Saturday, September 13, 2014

Class composition: a human rights perspective

Christy Clark enraged teachers and surprised many when she tweeted that class composition was one of her primary concerns. Those of us working in schools who have for twelve long years been trying to bring this issue into the public discourse thought: well, it's about time.

It was over twenty years ago that Charter rights guaranteed students with disabilities an education in mainstream classrooms. No longer would students be relegated to special schools or special classrooms. They were legally entitled to be in class with all other students and to experience the equivalent educational opportunities.

The integration of students with special needs and the subsequent increase of these students within the student population is at the heart of the "class composition" issue. In the 1990's, teachers in British Columbia negotiated limits to how many students with special needs would be in any one classroom. They also negotiated smaller classes for those with students with special needs.

The purpose was twofold. First, placing limits on any individual class ensures that the overall distribution of students is even across classrooms. This creates diverse classes in every school. It also ensures that any individual teacher has adequate time to prepare individualized lessons for each of those students.

When Bill 28 eliminated these provisions, and with additional legislation in 2002 that removed targeting funds towards individual students, school Districts responded with a practice of "clustering". It works like this. If the per student funding provides some money, and a student with a funded designation provides a little bit more money, then pool that money together, hire a single Educational Assistant, and place all the students with special needs into that class to have access to the Educational Assistant. The result is that in a school with two or three classes at one grade level, one class will have high numbers of students with special needs and an Educational Assistant while the other classes will have relatively few students with special needs and no Educational Assistant. Thus the effect of removing limits for individual classrooms is to create a system of partial segregation. There are the classes with high numbers of students with special needs and those with significantly lower numbers. Specialty programs like Academies and French Immersion can further exacerbate this distribution.

The Liberal government cynically adopted an argument put forward by the Victoria Confederacy of Parent Advisory Councils that the practice of limiting students with special needs in one class is discriminatory. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only does removing limits encourage clustering, it also impacts educations opportunities for those students in a system that is chronically underfunded.

Charter rights require that students with special needs have equivalent educational opportunities to all other students. This means that more funding and resources must be directed towards those students if required to provide an equivalent opportunity for those children. But without class composition limits, one teacher could have to prepare upwards of a dozen individual programs for a single class of students. Given the ninety minutes of preparation time per week, this simply isn't possible. Moreover, the sharing of limited resources among students and the use of Educational Assistants rather than Special Education teachers means students with individual education plans receive little if any targeted instruction beyond what the classroom teacher can provide. It is not uncommon for a student with a learning disability to have about 15 minutes per week with a special education teacher. I have met a Grade 2 teacher who prepared 18 different reading programs for her class. If a single classroom teacher has many students with individual plans, the time available for each plan and each student  becomes increasingly limited.

Diverse and equitable classrooms are created when each classroom has a similar diversity within it, not when students with special needs are clustered together because of funding limitations. This is what per class limits facilitate. This is what teachers want restored to our contract. Without these limits and with chronic underfunding we are providing the exact opposite. Children with special needs who require more are receiving less: - less teacher time, less specialist time and less genuine integration.

All of this is to explain why government proposal E80 is so problematic in the current bargaining context. It eliminates limits in favour of a small pot of money with no accountability for how that money is spent. We know from experience this leads to inequities and clustering. And we know that limits for individual classrooms leads to diversity and integration.


  1. But your viewpoint ignores the discriminatory effects that can happen from a cap. What if there is no "room" in the grade because of a higher-than-average proportion of kids with disabilities? The child could be forced out of catchment because of her special need. What if the child gets a designation mid-year in a class that's already out of the cap - she would be moved to another classroom? Also, you assume all IEPs require similar preparation time - a student with a medical condition may have an IEP, but adherence to that plan may not require significant additional prep time. In that case, why would there need to be a cap? As a parent to a child with a disability, I disagree with the idea that a cap is required to promote inclusion. Inclusion is more complicated than that. There has to be flexibility in classroom composition. That view is not cynical - the idea that only a certain number of children with special needs should be permitted in a class is what's cynical.

  2. No, you make another class and redistribute everyone. That is what happened when we had caps. No child can be denied access to thei neighbourhood school. Mid year designations did not require a move....extra support and extra prep time was provided. Flexibility allows children to be clustered into segregated groupings to maximize usage of EAs. This is what administrators do.