Review of the Ontario Ministry for Education & Training’s Policy on Special Education
This is the first of five posts on Special Education and the document Education for All.
What is Special Education and When Does a Child Need It?
The Ontario Ministry for Education and Training defines Special Education in this way:
Students who have behavioral, communicational, intellectual, physical or multiple exceptionalities, may require special education programs and /or services to benefit fully from their school experience.
How a Parent or Teacher’s Concern Goes from Observation to the Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC)
When a teacher’s observations of a student lead her to question whether the child is exceptional and therefore in need of special services or programs, the law requires her to draw the attention of child’s parents, her principal and LST to the child. Usually the LST then sees that the necessary testing is done to assess the child; if the results of the testing justifies the teacher’s concerns, the LST arranges for an Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC) to be established to consider the child’s needs and strengths. The parents are allowed and invited to attend IPRCs. They may bring information to the meeting, express an opinion, veto or agree to their child’s placement.
Default Placement for All Exceptional Children is the Regular Classroom
Ontario law explicitly states that a regular classroom should be the default placement for all exceptional children. Where any child is placed in a special education class such as a congregated gifted class or a behavioral unit, a written reason must be given. No reason needs to be given for placing a child in a regular classroom. This regulation was put in place in 2005.
In theory the decisions of identification and placement are made at the committee level. In practice, the testing has already been done, analysed and summarized and, in most cases, the ministry has predetermined the child’s placement by insisting that the regular classroom be the first option considered. In less time than it takes to pour coffee, most parents have heard the whole story and nothing is left but the signatures. In fact, if the folk from the school have done their job right, the parents already know everything there is to know and are simply hearing a review.
Curiously, since the law has been in place for four years, gifted children continue to be the exceptions to this rule in some school boards. While it might be possible to mount an excellent argument for segregated gifted programs, some of the current experts in intellectually talented children feel that these exceptional children should be mainstreamed. To my knowledge, no written reasons are being given on each IPRC for putting these children into special classes.
The Individual Education Plan (IEP) is a Flexible, Living Document
The Individual Education Plan (IEP) is created by the child’s teacher, with help if necessary from the school’s specialists, from the IPRC’s conclusions. The IEP is a work in progress, subject to revision each term and as the child progresses. What it does, besides reiterating the child’s strengths and needs, is to describe in broad strokes what accommodations or modifications the child’s teacher(s) plans to put into place to assist the student. Accommodations refer to changes made to assist the child to learn material at her grade level; modifications involve a change in grade level. The accommodations or modifications can affect the program, material, technology or methods. This sounds simple and scientific but it is neither.
The IEP is only scientific in that it is a hypothesis based on good information that will be tested by the child and her teacher. The recommendations of the educational testers are a good place to start, but the teacher and student need to collaborate to find the right balance that will work for the individual. This is a bit like a psychiatrist finding the right cocktail of drugs for someone with severe depression. There are a lot of anti-depressants out there, but some will make some people sicker, some will be too much and others might work but at the price of horrific side effects. A psychiatrist might spend a year trying different doses and combinations of drugs before finding one that works. And yet the diagnosis was so simple.
The truth of the matter is that it is in the child’s best interests to make the least change necessary for her to learn at the rate of her classmates, if that is possible. However, if the student’s confidence has been badly shaken, perhaps more support than is strictly necessary might be called for. Not only that, but children grow and change; just as one design begins to work well, it quite often appears that the IEP will need changing again as the student faces a new challenge or wants to try handling school without a certain accommodation.
So when I suggest the creation and implementation of an IEP is not scientific, I am saying that while it is based on research, best practices and careful assessment of the student’s strengths and needs, the IEP is still an approximation of what might work. Implementing it successfully requires professional judgment and flexibility rather than blindly following the plan.
The IEP and the Report Card
The student’s report card will indicate that she has an IEP. This is especially important if she is working below or above grade level in any subject area, but it also indicates that accommodations are in place. Until recently academically talented children were not allowed to work above grade level; it is my understanding that under certain circumstances, they may be accelerated in a subject area – or even a grade should it be deemed necessary. But that is another hornet’s nest.
The IEP is Private
A copy of the IEP should be in the student’s file, also known as the Ontario Student Record. How soon it gets there depends on how high a priority a teacher gives to filing, as only teachers or specific school personnel (or parents under the supervision of the school) may see the OSR. It used to be that only teachers could keep the attendance record, but that has changed. Maybe filing will one day be removed from teachers’ hands, too. At least from elementary teachers’ hands, secondary teachers do not file. Since the child’s parents also have a copy of the IEP anyone who has a right to peruse the report card will be able to see the IEP for clarification.
This is a brief summary of what Special Education is in Ontario and what the various acronyms along the path mean. I have not mentioned issues such as equipment or accommodations external to the classroom. That is a long story. Suffice it to say that a computer ordered for an exceptional child in the fall of one year will not be in that child’s hands until the fall of the following year. A year is a long time in a child’s life, longer if she is struggling in school; what are the administrators in the ministry and the school boards thinking?
SECOND POST: Education for All and the myth of Universal Design
THIRD POST: A Review of the Material in Education for All
FOURTH POST: Gifted Children and Education for All
FIFTH POST: Charts taken from, modified and related to Education for All
FOR MORE INFORMATION SEE:
Education for All available in ministry bookstores for $6.00
The Ministry website: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/general/elemsec/speced/ontario.html
Regulations 35. 3, 11