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Archive for the ‘Class Composition’ Category

Melissa Jones teared up in late November 2017 talking to the Fredericton Daily Gleaner about the plight of her son, Grade 4 student Brayden Jones. Leafing through a box full  of school warning letters and suspension notices for his school behaviour, she was upset and frustrated with her local school’s latest policy of limiting her son to three hours a week for “soft-re-entry” to the regular school classroom.  The past four years have been hellish for the family because, as a result of Brayden’s behaviour outbursts, he had been on a reduced schedule and out of school altogether from November 2016 to October 2017. “He’s not getting any education,” Ms. Jones said. “They’re setting him up for failure.”

A nine-year old boy with autism, Alex Piper of Quispamsis, NB, was suspended from his elementary school in November 2017 for  a series of violent outbursts and the school district’s solution was to restrict the student to 30 minutes of class time per day. His father, Jeremy Piper, a 40-year-old RCMP officer, protested the decision to “kick-out” his son without providing any incident reports and for only allowing his son back for what amounted to three 10-minute classes between 8:45 and 9:15 am each day. “They consider this an education, I guess, ” he told CBC News New Brunswick. 

Saint John parent Heather Adams says the New Brunswick education system also failed her autistic son, Brian,who graduated from high school in 2015 with kindergarten-level reading and Grade 2 math skills. “He would come home from school saying, ‘I feel so stupid, I don’t want to go’,” she recalled.  “And I don’t think anybody should have to go to school and feel stupid, and that’s how he felt.” While she maintains that inclusive education can work for some students,”it failed Brian.”

Heartbreaking stories like these are now surfacing regularly in the Atlantic Canadian province of New Brunswick. Over the past year, a steady stream of distraught parents of students with severe learning challenges have spoken-out with personal stories of how the current model of inclusion has failed their children. A year ago, the President of the NBTA, Guy Arsenault, broke his silence and expressed alarm over the physical threats faced by teachers forced to wear “kevlar” vests to protect themselves.

All of this is happening in a provincial school system recognized in February 2016 by the global Zero Project human rights organization for championing the inclusion of all students in regular classrooms.  It is becoming clearer that the New Brunswick model is broken and badly needs to be re-engineered to better serve those with severe challenges and complex needs.

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A year ago, NBTA president Arsenault painted quite a picture of today’s high school English class.  Out of 28 registered students, 12 have identified special education needs, 10-11 cannot write and require oral exams, five are chronically absent, three have ADHD or ADD, two have mental health issues, two speak little English, and only two read at the expected grade level.  That is why, he insisted, “class composition” is now the biggest concern of teachers.

Class composition and inclusion have also been linked to declining student achievement levels.  In October 2016, Education Minister Brian Kenny and Arsenault agreed that it was a factor in the latest abysmal Anglophone Education test results. Only 20 per cent of Grade 6 students met provincial standards in mathematics and 26 per cent in science. In reading assessment, only 54 per cent scored successful standing.

All of this evidence merely confirms the findings of my recent research comparing New Brunswick’s inclusive system with other provinces across Canada. It’s all there in my two researchED presentations in Washington, DC (October 2016) and Toronto (November 2017).

Since June 2012, when NB Education Minister Jody Carr reaffirmed the province’s unshakable commitment to “inclusion for all,” things have gotten far worse. Spending $62-million to shore up the existing model from 2013-2016 has made no appreciable difference. Between 2 % and 4% of all students, numbering 1,900 to 3,800 students are struggling with severe learning challenges and limited to 3 hours a week of supports. Perhaps as many as 1,200 of New Brunswick’s Anglophone students have Autism Spectrum Disorder and require significantly more specialized support far exceeding the three hours per week.

In March 2016, Arsenault shocked many with the revelation that New Brunswick teachers were facing “unacceptable” levels of violence in both their “frequency and severity.” “Some teachers, ” he told CBC News, “have to wear Kevlar because of the biting that is going on with students and some of the kicking and punching…” Then he added: “We feel that students are entitled and have a right to be in classrooms but it should not be at the detriment of others.”

New Brunswick Autism activist Harold Doherty, father of Connor Doherty, a 21-year-old with severe autism, intellectual disability and epilepsy, has been fighting for a fuller continuum of support services for more than a decade.  Year after year, he sees evidence gathering that the NB model is contributing to the problem.  It’s simply wrong, he contends, to think that one program could ever meet the needs of every student.  “It’s a huge mistake,” he says, to ignore students being failed by the system.  He’s also convinced that the province has to abandon it’s model based upon well-intentioned theory in favour of evidence-based program responses based upon “what works for each child.”

