Spring and Special Education Changes

Spring is definitely here (for now :)) and things are jumping in the People for Education office. We’re working on the first draft of the 2012 Annual Report on Ontario’s Publicly Funded Schools; getting ready for Telling Tales Out of School, our annual gala, on June 3rd; and answering our toll-free Parent Support Line (1-888-534-3944).

The number one issue parents call about is Special Education. And there’s news on that front!

New information from the Ministry of Education sent to Ontario’s school boards in late December appears to indicate a sea change in special education policy.

More students may qualify for special education support
The Ministry explained that “all students with demonstrable learning based needs” including conditions such as ADD/ADHD, Tourette Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, are legally entitled to appropriate special education programs and services and may qualify to be identified as “exceptional.”

This comes as a surprise, because up to now it has often taken strenuous advocacy to get a child with something like ADD/ADHD identified as “exceptional” in the legal sense. But the memo appears to say that any medical condition that affects students’ ability to learn, may qualify a student to be identified as “exceptional.”

The change is important because students with that official designation have a legal right to receive special education programs and services. There are five types of exceptionality (Behaviour, Communication, Intellectual, Physical and Multiple) that qualify students for support. Until now, school boards used the lists of conditions in the Ministry of Education’s Special Education Guide to help them decide what kinds of conditions fit under those five general types.

But the Ministry now says the guide is meant to be “interpreted broadly,” is not intended to exclude any conditions, and that many medical conditions may qualify students as exceptional under the Education Act.

To find out more about this and other education news, visit our website at
www.peopleforeducation.ca

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What an amazing two days!

There was a lot of talk aboutPasi Sahlberg success at People for Education’s 15th annual conference on November 5th and 6th. And there was a lot of talk about Finland.

Pasi is a teacher, a researcher and an advisor to many governments, the World Bank and the OECD. Among the “Finnish facts” he shared with us:

  • In Finland there is no word for accountability and there are no standardized tests.
  • By the time kids graduate from basic education (our grade 10) approximately half of them have had some kind of special education support – but the Finnish definition of special education includes any form of extra support.
  • Finnish students and teachers spend fewer hours in class than students in any other OECD country.
  • The Finnish government recommends that students spend 33% of their weekly lesson hours on Arts and Health & Physical Education, compared to 27% on Math and Science.
  • Finnish students outperform students from nearly every other OECD country in math, language and science

Other highlights of the conference included the “face-off” between former education Ministers Janet Ecker and Gerard Kennedy, and NDP researcher Michael Polanyi. Just click here to watch it online. They talked a lot about the College of Teachers – so maybe that should be one of our topics for next year’s conference.

In the plenary panel, Ben Levin explained to us that there weren’t magical attributes that made a “good teacher” – but there are definitely skills involved in “good teaching.” He said that the danger inherent in talking about “good teachers” was that it implied good teaching was more about a type of personality and less about teaching skills. He also shared some great insights about our misguided love of innovation.

Journalist Rick Salutin and Edmonton education specialist Jim Gibbons debated the merits of specialty schools. Rick thought they undermined public education; Jim thought they were an important answer to parents’ desire for choice.

The new Minister of Education Laurel Broten, in one of her first speeches,  talked about how her experiences as a parent looking for speech language support for her child had helped her understand how important it is that all of our systems work together. She said, rightly, that parents don’t care which arm of government is delivering the service – they just want to have access to it when it’s needed. She also outlined new plans for children and youth mental health that will bring nurses into schools and make it easier to find support.

One of my favourite parts of the conference every year is when everyone in the room introduces him or herself. This year, there were parents, school council and PIC members, trustees, teachers, principals, academics, government officials and community members from Terrace Bay, Timmins, and Toronto; Windsor, Wasaga Beach, and Wallaceburg; Nepean, Newcastle and North Bay, and everywhere in between. Along with guest speakers from New Brunswick, Alberta and Finland, it was a pretty impressive roll call. Even the new Minister was impressed.

