Experience in Co-operation: A story of special education teachers in mainstream schools

09/07/2014

 

Underneath the surface benefits of inclusive education, some mainstream school teachers experience difficulties as they co-operate and strive for a better quality leaning environment for their students. This blog features a fictionalised composite story1 of Lydia, based on my research on teachers’ attitudes toward inclusion.2

 

“Hi, My name is Lydia. I am a special education teacher in a public high school in Taiwan. I teach a Year Three resource class and help with advocacy for students with special educational needs across the school. There are six to seven students in my class. All my students belong to different general classes, only coming to my resource classroom at specific times.  

Based on students’ individualised education plans (IEPs), my duty is to co-operate with general teachers for an effective and supportive lesson plan for students. However, there are always some general teachers unwilling to co-operate with others, or unwilling to make adjustments for students within their teaching.

Recently I had a disagreement with one of these teachers due to the pass marks of one of the students with learning difficulties. The student is brilliant: she did really well with Maths and Science, but, due to her reading issues, her English and Chinese are not so good. According to current policy, she needs to pass both English and Chinese to graduate. If only the teacher would lower the pass score3 to take account of her needs, or even use alternative methods for her English and Chinese assessment, she could graduate this year. However, in the end, the student failed the exam and will be kicked out of school before she graduates. It is really a shame and I feel sad (or sometimes even angry) to learn that some teachers are just unwilling to change their approaches.

Nevertheless, there are general teachers with a good understanding of the idea of inclusion. One of the students who attends my resource class, a boy with autism, had a hard time in his previous class last year. He showed high anxiety and depression at school. Before the boy transferred to this year’s class, the teacher gave a short introduction on autism to the other students and taught them how to support him. The boy and his peers still had a rough time in the beginning, and the teacher came to me for help from time to time during the transition period. Nevertheless, with good co-operation between the teacher, the class and me, the boy’s behavioural issues started decreasing, he started to enjoy school, and the whole class started getting along. At the end of this semester, they even made a graduation video together.

I love my job and see it as an important role that influences each student’s life. I’m also passionate about advocating for quality education as a right for students with special needs. However, sometimes I feel frustrated working in a system driven by academic performance. Since there is often lower academic performance among students with special educational needs (at least that is how it is in my school), the school seldom pays attention to us. Special education teachers like me are identified as ‘people who solve the problem’ within the school. Only when a problem occurs among our students will the school come to us.

However, I’m also a teacher and a professional, providing valuable services for all students, whether or not they have special needs. I really hope that one day they will understand me and value what I am doing as a teacher.

Inclusive education is a process of improvement, not only for students but also for teachers and the education system. We move towards a goal -that all students have the right to access quality education – together. I’m not saying it will be easy, but with a little bit of change and a little bit of willingness to move forward together, there are high hopes for a better learning environment for all of us.”

 

This is the story of Lydia. Does some of her experience sound familiar to you? Do you agree with what she said, or what she believed?

Please leave a comment. It will be really encouraging to learn what you think.

 

In my next blog, some discussion will be made based on this story, so it is to be continued…

I-Jung Lu

 

 

Notes

1. Collective story: the combination of different stories, which is stated as ‘a collective, unified, chronological narrative’ (Pringle, 2008:221)

Pringle, R. (2008). ‘No rugby—no fear’: collective stories, masculinities and transformative possibilities in schools. Sport, Education and Society13(2), pp.215-237.

2. This collective story is based on:

Lu, I.J. (2013) Understanding the Special Educational Trainee Teacher and Experienced Teachers’ Attitudes to and Construction of Inclusion in Taiwan. MA Dissertation,University of Manchester.

3. In the Taiwanese secondary or high school education system, the pass mark is set at 60 out of 100. However, the course tutors and the office of academic affairs could reset the pass mark for students who have special learning needs or disabilities. The course tutors could also refuse to change the pass mark for the student if they felt it is not necessary.

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Testing, learning outcomes and inclusion: how can we get it right?

29/05/2014

When I talk to teachers about including disabled children, we always get stuck on testing. In many countries there is a tough and inflexible exam at the end of primary school, for admission to secondary school. Disabled children are usually not entered for this exam. This may be because no one has considered how a child who can’t write can take the test, or because people think a disabled child is not capable of learning. Where disabled students have managed to make it to secondary school, they often find themselves with the same problem – no chance of taking formal exams at the end.

Many teachers worry whether it’s worth keeping children in primary school if they have no chance of passing exams. Some teachers will keep disabled children in lower primary for years in the hope of providing some learning, but parents can become frustrated at the lack of qualifications. Sometimes head teachers don’t want to enter disabled children for exams because they worry about bringing the school’s results down; but often it’s felt to be unfair to put a child through tests set up for them to fail.

I try to encourage discussion of alternative ways to test a child’s knowledge. If a child writes slowly, why not give extra time? If a child can’t see, why not read the questions and write the answers for them? Teachers are often enthusiastic, and discussing inclusive assessment can reframe the problem from ‘disabled children can’t learn’, to ‘disabled children’s knowledge isn’t captured well’. However, no matter how positive a teacher’s attitude, teachers rarely have the power to decide how formal testing works.

Many questions come up about making testing systems inclusive. Who will be running the exam? Is there any law or policy which requires adaptations? How should concerns about cheating be dealt with? (For example, if a child has to give their answers verbally, should the recorder be observed? What will it cost to provide two extra people to test one child?) How much extra exam time does each child need? What if a child doesn’t understand the language the exam is written in – is that an accessibility question or a wider policy issue? How can marks be given fairly if testing is done in different ways for different children?

The same questions apply to the large learning outcomes surveys used to show the impact of donor-funded projects. This provides a huge disincentive to include disabled children in education programmes. Why would the implementing agency bring children into a project who can’t participate in testing, when this will reduce the final averaged scores? If surveys are designed from baseline stage to be inclusive, this can be avoided, but it’s rare. This in turn makes it difficult to agree what types of adaptations meet international standards for learning outcomes testing.

All these issues can be dealt with, and there is some useful experience on what has been tried in the past. (Please comment below on what has worked for you!) But inclusive testing also needs new types of advocacy. The people who work as examination developers and learning outcomes experts are often not based in the front line of teaching, and come under pressure to make testing as rigorous as possible. Efforts to make testing equitable can be seen as attempts to reduce standards.

There is little research on the extent to which inaccessible testing pushes disabled children out of school. However, my experience has made me feel that education programmes should tackle testing at the start, rather than realising too late how much it damages equity and inclusion. This would mean building relationships with new groups of people, and having discussions about inclusion and education rights from different perspectives. Where once the question was, ‘How can we get all children into school?’, it’s fast becoming, ‘How can we make sure that enrolment leads to a worthwhile education for everyone?’

Helen Pinnock

Senior EENET Consultant