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What Can Ministries of Education and School District Leaders Do to Improve Inclusive Education?

Dr. Lesley Eblie Trudel

This article was contributed by Dr. Lesley Trudel in response to Director of Inclusive Education Canada, Gordon Porter’s Feb 15th blog, Is It Inclusion – Or School Leadership – That Is Failing?

Inclusive classrooms do not fail students.  Dr. Gordon Porter is spot on, in his response to The Toronto Globe and Mail’s article Educating Grayson:  Are inclusive classrooms failing students? He emphasizes that although author Caroline Alphonso presents a balanced perspective from parents, academics, union officials and educational leaders regarding Grayson, a young boy in Ontario whose inclusive classroom she indicates is failing him, the critical involvement of education ministries and school district leadership to address this dilemma is missing.  Porter states: “For thirty years, families and teachers have been struggling to create and sustain inclusive education in Canadian schools.  During this time, Ministry of Education officials and local senior leaders in school districts have failed to implement the changes needed to properly support inclusive classrooms.”

Mea culpa:  In December 2018, I retired from my position as Assistant Superintendent of Student Services in a school district (division) in Manitoba.  For me, Porter’s words seemed harsh.  Perhaps they were meant to be.    All of this was hitting too close to home.  As I read his article, I asked myself, “What had I done to impact inclusion in my role as a senior leader in a school district? What more could have been done?  What was the impact of the education ministry in this equation? Did we independently and collectively provide the resources that schools and teachers required to support inclusion in the classroom to achieve success with all students?”   

Ministry officials and school division leaders are well aware of human rights requirements, court decisions, legislation and resulting policies.  Yet when we look at the Manitoba context, it begs the question as to whether this knowledge translates into rightful accommodations, or whether adequate resources and supports to the classroom simply become the dispensable luxuries that Porter referred to in the court decision involving  Moore vs. British Columbia (2012).  It begs the question to all in roles in education ministries or in school district leadership, whether our students have similar stories to that of Grayson and to what degree we are taking action to ensure that our school districts, schools and classrooms can include all students. 

Ministry officials and school district leaders in Manitoba had the fortunate opportunity to hear Dr. Porter speak at the annual conference of the Student Services Administrators Association of Manitoba, in December 2017.  The timing of this conference was indeed at a turning point given a massive overhaul of the provincial funding model for students with exceptional needs.  A year earlier, based on the unanimous recommendations of a task force of provincial educational organizations, Manitoba became one of the last provinces in Canada to shift from a student based categorical application process to a formula-based funding system.   This gave way to an occasion for education ministry officials and school division leaders to hear from a “fellow traveler further down the road”, on how best to support inclusion. Together we learned that the solution was not just a matter of adding more staff to schools, but rather it was about building capacity and culture to accommodate the diversity of all students and their learning needs.  It was about ensuring that the people we have in place can do their jobs effectively.   Porter reinforced that this task was a matter of leadership, and that systems thinking was essential to make inclusion a reality in schools and classrooms.  The take away for me from this conference, was that by strengthening schools as leaders we would ultimately strengthen inclusion.  This meant not only sustaining schools that valued inclusion, human rights, building community, and pursuing the most effective educational practices, but also accommodating for diversity in the long-term as a strategy to best prepare students for citizenship. 

The good news for Manitoba educators was that with the change to the formula-based funding model the time had come to explore how to more effectively bring supports and resources to the classroom.   Having been in educational leadership positions for many years, I was too familiar with conversations regarding which students were going to be supported by the province, based on applications detailing their categorical deficits.  The funding amounts designated by the province were often inadequate and frequently equated with the purchase of educational assistant time, whether or not this was the most appropriate strategy for support!  Additionally, students who did not qualify for funding based on decisions from the province simply could not get the help that they required without an extension of limited resources from the local school division. 

The new funding model allowed for much greater flexibility in terms of allocation of resources and triggered conversations about how appropriate supports in the classroom should look. In my role as a school division leader based on the changes made by the education ministry, I was now able to move beyond the previous categorical, deficit-based model to facilitate dialogue with schools and the division team on how to most effectively support teachers to meet the diverse needs of all students. 

Porter shared five strategies which ultimately aligned well with the new formula-based funding model and assisted in the forward-thinking dialogue about supporting inclusion.  First, he suggested reframing the idea of student deficits by shifting toward a system’s perspective of accommodating diversity.  On a go forward basis we asked ourselves:  How would the allocation of the school division’s resources allow for a continuum of responses to meet diverse student needs? 

Second, when considering funding and staffing, Porter advised considering a clearly defined ratio of support teachers, clinicians, or educational assistants, which would allow for collaboration and co-instruction in the classroom.  Our conversations with schools focused on identifying what this ratio would be, based on profiles of schools, grade bands and classrooms (although we were at the early stages in the development of data collection mechanisms). 

Third, based on classroom profiles and knowing our students well, Porter advocated for enhancement of teacher support and capacity building.  As a school division leader, this came to life through targeted professional development based on classroom and school composition, as well as more frequent and technological delivery of professional learning (in our case Web-Ex monthly sessions). 

Fourth, Porter discussed personalization of student support, essentially planning to accommodate individual and diverse needs.   How would we as a school district ensure that the knowledge base of teachers allowed for the most responsive instructional practices and skill sets to be in place to meet the composition of our schools and classrooms?  Were we budgeting for collaboration time and planning?  Were we ushering the most productive technologies and devices available to support a wide-variety of student learning? How could we increase the trust, reciprocity, cooperation, collective action and broader identity for students in our classrooms?    

Finally, Porter indicated the importance of fostering a culture of collaboration focused on identifying and solving problems – problems of the system rather than with the student.  We reviewed possible factors when faced with challenging dilemmas surrounding students in our schools.  Did we use the most effective instructional practices and support strategies?  How appropriate was the curriculum to the challenge we were facing?  Had we developed staff and system capacity?  Did we allocate adequate resources?  How did our policies and procedures impact each situation?  Essentially, we asked ourselves all of these questions with the intention of moving toward a more desirable range of practice in order to support inclusion. 

What can ministries of education and school district leadership do to improve inclusive education?  When I reflect on the education ministry’s change in funding model for Manitoba students with exceptional needs and the resulting shifts in philosophy that occurred in my former role as a school district leader, I am confident that the change in strategy made way for improved inclusive practice.  The new funding model afforded shifts in dialogue and facilitated the targeted allocation of resources and supports to classrooms based on school, grade level and student data.  More effective use of funds allowed for efficiencies within the system, which in my school district made funds available when required for more involved and challenging student scenarios.   It is my hope, that as a province, and as leaders in education, we can continue follow these examples to enhance inclusive practices in our schools and districts.  In so doing we will ultimately convey the commitment of quality public education, not only for some, but for all children. 

Lesley Eblie Trudel, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Winnipeg. She is a former school administrator in Manitoba and an Associate of Inclusive Education Canada.