Archive for May, 2011

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?

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Fifteen years ago Ontario public education began to embrace what had been an alien concept – school accountability for student learning and performance results. Returning to Toronto for the Society for Quality Education’s Measuring Up Seminar, April 26, 2011, prompted me to address a perplexing question – “Are Ontario schools any more accountable today?”

Everyone talks accountability but it’s difficult to find examples of it in practice, even in Ontario. Yet when it comes to school accountability, Ontario is light years ahead of Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and a few other Canadian provinces. And the Ontario system is a whole lot closer to that goal than it was in June of 1997 when I left Ontario for my eventful eight-year Quebec sojourn.

Twenty years ago the Ontario educational world was far different that it is today. Writing in 1993, Jennifer Lewington and Graham Orpwood published Overdue Assignment and virtually lifted the veil on the K-12 public system. Education, they wrote, was a virtual “Fortress” – an incredibly closed system –and it was “under stress” – from parents, local taxpayers and even students – who expected more from their schools.

On the educational continuum from “closed and secretive” to “transparent and accountable,” the Ontario public school system was stuck in first gear. Complacency and “happy talk” were the currency of educational discussion. We were literally “flying blind” – and expected to take everything on faith, to blindly support public education, or to be viewed as “trouble-makers.”

Since then, Ontario’s core educational interests have been thrust into a new, uneasy ‘dance’ with school accountability. With the coming of Mike Harris and the “Common Sense Revolution,” romantic progressivism was in full retreat. We witnessed the introduction of the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), the revival of a sound core academic curriculum, and the return of provincial testing. Little by little, public education became far more transparent, if not more accountable.

Since 2003, Ontario education has experienced an “orgy” of educational spending. Education cuts have been replaced with lavish new programs aimed at “closing the gap” and promoting social equity through universal program initiatives. In Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario, education costs have skyrocketed by 57% to some $22 billion in 2010.

It’s high time to ask – What are Ontarians getting for all that investment? And—if we are completely honest – what has all that testing achieved? And finally where do we go from here?

The centrepiece of reform – the EQAO – would benefit from some critical analysis. So would the Grade 10 Secondary School Literacy Test and plans to embrace the “21st Century Skills” agenda. And if we are looking for a comparator, I would suggest considering Nova Scotia – a provincial system much like Ontario’s fifteen years ago.

Ontario’s provincial testing regime should be fair game when it comes to public scrutiny. When spending ballooned to $50 million a year, taxpayers had a right to be concerned. Today, the EQAO costs $34 million or $17 per student and its performing just as well. All that proves is that educational watchdog agencies need to be carefully watched themselves.

The Grade 10 Literacy Test has been a fiasco. The EQAO Office’s own May 2010 report concedes that hundreds of students who failed the 2006 test simply got “lost” and escaped without passing that standard. Consistently, a quarter of all students fall short of acceptable literacy, yet graduation rates have risen from 68% to 79% province-wide.

Ontario’s EQAO is also flirting with “21st Century Skills” and attempting to incorporate them into the testing regime. Many of those skills are “soft” and difficult to assess. American education critic Jay P. Greene describes them as “21st Century nonsense” and warns that they could be used to subvert standardized testing.

The Ontario system of school accountability may have weaknesses, but Nova Scotia’s is virtually non-existent. Since 2006, Nova Scotia has been experimenting with PLANS (Program of Learning Assessment for Nova Scotia). One look at the NS Education website and you can see what it really means. The test results of every assessment are dutifully posted, with little or no comment. It’s clearly “transparency only” and makes a mockery of true accountability. Nothing is aggregated, not is anything ranked, except the eight school boards.

All is not doom and gloom there are glimmers of hope and potential. Three “lighthouse projects” provide cause for optimism in the years ahead:
The Alberta Education model provides a viable option for school choice and system-wide reform. SQE’s Sunshine on Schools is a fine step toward fuller disclosure for Ontario school boards and is a potentially powerful tool promoting more accountability. The Students First movement has now popped up in Nova Scotia on March 28, 2011 with a five-point blueprint for 21st century reform: 1) put students first; 2) elevate teaching; 3) empower parents; 4) raise standards; and 5) spend wisely.

It’s time to rethink and revitalize Canadian education reform for the 21st century. Where can find the building blocks? Let’s embrace school choice – pushing for more choice for parents within the “one-size-fits all” public system. Build upon initiatives like SQE’s Sunshine on Schools – pushing harder for accountability for shortfalls in school board performance and demanding consequences for chronic underperformance. And, above all, “put students first” in all of our reform initiatives and projects.

“Transparency,” Doretta Wilson said recently, “is just the first step on the road to accountability.” Putting students first will allow us to refocus our priorities. Do not lead with accountability, end with accountability. We may have had it wrong in presenting a hard line on accountability. Let’s soften our public image and seek to establish the winning conditions for reform. The 21st century reform agenda should focus on significantly improving student learning, tackling teacher quality, and supporting the most vulnerable in our system.

Finding fault with the system is easier than trying to map out an agenda for 21st century Canadian school reform. What’s next on the reform agenda? Does it bear any resemblance to my modest proposals to revitaize the system?

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