Sunday, November 4, 2012

The slow death of special education

The last decade has been bad for special education - services for those students with identified disabilities (learning, intellectual, or physical).

In response to court victories requiring inclusion - the policy that all children should be integrated as much as possibly into the main stream classroom setting - a framework was developed in most jurisdictions in Canada to define and determine how each student's need would be addressed. Typically this means a team including parents, special education teachers, classroom teachers and administration work together to develop an individual education plan (IEP). In some cases the actual content of the student's education is modified - they complete different learning outcomes. In others, different learning strategies are used to help a student reach the same learning outcomes. These strategies are identified in the plan along with how they will be accomplished.

Prior to 2002, students with a designation (a disability identified through testing and/or diagnosis) in BC received targeted funding. This funding paid for various resources in the school such as special education teachers, educational assistants, special equipment, and so forth. The targeting meant that the funding had to be directed to resources for a particular child.

In addition, prior to 2002, teachers in BC had limits on how many students in each class was a student requiring an IEP. If this number was exceeded (usually 2 or 3), the teacher was assigned additional preparation time. This recognized that in order to carry out a modified program in the classroom, a teacher needed time to plan and prepare additional lessons and materials. It also recognized that a teacher could only feasibly do this for so many children before all the hours in the day were gone. Finally it ensured that children with disabilities really were integrated - they could not be bunched up into one or two classes within a school.

Today's world is very different. There is now very limited targeted funding, and it is usually inadequate. Non-targeted funds have been used for a whole variety of other expenses, including carbon offsets, un-funded salary increases, technology purchases.

Today, a child with autism may only have enough funding for an educational assistant half time, rather than full time (of course their autism doesn't magically go away for the other half of the day). Children with learning disabilities do not receive any targeted funding at all. It is not unusual for a class to have 3 - 12 students with an IEP. BC has lost over 700 special education teachers. They have more and more been replaced with an increase in education assistants, who have typically 6 months training, in comparison to five years of university plus a special education specialization.

Teachers cannot manage and students' needs are not being met. It is now common place for teachers to refuse to sign off on an IEP - they simply don't believe that adequate resources are available to actually meet the plans identified.

Classroom teachers struggle to cope with large numbers of students with widely varying needs. There are fewer and fewer "pull out" programs to help with reading and numeracy, so this is left to the classroom teacher. One teacher told me a few years ago she was delivering 18 different reading programs in her primary classroom.  In my school district, in a five year period, one in ten teachers is off on a stress related illness.

Teachers are told to use teaching techniques to solve these problems. First, the answer was "differentiated learning". Simply create a lesson with variations for many different ability levels.

Now teachers are being told to teach children to "self regulate". Simply ensure that your teaching includes self-regulation methods and children will be able to develop the skills to concentrate and function in a classroom setting.

And the latest? Personalization. In the new 21st century learning world, as all teaching will be personalized to fit each individual student's needs, a student with a disability is no different than any other student.

BC's Superintendent of Achievement, Rod Allen, has said there will be: "'no labels and no medical model. In a 21st century personalised world, I’ll tell you what a special education looks like if you can tell me what a ‘normal’ education is." This is meant to rationalize complete de-categorization - the wholesale elimination of the identification and programming for students with a disability.

Rights for students with disabilities originate with the Charter. Educational opportunity must be preserved no matter what disabilities a child has, be it physical or mental. For some children to learn to read, significantly more resources are required. Learning disabilities require specific teaching strategies and often one-on-one instruction for periods of time. Physical disabilities may require additional supervision and equipment. It is more expensive, generally, to provide the same level of educational opportunity to a child with a disability than to a child without a disability, just as there may be costs involved to accommodate a worker with a disability in the workplace. 

In a world obsessed with cost cutting rather than fairness and equity, this means that these children are particularly vulnerable. It is much cheaper to tell teachers to simply use "differentiated learning" than it is to provide adequate numbers of special education teachers. It is much easier to blame teachers for failing to do an impossible job - meet every child's needs in a class with too many learning complexities and too many children - than to ensure an adequate tax base to so that funding is available to actually meet every child's needs.

The result? Only half of all students with special needs complete secondary school. 

Eliminating special education categories would be catastrophic  Not only would we fail more children, we wouldn't even know, because no information would be available to identify which children had disabilities and how they progressed through the school system.

Sadly, we appear to be on this path.

1 comment:

  1. Ironically, wanting to do away with a 'medical model' is just sick.