There was a debate about fundraising and a facilitated discussion about the role of PICs; attendees learned to make their own e-newsletters, navigate the special education system and understand the role of school trustees.

There are lots of pictures of Day 1, both the speakers, and the people.  And we are posting notes from all the sessions, on our website, as they come in.

Day 2 of the conference started with an early morning (too early!) meeting of the People for Education Network. The Network now includes representatives from school councils and PICs from 50 of our 72 school boards and representatives from community agencies. That meeting focussed on developing recommendations about school councils, based in part on People for Education’s recent report on school councils, Beyond Fundraising.    

After the Network meeting on Sunday, attendees buckled down and got to work. The questions: If you were in charge of the education system, how would you define success? And how would you measure it? With facilitation from TVOParents, participants broke into groups to begin the amazing (and hard) process of coming up with new goals for education that go beyond targets for test scores. They did that, then they settled on a list of “indicators” (things that could be used as indications that either the kids or the system was meeting the goals) that could be used. All the notes from the session will be posted soon but suffice it to say groups came up with a range of responses – everything from goals for happy kids, to indicators that include lower crime rates.

Dan Shaw was a great addition to Day 2. He “animated” all the work, and soon you’ll be able to access the video of the day and of Dan’s work. For now, you can see the pictures by clicking here.

And someday, I’ll tell the story of what happened when one network member ran over another network member’s foot in the parking lot.

If you were running the education system, how would you define success?

How would you define success for our education system? And once you’ve defined it, what would you choose to keep track of as the  “indicators” of success?

Those are the two overarching questions of People for Education’s 15th Annual Conference.

And this isn’t going to be one of those conferences where the “experts” just talk at you all day. This conference is interactive. It’s about conversations, solving problems together and, collectively, figuring out what we think the goals for education should be.

There are parents and others coming from Thunder Bay, Windsor, Flesherton, Parry Sound, Morrisburg, Ottawa, Terrace Bay, Toronto and everywhere in between. And there are speakers coming from Alberta, Ontario, New Brunswick, Boston and Finland!

Together we’re going to learn, come up with answers and share information.

Once again this year, we’re partnering with TVOParents to produce the conference – which means that more parents will have access to conference sessions, film clips and a live-streamed panel of experts who are going to help us figure out What Makes a Great Teacher. The teaching panel will be ably hosted by TVOParents’ Cheryl Jackson at 1:15 p.m. on Nov. 5th, and there will be a live Twitter feed! (#p4e2011)

Day 1 is going to start with the new Minister of Education, Laurel Broten. This is Ms. Broten’s very first speech as Minister of Education, but she brings with her lots of experience from her time as Minister of Children and Youth Services. It will be interesting to hear what her priorities are going to be in her new education file.

From Ontario, we’ll move to Finland. And we’ll have a conversation with Pasi Sahlberg, a very smart and very charming Finn who has spoken around the world on education. Pasi has a fascinating new book called Finnish Lessons – What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? (He’ll have books with him.) Pasi’s not going to make a speech. He’s going to talk with us instead – answering questions from me and from the audience. We’ll ask him what Ontario can learn from Finland and we’ll get him to give his answers to the overarching questions from the conference.

Day 2 is really an “unconference” and it  will be driven by the participants. Our goal by the end of the day is to have collectively answered the overarching questions. How we get there is up to the attendees.

There are a few things I love about the conference. I love it when everyone introduces themselves in the morning and we realize how far people have come and how many places are represented. I love the hands-on practical information that’s available and I love the philosophical conversations about education.

So I hope lots of you can come, and you can think about this: Our kids are doing pretty well in reading, writing and math, we have labour peace, the graduation rate is going up, and Ontario would come out close to the top if we were in an education competition with other provinces and territories. But is that enough?

See you on the 5th and 6th.

What can we learn from Finland?

