized by prejudice? Why should some students qualify for fair share treatment just because their particular group has more political muscle?

Conclusion

Instead of focusing on skin color or other group differences, perhaps educators should embrace the character-based vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. If they have the freedom to do so and if they can overcome the natural human tendency to stereotype, perhaps they should focus on each child's individual humanity, rather than his or her race,ethnicity, or what have you. After all, in the end, isn't character, not group membership, the most important quality of all?

--GKC

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