With the New Brunswick model imploding, a rough consensus is emerging that will bring that province more into line with the Canadian leaders in inclusive education, Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. The neighbouring province of Nova Scotia already offers more program options, including a Tuition Support Program (TSP) providing improved access to specialized program schools.    “For inclusion to work, ” Arsenault’s NBTA successor George Daley recently stated, ” the system must fit the student instead of trying to make the student fit the system.” Five years after my June 2012 AIMS report, Building a Bigger Tent, the key message seems to be sinking-in up in New Brunswick.

Why has the New Brunswick model imploded over the past five years? What’s standing in the way of inclusive education reform in New Brunswick? What can that province learn from other Canadian provinces about what works for the full range of special needs students? What can be done to promote evidence-based policy in New Brunswick and elsewhere in Canada? 

 

 

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A model Grade 6 classroom in Sherwood Park, Alberta, now comes fully equipped with every imaginable solution to coping with fidgety kids, including spin bikes, exercise balls, rotating stools and stand-up desks. The latest classroom pacifiers, ‘Wiggle stools,’ are being hailed as a godsend by a harried Grade 2 classroom teacher in a Sackville, NB.

jumpyclassroomsherwoodparkSchools across Canada went to great lengths to re-engage fidgety students in what will likely always be known as the Year of Self-Regulation. Coping with today’s restless generation of kids now requires every conceivable pacifier, including spin bikes, exercise balls, wiggle stools and stand-up desks.

That is why in any Canadian survey of the top five K-12 education issues in 2016, coping with today’s antsy students would top the list.

Mindfulness and Self-Regulation

High anxiety educators have also embraced the latest panacea known as ‘mindfulness’ and are going whole hog into ‘self-regulation’ of their students.  It’s the brainchild of American advocate Jon Kabat-Zinn who transformed ‘Buddhist mindfulness’ into teaching practice and his Canadian apostle York University’s Stuart Shanker. That approach has emerged in 2016 as the latest wave in what has been characterized as a pseudoscience reform movement.

wobblechairsdallastx“It helps with their focus, helps with their creativity, helps promote problem-solving, gives them some way to self-regulate as they have a place to burn-off energy or to gain energy as they need it,” Alberta teacher Kurt Davison told Global TV News Edmonton. Eleven-year-old Connor Harrower heartily agreed: “In other classes, I’m sitting at desks and I’m bored.”

Teacher Misconduct and Discipline

A CBC-TV Marketplace investigation into ‘Teacher Discipline’ in Canada’s provincial school systems aired in April 2016 and immediately drew attention to glaring weaknesses in  professional evaluation, regulation, and discipline. It revealed that only two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, provide public access to teacher discipline records, and most of the others continue to conceal information from parents and the public, including cases of serious misconduct, incompetence and sexual abuse

Fewer than 400 teaching certificates were revoked in Canada (outside Quebec) over a ten year period from 2005 to 2015, which represented one in every 5,780 teacher certificates each year. In the U.S., the revocation rate was about 30 per cent higher. According to the most recent data from the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, the American figure in 2015 was one certificate out of every 4,360.

The Marketplace investigation raised a fundamental question: If your child’s teacher was punished for a serious offence such as sexual, physical or verbal misconduct, would you be able to find out about it? Depending on where you live, the answer was ‘probably not.’

Chronic Student Math Woes

Ontario students, like those in most Canadian provinces, continued to struggle mightily in mathematics. Grade 4 Ontario students lagged behind their counterparts in Kazakhstan, Lithuania and 25 other jurisdictions in mathematics, landing them in the middle of the pack in the 2015 TIMSS assessment, a U.S.-based global study of math and science.

Those startling TIMSS results came on the heels of a dismal showing from Grade 3 and 6 students on the latest provincial test by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), with scores dropping to the lowest levels in more than 15 years. Only 63 per cent of Grade 3s met the acceptable standard, dropping to half in Grade 6.

Math standards advocates such as Teresa Murray of @FixONTmath claimed that pumping $60-million more into a math strategy might not make much of a difference without a return to teaching the fundamentals in the early grades.

B.C. ‘Class Composition’ Court Ruling

The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) won a critical Supreme Court of Canada decision in November 2016 that ended a union legal battle that began in 2002. That ruling immediately restored clauses removed from the B.C. teachers’ contract by the Gordon Campbell Liberal Government dealing with class size, the number of special needs students in a class, and the number of specialist teachers required in schools.

