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Ian Cameron: Start talking about the real school problem

The B.C. school system is in trouble. Many people recognize the problem, but won’t talk about it. I think it’s time to get it out in the open and propose a solution. Here’s my attempt. First, the problem. It’s not money.

The B.C. school system is in trouble. Many people recognize the problem, but won’t talk about it. I think it’s time to get it out in the open and propose a solution. Here’s my attempt.

First, the problem. It’s not money. Teachers get paid well, but not enough for what they do. The answer is not more money; it’s changing what teachers do. Second, we have to stop talking about 24 kids to a class. We can’t afford that. Finally, we have to stop using the phrase “class composition” as code for “kids with severe behaviour problems.”

This all started with mainstreaming in the late 1980s. Academics came up with the notion that kids with special needs would be better off in regular classrooms than in special schools. Parents of special-needs kids wanted their children to go to the local school. Governments, including the B.C. government, thought they could save money on the deal.

Teachers were conned into thinking that they could handle it if classes were small enough. The mistake everyone made was lumping all kids with special needs — hearing, visually and physically impaired, mentally handicapped, Down syndrome and severe behaviour problems — together under that one label. And now they are stuck with it, teachers and government alike. No one wants to admit the real difficulty: disruptive kids.

My first assignment involved a Grade 7 class with 36 students. I wouldn’t have traded any of those kids for anything. Including Nils, who had an IQ of 80 and came in before school for 20 minutes every day for help with his reading, so he could join his dad as a carpenter. (Four years later, when Nils was taking shop classes at Burnaby Central, he helped me with a kitchen reno. Took him a bit longer to add quarters, eighths and 16ths than it took me. But he could cut to a 16th, which was more than I could do.)

Some years back, the Times Colonist published a piece I wrote that categorized kids as no-maintenance, low-maintenance and high-maintenance. Briefly, no-maintenance kids are intelligent, self-motivated or both. Point them in the right direction and stand back. Some of them are special-needs kids.

Low-maintenance kids need help with the work. They can’t do it on their own, but with teacher assistance (sometimes a lot) they can do most or all of the work. Quite a few of them are special-needs kids.

High-maintenance kids have behaviour problems. Some find it easier to act out than attempt to do what for them is difficult work, and some are kids who could do the work but find it more amusing to make life miserable for everyone. Some of them are mentally ill. They are the problem.

My solution is differentiated classes. Beginning with Grade 3, when the school has a handle on who’s who, there would be three kinds of classes. Large classes would have 32 students, 26 no-maintenance and six low-maintenance. Some would have special needs. Medium classes would have 18 students, 12 no-maintenance and six low-maintenance, some with special needs. The small classes would have 10 students, a mix of no-maintenance and high-maintenance kids.

If you add all those up, it comes to 44 no-maintenance, 12 low-maintenance, and four high-maintenance kids, which would constitute two regular classes at the moment. The difference is that the low-maintenance kids could get the help they need, rather than being pushed aside by the needs of the high-maintenance kids.

Teachers would choose which class they want, and if there weren’t enough volunteers for any category, assignments would be made on a rota basis, but I suspect most spots would be filled by volunteers: I knew lots of teachers who liked working with high-maintenance kids, if they didn’t have too many of them, and didn’t have to try to deal with them and help other kids at the same time.

Would this solve the problem? I don’t know. Will this happen? I doubt it. But at least it might get us talking about the real problem, because we aren’t going to solve it by doing what we are doing, which is to do the same things again and again and expect a different result.


Ian Cameron spent 60 years in the B.C. education system, as a student, teacher, librarian, administrator, Ministry of Education manager and teacher in the Faculty of Education at the University of Victoria.