One explanation for teachers’ class composition battle

Since 1975 with the enactment of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act in the USA, parents and educators on both sides of the border have addressed how best to create inclusive classrooms. No longer is it acceptable to exclude children on the basis of disability. This legislation was followed in 1990 by IDEA – Individuals with Disabilities Act which further defined the obligations for public schools with respect to providing educational opportunity appropriate for all children. The American legislation influenced Canadian public education, and Canadian parents have legitimately fought and continue to advocate for inclusive classrooms.

Educators have struggled with the expectations for inclusive classrooms since 1975. Teacher education programs did not adapt to provide the specific knowledge and professional preparation required to differentiate instruction in inclusive classrooms, and it was only recently that the BC College of Teachers (Teacher Regulation Branch as of January 2012) made it a requirement for teachers certified in BC to complete at least one course related to special education as part of their preparation to become a teacher.

The current “class composition” debate is just another manifestation of the continued struggle to retain inclusive classrooms and to compensate for the absence of specific and effective preparation for teachers. Restricting the number of special needs children per class to three does not address the real issues.

The current BCTF position which restricts the number of students with unique learning needs to 3 per class, is a "one-size fits all model" of a type the BCTF would normally vigorously oppose. For example, the need to differentiate instruction for a student with dyslexia is more challenging in English literature than in PE class. In addition, the BCTF approach is contrary to the underlying values that created the original legislation in 1975. And, while appearing to be an inclusive model, it is best described as a model that excludes, because it excludes all but three special needs students per class regardless of the unique learning needs and regardless of the subject being taught.

So why does the BCTF seem so committed to this approach and why did the teachers union reject the $165m offered by the Minister of Education to fund special education assistants? Two possible explanations come to mind:

  1. Class size and composition are what are referred to as “staffing clauses”. They permit a union, through bargaining, to exert control over staffing and thereby to increase the number of members in the union. For example, to meet a requirement that all classes are a specified size and that no classes have more than 3 special needs students, School Boards across the province would have to hire significantly more teachers.
  2. If the issue truly is addressing the unique learning needs of students with special needs, why not agree to the additional funding offered? Is it because the BCTF wants to control staffing? Special education assistants are not part of the BCTF, they are members of CUPE.

As with the real story behind contracted pay increases for teachers, parents and other stakeholders need all the facts before making a judgment about the current labour dispute. The fight over class composition is not only about the well-being of children, it's about turf.

– post by Carol Gibson

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  • boohoo

    Geez, reading this blog one would get the impression there is a unanimous opinion on this subject. How refreshing it would be to have a post from someone from the ‘other side’.

  • vancouverbrian

    When I hear the debate on class sizes, one question always comes to mind.

    Are there proportionately more special needs kids today than 20 years ago? Or are we simply better at diagnosing?

    I ask this because I think it’s an important to put perspective when we look for solutions. If in fact there are more special needs kids than 20 years ago, there are greater health and education issues at play. We should be ringing alarm bells and shouting from the hills to ensure that we determine the causes for so such an increase.

    If we are simply better at diagnosing, than we need to be sure we aren’t necessarily overreacting. Some children considered special needs today may in fact have very mild cases which are important to consider but don’t necessarily impact the overall class room any more than a child who had two cokes at lunch. It’s important for teachers to be aware but extra resources in all cases may not be required.

    Again, I’m not sure which is the case but I think it’s an important consideration. More kids with special needs? Or more kids being diagnosed?

