By Marilyn Dolmage
I assist families whose advocacy for inclusive education involves huge struggle, as it once did for my family. I also work with school boards that want to stop segregation and promote effective inclusion.
In spite of all we know about pedagogy and rights, I think the greatest obstacle is still attitude: the too-prevalent sense that some students’ educations – and lives – just don’t matter as much as others’.
In 2008, Ontario’s Provincial Auditor challenged government: more money was spent on Special Education without proof that education was improving for many students. There were about 18,000 Ontario students whose education did not relate to the provincial curriculum at all. All of their IEP goals were called “Alternative” – life skills, therapy, compliance. The government’s response was merely to assess and standardize non-academic learning – not to ensure that more students learn academics.
When we aim higher for academic learning,
Let’s eliminate Alternative IEP expectations too.
• Life skills programming derived from the skills deemed necessary for people with disabilities to move out of institutions. We know better now.
• Focusing on skill-building can be at the expense of more important learning. We refused to have “putting on his coat” as an Alternative goal in our son Matthew’s IEP, because we knew how frustrated he would be and that he’d miss recess. Later in life, he lost related muscle power, but thankfully no one measured his worth by what self-help tasks he could do independently.
• Some IEPs say the student should “comply with all adult requests” – surely a very dangerous goal for vulnerable students. Thanks to our family advocacy, Matthew could say “no” and direct his own life.
• Some students cannot take what they learn in one place and apply it in another. So let’s advocate for families to get more support at home, where some skills are better taught.
• Because Alternative goals are often the same for all students with the same label, segregation persists.
• Going from a 3-piece to a 4-piece puzzle is a measurable -but not meaningful – goal.
• We must stop isolating and pressuring students, because it’s often the school that needs to change. Unmet IEP goals should be dropped. Instead, accommodations should improve. Students might not navigate school independently, but much more is achieved if they move from class to class with their classmates.
• Even where the gaps among classmates’ learning levels are great, students of all abilities can still engage in and benefit from classroom activities together. Please see Evidence of Effective High School Inclusion: Research, Resources and Inspiration at http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/memos/april2009/IAI_EDU_research_report.pdf
• Students gain literacy when learning materials and activities are interesting – i.e. listening to stories, not being drilled to recognize bathroom signs!
• In all grades, some students benefit from reading aloud and others need to be read to. This happens naturally, when the inclusion of students of all abilities is valued highly.
• Teachers feel more committed to their students when Alternative goals are dropped and the focus moves to academic curriculum. When IEPs list Communication goals, regular class teachers may dissociate themselves from students, thinking they are not speech therapists. But classroom teachers do know how to teach Literacy – relevant in all subjects, at both elementary and secondary levels.
• We cannot predict what students will learn, and our assumptions may prove wrong. So – as Anne Donnellan said in 1984 – educational decisions should be based on making the “Least Dangerous Assumptions”. So it is better to attempt academics unsuccessfully, than to never try at all. I remember the day Matthew signed to ask for a cookie, and then insisted that I stop to fingerspell it. He wanted to learn – more than he wanted that cookie. He read the package label and signed “Dad”. Some teachers and therapists still couldn’t see how much Matt loved literacy. Fortunately, others helped us imagine and obtain the technology he would later use to communicate.
• For anyone, for everyone – academic learning is key to a better future. We must try.
Inclusive education requires optimism – believing all students can learn and all teachers (and parents) can change attitudes.
All students should work towards the highest possible – individualized – academic and social learning goals. Teachers must commit to maximizing their learning.
Marilyn Dolmage is an Independent Consultant to families, school boards and community agencies based in Toronto, Ontario. Marilyn assists schools and families to work together to improve education for students of all abilities. She communicates with a broad network across Ontario concerning the law, provincial policies, educational practices, research and advocacy strategies. She has led a series of projects for The Ontario Coalition for Inclusive Education since 1995.