Education is always a popular topic. Everyone has an opinion - singles, parents, politicians, lay people and experts.
School, teaching and the success of teaching are often discussed and are permanently on politicians’ radar screens.
The reason is simple; teaching is the instrument of societal adaptation. Young, unencumbered minds are shaped to fit into society. The goal is turning them into adults able to function within the perimeters of society.
And, because this is important, we all discuss education.
Of course, society wants to influence the content. What is being taught is important for the collective to keep functioning.
So, through the respective departments of education, a society determines the final product of the process.
Teachers and the education apparatus are, consequently, subject to intervention from government agencies when it comes to content. Societies change, technologies change, circumstances change. Every once in a while, there is a change in ideology within a society, and, naturally, the content of teaching will be modified.
It is common wisdom that education is the silver bullet for a society’s standard of living, but also the vehicle to adapt the young of a society.
Textbook content, for instance, is closely controlled and reflects changes in society, both technological or ideological.
History books are the usual example (Canadian textbooks, for instance, are now dedicating more space to the contribution of women in history, or consider the First Nations’ perspective, a significant change from just a few decades ago). But textbooks for mathematics, sciences, or languages, and, accordingly, the curriculum, have also undergone changes on account of new insights, new expectations, changes in the working world, new technology and other breakthroughs.
The format of education in school, the method of teaching, the way the “program” is delivered is usually not affected by any of the above changes.
School operates on a system of student advancement, and teachers, the agents of education, are professionals who have received the appropriate training, usually at an institution of higher learning.
The way things are done at school is, like in any other profession, based on a significant volume of experience, on scientific knowledge in a variety of fields - psychology, sociology, pedagogy and linguistics, to name a few.
In other words, school is operating in a way that has, until a few decades ago, delivered the desired product through professionals doing their job professionally.
Some four decades ago, a new notion, based on ideology more than science, gained a foothold and, eventually dominated our way of thinking in terms of the role and the interaction of individuals in our society: The notion that, despite certifiable differences, we are all more or less - emphasis on more - the same, not only in our ambitions and aspirations, but also in regard to individual potential and, to a significant degree, our biological potential.
To reflect this sameness it was considered humane to restructure our institutions. It was considered progressive to implement changes that would reflect our newfound equality.
In public schools, the drive for equal treatment came from parents of students with, what we then called, physical or mental handicaps.
The technical term for the process of integrating the kids into the school, not to segregate them from their peers (a very noble and progressive step), was “mainstreaming.”
We have since changed our views of people with handicaps, and found that they are, indeed, not so different from the rest of us.
In the education system, in particular, it was a seminal undertaking.
Previously, the intervention concerned the content (and did not affect the delivery); this time it was different. There was content change, of course, (our views on kids with special needs) but the remedy lay in the change of format; to integrate these children, schools had to change the delivery system.
Initially, this was not such a big deal and everyone loved it. The handicapped children and their parents were no longer marginalized, governments saved money by closing schools for the handicapped and society felt good - rightfully so, because a stigma of inequality had been removed, and we were, once again, a happy community.
The alterations to accommodate the children in a regular classroom were minimal. A teacher’s aide would accompany the student to class. The curriculum was taught and technology, mostly, was used to facilitate the special needs of the student. Teachers and the class routines were not much affected and lesson structure was, at that point, still intact. Everyone was a winner.
But a precedent was established. The content change was effected through the format change, and schools responded. However, despite this success for handicapped children (and, of course, society’s conscience), it was still an intervention that was more format change, not a change in content, and that’s had a tremendous effect on the operation of public schools.
Since then, a host of “handicaps” in children have needed to be addressed, and solutions found.
As so often happens, a catchall was desired and creative wordsmithing was used to cast the net wider.
While we began with “handicap,” a rather tangible category, we soon moved to “people with disabilities” to “people with challenges” to “people with special needs” (“special” ranging from body to mind to economic and social and ethnic provenance, to sexual orientation, religious creed and political convictions).