The BCTF court victory was forecasted to have far-reaching ramifications for contact negotiations across Canada. Teachers in Nova Scotia embroiled in a contract dispute of their own took heart from the decision prohibiting the ‘stripping’ of ‘working conditions’ and denying teachers the right to bargain on those issues.

PISA 2015 Test Results Fallout

Crowing about the showing of Canadian students in the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report was widespread and the current Chair of the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC), P.E.I. Education Minister Doug Currie, was first-off-the mark on December 6, 2016 to hail the student results in the three subjects tested: science, reading and math.

The real devil was evident in the details and more clearly portrayed in the OECD’s own “Country Profile” for Canada. Yes, 15-year-olds in three Canadian provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec) achieved some excellent results, but overall Mathematics scores were down, especially in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and students in over half of our provinces trailed-off into mediocrity in terms of performance. Our real success was not in performance, but rather in reducing the achievement gap adversely affecting disadvantaged students.

Final Words of Wisdom

Looking ahead to 2017, we can find some solace in the April 2016 comments of Dr. Stan Kutcher, one of the world’s leading experts on teen mental health. “We are not facing a mental health crisis in schools,” he pointed out, but we do have to learn to distinguish between “the daily slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and those “more serious conditions requiring treatment.”

Why and how did Canadian elementary schools become so enthralled with “mindfulness” and “self-regulation”?  What critical education issues were either obscured or ignored in pursuit of pseudo-scientific cures for today’s classroom challenges? What will be the legacy of turning the younger grades into therapeutic classroom environments? What does all of this portend for Canadian K-12 education in 2017 and beyond? 

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Striving for the “full inclusion” of all students in the regular classroom may be a worthy goal, but it makes teaching far more challenging and cannot satisfactorily meet the needs of all children.   A few Canadian provincial school systems, following the lead of New Brunswick, have elevated “inclusive education” to an exalted status. For many children and teens with severe learning disabilities or complex needs, it is not the most enabling learning environment. It’s also rendering today’s diverse classes, at certain times, nearly impossible for regular teachers to teach.

spedclasscompositionTeacher surveys identify class management as a fundamental problem and “class composition” as the biggest obstacle to professional satisfaction.  Building upon Canadian school research, it’s clear that special needs policy, designed by theorists, is not working and needs rethinking to achieve a better educational environment for teachers and students alike. That was the theme of my recent researchED presentation, October 29, 2016, in Washington, DC. 

Class size is a well-diagnosed and much studied question with much of the research driven by teacher unions. Back in September 2013, Gordon Thomas of the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA), used a class of 37 students as an example of the challenges facing stressed-out high school teachers. In his worst case scenario, out of the 37 students, four had learning disabilities, five were in transition from other provinces, one exhibited serious behavioural issues, three were repeating the course, seven were functioning below grade level, and one was chronically absent because of a dysfunctional home life.

In such overcrowded classes, Thomas asked, how can we expect teachers to provide constructive and rewarding learning experiences, let alone introduce innovative practices? Coping in such diverse classrooms goes far beyond class size and raises the hidden issue of “class composition.”

Most Special Education researchers concur that “smaller classes have the greatest positive impact on students with the greatest educational needs.” (OISE-UT/CEA, 2010). It is now clear that both class size and diversity matter.

spedintensivesupportspedovercrowdedteacherToday teachers try to adapt their teaching to address the individual needs of the learners in their regular classrooms. As the classroom becomes larger and more diverse, this task becomes increasingly onerous. All of this has obvious implications for inclusive education. The success of “Inclusion” is, in large measure, determined by the extent to which teachers have the necessary supports and services to be able to effectively integrate students with special educational needs into their classrooms and schools.

Class size reductions from K to 3 and possibly beyond can produce student achievement gains (Canadian Council on Learning 2005), provided that the total context is conducive to such improvement. Three critical factors have been identified:

1.Complementary policies and practice supporting higher student achievement (i.e., raised expectations, positive discipline, regular assessment, teacher PD);

2. Contradictory policies and practice that undermines the potential benefit of class size reductions (i.e., full inclusion, social promotion, student competencies gap, language challenges);

3. Rising class sizes at higher grade levels – from grades 7 to 12 (i.e., removal of class size caps, integration of learning disabilities and ELL students).

