“Inclusive education means, simply put, that all students, including those with disabilities and other special needs, are educated in regular classrooms with their age peers in their community schools”
For my next SuperPals profile, I’m turning the spotlight on a man from my home province whose educational leadership has had a deep impact here and in jurisdictions across Canada and internationally. His name is Gordon Porter, and for some thirty years he’s been at the vanguard of those dedicated to the establishment of an inclusive education system. New Brunswick was among the first education systems to abandon programs that segregated children based on ability (or in many cases, perceived ability), and it is widely acknowledged that Gordon has been a visionary for successful, fully evolved schools that consciously embrace inclusionary practices as fundamental to their existence. If every child is not experiencing success, he believes, then the school as a whole cannot claim to be successful.
But Gordon Porter’s influence extends far beyond that. To label him a visionary is simply inadequate. As educational leaders, our lives are very much about generating and communicating ideas, about seeing how things might be better, and about sharing these with colleagues. Our world is full of people with big ideas, but few have the stuff to fuel change, and to witness the actualization of their vision. Gordon Porter is one of the few. For three decades his voice and his actions have been courageously sustained in the face of political, societal and operational resistance. He believes inclusive schools are both possible and good, and his professional life has very much been dedicated to helping others navigate the challenging terrain. It is this combination of vision, voice, action and resolve that deserves our respect.
“We need a new wave of principled school reform that will contribute to accommodating the diversity of our student population, to inclusion as a guiding principle, and to school improvement on a broad basis for all our students.”
Gordon has been a classroom teacher, school principal, district leader, university professor and author of numerous writings on inclusive education. He has received many awards for his groundbreaking work, including our nation’s highest civilian honor, The Order of Canada, as well as an honorary Doctor of Education degree from the National Pedagogical Univerisity of Peru. He is currently the Director of Inclusive Education Canada, an initiative of the Canadian Association for Community Living, and is editor of their website. He is former chair of the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission, and is currently Special Advisor on Inclusive Education to our province’s Minister of Education & Early Childhood Development.
Few issues in New Brunswick’s educational experience can evoke such intense emotional and spirited debate as does the discourse around inclusion. Simply put, the day to day challenges inherent in inclusion are among the toughest that teachers and school leaders face. Issues around funding and professional training are constant sources of frustration. Further, parents (who sometimes feel marginalized and overwhelmed by the pressures of raising a child with special needs), often have expectations that the school system is unable (or sometimes unwilling), to meet. Inclusion is a political issue. It is a legal issue, which, at the school and district levels, has the potential to exhaust and demoralize, and to cast fear among professionals who often feel helpless when threatened with legal and human rights challenges. Inclusion is tough stuff.
Looking back over those thirty years, however, it is easy to see how we’ve grown as a jurisdiction. The challenges remain, but we’ve gotten much better at generating solutions. Our experience with each child informs our attempts to serve others, and as we recognize that inclusion is more of a human art and a commitment than it is a purely scientific practice, we are slowly finding our own way through the significant challenges that are an unfortunate reality in our evolution as an inclusive society. Despite the many hurdles we continue to face, New Brunswick is an undisputed international leader in inclusive education. Gordon Porter’s sustained, grounded and understanding leadership has brought us to this place of prominence, and it continues to inspire confidence in the field. He is architect, builder and laborer, and I am pleased that he accepted this invitation to be featured on SuperPals.
Herewith, my interview with Dr. Gordon Porter.
Many people have strong beliefs about how a system could be improved, but few are driven to act with the sustained commitment you’ve shown in the field of inclusive education. What was it that inspired you to such determined action?
Two things inspired my commitment to inclusive education – a sense of what is right and my commitment to effective schools for every child. The rights’ focus came from growing up in a small village where success in school was clearly a factor in having a chance to have a secure future. I could see my classmates depart as we moved up through the grades.
It seemed to me that they all left with some sense of lost opportunity. My cohort of 42 students in Grade 6 had been reduced to 11 survivors at the end of Grade 12. I felt privileged to have had success. However when I became a teacher, I slowly developed a sense that school success should not be a privilege for the few but a benefit every child should have in our democratic society.
