I was not planning to write about the seemingly endless dispute between the NSTU and the Liberals. For one thing, when it comes to education it can be a polarizing topic and I have too many personal and family entanglements with “the system” to stake out a passionate position on one side or the other. Furthermore, although it is a big political issue, I have no brilliant insights to offer beyond those that have already been advanced and chewed over by others. The best I can come up with on the larger political story is to say we’ll just have to wait and see how it plays out.
So I was just going to refrain from writing about the subject, until I couldn’t. The thing that’s got me going is what looks like an attack on the education of students with special needs – generally known as “inclusion”.
Lately, inclusion has become one of those plastic words that can mean anything or nothing. Our Department of Education has come up with a wordy new definition of inclusive education, but to me inclusion means that students with intellectual, physical or behavioural challenges have a right to go to their neighbourhood school to be educated in a regular classroom with kids their own age.
At least, that’s what inclusion meant back in 1996, when Section 64 (2) (d) of the newly overhauled Education Act directed school boards to “develop and implement educational programs for students with special needs within regular instructional settings with their peers in age, in accordance with the regulations and the Minister’s policies and guidelines.”
That change in the Education Act came five years after the Department of Education announced to school boards that what it called “integration” of students with special needs was now policy. The issue, according to the policy statement signed by the Conservative Education Minister of the day, was not whether to integrate, but how to provide the support needed to make it successful. And the 1991 policy was not an educational fad – it was the result of interpretations arising from Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Enter the elephant
My partner Wendy and I were among a group of parents and supporters who lobbied for the policy to be put into law. Our advocacy arose from the fact that our son Sam, now 31, has Down’s syndrome. We have been involved with the issue off and on ever since Sam started school in 1991. Since he graduated from Dartmouth High in 2005 we’ve focused on issues of employment and housing while observing from afar the discussion of inclusion contained in a series of reports – the Farmer report in 2007, Levin in 2011 and Freeman in 2014. The latter two reports in particular were worthy of critical comment, but it has taken the discourse on inclusion that has surrounded the dispute between teachers and the Liberals for me to re-engage on a subject.
I actually started to feel uneasy a few months ago when the CBC presented the opinion of a Cape Breton teacher as news. This teacher, Sally Capstick went on Information Morning Cape Breton to expose the Elephant in the Room (EITR), the thing that no one was talking about during the 18-month impasse between teachers and the McNeil government. The resident pachyderm? Inclusion, which according to Sally Capstick no one wants to label as a problem but had “gotten to a point that the diversity in the classroom is unbelievable.”
Calling something off limits for discussion – even when it isn’t – seems to light a fire under certain media types. Commentators like the CBC’s Chris Lydon and the Chronicle-Herald’s Gail Lethbridge picked up the EITR metaphor, and Sally Capstick’s pronouncement even spread to Toronto, providing grist for a private radio station’s phone-in show.
A couple weeks ago, during one of the all-night marathons at the legislature, Resources Minister Zach Churchill praised Premier Stephen McNeil (who had already praised himself on TV) for including a Commission on Inclusion as part of Bill 75. Although the commission idea appears to be a sop to the teachers’ union, Churchill described the move as “a government having the courage to take on the big elephant in the room that no one’s wanted to talk about, and that’s inclusion.” A few days later, local CBC radio – which seems to be pre-occupied with the subject – devoted its Sunday Maritime Connection phone-in to the question: “Is Inclusion Working in Maritime Classrooms?”
All of this talk undermines the aptness of the metaphor- how many times can a subject be called the Elephant in the Room before, by definition, it stops being that? But more seriously, it must also be a source of distress for students with special needs and their families. The urban dictionary defines EITR as “a very large issue that everyone is acutely aware of but nobody wants to talk about.” It can’t be reassuring for students with special needs or their advocates to hear that their inclusion in the classroom is creating a very large issue, or as Minister Churchill would have it, “a big elephant.” As for the notion that no one talks about it, the number of government reports on the subject puts the lie to that. Perhaps what nobody really wants to talk about is a desire to turn the clock back to those days before the 1990s when students with special needs were excluded from their neighbourhood schools.
Many other issues
Some of the media coverage of Bill 75 played to the growing negative depiction of inclusion. When teachers appeared before the Law Amendments committee to speak against the legislation they told some disturbing tales. The Canadian Press reported the testimony of one teacher who spoke of children masturbating in her class and another teacher who said classrooms are “regularly experiencing evacuations due to outbreaks of violence.” CBC reported on teachers being punched, kicked and verbally abused.
