Children and teens with special needs are the most vulnerable students in our provincial public school systems. Thirty years ago such students were routinely labelled “odd,” “hyperactive,” “slow,” “unmanageable,” or “mentally handicapped.” Public schools embraced progressive educational philosophy and specal needs children were either left to fend for themselves or simply pushed along from grade-to-grade. Segregated classes were more common and that stigma of being “Special Ed” could last a lifetime. With educational research on learning difficulties in its infancy, special needs children remained “outliers” in the ‘one-size-fits-all’ school system.
Today Special Education has emerged as a priority and a whole system of services has grown up in that domain. Sincere, committed advocates for special needs kids have succeeded in carving out a place for Special Education in the modern bureaucratic education state. It’s an exceedingly complex system with a formidable educational bureaucracy, supported by the Education Act and its regulations. With its own, administrative stucture, rules, and language, it’s so complex that parents and families feel, at times, like they are confronting the New Byzantium, a maze of extremely complicated rules next to impossible to fathom let alone navigate.
On May 12, 2011, the reality of the new Special Education system hit me while attending a workshop with a rather ironic title, “Navigating the School System.” The Workshop Leader was Dr. Joan Backman, a highly respected Halifax neuropsychologist and pioneer in the Nova Scotia learning disabilities awareness movement. Indeed, Dr. Backman’s review of special education services in the 1990s is widely credited with establishing the system that province has today.
Dr. Backman’s presentation came a week after Dr. Ben Levin’s controversial Nova Scotia Education Review (May 5, 2011) calling for a review of the province’s special education services. Reducing “student failure” was identified as the system’s top priority in the years ahead. “Special education,” Levin wrote, ” is consuming a larger and larger share of education expenditures around the world.” THat led him to make a startling statement: “An education system that was able to reduce the number of children requiring special education services would improve efficiency significantly.”
Coming from an educational progressive and a life-long NDPer, the Levin report was a shocker. While recognizing the tremendous importance of providing special education services, he went on to question the current delivery model in Nova Scotia. “More and more children are being referred to special education and there seems no end to this increase.” Since 2001, he pointed out that student enrolment in special education had grown at 3-4 % per year while overall student numbers declined by 2-3 % a year. He reported that the number of students on IPPs had doubled in ten years and that some 15 % of all students now required some form of special education services.
Dr. Levin found it amazing that a system with only 127,500 students and 9,900 teachers now employed 2,000 Teaching Assistants. That led him to question the whole identification and placement process in Nova Scotia schools. And, since research had shown that TAs had little on no benefit in improving student outcomes, he recommened that Nova Scotia reduce gradually the number of education assistants, placing more students in the care of regular classroom teachers.
None of this seemed to have any relevance to the Workshop Leader or the participants in that ACLD Workshop. There the focus was on “the art of advocacy” for “parents with children or youth with special needs.” As a veteran of the earlier wars, Dr. Backman was intent on imparting a few hard-won lessons on how to work within the existing sytem to secure “accomodations” for the children and needed extra help in educating those with special needs. It was all about “building a positive relationship with the school” to win special attention for your child in a school system presumed to be inflexible, or resistant to making accomodations.
Being a parent advocate, according to Backman and special ed consultants, is a serious business and a variation on the new “profession” of parenthood. Parent advocacy is seen as “an art” to be mastered and to be “effective” requires that you master the “lingo,” including the alphabet soup of acronyms and pseudo-scientific terminology. You need to conquer the language to compete in this contested educational arena — seeking IPPS with the PPT and written confirmation of those “adaptations.”
Talking nice to teachers was identified essential to achieving the desired special education placement and set of adaptations. Never be the “mother bear” or raise your voice, even when you are rendered voiceless or ignored in a group meeting. In a system with ever “fewer resources,” keep in mind what is “reasonable.” When all else fails, follow the esablished pecking order and — as a last resort — petition the Department of Education and take it right to the Minister of Education!
Parent advocacy has become a growth industry, certainly in the realm Special Education. Mastering the game involves playing by the bureaucratic rules to extract concessions from the school system. You are exhorted to “navigate the system” rather than to “beat the system.” The hidden curriculum lesson is that “the squeaky wheel does get more grease.” When it comes to advocacy, Backman says “sucking up is a life skill.”
School systems need to respond effectively to children and teens in need. We have come a long way since the “bad old days” before the rise of special education services. Every province in Canada, and most school boards, have separate educational divisions responding to the critical needs of the physically and mentally challenged. Few educators or politicans have the courage to wade into this political minefield, even those there is ample evidence that resources could be utilized more effectively in serving the most vulnerable kids. “Inclusion” is the ruling ideology promoted actively in Canadian faculties of education. To question the currrent status quo is to open yourself to vilification as a callous, heartless cost-cutter. It’s next to impossible to have an adult conversation over resolving the structural problems in the field of special education.
What is so sacrosanct about the New Byzantium of Special Education? Are we up to the challege of rethinking special education services? What would a system “putting students first” really look like? Would it require a commitment to broadening school choice? How else can we secure a system where the school fits the child rather than the other way around?