Inclusion Confusion – Part 2

As a teacher of English Language Arts in high school, by the time I meet my students, they’re at the tail-end of their mandatory schooling. I’ve encountered a number of students who are allowed special accommodations in the classroom and for exams due to the fact that they struggle with reading. In the previous post on this topic, I outlined that some of these students are even allowed to have reading comprehension tests read to them, either through a recorded audio version of the exam, or by an educational assistant who reads the exam to the student in person. I very much struggle with the validity of a test that’s meant to measure reading and comprehension that does not require a student to read the test on his own. In my experience, it seems that the incidence of students who are allowed such accommodations has increased, so I investigated whether or not there was a statistical record to support my suspicions. I found that, indeed, the number of students with exceptional needs seems to have increased, at least according to The Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta, published September 2014:

In addition to changes in policies and practices in inclusive education, the panel also reviewed data that revealed that the classroom itself has increased dramatically in complexity over the last number of years. Although exactitude is difficult, examining some of the available statistics supports anecdotal evidence that there are more students with exceptional needs in classrooms than ever before. Source: The Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta

Currently, the average number of students identified as having special educational needs across grade levels is reportedly 25 per cent:Inclusion StatsSource: The State of Inclusion in Alberta Schools

Having recently read Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse  and E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit, I think, at least in the English Language Arts classroom, this trend can be, in part, attributed to the following two factors:

  1. In Alberta, students are taught to read in Grade One through a balanced literacy approach, a methodology that is continued through the primary years as students build reading competency.

With respect to this first point, students do not receive sole and explicit phonics instruction when learning to read. In Alberta, a “balanced” approach is taken, which means that phonics is simply one of a number of reading “strategies,” including the memorization of high-frequency words and the use of picture cues, among others. In Progressively Worse, Robert Peal comprehensively tracks the history of what he calls The Reading Wars in the U.K., a history that parallels much of what has occurred in Alberta. After much research into the many factors powering the tug-of-war between the whole language and systematic phonics approaches to teaching reading, and after citing numerous studies into the effectiveness of both methodologies, Peal reasonably concludes that systematic phonics is the superior methodology and that “for the effects of the phonics method to be beneficial, it must be taught ‘first, fast, and only’” (Peal 169). This is not what’s happening in Alberta. Why does that matter to a high school English teacher whose students all know how to read, if not fully comprehend? Peal cites several significant studies that determined that the early advantage of having learned to read using phonics is compounded for these pupils (Peal 171), meaning that students who were taught to read using a systematic phonics program in their first year of school were, on average, three years ahead of their chronological age in reading by grade seven. Conversely, students who were taught using a “balanced” approach did not experience near the same gains.

Many proponents of balanced literacy argue that they DO teach using phonics, but as Peal’s investigation reveals, its benefits are subverted if this method is confused with other strategies, something that is absolutely happening in Alberta. What’s just as disheartening is that primary teachers in Alberta are not, by any reasonable measure, reading specialists. In fact, teachers are often given assignments in grade one, without having had any training in teaching reading at all. It’s no wonder that by the time I see these students in high school, many have been diagnosed with a learning disability that manifests as poor reading comprehension. What am I to do so late in the game?

  1. In Alberta, an outcome-based curriculum promotes a focus on vague competencies rather than on building broad knowledge.

This is an example of the broad program of studies for ELA K-9:

Program of Studies

Source: ELA Program of Studies K-9

With respect to this second point, over the years Alberta has moved increasingly toward a competency-based model of education. My opinion of this has evolved over the past couple of years, as I’ve now come to understand the harmful nature of this kind of system. In The Knowledge Deficit, E.D. Hirsch argues that a focus on core knowledge through the explicit teaching of content has come to be seen as a dictatorial approach that perpetuates the traditional hegemony of dead white men. The result, he asserts, is the adoption of an anti-intellectualism that posits that skills can be learned in the absence of knowledge. As it relates to reading comprehension, a task that becomes increasingly interpretive by the time I see students in high school, it becomes clear that domain-specific knowledge has been sacrificed in favour of extended projects and presentations that were meant to develop abstract skills – but didn’t. Hirsch reminds us that even “cognitive scientists agree that reading comprehension requires ‘domain-specific’ knowledge about the things that a text refers to, and that understanding the text consists of integrating this prior knowledge” (Hirsch 17). The problem is that Alberta students have been robbed, in many instances, of this prior knowledge because they’ve been encouraged to make posters describing their feelings about a book of their choosing rather than reading a classic piece of literature and writing a thoughtful exposition of its value. Hirsch demonstrates that “since relevant, domain-specific knowledge is an absolute requirement for reading comprehension, there is no way around the need for children to gain broad general knowledge in order to gain broad general proficiency in reading” (Hirsch 39). Again, the school system in Alberta is not providing common, broad, knowledge-based curricula; in fact, it’s increasingly moving away from this, and the results are damning – many students do not have the fundamental knowledge to succeed independently in school. By the time I see these students in high school, I simply don’t have the time to catch them up on what they’ve missed, despite my best efforts.