Kids sitting at desks in classDiane Ravitch, an internationally recognized expert on education, has been expressing dismay about current education reforms in the United States. In this blog, she describes her trip to Finland and her amazement at how different Finnish educational goals are from American ones. Diane contrasts the guiding principles of the American education system: “competition, accountability, and choice,” with those of Finland: “equity, creativity, and prosperity.”

On November 5th at the People for Education Conference,  we’ll hear about Finland from the horse’s mouth (so to speak). Pasi Sahlberg will be at the conference to talk about why Finland is so different, and so successful. Pasi speaks around the world about education issues. He’s wonderfully articulate about what true success looks like, about the purpose of great education, and about how to lay the groundwork for good reform. He advises governments around the world (though it’s hard to believe right now that many are listening) and he’s currently helping the Alberta government “de-clutter” their K to 12 curriculum. We have a lot to learn from Finland, but we seem resistant.

Read Diane Ravitch’s blog. You can read Pasi Salhberg’s blog too. Come to the conference. Let’s see if we can change our collective thinking about education.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll probably want to check out my new space!            >> Our news and views
It’s shorter than a blog and updated several times a week.

Theme for our annual report: The measure of success – what really counts

Egerton Ryerson, the founder of Canada’s public education system, said that apple sectionseducation “is as necessary as the light; it should be as common as water, and as free as air.”

With that in mind, there are two worrying findings in this year’s annual report: First, we have narrowed our definition of success in education so that it’s focused almost exclusively on test results in literacy and math. And second, we’re not giving all students equal access to the educational supports they need, or to the enrichment that is a vital component of a well-rounded education.

This year, for the first time, we compared data from our surveys with data from the Ministry of Education’s School Information Finder. We found that in schools with a high proportion of students who live below the low income cut-off (approximately $30,000 for a family of four), students are more likely to be on special education waiting lists, less likely to be receiving appropriate special education supports and the schools raise, on average, less than half the fundraising amounts raised in schools with more well-off student populations.

Our schools have the potential to change children’s lives. But to do that, all students must have access to the right kinds of supports, a wide range of programs, including thriving school libraries, and all the enrichment in the arts, technology and athletics that schools now fundraise for.

If our definition of success in education goes beyond test scores, as it should, and instead includes a range of competencies that will prepare students to be successful, happy and contributing citizens, then it is time that we come up with a broader vision for education with bigger goals and a more concrete description of the kinds of programs, resources and supports that all students should have access to, no matter where they live, how rich or poor their families, or what their learning needs…

Something to think about as the provincial election approaches.

Have a great summer!

Click here to read the report.

To discuss issues in the annual report, click here.

We couldn’t do this work without help from all the principals and school councils who filled out our surveys this year. Thank you.

SPECIAL EDUCATION: MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS

Across Ontario and across the country, schools and Ministries of Education continue to debate the best ways to serve students with special needs.

Our research shows that across the province, the number of students on special education waiting lists has declined from a high of 48,000 in 2003/04, to a low of approximately 31,000 this year. But this still represents a huge number of children waiting to be assessed or to receive appropriate identification or support.

Because assessments must be conducted by a limited number of school board psychologists, many boards and schools report they must ration their assessments or only put those students in the highest need on waiting lists.

But there’s more to the debate than the number of students waiting for support. Recent Ministry of Education consultations (which are discussed in more detail in our newsletter) raised a number of other questions:

• How can the Ministry develop a method of funding special education that reflects the actual needs of students?

• How can and should the Ministry define and measure success in special education programs? Are EQAO tests a valid way to measure effectiveness?

• How can the Ministry and school boards ensure that all students who need special education support receive it in a timely and equitable fashion?

• How can the Ministry ensure consistency from board to board, so that parents and kids don’t have to go through multiple special education processes if they move?

All of these questions need answers. And they all feed into the biggest question of all:

How should we define success overall in our education system, and how can we ensure that all students in all boards have access to the broad range of programs,   curriculum and support they need to succeed, not only in school, but in their lives?

People for Education has information and resources about Special Education.

Join our special education group in our online community.