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Diplomacy in Action

Chapter 2: Tale Out of School


                                                                                                                                    By William Powell

Stories provide a marvelous vehicle for reflection and the making of shared meaning. To be human is to be a storyteller (Sylwester, 1995), and educators need to be storytellers, for it is in our stories that we clarify our core values, discard the chaff and pass on the essence of our mission. Ironically, the bustle of the Information Age seems to leave us with little time for stories - for tales out of school. But stories are no luxury. In order to know where we choose to go, it is useful, if not imperative, to know whence we came.

Our story focuses on one particular school, a curious British/American hybrid located in the capital city of a large, East African country. We decided to tell the story of the evolution of special education at the International School of Tanganyika in Dar es Salaam because that was the history we knew best, both Bill and Ochan each having worked at the school for a total of 16 years. We do not tell the story to celebrate a highly successful inclusion model that other schools should emulate. There is no question that IST has become a much more inclusive school over the last 10 years. Its population of exceptional children is better served now than in the past, and we take cautious pride in those accomplishments. However, much work remains to be done to realize IST's full inclusive potential.

The story of IST may be worth telling because we believe that at least to some extent, our journey towards inclusion, with all its misadventures, mistakes and revelations, mirrors similar journeys taken by other international schools around the world. In this sense, it may be helpful to share.

IST was founded as an elementary school in 1963, soon after the independence of Tanganyika territory from Britain and the nationalization of education which a little later included the adoption of Kiswahili as the medium of instruction in government schools. IST's founding fathers and mothers were a relatively homogeneous group of expatriates and ex-colonials who had a common educational goal for their children - admission to a quality secondary boarding school in the UK or US. While the homogeneity of the founders' aspirations for their children undoubtedly provided them with the focused energy and cohesion to get the fledgling school off the ground, it was soon faced with the challenge of an open, idealistic and vague admissions policy. And so IST began to see the diversity, which ultimately would become the hallmark of all international schools.

Children of non-English speaking diplomats and children from the long term Asian business community applied for admission. Dependents from the growing aid-aid-development sector were also admitted. The cultural mix of the student population increased. While political idealists celebrated what they conceived of as the "global village," the school program had yet to make any provision for such diversity. Tanzanian citizens were barred from admission by ministerial decree; the future citizens of Africa's great experiment with radical socialism were required to go through the national system, "education for self-reliance".
The Board of Directors did debate whether the school's mission was being diluted or diverted by such diversity. The then Chairman was fond of saying that the school could not be "all things to all people." How much cultural and linguistic diversity could a school tolerate and still be true to its original mission? At about this time, there was a short-lived parent pressure group that sought to make the school's admission policy selective, to ensure that only the best and the brightest would be enrolled. The Board was divided on the issue but finally decided that the needs of the larger community were better served by a comprehensive intake of students, including the full normal range of abilities.

By the mid-1970's, there was an ongoing debate as to whether it was the school's responsibility to teach English to non-English speaking children. The discussion was intensified by the fact that IST was the only school of its kind in Dar es Salaam at the time. Some parents and teachers felt strongly that "international" children should be welcome at IST, but they needed to have a basic knowledge of English before they were actually admitted. These parents argued that it was not the job of IST to teach English and that the presence of children with limited English proficiency would hold back the academic achievement of mother tongue English speaking children. These same parents and teachers proposed an afternoon ESL program as a prerequisite to IST admission. Other parents and teachers felt equally strongly that, as a matter of principle, a lack of English should not exclude a child from a genuinely international school.

At approximately the same time, regular classroom teachers were increasingly vocal about the presence of mild and moderately learning disabled children within their classes, although the students were not labeled as such. Were these children within the full normal range of abilities? No one was really sure and class teachers coped as best they could. Although not formally diagnosed and certainly unplanned for at this point in time, these learning different students added to the growing diversity of the school.

By the late 1970's, IST had hired two teachers to provide special intensive English language instruction to students who were identified as having insufficient English to function within the regular classroom. ESL children were placed in multi-age, self-contained classrooms. The language teachers were recruited locally and did not possess ESL qualifications. As in many schools of the time, the fact that an individual had English as her mother tongue was deemed sufficient qualification to teach ESL children. The implications of this practice were and are worrisome.

First, this practice suggests that an understanding of learning theory and language acquisition was not perceived as a necessary prerequisite to the teaching of English to non-native English speakers. We question whether this is analogous to the assumption that because someone can drive a car, they can also fix the carburetor, or because we regularly use the bathroom, we can also repair the plumbing.

