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Inclusion: The Nova Scotia Observer Commentary, Part 1

The following commentary is the first part of a Nova Scotia Observer commentary series, titled Inclusion.

Part 1: Shooing Out the Elephants

By Richard Starr

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 Connectionphone-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?

Richard Starr, a former journalist, civil servant, political hack and seventh generation Nova Scotian. He is devoting his retirement to family, volunteer activities and writing about subjects that interest him and, he hopes, others. His most recent book “Equal as Citizens: the tumultuous and troubled history of a great Canadian idea” is about the history of equalization and the fiscal transfer system in Canada and came out in 2014.

His wife, Wendy Lill, was an NDP MP from Dartmouth NS from 1997 to 2004. She was the NDP critic for culture, communications and the media industries. She also served as the party’s advocate for human rights, children and youth and, people living with disabilities.

Richard and Wendy’s oldest son Samuel has Down syndrome and both have been active as advocates.