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Take Action: Letter to the Nova Scotia Minister of Education

The letter below was sent to the Nova Scotia Minister of Education by Cynthia Bruce, PhD, Acadia University School of Education on her concerns over the current state of education in Nova Scotia.

Dear Minister Churchill:

I am writing this afternoon as a blind university educator and disability activist to express to you how deeply disturbed I am by your government’s ongoing approach to “education reform” in this province. The Glaze report, which is only the latest education-related assault levied by your government, will lower the bar significantly with respect to protecting the fundamental right of all Nova Scotia children to an equal, and more importantly equitable, education in this province. Your government’s proclivity for creating chaos and uncertainty in the lives of educators and students, along with your indefensible decision to continually implement recommendations based on the analyses of “experts” who so clearly have a faulty understanding of the education system and its current challenges is utterly astounding. You falsely claim that our students are the poorest performing students in the country when the assessment data prove otherwise. You claim the college is necessary so that the union is not responsible for teacher discipline anymore when they never were in the first place. And perhaps most confounding is your continued determination to base your reform efforts on the failed initiatives of other jurisdictions in Canada, and on the education reform initiatives of the US system that has seen student assessment results trail ours as a result of their efforts.

This is a striking concern, even if you believe in the unequivocal value of standardized testing as a measure of student learning. If you have been attending to the significantly growing body of research that supports the claims of our teaching professionals who have continued to tell you that standardized tests simply measure a student’s ability to do well on that test on any given day, your move to implement the Glaze report becomes exponentially more troubling. Educators and community members have asked you time and time again to meaningfully address poverty because doing so would make a much greater impact than administrative reform on addressing the “achievement gap” that seems to distress you so deeply. They have been pleading for significant increases to classroom supports, but their daily realities indicate that you have done very little to help.

However,  I want to put all of these devastating realities aside and focus on what I see as an even more disturbing pattern emerging; one that has really crystalized for me as I watch the convergence of a number of current events. Your increasing focus on standardized testing as a measure of student success is evidence of another destructive strategy that your government seems to be employing with increasing regularity; and it directly threatens the already uncertain future of disability rights in this province. The strategy is one of division, and your dogged adherence to standardized testing demonstrates a desire to sort students into two basic hierarchical categories – those who fare well on these tests and those who do not. Those whose future economic contributions to this province are recognized and valued by way of academic achievement that conforms to your narrowly defined views of success, and those whose lack of success means they may contribute less or even require monetary and/or human support to lead meaningful lives. Those students who can learn and achieve in the “regular” classroom and those who need “special” approaches and teachers to learn the life skills they will need to be “independent”. This all lays the ground work for the re-segregation of disabled students, a move that has profoundly marginalizing and oppressive life-long effects, even though it appears supportive and compassionate because it is cloaked in the ableist language of enhanced and appropriate support for enabling independence and success.

This conclusion is not simply based on my reading of documents and news reports, it is based on a sequence of events that have involved life-long interactions with people and systems. In 2014, I wrote a public response to the Minister’s Review, a lengthy public opinion document that was riddled with the language of segregation. As one who came through the public education system as a blind learner and was successful largely because educators were trusted and supported to do their jobs and to view me as a learner rather than as a set of educational problems to be addressed, I was deeply concerned by the reappearance of this language in a department that was claiming to be in favour of inclusive education. The weakness of this claim became evident when I received a call from then Minister Casey’s office with a request to meet shortly after my piece was published, and that meeting left me in no doubt that segregation was the agenda. Importantly, this was all unfolding at the same time as your government was stripping funding from “consumer-led” disability organizations all across Nova Scotia and therefore reducing or eliminating the capacity of disabled individuals to have any meaningful voice in the decisions that so fundamentally affect our lives.

Minister Casey began this meeting by stating that she understood I had been an honours English student in high school – information she had because her EA  at the time had been my grade 12 English teacher. Once we confirmed that this was true, she asked me a simple but chilling question – “Do you really think you could have learned with those kids in the room”? Even though my unequivocal answer was “yes, of course I could”, her assault on inclusion continued; and it appeared as though she was attempting to enlist my support for segregation. We discussed the rights of disabled children to engage in meaningful learning within inclusive school communities, yet she continued to ask me, “But when is it all right to segregate”. I indicated that we have significant numbers of highly qualified inclusive education researchers and practitioners in Nova Scotia and that there was no need to continue to go to outside experts to make the kinds of changes necessary for the provision of effective inclusive schooling. That has clearly not happened – the inclusive education commission has two educators whose backgrounds and interests appear administratively oriented, and a developmental pediatrician who has significant medical expertise, but has no apparent lived experience of disability in schooling or grounding in the most current inclusive education research published by disabled inclusive educators and scholars. Never has the department thought it important to bring the voices of disabled students, teachers, and/or scholars into this most important discussion; and I am left with the clear impression that our disabled voices only matter if it is perceived our comments can be co-opted to this government’s destructive education agenda.

The crystalizing event, however, came when the government argued this week in front of a human rights tribunal that disabled individuals do not have the right to live in community with support; a stance that directly contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This confluence of events and government positions sends a very powerful message to disabled Nova Scotians – if you can be independent and employed so you can make an economic contribution to this province, we will offer education, housing, and employment supports. If you require support to live in community and cannot contribute to the economy through continued employment, we may not be willing to protect your basic human rights. Your rights are contingent, and we are the ones who will make the decision about the extent to which they will be recognized or protected. This is a fundamental assault on our rights and dignity, on our sense of belonging, and on our capacity to claim our rightful places as citizens of this province. Our ability to speak up has been diminished at every turn as you seek to defund the very organizations we were forced to establish to fight for those rights. Our humanity is devalued as you tell us we only belong in community contexts, learning or otherwise, if our needs are demonstrably below a certain threshold. Your government’s proposed education reforms solidify this constructed status as second class citizens by dividing students into those who can and those who cannot succeed. This approach to education fails, in the most fundamental ways, to create inclusive learning communities that are welcoming of all learners. In contrast, it further entrenches the insidiously ableist belief that no one will say but many repeatedly demonstrate through lack of action on important disability issues – certain lives are valued above others in this province!

Mr. Churchill, I am under no particular misconception that I will receive a response from you or be given an opportunity to speak with you and your staff about these grave concerns. In fact, your behaviour of late and that of your Premier has taught me exactly the opposite – you have no interest in actually listening to people who have dissenting opinions; especially if those perspectives threaten your agenda with respect to dismantling unions and cutting spending on public institutions. I do hope that I might hear back from some of your colleagues in the legislature so that we might have a meaningful discussion about the future of inclusive public education in this province – a system that will fundamentally value all learners who come to school rather than ranking and sorting them according to their perceived capacity to make a valued contribution to the economic health of this province. That is a terrible burden to carry, but I can assure you it is much more burdensome and demoralizing to be cast as the one who is neither valued nor welcomed in community because you are publically diminished by a government who sees and speaks of you as a financial burden.

I would welcome a meaningful conversation related to my concerns, and I look forward to your response.

– Cynthia Bruce, PhD, Acadia University School of Education