Special Education: A Series by Cathy Abraham Part 6December 15, 2011
reprinted from the June 2006 BCCPAC magazine ImPACt
Part 6: It’s Time to Question Services and Labelling in Special Education
One of the most fundamental problems parents face with special education is our reluctance to question how services operate and how dollars are spent. We fear that asking questions in this area will make it seem as if we are discriminating against our most vulnerable students.
Parents of students with special needs, like me, are sometimes afraid of the questions parents of “typical” students ask. None of us understands very well the complex legislation surrounding special education. As a result, we carry on from day to day and year to year quietly tolerating services over which we feel little control. We are vulnerable to the myths that abound about special education, and services that warrant close scrutiny are often delivered in a vacuum of accountability.
Parents are susceptible to believing that public questioning might include: “Can we afford inclusion?”, or “How can teachers cope with the increasing numbers of students with special needs?” Neither of these questions is constructive or reflective of the facts. Inclusion is here to stay, and the number of designated students has dropped slightly.
Currently we label 10.2% of our children as special needs, 10.1% as English as a Second Language, and 9.4% as Aboriginal. These labels bring additional dollars to school districts, some on the basis of actual students, others as a percentage of student enrolment. Still, there is an insatiable appetite for extending labelling to kids who have become known as “grey area” students, including those with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Attention Deficit Disorder, and those whom the school system is simply failing.
If we continue this labelling, we could find as many as 40% of students carrying a “special” label (assuming a percentage of these students might carry more than one label). Are the labels helpful in meeting their learning needs? Or, are we moving away from inclusive classrooms to ones in which an increasing number of children are seen as add-ons over and above the “typical” students?
Labels have been very successful in adding resources on top of the classroom, in contrast to basic funding that works within the classroom to meet the diverse needs of all learners. In 2003, the BC Teachers’ Federation surveyed 380 teachers on inclusion. Their report admits: “Over 40% of respondents in both Nanaimo and Coquitlam stated that they felt professionally unprepared to teach students with special needs … After many years of a provincial inclusionary policy, such perspectives are of concern. Inclusion is hardly newly-arrived, and the presence of students with exceptionalities in our schools is the norm. Yet, in spite of policy and the presence of students with exceptionalities over the years, many teachers say that they feel unprepared to teach to such diversity.”
The lack of training of classroom teachers contributes to the perception among both teachers and parents that some students are a “burden”, that resource teachers and aides should assume responsibility for their education, and that the responsibility of the teacher should extend only to those students in the center of the class. Students with labels are taking the hit for the busy-ness of teachers.
Parents can and should question the direction we are taking with labelling. Are labels helping us understand children, or are they a means to deal with overall changes to teachers’ roles? If we are serious about using labels to help students, we can and should query teacher expertise and ongoing training. These must keep pace with the identification of learning differences if we are really to put children first.
Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know. Our reluctance to tread into special education has permitted walls to go up around children. If we, as parents, don’t ask the hard questions, no one will.
Teaching in 2003: Survey Report–How Teachers in Coquitlam and Nanaimo View Special Education and ESL Services.