  • A-Non-Teacher

    I am not a teacher, but I am working towards becoming one. This past few weeks I have been volunteering in a class of 30 students, 5 of which have been diagnosed with a learning disability. The need to maintain the “cap” on the number of special needs students has nothing to do with “turf.” These students require a significant amount of extra attention in order to succeed within a standard classroom environment. Last week, I spent 15 minutes of one class trying to help a student diagnosed with dyslexia and a behavioural disability. 15 minutes trying to help him figure out a -singular- question and help him discover the answer by himself. If I wanted to, I could have shown him the answer and moved on to help one of the other 29 students in the class, but that would not be fair to the boy. I wanted him to develop the same skills as his peers -critical thinking, making connections, drawing conclusions- and so I patiently went through the steps with him. As a result, I was unable to circulate through the entire classroom. I was unable to spend that 15 minutes with the other 4 students with a learning disability. It is difficult to find time to provide that support while presenting new information (although I did not teach, I was unable to speak to students during the lecture portion of the lesson). If you look at this issue from the point of view of the “average” student, they receive even less support as because they are capable of learning and completing their homework alone. When they do receive assistance, it is often interrupted by other students asking for help, or in the odd case, a student acting out. For the “average” student, this means they may be stuck at a B level, never being given the tools to transition to an A. Although many teachers to have their masters, none have figured out how to be in two places at one time. This is why they are fighting for classroom composition.

    I do not know all of the facts, or understand all of the issues, I do not pretend to be an expert, but I do know that the $165 million would not be adequate enough to improve classroom conditions FOR THE STUDENTS. Not with all of the cuts that come along with it. If you look at what the government wants to do with the teachers contract, changing classroom composition, it will result in a subpar learning environment for all students. The ones who are able to get by without extra help would have to. The students who need extra help in order to pass the course will not get adequate attention. The way the education is set up right now does not allow for students to grow as learners, because they are not always able to get the assistance or tools that they need. If classes were to get bigger, or there were more students with special needs within each classroom, who would be excluded then?

  • Ken Lawson

    I do not support the Teachers, Net – Zero mean Net -Zero they have the best benefits of any union out there, This has nothing to with class size or composition, it is all about wages and benefits,

  • TG

    A-Non-Teacher,

    I don’t inherently disagree with your post, the needs of children with learning disabilities take up significantly more time than those of “average” students. But the problem I have with the teachers’ job action comes from their refusal to move away from a 15% salary increase. Within the Net-Zero mandate there is room for negotiation on many of the issues that teachers have spoken out about, class size and composition being one of them, but what have they focused on? Salary. That has been the sticking point in discussions with BCPSEA, which despite their public statements about doing what is best for the student, will only benefit teachers. If teachers were willing to work within Net-Zero and then negotiate changes to the education system that benefited students I would be out there rallying with them. But to say that Net-Zero is a deal breaker, well then it looks like the union is putting its members first and the needs of students second.

  • boohoo

    TG,

    I told myself I’d stop but I can’t… 😉

    Teachers are willing to negotiate. All aspects of their requests are on the table. But ‘net-zero’ means negative. It means cutting something. End point. Trading this for that at an equal rate when the cost of everything is going up means things get cut.

    The teachers did negotiate back in the early 90’s and took 0% salary increase for a say in class size and composition. It wasn’t, and isn’t just about money. That was negotiated for in ‘good faith’. Now the government is just eliminating that outright.

    So, what are they to do?

  • A-Non-Teacher

    TG,
    The 15% wage increase was a starting point in negotiations and was grossly inflated. In January, they lowered their demands, one of which was this wage increase. Instead of a 15% increase, the teachers asked for a 3% increase for 3 years (a cost of living raise). If you object with this, I would like to remind you that teachers’ cupboards are not stocked with pens, paper, art supplies, and the like at the beginning of each year. Many teachers spend their own money to ensure students are prepared to do their work every day. The cost to fund a school has increased, while the funds allocated have remained the same.

    As “Boohoo” stated, teachers have sacrificed wage increases in the past to ensure they were able to provide input in class size and composition. Then these agreements were removed from the contract unlawfully.

    As I heard it put the other day, imagine asking your child if they would rather have dessert or stay up late. When the child says stay up late, you take away their dessert and then send them to bed at 8. That is what happened to the teachers. Who suffers the most? The students.
    Larger class sizes, more work, fewer benefits, and minimal support. It is no wonder why so many teachers burn out at a young age.