"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

~ Niccolo Machiavelli, historian and writer

Friday, May 13, 2011

Creative Writing - Potential Op Ed Piece

UPDATE: The link to providing feedback on Dr. Levin's report.  But beware, as others have noted, it's more or less set up only to promote the positive.  You might you get more bang for your buck with a letter to the Minister or her Deputy.

UPDATE II: This was published in as an op ed piece in the Chronicle Herald on Thursday, May 19, 2011.

It's a good thing I'm not Ralph from The Honeymooners because I'm seriously tempted to threaten to send the Nova Scotia Department of Education "straight to the moon" at the moment.

First, the Department amends its Teacher Assistant Guidelines to eliminate any reference to supporting the teaching of students with special needs or providing "support for instructional program", leaving the only remaining job responsibilities of a TA as "personal care" and "safety/behaviour management support". If you don't have a child with special needs or aren't otherwise involved in the school system, that may not mean much to you. But if you do, it’s not hard to picture exactly what that bodes for the future.

Now, we learn that a review of the Province's public education system is calling for the Province to "consider reducing the number of teaching assistants in special education". Does anyone else see any connection here? Is this the beginning of the end of a proper education for our children?

The Province's newest Teacher Assistant Guidelines provide that "Teacher assistant support should be considered only when the student cannot perform prescribed outcomes independently, as determined by the program planning process" but I have to wonder how even those students will receive support when 1) supporting students who cannot meet prescribed outcomes (independently or not) is most definitely no longer part of a TA's job description and 2) the current recommendation is to cut back on the number of TAs when many would argue we don’t have enough to do the job now.

I find Mr. Levin’s concern about the number of students receiving special education services due to an increase in the "soft" areas of identification, like “students thought to have learning disabilities or behaviour problems” rather odd. If he had spent any time at all in Nova Scotia's schools he would know how difficult it is to obtain any special education services for such students. Students are not considered to have a learning disability simply because a parent or teacher thinks this may be so; services won’t be offered (if at all) until a student has been diagnosed by a qualified psychologist. And, given the wait times to be seen by a school psychologist, students can literally wait years for that type of assessment.


And although it’s great to hear that the number of students with physical disabilities is not increasing, that observation does nothing to address the needs of the numerous students in our schools who have honest-to-God documented mental challenges, those on the autistic spectrum and those with various learning disabilities, all of which have been documented by qualified professionals. Whatever the reason for these numbers, the Province is legally obligated to provide all students with an appropriate education.

And yet Mr. Levin argues that it is not clear that special education programs actually result in improved outcomes and that students placed in these programs continue to lag behind other students and sometimes the gap gets bigger rather than smaller.

I have to assume that hus consistent reference only to students with learning disabilities and behavioural problems/challenges is intentional, given Mr. Levin’s credentials as an educational professional. But I also have to wonder why he has so conveniently neglected to mention the needs of students with much more severe challenges. Because even though students with learning disabilities, when given the appropriate interventions, should eventually catch up to their chronological peers, how can we expect students who are mentally challenged to achieve this?

Yes, Mr. Levin, the gap for those students often does grow bigger every year and that’s heartbreaking to see. But I can assure you it would be a lot more heartbreaking, for all of us, to see where these kids would end up without special education services. We set individualized goals for these students, based on their strengths and needs, and change these goals, always upping the ante, as they progress. My daughter will never catch up to her chronological peers but her numerous teachers, her doctors and her family can all attest to the amazing growth we’ve seen in all areas over the years, growth that would not have occurred had she languished in an age-appropriate classroom without “special education” services.

An editorial the day following the release of the report argued that Mr. Levin did not propose taking teaching assistants away from “children with autism or cerebral palsy or a host of other physical or mental challenges”. Indeed he didn’t; he simply neglected to mention those children at all.

Paul Bennett, in an opinion piece published today, argued that Mr. Levin favours “targeted funding to help more students succeed, especially those with special needs” and abolishing “student failure” through improved instruction and special needs support – it’s funny how I have reread the report repeatedly and yet fail to see any reference to targeted funding for students with special needs.

Instead, Mr. Levin appears to be calling for significantly lower rates of “special education placement”, period, leaving me to wonder what, exactly, he would propose to do with those students with a host of physical and mental challenges. Unfortunately, closing our eyes and ignoring the needs of the most vulnerable won‘t make them go away. It will only increase the lifelong challenges they face.

In December, 2010, the Province recognized that “[w]e are at a crossroads and it is more important than ever that we take the steps necessary to manage our school system in a way that matches the number and needs of the students it serves …”. I couldn’t agree more. We most definitely do need an informed discussion on these topics, but preferably one where students with special needs aren’t scapegoated for the majority of the problems in the Province’s educational system, as they so often are.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Some good points but I would like to add, that, just because a child has a diagnostic label does not mean they require a 1:1 assistant. I have read and like the Levin report as it allows for more flexibility and a direct focus on addressing individual support needs in a direct and cost effective way. Too bad the DOE never measures their own progress with anything- if they had measured and researched how effective their mish mash epa program has worked, parents would not be so upset to see this lame system go.

MMC said...

Some good points but I would like to add, that, just because a child has a diagnostic label does not mean they require a 1:1 assistant.

Of course not and, one point I neglected to make, was that the vast majority of kids with learning disabilities don't even have EAs. Which is one of the reasons I wonder why Levin keeps focusing on those kids and using them as an excuse to reduce the number of EAs ... EAs who aren't even serving that population.

I have read and like the Levin report as it allows for more flexibility and a direct focus on addressing individual support needs in a direct and cost effective way.

I may be missing something but that's not what I see. It's the same old rhetoric about classroom teachers meeting individual needs and quite frankly, as far as I'm concerned, while that's a great idea in theory, it ain't never gonna happen. They would have to do some big-time cloning of both classroom and resource teachers to make anything like that actually occur and we all the chances of that happening.

Sorry to be the cynic but all I am hearing from Levin is that our goal should be, if not the complete elimiatation, then a large reduction in, "special education". But I don't see the specifics of any back up plan for these kids. Actually it's kind of ironic - as Levin recommends not "identifying" kids with LD and behavioural issues, the US pushes forward with a legislated obligation to identify every child with a disability, no matter how mild. Considering we tend to be about 15 - 20 years behind then in this area ...