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Equity, Opinion, Policy, School Community

Are We Star Gazing? Can Canadian Schools Really be Equitable and Inclusive?

Leadership is the issue. It’s not the students and not the teachers. They can handle the challenges of “inclusive education”.

We are a long way from achieving equity for kids with intellectual disabilities in Canadian schools. In some ways I am an accidental participant in this discussion. I began my career in education as a high school history teacher and then elementary school principal. My interest in strategies to address the needs of students who were not having success in school eventually led me to be an “advocate” for inclusion for students with disabilities. I must say the journey on this issue has been an interesting one. After thirty years of being engaged on this question, I continue to wonder if I am a practical and pragmatic educator from small town New Brunswick – with a realistic vision of what inclusion can do to assure equity for all students; or am I one of those well intentioned but idealistic advocates often accused of “star-gazing”?

The fact is I am more convinced than ever that equity and quality in education can be achieved by an inclusive education system.  In the context of the Charter of Rights, the fact that much of the Canadian education system has not made this a reality is disappointing.

It is also a sad commentary on the indifference many senior leaders of our system pay to achieving this goal. In the last ten years, some of our largest Canadian school districts are not only maintaining the number of students in self-contained special education, they are actually increasing it. And this is at a time when overall student population is declining.

In the last ten years, some of our largest Canadian school districts are not only maintaining the number of students in self-contained special education, they are actually increasing it. And this is at a time when overall student population is declining.

This is shocking to many, but actually it is not surprising. When you have a school system that encourages teachers and parents to think that special programs and expert teachers are more important than being part of a class in your community school with your peers, this is what happens. Teachers and parents are encouraged to think that it is better that kids with diverse needs get their education from a specialized program out of the mainstream.

The failure of our education leaders to define and communicate a vision of schooling that can be both inclusive and effective and that balances the diverse needs of individual students is striking.  Students with intellectual disabilities, autism, and many others, are routinely sent to special programs, in many instances, away from their neighbourhood or community school and as a result away from their siblings and peer group. Many parents have told me about the choice they were given by their school authorities: stay in their community school, in a regular class, but with no additional support, OR have their child go to another school with a “special program”. These special programs, of course, have a “special teacher” who can provide a more suitable alternative for your child and others with similar needs. To most parents, this is not a real choice. No additional support, or accommodation – as the Human Rights language would describe it – means it is a risky choice at best and one most parents fear to make. It is hard to imagine it is meant to be anything else. This is the reality in far too many Canadian school districts. It is a reality we need to change.

The ironic fact is that this is not the only reality in Canada. Many schools, school districts, and indeed several provinces work hard to provide the kind of “inclusion” for kids that we “star gazers” have in mind. They provide support to teachers and students and they direct funding to make this result in success outcomes. There are enough of these schools and districts throughout the country that we should not have to entertain questions about whether this is realistic, feasible, or affordable option. It is an approach that is in the best interests of the students – all of them – who are part of this “inclusive classroom”.

In my view it is all about leadership. Leaders who can bridge the divide between the vision of the “star gazers” and the reality of the classroom in the neighbourhood school.

Do we have leaders who take inclusion for all students seriously? If we do the evidence will be there at the school and classroom level. The gaps we see in Canadian schools are far too wide.
Where we don’t, we have leaders who fail to recognize the effect on their schools of a system that legitimizes systemic exclusion of some groups of students. These leaders fail to consider the effect of exclusionary programs on teacher attitudes toward student diversity. The effect is negative!

They fail to consider the effect of diverting funding from enhancing capacity in regular schools. They legitimize moving both the students and the resources to the margins through programs of “special education”.

Leadership is the issue. It’s not the students and not the teachers. They can handle the challenges of “inclusive education” if their leaders provide the conditions we know are needed for success. We know how to do it. Academics are publishing more and more articles and books on how this can be done.

So what are the obstacles to achieving the kind of leadership that will bring about equity and inclusion in our schools? I have three thoughts to leave with you.

First, we need to repudiate the notion that “special” or “expert” is better when the result is a program that is “segregation” and “exclusion”. We have the knowledge and know-how to provide “special” and “expert” support to teachers and students in “inclusive classrooms”.

First, we need to repudiate the notion that “special” or “expert” is better when the result is a program that is “segregation” and “exclusion”. We have the knowledge and know-how to provide “special” and “expert” support to teachers and students in “inclusive classrooms”. There indeed are exceptions, but a personalized learning plan for a child can be put in place to address these cases.

Second, leaders need the courage to take up the challenge. They need to manage the changes needed in attitudes, expectations, and capacity to put inclusive schools and classrooms in place. Many of the teachers, parents and other stakeholders will be understandably sceptical since they may have had no exposure or direct experience with a properly supported inclusive approach. They cannot be faulted on this score. School leaders have to purposefully manage the change process to alleviate this scepticism. The good news is they have many leaders in schools and school districts in Canada who can share their positive experience in making this happen.

Finally, we need nationally recognized leaders to challenge their peers to recognize their responsibility to lead. They need to contribute more explicitly to the conversation on equity and inclusion. This includes senior education officials, researchers and academics.

I offer by example my New Brunswick colleague Doug Willms. In a notable interview for the Ministry of Education in Ontario this summer, he was asked “… what umbrella comments or advice would you have for principals who want to improve their practice and effect change for students?”

Doug Willms: “The single most important piece of advice I’d give is to embrace the philosophy and ideal of an inclusive school. And that would include building a framework of understanding among school staff that says “this is the philosophy of an inclusive school – this is what an inclusive school looks like.

An inclusive school is one where children learn how to make positive friendships. They learn what bullying means and doesn’t mean. They learn about including others.

Finally, we need to address inclusion at the system level as well; it is not only an issue at the school level. We need to take steps to ensure that we have inclusive schools and an inclusive school system. It comes down to refusing to accept the “status quo” – do we really need to accept the fact that one-quarter of Canadian students are disengaged?”

I would conclude by asking if we really need to accept the fact that so many Canadian students are excluded from their community schools. Are those of us who think not to remain “star gazers”?

For the full interview with Doug Willms: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/leadership/Summer2011.pdf

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Meet the Expert

gordon porter

Gordon Porter

Gordon L. Porter, C.M. is an educator and consultant on inclusive education who lives and works in New Brunswick, and has worked in Canada, the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Porter is a recipient of the CEA Whitworth Award, and is a member of the Order of Canada. He was appointed to conduct a review of inclusive education practices in New Brunswick schools and will provide an “Action Plan” to the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development in December 2011. Dr. Porter recently co-edited a book on inclusive education entitled: Exploring Inclusive Education Practices Through Professional Inquiry.

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