Fall 2017 Our Voice – Teaching to DiversityOctober 8, 2017
The recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in favour of the BC Teacher’s Federation ruled that the Provincial government had illegally violated teachers’ collective bargaining rights in 2002. This resulted in the restoration of fifteen year old contracts. The actual contents of these contracts, including its provisions limiting class size and composition, were not a subject of the Court’s ruling.
The restoration of the old contract language is seen by many as an opportunity to improve the learning conditions of students through the hiring of more teachers and a reduction in class sizes. However, it has also brought concerns about the potential for unintended negative consequences, particularly for the most vulnerable students.In the majority of school districts, the restored contract language places limits not only on class size, but also on class composition – in other words, a cap on the number of children in each classroom who are designated as having “special needs.”
In some districts the old contracts limit students with low incidence designations – which includes Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – to two or even just one per class. Meanwhile, since 2002, the number of children diagnosed with autism each year has more than doubled, in part because the diagnostic criteria has changed from including only “low functioning autism,” to including all students on the vast spectrum of ability under the label “ASD.”
There are a number problems with limiting the children allowed in a classroom based on diagnostic labels. In many cases, these labels tell us virtually nothing about the abilities and support needs of individual students. To use autism as an example, an individual diagnosed with ASD can be fully able to communicate or non-verbal. They can have behavioural concerns or be docile. They can have sensory issues which can interfere with their ability to learn in a noisy setting, or they can thrive in a busy classroom. To place a blanket limit per class on students with a label of ASD is not only arbitrary and unfair, it isn’t particularly helpful.
The notion of class composition is discrimination based on disability. Placing classroom caps based on labels singles out particular students as “problems” and creates divisive “us and them” thinking which does not reflect our country’s values of inclusion, tolerance, and acceptance of differences. In 2017, we know that it is wrong to single out, label, and limit the number of children we allow in our classrooms based on any other individual characteristic – be it gender, race, religion, sexual orientation… many of which have explicitly excluded students in the not-too-distant past. Why do we still make an exception for students with physical or cognitive differences?
Human diversity, in all its many forms, is natural. It is the reality of today’s classrooms, as it is in our larger society. Each unique individual has their own personal strengths and skills to contribute, as well areas they find more challenging. No label can adequately describe who a child is, what they need to thrive, and what they can achieve.
This diversity is recognized in the concept of personalized learning, a cornerstone to British Columbia’s newly redesigned Kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12) education curriculum. As described in the B.C. Government’s curriculum overview:
“Personalized learning acknowledges that not all students learn successfully at the same rate, in the same learning environment, and in the same ways. It involves the provision of high-quality and engaging learning opportunities that meet the diverse needs of all students. Schools may provide flexible timing and pacing through a range of learning environments, with learning supports and services tailored to meet student needs.”
In the last fifteen years, a lot has changed in terms of special needs designations, and in how we approach education in general. Looking forward to how we can best support all students to achieve their full potential, we need to reframe the conversation and focus on teaching to diversity, and personalized learning based on the unique and diverse needs of all the children in the classroom. We need to look beyond limiting the number of particular types of students, to matching the needs of the whole class with the appropriate supports, and to adequately resourcing each classroom’s specific needs.
Education is a fundamental human right, and the right of each child, regardless of ability, to receive a full educational program in BC is enshrined in the School Act. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada (Moore v. British Columbia) affirmed the right of students with disabilities to receive the accommodations they need to equitably access public education, and acknowledged that such measures act as “the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia.”
BCCPAC has heard from many parents across the province whose children are not receiving the accommodations they need to equitably access public education. Many students who struggle in school, and fall further behind academically, can wait years for the educational assessments which are necessary to determine the best methods to support their learning. Other children, who have been identified as having “special needs,” are regularly missing many hours of school each week due to a lack of appropriate supports and services.
BCCPAC is committed to working with the Ministry of Education to ensure that every student in BC is able to equitably participate in public education, as is their human right, and that no student faces a reduction in services or is denied equitable access to an educational program due to the restored contract language or a lack of adequate and appropriate supports.