Letter to Editor
Tuesday, 04 September 2012 02:30
Dear Editor, When we’re out there talking to parents, we talk about what we've done, what we would like to see over the coming years, and why the authorities have done so little to change the archaic and dangerous policies that have failed and continue to fail our children.
But there is another question that keeps coming up, and you need to know about it: "Why does the Ministry of Education continue to say that this is a priority when so little is being done?”
You don't need us to tell you that our education system as it relates to special education is inherently flawed and we have allowed a bad situation to get worse. ABILITY has been calling on the Ministry of Education to do more for students with special needs and was cautiously optimistic when the ministry said that this was a priority area for them.
But to this day, no one outside of the Ministry of Education has any solid idea of how to go about changing/revamping the system.
Even after setting up an advisory council (Special Education Council) almost a year ago, the ministry has released scant information about future plans.
We have been asking for more information forever, essentially. We’ve sent many letters of concern to top ministry officials. Details have come out in dribs and drabs. The one detail the ministry touts most often is the diagnostic centre it plans on opening. When and how it will function, to a large extent has been a mystery. When it comes to more complex and meaningful information the ministry has been mum.
Has the priority for special education shifted? If so they need to tell us – but we can’t imagine why. Have the numbers of students needing support in this area declined? The answer is no. As a matter of fact, the numbers are growing. Are parents satisfied? We are parents – we're not. And there are countless others like us. Where have the trained special education teachers in the system been placed? Ministry officials should know this but they don’t. This is key data which would help in the decision-making process. What is the ministry learning (from a top-level view) about instruction for students with special needs? How is it working (or not) from school to school? We are confident that it’s not working and want to do all that we can to change this.
There are questions we’ve asked again and again and we believe these questions should be answered.
We have met with top ministry officials and we were confident that the ministry had the students’ best interests at heart. They had even responded to some of the suggestions, for example providing informal training to teachers – various topics related to special education was a major part of a one-week summer programme offered to teachers and parents this year. But we have to admit that we’re growing increasingly alarmed that the ministry has not come forward with more substantive plans.
Building a diagnostic centre and offering scholarships in that field of study, although great, cannot be all there is to the plan. First of all you build it and they will come, in droves for sure. Then what? Can’t be that we’re going to diagnose them then put them in the same school system that we already know is not working.
For those of you who are not as engaged, here’s what we’re seeking: A special education mechanism that is adequate, efficient, equitable, predictable, flexible, transparent, fully placement-neutral and accountable for spending and student outcomes.
We realise that funding is an issue but we know too that sometimes, it is not always a matter of more money; it is a matter of smarter money.
For example, collecting (accurate) data and using it to drive decision-making – no one seems to be doing this. Too much guessing is going on and we can’t afford to do that with taxpayers’ dollars, and more important, with the lives of so many school children in Antigua & Barbuda. Plus, there is still a need for a solid policy. We still firmly believe that the current Education Act does not speak enough to special education – there’s no “teeth” to it.
So, what ideas do we have? Here’s what we think are some easy-to-implement solutions, along with more sweeping measures for lasting change.
- Resist the urge to establish any new public schools to be used primarily for students with disabilities. We know it may seem an unlikely solution coming from us but we believe that the taxpayer dollars would be better spent improving and expanding our capacity now, rather than building and financing new separate buildings.
- Directly encourage public/private partnerships. This will bring first-rate, specialised services into all settings helping to ensure that our students receive their special education services in the least restrictive environment.
- Funding to any public school should be based on actual enrollment. This means that it would be generated based on the degree of the student’s needs – so the school zones with greater needs will get the funding they need to serve the students they identify. A school with fewer students classified for special education should not be receiving more funding than a school with more classified students. There can be no room for competition among programmes, neither turf guarding nor rigid specialisation. The goal is to keep our students closer to home.
- Special Education should be a mandatory course for teachers in training. Currently this is an elective course and too many of our teachers in training are opting out of it. Also the course is very “weak” and needs to be more robust. The reasoning behind this is that these students can show up in any class. We believe our teachers should have some solid basic training in this area further equipping them to better manage a wide range of skills in the classroom.
- Designate a quota of all annual (teacher awarded) scholarships to special education.
In order for this to work, programmes must be linked, people must work together, and programme goals as well as individual school improvement goals need to support the same standard. It’s important for the Ministry of Education to take on a big-picture view. They cannot afford to become enmeshed in one aspect of reform such as building a diagnostic centre or embark on any other new project in a piecemeal effort to achieve reform.
This type of systemic change will require people who have an overall vision of where special education needs to go and a willingness to reorganize and support system-wide change. Unsystematic efforts will waste time and we think we can all agree that we’ve lost enough of that -- diverting the focus from the larger goal of ensuring that each child with special needs receive a free appropriate public education, just like any other child.
You are reading this letter because you know what the stakes are. You know the facts about what we've asked the Ministry of Education to do (they’ve come up with no alternative) to prevent a deeper crisis and to start building an educational system that works for all.
But it looks like the only thing that can bring about change is you
So the next time you hear a ministry official saying that special education is a priority, remember that they’ve done nothing about it. Ask them to explain why.
Thanks for standing with ABILITY.
"Talk is cheap. Words are plentiful. Deeds are precious." H. Ross Perot