Then the issue became quite confusing, particularly when considering the remedies could not be the same for any two individuals covered under this single category.
Today, we’ve realized the number and variety of special needs children (and people) has increased manyfold.
Probing the various reasons for this increase is, at this point, not necessary. Suffice to say “special needs” today includes children with FASD, kids on the autistic spectrum, those with cognitive deficiencies, mental and physical “issues” and, probably the majority of special-needs kids in school, children with “behavioural issues.”
It is, to a degree, justified to state in many schools and in many classrooms across the country (and around the world) children with “special needs” represent a majority.
However, because mainstreaming was a format intervention, not one of content, all efforts to respond to the emergency - to get a handle on the situation - focused on the structure of schools and classrooms. Once authorities (education departments) vowed to take all comers, more time was spent changing the format of education to a point where the expected and projected results of education have become dubious.
The emphasis, by necessity, shifted from teaching content to accommodating each and every child in the classroom.
This result was predictable.
When too much time is spent on the format, on “sorting out” the various students and their needs and “adapting” the content to a spectrum of individual needs (and abilities), quality is usually the first victim.
To wit, 40 years ago instructors at teachers college would tell students the rule regarding classroom composition (as it is called today) was simple. On a student aptitude scale of 10 for any subject, the recommended maximum spread was three points anywhere on the scale. It meant children of similar dispositions were taught in one class; the level of homogeneity was rather high.
But as many of us may remember, 40 years ago school was a different place altogether.
Today there are, in almost all classes, spreads of six or seven points; in extreme cases, teachers report spreads of fully 10 points.
So, a 15-year-old Grade 10 English student could have a reading comprehension level equivalent to Grade 6.
The efforts to modify, to actually tinker even more with the format, have been fantastic.
Content and quality often fell by the wayside.
The education departments devised ever more sophisticated schemes to suggest content and quality could be met for all students in a classroom by proposing ever more convoluted schemes to keep mainstreaming as the preferred delivery format.
Ironically, while the percentage of special-needs students in schools is increasing, to the point of getting out of control, cost-saving initiatives are implemented, which exacerbate the situation in classrooms. These initiatives are garlanded with positive-sounding euphemisms.
“Inclusion,” for instance, is an attempt to reduce special programs, saving money by integrating high-need students into “regular” classrooms. (At this time, it is highly questionable to use the word “regular” in this context; there is nothing regular about most classrooms today.)
It is understandable why folks like the concept. It seems humane not to “differentiate” kids.
Finance ministers like saving lots of money. And teachers have been complicit in aggravating the situation by accepting the challenge, despite their professional knowledge there is no way this square peg (differentiated abilities, wide spectrum and the extremely high percentage of special-needs children) could be fit into the round hole of high academic achievement for all students.
Inventing ever more ways to make it work just adds to the confusion. Educators and education departments know this.
The plain truth is this: Using a single term for all students and people with “issues” (for lack of a better word) does not mean there need only be one remedy.
It is akin to calling everyone with a health issue “sick” and offering just one pill for each.
We do not provide health care in this manner, of course. We identify, specify and find the appropriate specialist and method to deal with a particular illness.
And this is expensive.
It remains a mystery why this insight has, so far, eluded the authorities. Education officials are not stupid.
Most have a solid training in matters regarding education, and many of them are trained teachers.
They must know what has been tried for decades now - operating schools with an increasing population of students with special needs while cutting expenses - does not produce the desired result.
Fancy words, created to imply progressive action, are just fancy words.
Quality education for all, just like health care, is expensive.
It is high time that we face up to it.
A one-for-all program is definitely no alternative. We know this for certain.
The time has come to recognize the long-tried version of one solution for all has been thoroughly discredited, professionally speaking, and we need to make the necessary changes.
That is, if we are sincerely concerned about the success of the kids, whatever their “circumstances” are.
Bernd Schmidt is an educator who lives in Whitehorse.