Report lays groundwork for improved inclusion

October 21, 2014

ERIN SOLANO

Part one of a seven-part series

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

The report 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
(7) Community engagement

In this, the first of a seven-part series, the ATA News outlines the recommendations that fall within the first of these seven themes.

Shared vision

Stakeholders share an understanding of and commitment to the intended outcomes.

Recommendation 1 — To Alberta Education

Establish a provincial stakeholder advisory committee of education partners to develop a provincial implementation plan, guide provincial implementation activities and meet regularly to reflect on evidence gathered about implementation.

In its response to the Setting the Direction Framework, the Government of Alberta accepted each of the strategic directions and pledged to develop detailed implementation plans. If there were any such plans, they were internal to Alberta Education, and there has been no consultation with stakeholders to create such plans. However, it is not too late.

A stakeholder advisory committee could collaborate on developing an implementation plan. Without plans and structures in place, the current hit-and-miss implementation will continue, and students will fall through the cracks.

Recommendation 2 — To Alberta Education

Create a ministry team that will work with stakeholders at all levels to build understanding and support for the vision of inclusive education.

When Setting the Direction was launched, a team at the Ministry of Education was charged with leading the consultation process and creating a framework. Once the government released its response to the framework, this team was disbanded. While a few teachers and staff from central offices were involved in the consultation process, the vast majority of teachers were not. It is imperative that the ministry provide leadership at the provincial level to guide the implementation process — a team of people whose time can be dedicated to providing face-to-face support for teachers and administrators, as well as other supports, so that the vision and goals are clearly understood.

Having staff “infused” in other areas of the ministry is not sufficient. There must be a substantial team in place, made up of people who are knowledgeable about inclusive education and who can dedicate their time to leading provincial implementation.

Recommendation 3 — To Alberta Education

Create clear, multilevel, consistent and transparent communication regarding inclusive education.

Since the Setting the Direction process concluded, there has been insufficient communication from the ministry about regulations, policies, directions, supports and developments. The result has been confusion about what is required, what is in pilot or draft form, what the current directions are and what the future directions will be.

There must be multilevel communication and greater effort to provide consistent, clear information to all stakeholders. Information and decisions must be transparent and available at the same time and to all stakeholders. The provincial stakeholder advisory committee cited in recommendation one could be involved in creating a communication plan that would involve other organizations. Communication must also include face-to-face communication between ministry personnel and school jurisdictions. Posting communiqués and information on a large website and hoping that every person in the system will see and understand them is not reasonable.

Recommendation 4 — To Alberta Education

Work directly with stakeholders to build an understanding of inclusion and an understanding that an inclusive classroom setting may not be in the educational best interests of every student at all times.

A classroom is not a closed structure — there must be commitment from everyone in the system to provide the supports necessary for students to succeed. Every student needs a place to learn and belong. There may be times, however, when the level of support or the specific kind of support required by a student is not available in the classroom, or when the learning environment is not effective for the student. In these cases, alternative placements for various periods of time may be required. Alberta Education’s (2007) Information Bulletin on Standards for Special Education also outlines the fact that, at times, there may be need for alternative placements.

This may be an issue of clarity in communication, but some jurisdictions are operating as if there are never cases where placement outside a typical classroom is considered. Though inclusive education is the ideal, there may be severe medical, behavioural or other conditions where a student’s educational best interests would be best met by receiving specialized support for short, intensive periods or longer periods of time.

Recommendation 5 — To school jurisdictions

Establish a school jurisdiction-level inclusive education advisory committee, including teachers, administrators and other stakeholders, to develop a jurisdiction implementation plan, guide implementation activities and reflect on evidence gathered about implementation.

A structure parallel to what is proposed in recommendation one is needed in all school jurisdictions. This advisory committee would give a voice to teachers, administrators and everyone at the system and school levels. The committee would create short-, medium- and long-term implementation plans for its jurisdiction, following the principles of effective implementation, and meet regularly to reflect on the evidence gathered about how implementation is progressing. It would also communicate these plans to all relevant stakeholders. Some jurisdictions have structures in place, but this is not the case in most jurisdictions. Without a carefully laid-out plan and structures to regularly reflect on the plan, goals will not be achieved.

Recommendation 6 — To schools

Establish a school-based inclusive education advisory committee, including teachers, administrators and other stakeholders, to develop a school implementation plan, guide implementation activities and reflect on evidence gathered about implementation.

The structures discussed in recommendations one and five must also be echoed at the school level. School administrators must facilitate open and honest conversations about the opportunities and challenges of inclusion to create a clear vision so that everyone knows where they are going and why. They need tools to create a comprehensive implementation plan at the school level, including collaboratively developed strategies and tools to assess how the plan is working in order to make necessary adjustments.

It is essential to involve classroom teachers and respect their professional judgment. Only 33 per cent of those submitting responses to the panel felt that their professional judgment was heard and respected when making decisions about students with diverse learning needs. The teacher is the interface between the child and his or her educational goals. Giving a voice to teachers is an essential element in school improvement.

Recommendation 7 — To school jurisdictions

Provide a safe, professional environment where teachers and administrators can express their experiences as inclusion is implemented.

Teachers and administrators need a place to share their successes and challenges related to inclusion. In submissions to the panel, only 14 per cent of respondents indicated that inclusion had a positive effect on teaching and learning in their classrooms, compared with 61 per cent in 2007. The panel received many comments expressing appreciation, such as, “Thank you for doing this survey” and “I hope the information makes it to the people who could do something to make change happen.”

With the complexities of today’s classrooms, there must be trust and open dialogue to celebrate successes and acknowledge and address challenges. If teachers or administrators fear being reprimanded or fear that they may lose their position if they express concerns, honest dialogue will not occur. Research demonstrates that facilitating and modelling effective communication, building relationships, making authentic decisions, celebrating experimentation, taking risks and valuing diverse views are key to engaging people in sustained improvement. Teachers are the linchpins in inclusion and providing space for openly sharing successes and concerns will ensure that all students can be successful in an inclusive system. ❚ 


Prompted by ongoing concerns about the state of inclusion in Alberta schools, the 2013 Annual Representative Assembly of the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) passed a resolution to strike a Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta Schools in order to provide an arm’s-length investigation and subsequent report on this topic of critical importance.

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