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A year ago, a Nova Scotia Inclusive Education Commission headed by Dr. Sarah Shea of the IWK Children’s Hospital broke new ground in proposing a robust $70-million, 5-year plan to re-engineer inclusive education. The new model known as Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) attracted immediate and widespread support from classroom teachers, parents of learning-challenged students, and advocacy groups, including Autism Nova Scotia.

Today there are clear signs that the implementation of Nova Scotia Inclusive Education reform is going off-the-rails and the whole venture in danger of being turned to different purposes. Three critical implementation pieces have been dropped and the whole project is now under completely new management.

Education Minister Zach Churchill and his recently appointed Deputy Minister Catherine Montreuil have already abandoned three first stage recommendations: establishing an independent Institute for Inclusive Education (NSEII), appointing an Executive Director to spearhead the initiative; and commencing independent Canadian research into evidence-based MTSS practices.

Much of what is going inside Nova Scotia’s Education Department is now carried out behind closed doors and completely outside public view. Piecing together the puzzle requires the investigative skills of a Detective William Murdoch. Sleuthing in and around the Department does provide a few clues.

A January 2019 Provincial Advisory Council on Education (PACE) agenda featured a peculiar item under the heading “Inclusive Education Policy.” Assembled members of the appointed body, chaired by former HRSB chair, Gin Yee, were assembled to engage in an ‘interactive exercise’ focusing on “Dr. Gordon Porter’s work.” The published meeting minutes made no reference whatsoever to that discussion.

Seven months after Nova Scotia embraced the plan to build a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), the surfacing of Dr. Porter was downright strange on two counts. Canada’s leading champion of all-inclusive classrooms, New Brunswicker Porter, is well-known for advocating an approach at odds with the government’s stated policy. Not only that, but in October 2018, Education Minister Churchill had named Porter as the lead consultant responsible for overseeing implementation.

If there was any doubt as to where Dr. Porter stands on inclusion, that vanished on February 15, 2018 when he published a very revealing commentary in his house organ publication, the Inclusive Education Canada newsletter.

When a Toronto Globe and Mail feature story on an autistic Ontario boy, Grayson Kahn,  pointed out that his ‘inclusive classroom’ had failed him, Porter took great exception to the piece because it called into question the appropriateness of the all-inclusive model for everyone. “Classrooms, inclusive or not, do not fail students,” he wrote. “The responsibility for success or failure lies with officials of the Education Ministries and the leaders of the school districts who set the policies, allocate resources and are responsible to ensure accountability to both parents and taxpayers.”

After thirty years of fighting to rid the system of alternative settings and specialized support programs, he was not about to change, even when confronted with the current challenges of class composition posed by the dramatically rising numbers of students with complex needs and sometimes unmanageable behavioural disorders in today’s classrooms.

Porter and his Inclusive Education Canada allies, well entrenched in New Brunswick, continue put all their faith in the all-inclusive classroom. Most, if not all, of their public advocacy seeks to demonstrate how every child can thrive in a regular classroom. The whole idea of providing alternative placements, ranging from one-on-one intensive support to specialized programs is an anathema to Porter and his allies.  Instead of addressing the need for viable, properly-resourced multi-tiered levels of support, they promote provincial policy aligned with the international Zero Project, aimed at enforcing inclusion for all, including those, like Grayson, with complex needs and severe learning difficulties.

Defenders of the New Brunswick model, shaped and built by Porter, remain blind to the realities of today’s complex classrooms. Sending children regularly to “time-out rooms” or home as “exclusions” for days-on-end come to be accepted as expedients to keep, intact, the semblance of inclusive classrooms.

Further detective work reveals that Porter is not without an ally on the PACE.  The sole education faculty appointee on that essentially faceless appointed body is Professor Chris Gilham of St. Francis-Xavier University, trained at the University of Alberta and closely aligned with Porter’s thinking.

Gilham’s research and teaching are steeped in the Inclusive Education Canada philosophy. He’s a public advocate of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an educational framework designed initially for Special Needs children that aims to increase “access to learning for all students” by removing all school-level barriers, physical, cognitive, intellectual and organizational.

Classifying and coding Special Education students, Gilham and co-author John Williamson claimed in a 2017 academic article, is part of the “bounty system” which provides funding on the basis of designated, documented exceptionalities. It is clear, from his writings, that he’s opposed to the “bifurcation of students” into a “value-laden, deficit-oriented, gross categories” aligned with their particular learning needs.

Inclusion of all students is now virtually universally accepted, but the Nova Scotia Inclusion Commission, to its credit, recognized that it does not necessarily mean inclusion in one particular setting, but rather in the one best suited to the child along a continuum of services from regular classroom to specialized support programs. The Students First report pointed Nova Scotia in that direction and challenged us to build an entirely new model significantly different than that to be found in New Brunswick.

Reaching every student and building a pyramid of tiered supports were the Nova Scotia plan’s overarching goals, not endlessly seeking ways to integrate students into one universal, one-size-fits-all classroom and concealing the actual numbers of students on alternative or part-time schedules. It’s time to urge Minister Churchill and his Department find their bearings and return to the True North of MTSS as charted by Dr. Shea and the Inclusive Education Commission.

What is happening to the implementation of the new Nova Scotia model for inclusive education? Do the decisions to drop three first-stage implementation recommendations signal a change in direction? Why did Nova Scotia’s government hire Dr. Gordon Porter to review implementation?  Will Dr. Porter’s upcoming review report confirm the change in direction? 

 

 

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