Special Education: A Series by Cathy Abraham Part 5December 14, 2011
reprinted from the February 2006 BCCPAC magazine ImPACt
Part 5: Human Rights Decision Puts Emphasis on Early Intervention
On December 21, 2005, the BC Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the Ministry of Education and the North Vancouver School District discriminated against Jeffrey Moore, a severely learning-disabled child, by failing to provide him with the education he needed.
The Tribunal ordered the Ministry and School District to compensate the Moores for a host of expenditures— costs of a specialized tutor, tuition to send Jeffrey to two independent schools for learning-disabled students, half of his transportation costs, costs for expert evidence at the hearing, and $10,000 for injury to his dignity, feelings, and self-respect.
In addition, the Tribunal ordered the Ministry and School District to make significant changes to the way they fund and deliver services to severely learning-disabled students. They must ensure that the services meet the goals of the School Act and Special Needs Student Order, and they must create early intervention programs for these students. (See the sidebar to the right for part of the order made against the Ministry.)
The Tribunal’s decision has major implications for every school district in BC. While we might assume the decision will result in dramatic increases in funding for special education, simply expending dollars will not guarantee better service. We can look instead to the Tribunal’s emphasis on early intervention for guidance on how to better address the needs of students with learning disabilities.
The Tribunal said: “If learning disabilities can be identified early, and appropriate supports provided, their severe negative consequences, which are both academic and social, can be mitigated.” It went on the say: “Early intervention is more economic and efficient, and it can avoid the … effect in which academic deficits are cumulative.”
Children who are not identified early are at risk for never catching up to their peers despite ongoing and costly intervention. The Tribunal noted that: “Teacher observation, checklists, and some simple testing may be enough for an experienced teacher to identify children at risk for reading difficulties.”
Some school districts have taken the lead in early identification; others wait too long before offering re-mediation to students in need. This increases costs and makes intervention far less effective.
University training for teachers often does not include training in learning disabilities. Resistance to teacher education in this area is well illustrated by a remark of Paul Shaker, Dean of Education at Simon Fraser University. He said (as quoted in the Vancouver Sun): “It would be too much to expect all teachers to understand every disability. We need to think about creating school settings where there is appropriate support for the generalist teacher and in terms of teams, instead of individuals, bearing this responsibility.”
Skaker’s opinion is in sharp contrast to Howard Eaton’s of UBC. Eaton thinks new teachers need increased course work. He said: “If we’re not doing a year-long course on learning disabilities … it’s sort of like a medical doctor going through (university) without taking courses on the human heart.”
It is obvious that consistency in training is desperately needed. It is also apparent that teachers currently in the classroom can lack the skills to identify and deal with learning problems. At present, there are no standards for continuing education of teachers despite a bylaw of the BC College of Teachers requiring the College Council to develop such standards. The Council seems to have little appetite for this requirement, and recently attempted to water down the bylaw. In the meantime, children bear the consequences of inconsistent or insufficient training.
If government is to respond to the decision of the Human Rights Tribunal in the Moore case, and make our education system more accountable for the success of every student, it will have to insist upon adequate teacher knowledge and skills. Adding more specialist staff, alongside a proliferation of teaching assistants, is only a band-aid solution to an underlying problem. Teachers need university training. They also need continuing education on current research-based best practices.
Parents of students who are quietly lagging behind in reading, whose concerns are shuffled aside while their children are in the primary grades, have every reason to insist that this problem be addressed head on. The Moore decision highlights the need for change. It is our responsibility to insist that the right changes be made.