The pursuit for fairness in our education system

By Alina Amir

I have always believed that if life were to be powered by meritocracy, we would see a more fair and just world. This belief was the main driver when I started my work in education and advocating for equity. I thought that if I give my students a sense of possibility, coupled with skills and knowledge essential for the real world, they will make it. I could set up an environment that would accelerate their learning to catch up with peers who may have won the birth lottery into a life accelerated since Day 1.

This belief got me to explore what it means to define and visualize success for my students. If they can imagine it, see it, understand it, they will be able to plan. They will see the path, a map that can lead them out of the vicious cycle of poverty. This belief got me to create rubrics for everything. An essential part of my work in designing programs is to be able to visualize the end product in the skills, applications and behavior of my students. If success can be quantified, success can become a binary goal — either you make it or you don’t. Math erases grey areas and this can be to my students’ advantage! No matter how marginalized, if they were prepared to be measured against a clear rubric with clear outcomes, they would be able to compete fairly.

Life can be fair. There is a way to set them up for success.

But life also has a way to tell you not to hold on to a single belief too strongly. The universe and its systems may be running on math, but life is all about the grey areas. A few weeks back, my team and I organised an innovation competition with educational workshops on skills and knowledge to get youth to develop solutions on making financial services more inclusive for all. This is part of our financial literacy initiative. As part of all program design under Arus, we finalized our selection and winning rubric first. Then, we opened up applications to pick top teams to move forward in the competition. We received a number of applications, but one caught my eye. It was sent in by a team led by a student I taught 9 years ago! He is also an alumnus of Arus, meaning he went through a full program with us on top of going to a mainstream school, the same one I taught in. He’s now 22 years old pursuing Software Engineering, something that I am already aware of, as we’ve been keeping a tab on our alumni as part of our work in developing an alumni network.

His team’s submission caught my eye because I was impressed, taken away by how articulate he was in the video that his team submitted, how I could see originality in the written assignment and the effort put in. I was looking at his team’s application, completely taken, not in comparison to the other submissions, but what I remembered of him from 9 years ago.

9 years ago, I remembered him as the shy, meek boy who preferred to be quiet. Both his Malay and English were weak. We could barely communicate. When he joined Arus, I remembered working with him one-on-one on his first public speech, a requirement to graduate from Arus’ program. His pronunciation was incomprehensible and we were going through word by word, over and over again. His written work was years behind his age. He could barely string a complete sentence on his own, always in the shadows of his peers, who were much more confident and brave to speak up. Yet, his team’s application, him as the team leader, was an improvement by leaps and bounds.

However, as our rubric would have it, his team did not cut it, fell behind by a few points even with this tremendous improvement. I was impressed and had this insight only because I had worked with him directly before the transformation. This would have been completely missed, disregarded, and simply placed under the “not good enough” application pile and forgotten. Well, it did eventually got parked under the same pile, only now with an additional insight attached to it. One that has been keeping me up since and got me thinking, how fast must one accelerate to make it, to be given an opportunity to prove themselves worthy?

By my definition of setting one up for success, our somewhat trusted, fair rubric left out an essential part of development, progress and growth. As much as I want to level the playing field for my students, I also want their climbs to be acknowledged, knowing that they started deep in the valley, while others may have been given jets, trampolines and harnesses to have reached the top first. If I wanted life to be truly fair, our definition of success and the opportunities we create could not solely be based on meritocracy but also on how much one has grown and progressed. Imagine if we design programs with growth as our blueprint? Imagine if growth is rewarded as much as we reward achievements? The human potential will be constantly challenged and maybe, opportunities can be distributed more fairly.

As an educator, growth has always been something I know is important. But in its difficulty to measure, growth becomes a by-product. But I also know how difficult and discouraging it is to climb, make significant strides, and still not be able to compete and reach the top in time. Some even stop trying because life’s bruises run deep, and for some, kill dreams. The story I just told, some might say, is based on a competition, where someone will have to win or lose. A fair system must be in place. But, as an educator, who is privileged enough to work in an environment where we can design new experiences for our students, with partners who are encouraging of innovative approaches, it is a responsibility to figure out how we can serve and provide opportunities for every child, especially those who started deep in the valley of life, without harnesses to catch their fall.

What would an education program look like if growth and progress were in the center of excellence? How can we track, visualize, present, acknowledge, encourage and reward this growth for everyone without compromising the best, most immediate promising idea? How can we make this growth transparent for everyone without relying solely on personal insights by individuals? This is a challenge I look forward to as we improve our work this coming year, together with the team, our partners, and anyone curious to know the answers to these questions.

This article first appeared on Alina’s Medium here.