I think the coverage was slanted toward the sensational. Thanks to live streaming by the CBC I was able to eavesdrop in snowbound comfort from home to some of the testimony before law amendments. During the time spent observing (off-and-on for three hours) I heard lots of concerns about classroom conditions – overcrowding, lack of textbooks and resources of all kinds – and a whole lot about the Liberals’ jackboot approach to collective bargaining. As well, teachers cited increased societal and mental health problems among students, inadequate discipline and attendance policies, a perceived no-fail policy, constant assessment and reporting, increased course adaptations and a significant growth in the number of students on Individual Program Plans (IPPs). When they did talk about inclusion it was to lament the lack of supports for its implementation.
Leo McKay a high school English teacher and award-winning novelist did not appear before law amendments. Instead he posted on Facebook a summary of eleven ways in which his job has become harder. Although he didn’t say it, most of the factors he cited result from Department initiatives. His list includes less preparation time, increased marking due to the semester system, constant assessment of student progress, lax attendance policy and the instant electronic posting of grades, often leading to instant email exchanges with parents. The only one of the 11 factors that can be attributed directly to inclusion is the increase in IPPs, of which McKay writes:
“ An IPP is essentially a separate, individualized curriculum targeted and delivered solely to a single student who attends a regular classroom. IPPs are good. I support the use of IPPs. In general, IPPs enhance the classroom experience for all children. But the number of students on IPPs has been increasing and the resources for effectively teaching those students have not kept up. “
Mike Ouellette, the principal at Kings County Academy in Kentville, also provided important perspective when he presented to Law Amendments. “There is a lack of resources both in our system and outside our system,” he said. “Education is underfunded, the health-care system is underfunded. We have kids who are in desperate need of mental health support, guidance counselling and school psychologists.” Shauna Dosman, a teacher at Halifax West, contributed a piece to the on-line Local Xpress decrying student attitudes.
“The students of today are so different from the ones I taught when I started teaching in 1995. These students have grown up in a society built around instant gratification and an education system that refuses to allow them to fail. If they can’t reach the outcomes, we adjust the outcomes to meet their needs instead….Instead of holding students accountable for things such as attendance and deadlines, the accountability has shifted to the teacher instead. This new species of students is being taught that the efforts of the adults in their lives is more important than their own effort, and that is a very slippery slope.”
Conservative Pat Dunn, while debating Bill 75 in the legislature, took a similar tack.
“I did have the opportunity for a lot of years to look after discipline in junior and senior high schools. I can recall back a number of years ago being responsible for discipline in a Grades 7, 8, and 9 junior high school and the difference between the discipline and the respect in that school at that time and what I see today are sometimes night and day. I don’t blame it on any one particular thing. I think the erosion in society that has occurred, family issues, family problems, family breakups, and so on, there’s all kinds of different things that have caused an erosion of discipline and what is expected of students that are at our schools.”
“What’s the Matter with Kids Today” is a refrain that likely predates even the 1960s film and musical, Bye Bye Birdie. You don’t have to take such a harsh view of today’s students to acknowledge that the clash between the government and the teachers has lifted the lid on a whole panoply of problems with public education – both in the classroom and outside of it. The worrying part is that with all of those issues exposed, only the policy of inclusion is being singled out for in-depth examination. Is it paranoid to think that students with mental, physical and behavioural challenges are being scapegoated?
In Part 2, later this week (time permitting) I’ll have more on the rocky history of inclusion and where the policy may be headed.
VERBATIM: SOME HIGHS AND LOWS OF DEBATE ON BILL 75
The phoney emergency declared for passage of bill 75 led to several around-the-clock sittings and many long speeches by members at all hours of the day and night. Because the Liberals did not actually participate to defend the bill, it was mainly an all-opposition event.
The Conservatives, unlike the NDP, would not commit to offering teachers a better wage package or new class size caps. So they went all in for cracking down on slackers and troublemakers. Their Bill 76 would require that students “meet all expected learning outcomes appropriate to the student’s grade level and meet acceptable behaviour standards in order to graduate.” Their Bill 77 would force school boards to adopt “a comprehensive discipline policy for enforcement by principals and teachers.”
As if to emphasize the need for tougher standards, many Conservative speeches and questions painted dire pictures of conditions in Nova Scotia classrooms, like these, from the pages of Hansard, by Kings North’s John Lohr and Pictou’s Pat Dunn .
JOHN LOHR: Mr. Speaker, the Premier has stated that he wants classrooms to return to normal. “Normal” equals textbooks from the 1990s. “Normal” equals parent volunteers fundraising to provide necessary items that should be provided by the system. “Normal” equals trying to teach coding with no training, using outdated technology with unreliable wi-fi. “Normal” equals teachers, students, and support staff being verbally abused repeatedly with no consequences to the offender. “Normal” equals evacuating the entire class to an alternate location because a student is throwing chairs. “Normal” equals teachers and support staff being hit, punched, spat upon, and bitten.