Class sizes have actually dropped in all Canadian provinces except British Columbia over the past 15 years. At the macro-economic level from 2001-o2 to 2010-11, student enrollment has dropped 6.5%, the number of educators rose 7.5%, the student-teacher ratio declined by 12.9%, and spending per pupil rose by 61.4%. Class size reductions and caps from K to Grade 3 or Grade 6 may explain the overall smaller class sizes.

In the Spring of 2011, the Canadian Teacher’s Federation (CTF) conducted a national teacher survey on the theme of The Teacher Voice on Teaching and Learning to seek input from across Canada on teacher concerns. The CTF survey provided a snapshot of what class size and composition looked like across the country. The survey secured responses from  nearly 3,800 teachers representing 9,894 classes in English and French schools.  The sample teacher pool was drawn from 12 participating CTF member organizations.

Class Size Analysis: Average class size was 21.3 students, ranging from 22.1 students for grades 4-8 to 19 students for junior kindergarten or kindergarten (JK-K). English schools (including French Immersion) had an average class size of nearly 22 students, while French as a first language schools had a slightly smaller average class size of just over 19 students.

spedavpergradelevelctfClass Size by Grade Level: Over a third of the classes for all grade levels combined contained 25 students or more (8.3% contained 30 students or more). For grades 4-8, nearly 39% of classes contained 25 students or more (6.5% contained 30 or more); for grades 9 and over, 40.3% of classes contained 25 students or more (13.5% – over 1 in 7 classrooms – contained 30 or more students); for grades 1-3, just over 14% of classes contained 25 students or more; for JK-K, nearly 12% of classes contained 25 students or more.

Average Number of Special Needs Students: Students with identified exceptionalities (i.e., designated behavioural problems or mental or physical disabilities, as well as other special needs students including gifted students); and English Language Learners and French Language Learners (defined as students whose first language differs from the school’s primary language of instruction, and requiring supports).  The average number of students with identified exceptionalities per class was 3.5, ranging from 3.8 students for grades 4-8 to 1.9 students for junior kindergarten/kindergarten.

Class Composition – Grade 4 and Over: Students with identified exceptionalities accounted for 16.3% of total students in the surveyed classrooms, ranging from respective shares of 17.1% for grades 4-8 to 10% of students for junior kindergarten and kindergarten. Of classes surveyed, over 81% have at least one student with formally identified exceptionalities, and 27.7% contain 5 or more students with identified exceptionalities. In grades 4 and over, not only were class sizes generally larger but almost 1 in 3 (30.6%) classes contained 5 or more students with identified exceptionalities.

Students with Language Learning Challenges: The average number of English Language Learners and French Language Learners (ELL/FLL students) per class was 2.6. The prevalence was higher the lower the grade, ranging from 4.7 students for junior kindergarten/kindergarten to 1.7 students for grades 9 and over. ELL/FLL students accounted for an average 12.2% of total students in the classroom, ranging from respective shares of 24.7% for junior kindergarten / kindergarten to 8.2% for grades 9 and over.

The CTF survey looked at students “identified” as Special Needs, but did not include students who were undiagnosed or those with other glaring needs such as students from low-income families (with poverty-related issues of hunger, illness, instability), students with mental health problems, or immigrant and refugee students.

spednbclassroomMy researchED 2016 Washington  presentation also delved into two Class Composition case studies – Inclusive Education in New Brunswick, 2006 to 2016, and Class Size and Composition in British Columbia, 2012 to 2016. In the case of New Brunswick, a province recently honoured by Zero Project for its “legally-binding policy of inclusion” in Feburary 2016, Guy Arsenault and the NBTA are now demanding a full Special Education review to secure “positive learning environments” and come to the aid of teachers forced to “don Kelvar clothing in the classrooms.”  Out west, in British Columbia, a five-week 2015 BCTF teachers’ strike has produced only meagre gains in containing class sizes, while more and more classes have four or more and seven or more Special Needs students.

The real life classroom is not only far more diverse, it’s increasing challenging to manage let alone teach anything substantive. Class Size based upon Student-Teacher Ratios has long been accepted and used in staffing schools, but its utility is now being questioned by front line teachers. Student diversity, driven by “Inclusion” and the growing numbers of severely learning-challenged and disadvantaged kids is the new normal. The rise of “Coddled Kids” and “Helicopter Parents” has compounded the challenges. Tackling Class Composition is emerging as the top priority in teacher-led school reform.

Why is class composition emerging as the biggest problem facing front line teachers?  Why do we continue to focus so much on simply reducing class sizes? What’s standing in the way of us tackling the ‘elephant in the room’ — class composition in today’s schools? 

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