The Debate Continues – Are We Doing a Good Job at Inclusion in Our Schools?

Over the past week, there has been a good deal of material written about inclusion especially in Ontario. The discussion was reopened by Caroline Alphonso’s article in the Globe and Mail – Educating Grayson: How Do We Make Inclusion Work?

We look at the exceptions and say that inclusion works, at best, this is only partially true.   What happens when a system (inclusion) depends on exceptional teachers and schools? Is inclusion really sustainable when we depend on exceptional practice?

Aviva Dunsiger wrote an excellent article on inclusion as part of this debate. This is a sensitive, reflective piece and it does show that inclusion can work in some circumstances. Aviva made some wholesale changes to her classroom and the learning environment did become more inclusive. The article does bring up an important question. Is this the exception or is this the rule? In the article, Aviva writes that a board team came in and gave its recommendations and then left. It is telling that her first response was to question her own professionalism.

Well, when the team members came in and spoke to me, I left feeling as though I was the worst teacher out there. I totally broke down. Heaving sobs. They wanted me to change my classroom around for one child. Why? 

Aviva was able to put together a plan with her EA, but that does not mean the system is working. Her story may be the exception. The onus is still being put on the classroom teacher to do something truly exceptional with no increase in support apart from a visit from a group of school board experts.

Is this good enough? Are we being reflective enough to bring about significant change or are we hoping that exceptional teachers and schools will simply become the norm and the problem will go away?

One person made an excellent comment on Aviva’s post. She noted some of the things that still need to be in place for inclusion to work better in schools.

 self-reflective, flexible and open teachers, and as you noted:
leadership that creatively considers
-class size and composition (just because they have a dx doesn’t mean they should be in the same class every year),
-teacher training and updating of that training (a lot of parents don’t want ABA style or even punishment-reward style motivation anymore as new research becomes available)
-availability of community members that have knowledge and experience (there is no us v. them, only how can we help?)
-stress levels of families, students and staff & how we can alleviate those!
-lastly to choose staff that are open-minded and flexible and accepting that their way might need updating or that visual/reward/breaks won’t work for everyone, but it will work for more than one!

The comment about the involvement of community partners really strikes me here. Schools generally see themselves as silos and do not invite community agencies to play an active role in solving the problems all schools face. Most educators are unaware of the community resources that surround their schools. This is an area where we could really improve upon.

We need school boards and schools to be much more critical of their own practices. We all love to promote the exceptions and say they are the rule, but that is simply not the case. Who assesses school boards on the effectiveness of their own practice?

There is little oversight, so boards love to say how well they are doing in areas like inclusion. How many times did I hear that our school board was easily one of the best in the province? The more you say that the less critical you become.

I hope this debate continues. There are many great voices out there and it is good to see educators speaking out. The exceptions and innovations need to be celebrated, but the system as a whole needs to get much more responsive to the needs of our children and parents.

 

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Has inclusive education gone too far? – The Globe and Mail debate

When I started this series of articles for the Class Struggle Podcast, I wrote that public debate on important public issues is sustained and encouraged through our media. A strong public press is essential in a healthy democracy and we are very fortunate here in Canada to have a vital and responsive media.

On Saturday, the Globe and Mail’s education reporter Caroline Alphonso wrote an important feature on the problems surrounding inclusion in Canada’s schools – Educating Grayson: Are inclusive classrooms failing students?

The article is an intelligent and sensitive report on the problems that take place every day in Canada’s schools surrounding inclusion. As a former elementary principal, I am well aware of these issues. Although I have not been in schools in the last two years, the problem obviously persists and the solutions remain elusive.

The Globe and Mail is sustaining this debate by publishing some of the comments to Saturday’s article. I have included two of them here:

From the comments: Has inclusive education gone too far? Educators and parents share their experiences

In 2018, I retired after 17+ years as an Educational Assistant (EA) in elementary schools. Over those years my job changed dramatically; from helping students (with varying needs) achieve their potential in class, to keeping students with often volatile behaviours from being a threat to others while in a “regular” classroom. Most, if not all, children want to belong and succeed at school. Teachers and EAs also want to make this happen. Too often, I have seen principals and parents put their own interests and opinions ahead of the best interests of the student. It becomes a fight about which adult is right, and the student’s true needs get overlooked. It is a terrible waste, made even greater when “experts” are brought in to observe briefly, and then chime in on what is best.

