UPDATE: This was published as an op ed piece in the Chronical Herald on May 19, 2011. Not quite the headline I was going for but we will take what we can get.
It's a good thing I'm not Ralph from The Honeymooners because I'm seriously tempted to threaten to send the Nova Scotia Department of Education "straight to the moon" at the moment.
First, the Department amends its Teacher Assistant Guidelines to eliminate any reference to supporting the teaching of students with special needs or providing "support for instructional program", leaving the only remaining job responsibilities of a TA as "personal care" and "safety/behaviour management support". If you don't have a child with special needs or aren't otherwise involved in the school system, that may not mean much to you. But if you do, it’s not hard to picture exactly what that bodes for the future.
Now, we learn that a review of the Province's public education system is calling for the Province to "consider reducing the number of teaching assistants in special education". Does anyone else see any connection here? Is this the beginning of the end of a proper education for our children?
The Province's newest Teacher Assistant Guidelines provide that "Teacher assistant support should be considered only when the student cannot perform prescribed outcomes independently, as determined by the program planning process" but I have to wonder how even those students will receive support when 1) supporting students who cannot meet prescribed outcomes (independently or not) is most definitely no longer part of a TA's job description and 2) the current recommendation is to cut back on the number of TAs when many would argue we don’t have enough to do the job now.
I find Mr. Levin’s concern about the number of students receiving special education services due to an increase in the "soft" areas of identification, like “students thought to have learning disabilities or behaviour problems” rather odd. If he had spent any time at all in Nova Scotia's schools he would know how difficult it is to obtain any special education services for such students. Students are not considered to have a learning disability simply because a parent or teacher thinks this may be so; services won’t be offered (if at all) until a student has been diagnosed by a qualified psychologist. And, given the wait times to be seen by a school psychologist, students can literally wait years for that type of assessment.
And although it’s great to hear that the number of students with physical disabilities is not increasing, that observation does nothing to address the needs of the numerous students in our schools who have honest-to-God documented mental challenges, those on the autistic spectrum and those with various learning disabilities, all of which have been documented by qualified professionals. Whatever the reason for these numbers, the Province is legally obligated to provide all students with an appropriate education.
And yet Mr. Levin argues that it is not clear that special education programs actually result in improved outcomes and that students placed in these programs continue to lag behind other students and sometimes the gap gets bigger rather than smaller.
I have to assume that hus consistent reference only to students with learning disabilities and behavioural problems/challenges is intentional, given Mr. Levin’s credentials as an educational professional. But I also have to wonder why he has so conveniently neglected to mention the needs of students with much more severe challenges. Because even though students with learning disabilities, when given the appropriate interventions, should eventually catch up to their chronological peers, how can we expect students who are mentally challenged to achieve this?
Yes, Mr. Levin, the gap for those students often does grow bigger every year and that’s heartbreaking to see. But I can assure you it would be a lot more heartbreaking, for all of us, to see where these kids would end up without special education services. We set individualized goals for these students, based on their strengths and needs, and change these goals, always upping the ante, as they progress. My daughter will never catch up to her chronological peers but her numerous teachers, her doctors and her family can all attest to the amazing growth we’ve seen in all areas over the years, growth that would not have occurred had she languished in an age-appropriate classroom without “special education” services.
An editorial the day following the release of the report argued that Mr. Levin did not propose taking teaching assistants away from “children with autism or cerebral palsy or a host of other physical or mental challenges”. Indeed he didn’t; he simply neglected to mention those children at all.
Paul Bennett, in an opinion piece published today, argued that Mr. Levin favours “targeted funding to help more students succeed, especially those with special needs” and abolishing “student failure” through improved instruction and special needs support – it’s funny how I have reread the report repeatedly and yet fail to see any reference to targeted funding for students with special needs.
Instead, Mr. Levin appears to be calling for significantly lower rates of “special education placement”, period, leaving me to wonder what, exactly, he would propose to do with those students with a host of physical and mental challenges. Unfortunately, closing our eyes and ignoring the needs of the most vulnerable won‘t make them go away. It will only increase the lifelong challenges they face.
In December, 2010, the Province recognized that “[w]e are at a crossroads and it is more important than ever that we take the steps necessary to manage our school system in a way that matches the number and needs of the students it serves …”. I couldn’t agree more. We most definitely do need an informed discussion on these topics, but preferably one where students with special needs aren’t scapegoated for the majority of the problems in the Province’s educational system, as they so often are.