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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 4, January/February 2006

Grey-area students

by Beth Sparks, Ray Myrtle, and Siama Fewster

The focus of the October 2005 BCTF teachers’ strike was the decline in learning and working conditions due to class-composition and class-size issues. The ensuing public debate raised consciousness about the increasing number of students with diverse special needs in BC classrooms. It was apparent, however, that the term special needs was used by both parents and teachers as a general descriptor for students who are not meeting expectations. In contrast, the term special needs in ministry policies restricts identification to criteria in 12 designated special-needs categories. We argue that most of the children who parents and teachers worry about will be missed by limiting discussions to designated students with special needs. Most students not meeting expectations are non-designated grey-area students.

Inclusive education
Section 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains two basic equality rights particularly relevant to inclusive education. Every individual, therefore every child, in Canada is entitled to:

• the right to equal protection of the law; that is the right to equality of opportunity and equality of results.

• the right to equal benefit of the law; that is the right to unequal distribution of resources in the case of unequal need.

These fundamental charter rights are constitutional and as such, have primacy over all provincial or federal legislation. In addition to the charter, both federal and provincial Human Rights Codes, guarantee that an individual shall not be discriminated against. This means that all children have the right to educational equality. In the recent Jeffrey Moore case, the BC Human Rights Tribunal gave the BC Ministry of Education a year to ensure that funding for students with severe learning disabilities reflects the number of children who need help and to set up a system to make sure that school districts are delivering the services. In addition to legal rights, it is an economic necessity that all students have a successful educational experience in order to develop their potential and to contribute to a healthy society and a prosperous and sustainable economy.

The decision to provide an inclusive educational system to which all children are entitled is, however, not based on law or economics, but on values. What values do we have as Canadians? What kind of people are we? What kind of society do we want for ourselves and our children? Inclusion is a value system that holds that all students are entitled to equitable access to learning, achievement and the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of their education. Inclusive education honours diversity and focuses on supporting the gifts and needs of every student.

If as a society we believe in the value of inclusion we need to:

  • recognize the barriers that block access to appropriate educational experiences for some students.
  • provide the services that support equitable access to learning by all students.

In a typical BC classroom, there are students from varied socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, students whose first language is not English, and students with a variety of learning needs:

  • 10% of students are identified by the Ministry of Education as having special needs. There are 12 special-needs categories in which students are identified and designated (67% do not receive targeted funding for support service—learning disabled, moderate behaviour, gifted, and mild intellectual disability categories).
  • 20% of students do not fit within a designated special needs category but are, nevertheless, not meeting expectations. These "grey area" students include slower learners as well as those with diverse social, emotional, or other learning issues affecting performance, and students who have not yet been identified as having a special-needs designation.

There are 640,000 students in BC public schools and 128,000 of them are in the grey area. There are twice the numbers of grey-area students as designated students with special needs but with no official recognition these vulnerable students fall through the cracks. This is an unbearable personal loss, an incalculable societal loss, and an intolerable educational loss.

Teaching to diversity
The combination of diverse class composition and reduced levels of specialist teacher support is a major stress factor for classroom teachers. Almost 90% of classroom teachers report stress associated with grey-area students in their classes. A likely cause for this stress is the knowledge on the one hand, that grey-area students do not have neurological problems that give rise to life-long learning disabilities and can, therefore, be brought up to grade level with intensive, relatively short-term intervention; and the realization on the other hand, that such intervention is unlikely.

Learning assistance teachers (LAT) entered the BC education system 35 years ago to support grey-area students. As our schools became more inclusive, however, LAT caseloads became heavy with high-incidence students with special needs who do have serious, life-long neurological disabilities requiring long-term support. As a consequence, the unmet needs of this large group of grey-area students cause teachers stress.

The problem is not that we don’t know who the grey-area students are. One of every five children in Kindergarten are at-risk for literacy failure and we know from research that grey-area students fall farther behind as they progress through school. Intermediate teachers track grey-area students in the not-yet-meeting columns of Grade 4 and 7 FSAs. Grey-area students drop out of high schools and swell the ranks of welfare, social services programs, and prison systems. The problem is not that we don’t know how to prevent reading failure. Research identifies effective teaching methods. Additional, early, intensive, explicit teaching, in small groups for 40 minutes a day produces average percentile scores in most children.

Legislative and contractual changes to specialist support for inclusive education
The problem is a lack of political will to provide the services that support timely, equitable access to learning for grey-area students. Through legislative and contractual changes in 2002, school districts were no longer required to hire specialist support teachers. BCTF research in 2002–03 in Nanaimo and Coquitlam, reports the stress, concern, and disillusionment of specialist teachers. Naylor notes that specialist FTE was reduced while workloads increased. Specialists became generic resource personnel assigned to work outside their qualifications. Piecemeal careers became commonplace. For example, each week one of our colleagues with a Special Education Diploma teaches learning assistance for 1 1/2 days, life-skills resource for 2 days, ESL for 1 day in another school, and works as a cashier in a grocery store the other half-day a week. Another specialist remarked she would not stay in the role and "bear the brunt of trying to prop up an inclusionary education system that received only minimal specialist support."

The impact of legislative changes and contractual policies on the role of the specialist support teachers are considerable, Naylor emphasizes, and it should be of great concern to district and provincial policy-makers if such policy-makers have any interest in maintaining the province’s inclusionary policy.

Inclusion needs specialist-support teachers who understand the philosophy and practices of inclusion, so that they can directly teach students and support the work of classroom teachers, while also carrying out roles in assessment, collaborative planning, and communication with parents. Provincial government decisions that have a negative impact on the specialists’ ability to perform these roles mean that less inclusion will occur.

A framework for success
The diversity in our inclusive BC classrooms poses both challenges and opportunities for students, parents, teachers, and the community. It challenges us to examine what we do and how and why we do it. It provides an opportunity to provide a continuum of prevention and intervention strategies. To that end, we suggest the following five principles as a framework for success for all students:

  1. All students are entitled to effective classroom programs informed by current research and practice.
  2. All students are entitled to manageable class sizes to ensure they receive attention from the classroom teacher.
  3. All students not meeting learning expectations or outcomes are entitled to prompt assessment.
  4. All students not meeting learning expectations or outcomes are entitled to additional daily support that may include in-class, individual, or small-group remedial strategies, according to the specific needs of the students.
  5. All students not meeting learning expectations or outcomes are entitled to support directed by specialist teachers.

The teachers’ strike and the Ready recommendations confirmed that support for struggling students is inadequate, and the Human Rights Tribunal confirmed that although school districts can justify a lack of services because of extreme hardship, it is nevertheless illegal to deny services to people with disabilities as a way of saving money. The BC government set up a round table to discuss class size, class composition, and other issues related to learning conditions. We hope our words on grey-area students will contribute to the deliberations.

Beth Sparks, president, Learning Assistance Teachers’ Provincial Specialist Association, Ray Myrtle, president, Intermediate Teachers’ Provincial Specialist Association, and Saima Fewster, president, Special Education Teachers’ Provincial Specialist Association.

References available on request

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