Please, parents and administration, gather and listen to the student, and the teacher and the Educational Assistant together. Set a few goals, be consistent at home and at school, and be kind and respectful of each other. You will see improvements almost immediately. Unfortunately this rarely happens. – MacKenzie96

Ms. Kahn is not wrong to want better services for Grayson. It is sad that services for children like Grayson are so limited. Underfunding special education programs pits parents against teachers and administrators. This undermines an education system that is the envy of the world (we rank #5 internationally according to the OECD). Please keep in mind that funding for education has been frozen for the last few years and special education in most boards has been cut. There are fewer Educational Assistants in my classroom than ever before. My fear is Mr Ford’s austerity measures aimed at health care system, social assistance and education will only make things worse. – Daysofmiracle

I don’t know if I have anything useful to add to these comments, but I do know that educators need to be part of this discussion.

This Thursday for this week’s Class Struggle on VoicEd Radio we will weigh in on this issue. As I have been saying, educators need to be heard on this issue and it would be great to see more writing from those who are active in the profession. We know there is a lack of resources when it comes to education and there are real human consequences to the underfunding that has been going on for years.

the next Class Struggle podcast will be this Thursday (January 10) at 8:00PM

The problems with inclusion are well known. Principals, especially in elementary school have been excluding special needs students from their buildings for years. These exclusions are hard to trace because they were never documented and were never part of any formal process. I remember many times as an administrator asking parents just to keep their child at home. They weren’t suspended, we just didn’t have the resources to keep them and others safe in our school.

These actions are taken by principals every day. When I excluded I always did this on my own authority. No one above me was willing to take any responsibility for these actions and when things went badly, I was the one who suffered the consequences.

Here is the problem. There are nowhere near the resources in the schools to deal with many special needs cases. As Caroline Alphonso mentions in her article, there are situations where a gifted teacher may be able to accommodate a special needs child, but such a situation is not sustainable, and not all schools have the talent to work successfully with challenging children.

More often the lack of adequate resources leads to disruptions and sometimes violence in the classroom.

In most cases, it is the educational assistant that suffers the direct consequences for the emotional outbursts of the child, but I know the results of poorly thought-out inclusion affects the entire school community, including children and parents.

The solution calls for a rebuilding of the inclusion model. Generally, the practices in Ontario at least are haphazard. Inclusion needs to be rebuilt from the ground up with a sharp focus on how best to accommodate the special needs child, their parents and the wider school community. Inserting the student into a regular classroom with some support and hoping for the best is just not good enough.

Such a rebuild will be expensive and I really don’t think we are there yet as a society to make the financial investment that it will take. Patching is cheap, rebuilding takes lots of resources and intelligent design.

I hope we have a good debate on Thursday. This is a problem that will just get worse until we face it head-on. Again, good for the Globe and Mail for keeping this important issue in the public eye. As educators, we need to do our part to make sure it stays there.

Who Monitors Education in Ontario?

Trustees have a fundamental duty to rebuild the essential democratic linkages between citizens and board employees, who are in essence public servants. How to do that, is a fundamental question to all those that aspire to elected office.

Four Questions Ottawa Citizens Should Ask Before Voting for Their New School Trustees

Education is political and to forget this can lead to fundamental problems on how the system is run and managed in Ontario and other jurisdictions across the country.

In an excellent post this week, Four Questions Ottawa Citizens Should Ask Before Voting for Their New School Trustees, Dr Dragos Popa from the University of Ottawa has laid out four challenges for people running as public trustee in the 2018 Municipal elections. It would be a very good idea for all candidates to read this post and come up with clear answers to his challenges.

The public takes education for granted in this province. Unless you have a child in the system and even if you do have a child in the system, very few people have any sense of how public education is managed.

Even at the provincial level, there seems to be very little political will to seriously look at governance issues in public education. It seems that politicians and the public, in general, have surrendered up public scrutiny of the system to school board officials mainly because education is best left up to the experts.