PAT DUNN: Teachers know what is wrong with the education system. Teachers are left to support all the learning needs and issues of approximately 30 students of various abilities in their classrooms without proper support. Mr. Speaker, in our classrooms today you will have four or five pockets of various intellectual abilities. You will have a lot of students on IPPs. You may be teaching a Grade 9 math class with 30 students in the class, and you may have 12 students on IPPs. Once upon a time, Mr. Speaker, you could have one IPP that would suit all 12 students who needed IPPs. Now you are not allowed to do that. You have to have an individual IPP for each individual student. This takes a tremendous amount of time. You also have to arrange meetings with a parent or parents for each one of those students twice within the school year.
And then there was Pictou’s Tim Houston with an account that is either the beginning of an urban legend or a description of a state of affairs that should have been remedied long ago.
TIM HOUSTON: I want to finish with a story that was shared to me by a teacher who told me, here’s what I have in my class. I have one student with ADHD who was medicated; one student with ADHD who was not medicated; one student suffering from undiagnosed ADHD and possibly anxiety and ODD; one student with high-functioning ASD; one student with ASD anxiety who violently attacked family members and had been declared suicidal by a psychologist; one student who repeated the previous grade but still was not making any significant academic gains; one student with severe hearing loss; five students not reading at the grade level; and eight students with documented adaptations… Now, she says, let me tell you what I did not have. I did not have any educational assistant time allotted to my classroom because somebody decided there were more challenging needs in the school and that the time that the school was allotted was already taken up, so they had no educational assistants in there.
Pat Dunn also spoke about the state of mental health among students, a theme that prompted Health Minister Leo Glavine to enter the debate, along with the NDP’s Lisa Roberts, both of whom addressed the impact of social media.
DUNN: Approximately 20 per cent of young people are suffering from some form of mental disorder across our country, and this probably translates to one to five students in the average classroom in our province. The mental health of students in schools is often overlooked, but it’s an extremely relevant issue for today’s educator. Many students arrive at school suffering from a mental disorder. Some students will come forward, sometimes despite stigma, and come to student services and request help.
LEO GLAVINE: …I would say that I’ve learned a lot as well, I guess, in sort of updating over the last couple of months, meeting with teacher leaders in Kings County, one in particular that I would mention tonight is Bev Roy who is now in her 35th year as a guidance counsellor, and she was able to track and present to me very clearly what she has seen emerge perhaps in the last decade and what a different world our teenagers, our adolescents in particular, are experiencing daily – a fast-paced, online, high-stress environment that many then will have those behavioural problems and disassociation that emerge and create challenges both in the formal setting of the classroom and within the school environment itself.
LISA ROBERTS: So often students are sleep starved because they’re going to sleep but waking up and checking their social media and seeing who commented last on their social media post, and not giving themselves the time that they need to take care of their own mental health. It is really important that we are learning and sharing information about how our collective mental health is affected by our technology at this point, and how we can ensure that students have the information and knowledge and skills and practices that they need in order to maintain their mental health.
Dunn and Roberts both called on the Department of Education to ease up on its initiatives, with Roberts, a former journalist, placing on her erstwhile media colleagues some of the responsibility for too much emphasis on assessment and oversight at the expense of teaching.
PAT DUNN: One pet peeve of mine, Mr. Speaker – the initiatives that are coming down from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development through the school boards to the schools each year. I think we should have a reduction in initiatives. In fact I would even support a freeze for a couple of years on initiatives and let teachers do what they want to do, and that is teach. I can recall the last few years as an administrator – a principal of a high school, Mr. Speaker – and arriving at school in the middle of August to prepare for the school opening in September and finding on my desk new initiatives, new programs, new things that have to be done, they are mandatory. They are passed on from the Department of Education and I’m saying to myself, imagine, my first meeting with my staff I’m going to have to tell them that this is mandatory, you have more responsibilities, you have more things to do in your classroom, things that are not really attached to the actual teaching of kids.
ROBERTS: I feel like journalists in Nova Scotia, along with many other people, sort of set us up to be searching for this Holy Grail of a score that shows that we’re doing well. I think we followed that Holy Grail down some incorrect paths and we’re seeing the consequences of that right now in Nova Scotia. You hear that from teachers. They have to participate in school improvement plans. The school improvement plans have to have metrics where they are demonstrating how they are trying to improve how their performance measures are improving year after year….According to the (budget) estimates, we will spend $4.5 million in 2016-17 at the department level for the Centre for Learning Excellence that has responsibilities related to performance management, school improvement planning, research and data analysis, leadership development. Then we spent just over $1 million on education innovation and another $2.7 million on innovative curriculum development. Then we spent $400,000-and some on communicating all of this and the budget of the Office of the Assistant Deputy Minister has gone up $500,000 over the last couple of years…So just those figures added up to more than $9 million. I just kind of guesstimated that that was 140 new teachers’ salaries, or 231 EAs’ salaries that we could invest in people actually working face-to-face with kids, doing what they are trained to do.
