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Inclusion: The Nova Scotia Observer Commentary, Part 2

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

Part 2: A bumpy road gets even rougher

By Richard Starr

Gordon Porter, this country’s guru of inclusive education, is fond of saying that it’s a simple idea. “It means kids go to their neighbourhood schools with kids their own age in regular classes.” But for such a simple concept, inclusive education – I’ll call it fuller[1]inclusion – has had a very complicated history in this province. And its future could become even more difficult.

I first became actively engaged with the issue in 1991 when our son started school but became aware of the movement before that. We had been living in New Brunswick in 1986 when the Conservative government of Richard Hatfield made a bold move, and one that was inspiring to parents of a young son with Downs syndrome. With the urging of Gordon Porter and advocates for the mentally challenged, the New Brunswick legislature amended the Education Act to provide access to public education to all students and to mandate placement of “exceptional”- aka “special needs” students into regular classrooms.

The Conservatives governing Nova Scotia at the time showed no immediate interest in keeping up with their Red Tory neighbours to the northwest. In 1967 Nova Scotia had been one of the first jurisdictions in North America to require that all children be given an education. But 20 years on the province was no longer in the vanguard. It took a court case to start the process of extending that access to the regular classroom.

The 1986 Elwood case, argued by Dalhousie law professor Wayne MacKay, was settled out of court after Justice Constance Glube granted an injunction against the Halifax County-Bedford school board, thus mandating that Luke Elwood could remain in his regular class at Atlantic View School. That case, based on what was then an almost brand new provision of the Charter of Rights, had an immediate effect in some classrooms and led directly to the 1991 provincial policy on “integration” now known as inclusion.[2]

That policy on integration came into effect the same year our son Sam entered a regular primary class at Hawthorne school where there was a teacher’s assistant (TA) to help out. His situation was not groundbreaking, but it was nevertheless exceptional. Although there were a few instances of students with physical or mental challenges in the regular classroom prior to Luke Elwood and the new provincial policy, the period between 1967 and 1991 had witnessed the growth of a special education system emphasizing segregated classes.

Resources Inadequate

An all-party committee of the legislature had reported in 1991 after extensive consultations that special education resources and teaching methodologies were not meeting students needs. Nevertheless, the largely segregated system was substantial.

A spreadsheet prepared at the time by the Department of Education is instructive. It shows that in 1991-92 there were 224 “special class teachers” working for the 22 school boards in existence at the time. Over half taught “mentally handicapped” students at all levels. Another 28 taught “multiply handicapped” students, 19 taught “learning disabled” students. The three school boards in Halifax county even had teachers assigned to elementary and junior high students with behaviour disorders – 13 classes in all.

The same spreadsheet showed that in 1992-93 the number of special class teachers dropped by 30%, but there were significant increases in other staff – resource teachers, integration support teachers and educational assessors, leading to an overall increase of 10% in professional staff. Para-professionals – primarily TAs – also increased, from 542 to 706 – 30% in a single year.

This statistical snapshot from the early 1990s helps to illustrate two large bumps on the runway just as inclusion was taking off. First, inclusion was being superimposed on an already existing system. Such a regime would naturally have its supporters and vested interests. And a bigger bump is revealed when the year-to-year staffing requirements are compared. Those comparisons suggested inclusion required more staff and would therefore be more costly – at a time when the provincial government was reining in spending.

Telling school boards to carry out a policy that may be more costly while restraining spending is never popular. But there was an additional wrinkle with special education funding. To encourage boards to improve services, the province had introduced a targeted special education grant, based on some notion of service ratios. The grant, introduced in 1981, never kept pace with amounts boards were actually spending on special education.

When their overall grants started to stagnate or drop (as they did in the early 1990s) it was not illogical for boards to cut special education to bring services more in line with the service ratios – such as resource teacher/student or TA/student – actually covered by the grant. My first experience of parental advocacy was in 1992, in front of the Dartmouth school board, arguing against cuts to TAs – cuts that the board justified by saying it was already spending more on special education than was covered by the grant.

SEIRC  abandoned

So right from the beginning there were claims that inclusion was under-funded, and that did not change even when the policy became part of an amended Education Act in 1996. Indeed, the Department of Education’s Special Education Implementation Review Committee (SEIRC) reported in 2001 that an immediate injection of $20 million was required to improve services and staffing levels. Some of the issues identified for action were still being talked about last week in the context of Bill 75 – more prep time for teachers, class size guidelines and support for emotionally/behaviourally challenged students.