This is a mistake and can lead to serious consequences. Dr Popa correctly points out that schools are nowhere nearly as ‘user-friendly’ as they should be. There is not the sense of public accountability that is more in evidence at the different levels of government. School officials are able to act with impunity because they know their actions are seldom challenged in the forum of public opinion.

To be fair, our education politicians are at a disadvantage. Years ago under Mike Harris, public education trustees salaries were discontinued, replaced with an honorarium as low as $5000.00 a year (The Fewer Schools Boards Act and the Toronto District School Board: Educational Restructuring 1997- 2003). School authority trustees are paid an honorarium at the same rate as was paid on December 1,1996 (Good Governance Guide, Ontario Public School Boards’ Association).

The problem with this is that politicians paid an honorarium cannot be expected to put in the time necessary to act as independent arbiters of school board staff policies and decisions. When it comes to governance issues in Ontario they simply do not play an effective role.

This may sound overly harsh, but it is not a criticism of the people who basically act as volunteers in the management of education in Ontario. I have worked as an unpaid board member before and I know that over time, a board member will become a ‘captive’ of management staff, the people responsible for supplying board members with the information they need to do their jobs.

This is a problem. Trustees are at best part-time employees of their school boards while the people they are charged with monitoring are full-time officials charged with maintaining a system that largely benefits these officials.

There is little public accountability in this system and there seems to be little interest in changing this dynamic. In fact, in a Globe and Mail article by Caroline Alphonso written in 2014 and updated in 2017, attempts by public school trustees in several school boards to raise their honorariums were reversed by the provincial government (Ontario orders school board trustees to cancel pay raises).

This leads me back to the original post by Dr Popa. He is correct in offering up important questions for new trustees to consider before the election, but do we have a system that actually encourages the necessary independence to actually challenge a system that is no longer accountable?

Is this a system that is truly public and accountable? Can we do better than this?

 

Big News – Growing gap in fundraising between affluent and needy schools

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Today the Globe and Mail’s great education reporter Caroline Alphonso put out an important article about the dreadful disparity that continues to exist between Ontario’s rich and poor schools.

Schools in affluent neighbourhoods are fundraising almost $50 for every dollar raised by a needier school, new data show, raising concerns about a growing inequity in public education.

If you don’t know this already, you should. Growing up in Kanata or Manotick is not the same as going to school in Caldwell, Russel Heights or Dalhousie. When you administer a school in the richer parts of Ottawa, you have access to thousands of dollars that you can spend almost any way that you want. As the article states, provincial regulations disallow you from building a new school addition, but after that obvious limitation, the sky is the limit.

When I worked in Manotick, the school council briefly debated, then purchased a new school mascot – big enough for a good-sized grade six student to inhabit for school rallies and events. This cost thousands of dollars. At my last school, we had a slightly oversized teddy-bear as our mascot. The Manotick school had three – count them – three good sized play structures, the last one costing over $80,000.00

When the topic came up at school council that as Catholics, we should share some of our cash surplus with poorer schools, the motion was quickly defeated – this money was for our kids.

So why don’t we share our revenue? No idea –  you would think that in a Catholic Board this would at least be debated.

Next question – why don’t we help the poorer schools? Oh, we do! The poor schools in Ottawa usually get a one-time grant of around $3000.00 to make up the difference. These special grants are not enough, they usually go to pay for food and clothing for our kids. As Alphonso writes:

The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest school district, provides special grants to schools in high-needs communities to help compensate for the fundraising differences. It can’t compete, though, with the hundreds of dollars raised by schools in the city’s richest neighbourhoods.

The disparity problem doesn’t seem to be understood by school officials. Years ago, we were told that a special emphasis on the poor was going to be the mandate of the newest director of our board.

I wonder how that was to be acted out? Was it a matter of highlighting how certain students had made it out of poverty because of an excellent education? Is that really enough?  Is that more than simple charity?

If we truly want to redistribute income throughout the schools in Ottawa there is so much that we could be doing. It is simply unfair that some schools have more of everything than others, especially in one of the richest cities in North America.

Don’t be shocked by headlines that write about the growing gap – don’t look to poor countries in the South – look to schools in your own city.