We actually have 9,000 experts in our system who are public school teachers. What they are constantly hearing from us, I think as a society and from the department as a whole, is what you are doing is not good enough, it has to be better, we have to be improving. I sort of feel it’s a little bit like holding doctors accountable for obesity stats. I mean there are social determinants of literacy, there are social determinants of how our kids are doing in our schools and it is not realistic.
The alleged “no fail” policy, which the government at first suggested was a myth, was a hot topic during question periods, which interrupted proceedings at various odd times. In the end, Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie and Independent Andrew Younger wrung from the government “proof” it’s a myth…400 students have allegedly repeated a grade.
JAMIE BAILLIE: Earlier this week the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development said that the no-fail policy is a myth. Well, it’s not a myth at the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board. Their policy manual says, “The AVRSB and the Department of Education believe that most students in grades P-6 and most middle level/junior high students (grades 6-9) benefit from being in class with their peers in age-appropriate settings. Retention, therefore, is a rare exception.” Does the Premier agree that no-fail has been a myth?
THE PREMIER: Mr.Speaker, yes.
BAILLIE: Well, Mr. Speaker, apparently the Premier doesn’t believe the manual of his own school board, the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board, where it’s pretty clear that it’s not a myth. But it’s not just there, Mr. Speaker. Lisa Wilson is a teacher at E.B. Chandler Junior High School in Amherst. She has written to us, and I’ll table the correspondence in a moment that she has three non-attenders for whom there is no accountability. Even though they have missed the majority of the year, they will most likely move on to Grade 9. She also has 16 very poor attenders who miss at least two days per week on average. Again, there is no accountability.Mr. Speaker, if no-fail is a myth, what does the Premier call passing students who don’t show up for school?
THE PREMIER: Again, I want to tell the honourable member that there was a directive sent out across the province to the school boards to notify them that there is no such thing as a no-fail policy. We rely on teachers, principals, and schools to ensure that kids who are not meeting expectations – they determine, based on their own professional judgment, whether or not that child moves forward or stays in that particular grade….
ANDREW YOUNGER:I certainly hope the Minister of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development saw some of the feed yesterday from Law Amendments Committee and has a better understanding that the primary reason that teachers rejected three offers, as we’ve heard repeatedly now, is really about classroom conditions. One of those issues that’s been raised a number of times is the no-fail policy, which the minister said yesterday doesn’t exist and the Premier just said doesn’t exist. Yet it appears repeatedly on the minister’s own website, as it turns out.The Freeman panel report on her website says a no-fail policy began in the 1990s and that, “Today, with few exceptions, Nova Scotian students are promoted with their peers.”
KAREN CASEY: We want to make sure that every student does their very best. We provide supports and services to make sure that they do. We never want a student to have to repeat. But there are times when they do.When that time comes, we value the professional judgment of the teacher, who works with the parent and the principal. Those are the three people who will determine whether a student needs more time at their grade level before they move on. We do everything we can and teachers do everything they can to make sure that the services and supports are there for that student so that they can achieve their very best. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, and students are asked to repeat a grade.
YOUNGER: In addition to that document on her website, there is also the 2010 report of the Minister’s Working Committee on Absenteeism and Classroom Climate. That report covers a lot of things including a no-fail policy. In fact, they recommend getting rid of the no-fail policy. The response from the minister of the day was to not get rid of it but instead to do a two-year trial getting rid of it, which expired in 2013, just before this member became minister. How is that not a no-fail policy when two documents on her own website say that, in fact, there is a no-fail policy and that there was a trial period with a fail policy which expired just before she became minister?
CASEY: As I’ve said, every teacher works very hard to make sure that every student reaches their full potential. When they do, they progress to the next level. If they don’t, then we want to make sure that that student has the adaptations that they need, if they need an IPP, if they go to resource. Teachers do everything possible to make sure that that student can be successful. Talking about a no-fail policy, we have over 400 students who we have recorded as having repeated a grade. There is no such thing as a no-fail policy.
If not a no-fail policy, perhaps the next thing to it? Casey did not specify whether the 400 repeaters were in a single year or over several. If in a single year, it would amount to 0.35% of students, not exactly a myth-busting figure.