Professional development a key aspect of improving inclusion

March 10, 2015

Part five of a seven-part series

On Sept. 10, 2014, the Alberta Teachers’ Association released the Report of the Blue ­Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta Schools.

The report outlines 38 recommendations arranged around seven themes. In this, the fifth instalment of a seven-part series, the ATA News outlines the recommendations that fall within the theme teacher ­professional growth.

Teacher professional growth

Teacher knowledge, skills and attributes are enhanced through ongoing professional learning.

Recommendation 28 — to school jurisdictions

Provide ongoing professional development during the school day to allow teachers to learn and share strategies to support inclusive practices.

Many teachers indicated that their hesitance regarding inclusion most often stemmed from feeling that they lacked the requisite professional knowledge, experience and support, rather than from a lack of support for inclusion itself. The research conducted supported the assumption that teachers need more specific professional development in this area. In 2007, 55 per cent of teachers were satisfied with the inservice they received related to working with students with special needs. By 2014, their level of satisfaction had dropped to 11 per cent. Many studies note that ongoing, thoughtfully planned professional development is key to the success of inclusion.

Recommendation 29 — to school jurisdictions

Recognize that teachers in their early years of practice may need additional or different professional development and supports as they transition through the induction phase of their career, and provide this professional development and related supports.

Teachers new to the profession expressed concern about their capacity to deal effectively with classes that are large and complex and about having sufficient strategies to work with children with exceptional needs, to create effective program plans and to provide specialized support.

Reducing the complexity of new teachers’ assignments would help them focus on their learning and on the development of important foundational skills. Providing professional development and mentorship tailored to the needs of teachers at the beginning of their careers would ensure that these teachers have the skills and confidence they need in order to work effectively with all students, including those with exceptional needs.

Recommendation 30 — to Alberta Education and school jurisdictions

Develop a provincial standard and provide funding so that schools have regular, adequate access to specialized district-based or regional teams, and school-based experts who provide specialized consultation, in-class support and support for planning effective programs.

In 2007, 67 per cent of Alberta teachers indicated that they had satisfactory access to specialized professional support in their school, such as a special education facilitator, learning team leader or consultant. That number dropped to 29 per cent in 2014. In addition, access to specialized professional supports (such as speech pathologists, psychologists or physiotherapists) dropped from 56 per cent to 16 per cent over the same period. Such supports were promised in Alberta Education’s Setting the Direction Framework, published in 2009.

Having these supports in place and ensuring timely access to them are critical to making inclusion work.

Submissions to the panel affirmed that many of these supports are not yet in place:

  • 16 per cent of respondents indicated that they had access to specialized professional support from outside the school;
  • 29 per cent indicated that they had satisfactory levels of specialized professional support available within their schools;
  • 15 per cent indicated that they had access to district-level inclusive education support personnel;
  • 14 per cent indicated that they had satisfactory access to specialized teams;
  • 11 per cent indicated that they had timely access to social workers;
  • 19 per cent indicated that they had the supports and resources they needed to create behaviour support plans, three per cent indicated that they had time allocated to create the plans, and six per cent indicated that they had time to implement the plans; and
  • 11 per cent indicated that they had the support and resources needed to plan effective transition strategies.

Recommendation 31 — to postsecondary institutions

Create preservice teacher education programs such that the expected outcome is that each graduate has a sound working knowledge of inclusion, with related practicum experience.

In a five-year study of teachers in their early years of practice, lack of preparation to support students with exceptional needs was cited as a frequent source of stress, particularly in creating individualized program plans and working with educational assistants.

Studies have shown that a sense of having received inadequate training leads to teachers reporting “significant feelings of inadequacy.” In research conducted by the panel, satisfaction with teacher preparation was quite low. Only eight per cent of teachers were satisfied with the preservice education they had received to meet the needs of students with diverse learning needs.

Recommendation 32 — to postsecondary institutions

Ensure that preservice teacher education programs are designed to allow undergraduate students to specialize in inclusive education.

Teachers with in-depth knowledge and background will always be important in the school system. Research has shown that teachers who feel confident about their level of expertise in inclusion also have a highly positive view of inclusion. Many Alberta institutions with preservice teacher education programs have cut programs that allow teachers to specialize in inclusion, especially at the undergraduate level, but these programs are critical to ­developing inclusive practices.

One researcher observed that “the provision of high-quality pre- and in-service professional development opportunities should become a priority for policy makers.”

Recommendation 33 — to Alberta Education

Create a provincial scholarship program to support coursework in master’s and doctoral studies focusing on inclusive education.

Inclusion in Alberta is at a critical stage, and ongoing research is required in order to continue to understand the factors that support and hinder the implementation of inclusive education across the province. Providing funding to support academic programs and research at Alberta institutions with preservice teacher education programs in the field of inclusive education will not only build capacity at universities for research but also allow educators to develop the expertise necessary to work effectively in their schools and school jurisdictions. Those who wish to develop specialized expertise should have the opportunity either to enrol in a master’s program or to access individual postsecondary courses to facilitate their professional development.

As noted by Waitoller and Artiles, opportunities for professional development are “a pathway for policy implementation considering that new educational reforms demand teachers and administrators to learn new skills and content and develop new predispositions.” A program like this would require targeted and specific additional funding, but such funding would be an excellent investment in the system.

Recommendation 34 — to the Alberta Teachers’ Association

Expand professional development and related supports for members in the area of inclusive education.

Continual professional development, which incorporates the principles of sound research and adult learning into professional practice, is a key factor in the change process for education and is an important part of the ATA’s service to its members.

“This belief is embedded in the 1935 Teaching Profession Act, which states in part, ‘The objects of the Association are to improve the teaching profession by organizing and supporting groups which tend to improve the knowledge and skills of teachers and by meetings, publications, research and other activities designed to maintain and improve the competence of teachers.’”

It is also imperative to include ongoing professional development as a cornerstone of any implementation plan. The ATA is a unique organization that offers supports through various program areas, and there is certainly room to enhance such services. The ATA ­offers face-to-face support to schools and school jurisdictions in the area of inclusive education practices through its workshop program. With the information gleaned from the panel research, new offerings should be developed by the ATA to support members in the field. One such workshop could assist schools in taking the time necessary to develop a vision for inclusive education and create ­effective inclusive education implementation plans.

In addition, there may be opportunities to add other structures to ensure that work on inclusion continues and that it is responsive to the needs of members. It is also important to ensure that these professional development opportunities are communicated to members. ❚

The Report of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta Schools is the product of an arm’s-length panel formed in May 2013 due to myriad concerns from teachers and administrators. Panel members represented a broad range of roles and perspectives within the education system. Based on face-to-face meetings and in-depth research, the panel concluded that a previously released framework to make schools more inclusive (Alberta Education’s Setting the Direction Framework, published in 2009) had not been effectively implemented.

The panel’s 38 recommendations are arranged around seven themes:

(1) shared vision,
(2) leadership,
(3) research and evidence,
(4) resources,
(5) teacher professional growth,
(6) time and
(7) community engagement.

Read the full report
Read the companion document
Read part one of the ATA News seven-part series
Read part two of the ATA News seven-part series
Read part three of the ATA News seven-part series
Read part four of the ATA News seven-part series