Instead of an “immediate injection” of $20 million, the Conservative government of the day waited a year before announcing an expenditure of $17 million over three years. Worse, about one-third of that injection went for an initiative that was not even among the 34 SEIRC recommendations – pilot projects to introduce “a range and continuum of services.” Over time, the pilot projects evolved into “learning centers” or “congregated settings” separate from the regular classroom in most schools.

If anyone ever compiles a definitive history of the rise and decline of fuller inclusion in Nova Scotia schools she would probably identify as pivotal the year and a bit – June 2001 to September 2002 – that passed between release of the SEIRC report and the Conservative government response. SEIRC had laid out a model for inclusion based on providing professional and para-professional support to enable the regular classroom teacher to teach all the kids in the class including – most of the time anyway – those with special needs. The key recommendation was to hire over 330 resource teachers to provide the support classroom teachers needed to make inclusion work. Instead, the government of the day seemed to opt for only a few more professionals, usually working out of learning centres, and more para-professionals, usually TAs assigned to individual students.

Placement and Leadership Issues

This retreat from the regular classroom setting was also in response to a third bump in the road – not all parents and educators believed that the regular classroom was the best setting for all students with special needs. Doubts about the goal of fuller inclusion were initially expressed on behalf of students diagnosed with a Learning Disability (LD) or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD). In the pre-1991 period, they would likely have been in one of the classrooms for “learning disabled.” Some advocates for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) also questioned the goal of full inclusion.

The move to congregated settings was too little too late for some parents who lobbied successfully for the Tuition Support Program. Through that program qualified students with LD, AD/HD or ASD are subsidized to attend one of three designated special education private schools on four campuses – two in Dartmouth and one each in Wolfville and Truro. (Disclosure – my son Joe teaches in one of the designated schools) The Tuition Support Program, introduced in 2004 and renewed in 2009 following a review, not only moves special education of some students out of the regular classroom but out of the neighborhood school.

The fourth obstacle to fuller inclusion is a combination of all of the above and can be summed up as a lack of commitment and leadership to overcome obstacles. Provincial governments have paid lip service to inclusion but have not made either the political or fiscal commitment needed to bring it about. Some school boards – notably the now defunct King’s county board – have shown some initiative. But otherwise, leadership would have to come from principals and teachers, and the NSTU.

If the NSTU ever supported the goal of fuller inclusion, that support was contingent on a level of resources that was not forthcoming. In 2002 the NSTU formally withdrew its support for inclusion, citing the lack of resources. The union edged back onside in 2006 after negotiating more time for work on Individual Program Plans (IPPs), but by then fuller inclusion was not on its radar. According to the NSTU 2009 Position Paper on Inclusion “regular classroom placement may best serve” the needs of some students but “learning centres and other environments may be the most appropriate short and long-term placement options for some children.”

So, to recap. Over its 25-year history there has been a steady movement away from the simple idea that students with special needs should have the right to be educated in the neighbourhood school, in regular classrooms with students their own age. The question now is how whether the Liberals will re-commit to that goal, as laid out in policy and legislation or move further away from it.

Inclusion Commission

As we await the appointment of a three-member Commission on Inclusive Education under Bill 75, the portents are not encouraging. On a positive note, there is the first “whereas” clause of Bill 75, stating that “the Minister and the Union are committed to inclusive education and recognize that the current model of inclusive education needs improvement.” Amen to that.

But then the second clause goes on to say the job of the Commission will be “to reform inclusive education” and “identify creative and sustainable solutions to the challenges faced in delivering quality education for all students within an inclusive education model.” Wariness is recommended around the word “sustainable.” As we know too well by now, “sustainable” means affordable within the right-wing fiscal framework that has dominated for decades now and held back fulfillment of disability rights in the classroom and beyond. And the needs of students seem to be less important in Bill 75 than those of the deliverer, i.e. the teacher. That concern is made explicit in the penultimate part of the whereas – solutions should ensure that “teachers feel prepared and supported.”

The verbiage in Bill 75 is less a concern than the fact the Premier has said several times that the current model isn’t working. Whether he actually knows what the current model is questionable – each time he has made the declaration he has attributed it to teachers or to parents and teachers. Knowledge, or lack of it, about the model is not a trivial point. New Brunswick , while facing the same, or worse, resource problems as Nova Scotia, has continued to pursue the path towards fuller inclusion. (Not without a lot of flack from the media and parents of kids with AD/HD, LD and ASD- but that’s another story).

