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Archive for the ‘Inclusion’ Category

A feature story in the Weekend Globe and Mail on January 6, 2019 has successfully opened the door to far more meaningful public discussion of inclusive education, from province to province, right across Canada. National Education reporter Caroline Alphonso did so by posing the right question and re-framing the whole conversation. “Are inclusive classrooms failing students?” is just the kind of question that breaks new ground by inviting responses from a much wider range of perspectives.

The initial story focused on Grayson Kahn, a 7-year-old- boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and the incredible struggles of his mother Lisa Kahn and father Dave to get their son’s needs addressed at John McCrae P.S. in Guelph, Ontario. Diagnosed with ASD in the summer of 2017, Grayson was “excluded” from attending school because of that school’s inability to meet his complex needs.  The story hit a nerve because it highlighted the plight of hundreds children like Grayson either on reduced timetables or excluded in schools across the country.

Most readers were shocked to learn that in the Ontario school system, among the most inclusive and resource-rich anywhere, children like Grayson were being marginalized and poorly served in their public schools. Upon closer scrutiny, they learned that the system-wide philosophy, for decades, has been one that welcomed students with special needs into the regular classroom. It came as news to many that, faced with behavioural problems and regularly disrupted classrooms, principals had resorted to sending children home for part of the week or months on end.

Schools across Canada, since the 1990s, have fully embraced an enlightened model of inclusive education and attempted to implement it right across the board. One of Canada’s province’s, New Brunswick, has gone so far as to adopt the “Zero Project” philosophy in an attempt to integrate every student, irrespective of the severity of their disabilities, into regular classrooms. Leading education provinces, such as Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta, support inclusive education, but recognize the need for a variety of additional support programs and services.

The Globe and Mail feature reopened the fierce debate among competing factions, all of whom are committed to improving inclusive education. Many are asking whether we now have a system of inclusive education in theory but not necessarily in practice. It is becoming more widely recognized that the current model was never designed to accommodate and serve the incredible range of student needs present in today’s classrooms. The rise in the prevalence of children diagnosed with ASD alone is enough to overwhelm teachers attempting to manage their classes, with or without Education Assistants. Many Special Education experts now acknowledge that inclusion is not working and it’s not just a matter of the shortage of EAs or the lack of resources.

The Inclusive Education Debate tends to be polarized around three distinct policy positions, each exemplified in opinion pieces generated in response to the initial Globe and Mail story:

1) Students with Severe Learning Challenges and Complex Needs should not be excluded from regular public schools, especially for prolonged periods, and its a school district’s responsibility to either accommodate those children in regular classes or find viable options (Laura Kirby-McIntosh and Ontario Autism Coalition)

2) Inclusive Education is not working because of inconsistencies in implementation and the rationing of resources in the form of resource supports such as psychological services, para-professionals, and/or education assistants. Hiring more support personnel is the answer to realizing the potential of inclusion ( Gordon Porter and Inclusive Education Canada)

3) Inclusive Classrooms are highly desirable, but can never accommodate the range of needs, especially those with severe learning disabilities and complex needs. For a small proportion of children with complex needs (3 to 5 per cent) school districts need to support or provide the option of  alternative school programs and/or “congregated schools.” (Phil Richmond, Hayley Avruskin and the Congregated School Parent Network)

A growing consensus is forming that the conventional inclusion model, exemplified by the ‘one-size-fits-all’ classroom, has passed the breaking point. In the case of Grayson Kahn and hundreds of children like him, it’s not working now and it’s highly unlikely that simply pouring more resources into that classroom will resolve the problem. What’s surprising, however, is the reluctance of the competing factions to look at more flexible alternative delivery models.

No one, so far, has really gone beyond restating their positions and few, if any, have referenced the findings and recommendations of the Nova Scotia Inclusive Education Commission, published in the March 2018 report, Students First. Produced by Dr, Sarah Shea, Adela Njie, and Monica Williams, it represents a concrete attempt to break the policy gridlock. It differs from most policy initiatives, particularly those promoted by Inclusive Education Canada, in laying the groundwork for a re-invented model which is far more flexible and built around a “multi-tiered continuum of programs, services and settings.” 

Six months ago, Nova Scotia adopted this new Inclusive Education model that embraced inclusive education as a core philosophy, while implementing a re-engineered model based upon a “multi-tiered system of supports.”  All Nova Scotia students would be welcomed in a Tier 1 inclusive classroom and school environment, but students identified with severe learning challenges or complex needs would be provided with greatly enhanced supports through Tier 2 (Small Group), and then Tier 3 (Intensive – Individual or Alternative Program) options.

Educating the Grayson’s in today’s classrooms will require a more realistic, evidence-based, and effective approach to implementing inclusive education. It is time we confronted and tackled the “elephant in the inclusive classroom” and considered a more flexible and responsive way forward.

Why are inclusive classrooms failing so may children?  If our public school classrooms cannot accommodate all children, don’t school authorities have a responsibility to develop alternative support programs and services?  Should school districts be sending challenging students home and leaving families to fend for themselves? Why has the new Nova Scotia model attracted so little attention outside that province? 

 

 

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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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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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