The solution to dealing with struggling students appears to have been more readily diagnosing learning disabilities rather than getting at the core of the problem, which is a flawed curriculum and an ideologically-driven methodology. No amount of support and assistance with reading and writing can replace the absence of foundational knowledge in grammar, mechanics, and great, challenging literature.

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Inclusion Confusion

I read this article on The Onion recently, and while it’s a great example of satire, I can tell you it’s actually not that far from the truth, and it’s what prompted me to write this post.

I’ve been nervous about writing this post for the past few months. I don’t know if there’s any way I can’t come off as insensitive. The truth is, I’m extremely sensitive to the issue of inclusive education; it’s just that I don’t think things are being managed properly here in Alberta.

For many students who are deemed to have special needs, the reality is that they’re simply average, a diagnosis that many parents today refuse to accept, and even find offensive, given that the last couple of generations have all been awarded ribbons in various competitions because everyone’s a winner. In the context of secondary education, this seems to mean that a 65% average just doesn’t cut it. I’m reminded of a recent Huffington Post article that might seem harsh, but that I find rather honest.

Of the almost 100 students I teach this semester, approximately 15 of them will receive some kind of accommodation when they write their diploma exams this January. These accommodations range from simply being allowed extra time, to actually having their English Language Arts comprehension test read to them. Yes. This is a legitimate accommodation for some students in Alberta.

I’m not sure how I feel about all of this. In the classroom, I find the management of students with special needs rather taxing. It often feels like a lot of busy work to prove that the school is doing something extra for the student, when, in fact, nothing of consequence is really being done. And when it is, it often feels like the teacher is the one making the extra effort, not the student in question. Then, there are parents who insist that their child is capable, and that he or she simply needs the right support to succeed. I am currently teaching a child for whom my school has invested tens of thousands of dollars, with little evidence of success. The forceful parent-advocates of this high-needs child have railroaded seemingly unlimited resources for the benefit of their one child. How is that possible? Because they care deeply about their child, they’re well-educated, they’re affluent, and they demand that something be done. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing – they want the best for their child – but their mission has siphoned resources and funds from other students, and from the school, in general.

And so it goes, it seems. In my experience at a high school populated by students of affluent families, when students are not achieving at an acceptable level, their parents often demand testing to identify learning or cognitive disabilities in their children. More often than not, schools pay for this testing. In another school at which I taught, one of a lower socio-economic demographic, parents were largely unaware that they could even request such testing. But in my current school, if a student is not achieving at the level his or her parents find acceptable, said parents will, without hesitation, demand that their child be tested, so that the child can be coded, so that accommodations can be made for his or her learning. I’ve even known the school to suggest that testing is not required, given that academic achievement is more of a behavioural issue, such as an apathetic attitude towards learning, a tendency to not complete assignments, or even an inconsistent attendance record. In those cases, parents pay the roughly $900 to get their child tested independently, and achieve the same goal, since almost every child who gets tested, is ascribed a “code,” even if it’s Code 54 – undiagnosed learning disability. For these students, pretty much any accommodation that parents request is granted, including the aforementioned “reader” for a reading comprehension test or “scribe” for an essay exam.

While I’m in favour of leveling the playing field for students who struggle academically, I’m seeing a bigger problem here. The Alberta Diploma Exams are rather rigorous achievement tests that are designed to assess students across the province on the programs of study in core subjects. While these exams have recently been minimized in value to 30% from their original 50% weighting, they’re still significant, and they play a major role in university and other post-secondary admissions. When students are provided with accommodations for these exams, this is not recorded on their transcripts. So if Student A writes her Physics 30 exam in the allotted three-hour time limit and Student B is allowed extra time and completes the same exam in six hours, no distinction is made anywhere on the reported results. Or if Student A completes the English 30-1 Part B (a reading comprehension test) in the allotted two-and-a-half hours on her own, with pencil and paper, while Student B is provided a reader, who reads the reading selections and questions to the student over the course of four hours, nowhere is this indicated on the transcript.

If Student A and B have different needs, this might seem like a reasonable scenario. I have a problem with it, particularly if a student can have a READING COMPREHENSION TEST READ TO HIM. I don’t see the sense in that. But beyond my aversion to this, in general, I see a more insidious issue at hand. In my experience at my current school, I’ve noticed that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And affluent parents can be pretty squeaky. What if involved parents, themselves educated and influential, were dictating edicts that would allow their sons and daughters extra time on exams, readers for exams, private spaces for exams, and a number of other accommodations? In my view, that’s already happening. Increasingly, students who appear to have no cognitive disabilities, and whose psychological evaluations indicate as much (code 54), are being given accommodations for exams. The process for applying for these accommodations has become easier over the years, and accommodations are often provided due to nothing more than the demands of a well-intentioned and determined parent.

I’m concerned that while this process of identifying and supporting students with special needs is undoubtedly motivated by benevolence, it’s being co-opted by those with the knowledge and power to make the system work in their favour, and by teachers and administration who are too willing to succumb to pressure. The whole system of “inclusive education” in Alberta is riddled with problems; as a diploma-level teacher of a core subject, this is just one of the pressing issues that I think needs to be addressed.