New Brunswick has even had two major inquiries into inclusion. One was in 2005-06, led by Wayne MacKay, the second, in 2011-12 was led by Gordon Porter. After nearly 30 years of pursuing inclusion, the system Porter described would hardly be considered a tidy model. The review found a wide variety of practices across the system. For example, thousands of students were enrolled in small alternative settings and resource teachers and TAs were performing in a variety of roles. Does Premier McNeil possess some detailed overview that enables him to pass judgment on the inclusion model in Nova Scotia? Doubtful.

Nova Scotia’s Inclusion Commission has been given until June 30 to come up with an interim report and recommendations for reform, to be followed by a final report about a year from now. If New Brunswick’s recent experience is anything to go by, it’s unlikely the narrow timeframe will allow the commission to understand the true shape of the model it is being asked to reform. The two most recent reviews touching on inclusion will be of little help. Neither the Levin report of 2011 nor the Freeman report of 2014 did the kind of detailed on-site research carried out in New Brunswick. Levin is now a footnote, but the report of the Freeman panel still has some currency in the education debate so is worth considering.

Freeman flawed

The Freeman panel’s main research tools were surveys and consultation. The panel reported hearing from 19,000 people – about one third parents, one third students and the rest divided almost evenly between teachers and “community members.” What’s interesting is that the opinions of those surveyed and consulted were quite different from the recommendations of the Freeman report. The section in the report that deals with inclusion is pretty much fact free. But the consensus of opinion reported is one that has been heard consistently over the many months of education system strife, namely:

“…that current levels of funding and other resources are hindering the educational experience of all students in the system because the resources are not keeping pace with the growing needs of students.”

The panel’s recommendations ignored participants’ opinions about inadequate levels of funding and resources and inserted its own views. According to the panel, the inclusion model should be examined to ensure it is “sustainable within the broader resources of the government.” It should also be flexible and “supported for timely access to assessments and special programs and services.” And finally, schools and school boards should be helped to “create a range of learning environments for students with special needs, including congregated classes taught by highly qualified specialist teachers, where appropriate.”[3]

The direction in the Freeman report, presented without any supporting analysis, is clear. Lacking a significant increase in funding, system resources – in many cases TAs – employed to support students with special needs in the regular classroom would be diverted to more timely assessments and placement in congregated classes. The danger is that facing a deadline less than four months away for an interim report the commission may latch onto what’s already on the shelf from the Freeman panel, its dubious validity notwithstanding.

This approach would likely satisfy many parents and advocates for students with LD, AD/HD or ASD. It would respond to the NSTU’s calls for more “learning centres and other environments.” It would also mean more jobs for teachers. Increased employment of TAs instead of special education teachers has been an issue with the teachers union for many years. The SEIRC report, with its emphasis on professional support for the classroom teacher, tried to address that, but it was rebuffed by the government of the day.

Teachers’ frustration with that rejection was expressed in 2011 in the NSTU response to the Levin report. The document claimed that:

  • From 1993 to 2000 the number of professionals providing special education services rose by 1.9% while the number of TAs (represented by different unions I would add)  increased by 110.9%;
  • The 1:104 ratio of TAs to students recommended by SEIRC had dropped to 1:70.7 by 2011.

The response went on to say that “Students with special needs require a focus on their learning challenges with attention paid to their educational development; tasks appropriate for teachers, but outside the job description for teacher assistants.”

Wisdom needed

Teachers’ views on the balance between teachers and TAs  and its support for learning centres will be represented on the Commission on Inclusive Education. The NSTU gets to appoint “an expert in the field of inclusive education” as does the Minister of Education. The third member, an “independent chair” is to be jointly appointed by the other two parties. Given the NSTU’s restrictive views on inclusion and the government’s pre-occupation with “sustainability” the Commission will only have credibility if the third member is a strong advocate for students with special needs, their parents and supporters. Given the different   views at play, he or she will need the wisdom of Solomon. If Solomon is unavailable, Wayne MacKay would be an excellent choice. He knows the field and is a strong supporter of human rights.

But whoever ends up on the Commission should take a broad view of the purpose of inclusive education. Critics like our Premier say the model is not working, but they don’t define success. I am sure that like most everything inclusion  is working in some instances and not working in others. I look at my son Sam, the person whose extra chromosome triggered my involvement in this issue. I know that during the 13 years Sam was in school inclusion was working well some days, not so well others. That’s how we felt over the years and I suspect his teachers and TAs shared that. Good days and bad days, but over all it worked well for him. He has grown up to be part of the community, he holds down three part-time jobs and has an active social life. He is also continuing his education as an adult through the Dartmouth Learning Network.  In Sam’s case, education in his neighbourhood schools, in regular classrooms with his peers helped to produce a solid citizen with a continuing love of learning. Not a bad outcome for any student.

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.