The rights’ agenda became clearer when I became a board member of the local segregated school run by parents as a charity. The Charter reinforced that perspective. The reason I have stayed focused on inclusive practices is that they are consistent with having an effective school. I would argue that inclusive practices are essential if a school is to achieve high levels of success.
Inclusive practices include:
Collaboration and instruction that meets needs at different levels
- Identifiable support structure for teachers so they can meet diverse student needs
- Effective problem solving
- Maintaining partnerships with parents
A school that is not inclusive either has a capacity deficit or a big gap in shared principles.
With the challenge of making rights real and achieving high quality for every student, I have found the “inclusive education agenda” a worthy effort.
New Brunswick has been called a model of inclusive education. To what extent do you believe that term is justified?
To say New Brunswick is a model of inclusive education is justified, but of course model is a relative term. New Brunswick has been working towards inclusion on a systemic basis since 1986 and we have accomplished a great deal. Kids can go to their local school and most are included most of the time. Degree of inclusion varies of course, and the supports are sometimes not what they need to be, but overall we are doing well. We can do better and I am confident we will.
There are select parts of Canada – schools and a few districts – that do well, but New Brunswick is still a leader. Internationally, New Brunswick is even more of a leader.
The wealthier nations have highly developed special education systems that are not inclusive and they have many special interest groups who resist change. Developing countries provide very minimal levels of education to students with special needs, and little progress has been made under the “Education for All” campaign.
So yes –New Brunswick is a leader, but we still have a gap between what we can do and what we are actually doing
How has our society’s thinking changed since the early days of inclusion in New Brunswick schools?
New Brunswick teachers support inclusion as a practice. To some extent I think it is taken for granted. Twenty five years ago, there was passion on the matter from all sides. The advocates – parents and educators supporting inclusion – were passionate, and the concerns of those unsure about the approach were equally strong.
My perception is that there is a consensus now that inclusion is a good idea, but we need to make sure we get the support for teachers and students in place to make it successful. Discussing support systems is a much more constructive conversation than justifying the concept of inclusion.
Philosophically, it is easy to embrace the ideals of inclusion. The operational challenges, however, often result in a weakening of that commitment. How can we encourage fidelity to the principles of inclusive education, while acknowledging that it’s a complex and difficult reality to create?
I believe that the integrity of the vision of a “quality school for all” is the key to fidelity to the principles of inclusive education. There will be exceptions to our ability to support inclusion for every child. However such exceptions need to be few and “true exceptions.” We need to make sure that exceptions to inclusion are not caused by lack of skill or capacity, or worse – a lack of commitment to value every child.
What practices concern you most, that you feel undermine a school’s commitment to inclusion?
Commitment to inclusion is undermined if schools do not effectively support classroom teachers. There will be challenges and problems – that’s fully predictable.
The questions for a school are:
- Does the school provide systemic and effective support to teachers?
- Can teachers count on professional assistance in figuring out what to do?
- Will teachers get help in getting new strategies up and running?
I find too many schools are unable to meet teacher needs. If Resource & Methods (R&M) teachers are able to help them, there is a good chance things will work satisfactorily. If the R&M teacher spends all day, every day, working with kids one-on-one or in small groups in the resource room, I wonder about who will provide teachers with the professional support they need.
Another practice I worry about is the over reliance on paraprofessionals to handle all the work with a child with special needs. We need paraprofessionals and they play a valuable role in our schools, but the teacher must stay at the centre of the child’s education.
Finally, when inclusion works best, it is obvious that the school principal is clear about the connection between developing inclusive strategies and the effort to make the school a better learning environment for all students.
What causes you to be hopeful about inclusion in New Brunswick schools?
I am hopeful about inclusion in New Brunswick schools because I meet so many parents, teachers and students who demonstrate they have the principles of inclusion internalized. There is now a whole generation of young New Brunswickers who have grown up with inclusive schools. Some of these students become teachers.
New Brunswick has a strong base on which to build and there is a resolve to address the challenges we face and do better. After all, our provincial Motto is Spem Reduxit or “hope restored”.
Who inspires you?
I am inspired by people who put their all into what they do, that is, people who combine hard work, perseverance and grace.
I am particularly inspired by the parents of children with disabilities I have met who display those qualities. I am amazed at their capacity to meet significant challenges and keep going. I continue to be inspired by the patience they have for those of us who might have more empathy for their challenges and the courage they show every day.