Second, there appeared to be some confusion as to the goal of second language teaching. Instruction was focused on communicative competence that began with direct teaching of "survival English" skills. It was assumed by many that, "You can't learn science until you've got enough English." This misconception suggests a failure to make adequate distinction between the acquisition of social language, or Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, BICS, and the development of academic language, or Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, CALP (Cummins, 1981). Research has shown that in an international school setting where the medium of instruction and the language of the playground are English, ESL children will acquire social language through mere exposure. However, we also now know that the development of so-called academic language, the language of abstraction, conceptualization and higher order cognition, takes longer and is reliant upon carefully planned direct instruction (Adamson, 1993).

Third, the practice of hiring teachers unqualified in ESL spoke to the status accorded to the non-native English speaking children and their parents within the school community. It clearly suggested a double standard, since, at the same time, all native English-speaking children were provided with fully qualified teachers. In addition, parents of ESL children often had difficulty with the English language themselves, and therefore were not perceived as a politically influential group. This lack of influence can also be attributed to culturally determined behaviors (e.g. exaggerated respect for school authorities that may have appeared obsequious, and the idea that advocacy for one's own child might represent rudeness or bad manners.)

Upon admission, children were given a homegrown test of English language proficiency and, if required, were interviewed by the ESL teacher. If their English was determined to be insufficient, these children were provided with a year in a self-contained language class to acquire enough English to cope in a mainstream class. "Sufficient English" was not operationally defined and there were lengthy and at times acrimonious discussions on the subject between class teachers and ESL instructors. In the meanwhile, children were exited from the ESL program on hunch and intuition or at the end of the student's year in the program. By 1978, IST had increased in enrollment and the Board of Directors embarked upon an ambitious Secondary School building plan. At this time, a policy was adopted which prohibited the admission into the school of ESL students after the age of 13. The rationale behind this policy was that the content demands of the Secondary School curriculum were sufficiently intense to make changing the language of instruction educationally unwise.

It was also at about this time that there was a proposal to levy a tuition fee surcharge for all ESL children. The proposal was not adopted.

In 1982, in response to a cry for help from the classroom teachers, the school hired a qualified learning disabilities specialist and allocated classroom space for a resource room that soon came to bear the somewhat Orwellian title: "The Learning Center." It was to this Learning Center that children who apparently did not learn were sent.

The Learning Center flourished. It appeared to meet everyone's needs. The child with learning problems was removed, at least partially, from the mainstream classroom and provided with individualized specialist attention. The classroom teacher was relieved of the responsibility of planning for the learning different child and absolved from responsibility for his or her failure. Parents of mainstream students were pleased that their child's achievements would no longer be held up by problem learners. Parents of the problem learners, some initially resistant to withdrawal, became more comfortable with the school's increased awareness of and concern for their specific child.

It seemed that we had found the model that served everyone well. At the end of the first year of the program, the school nurse remarked, "I don't know what you're doing, but it must be OK. I'm not getting as many students complaining of stomach aches anymore. All the ones who used to come are in your program."

The service delivery of the pull-out/withdrawal model had been borrowed wholesale from the medical profession, along with much of its technical vocabulary. Children who encountered difficulties in what was termed the "regular classroom" (the concept of the "regular" classroom did not exist before the advent of the resource room) were referred to a specialist for diagnostic testing. Successful learning was conceived of as similar to having a healthy physical condition, or operating an efficient machine. If all the parts were in good working order, the whole would function smoothly. Correspondingly, when learning was hindered, it was assumed that a component was "broken" or malfunctioning. The diagnostician therefore attempted to identify and isolate the broken part (or modality in the case of the LD child) so that it could be repaired or remediated.

Once the results of the diagnostic test were analyzed, an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP)[1] was prepared which included detailed and explicit behavioral objectives (which on occasion reached rare heights of specificity - "Within 11 weeks, Albert will be able to use, orally and in writing, 100 new vocabulary words with 76% accuracy.") The objectives of the IEP were then translated into a prescription, which included a specific number of instructional periods, that the child would be withdrawn from class in order to receive remediation from the Learning Center. The remediation often had as its primary focus the mastery of skills that were in isolation from meaningful content, application or higher level cognition. The special needs program followed a fragmented principle - if the student could understand how the parts worked, then he could understand the whole. For example, if the student understood the meanings of individual vocabulary words, he would be able to understand the meaning of the entire passage. At some point in the not too distant future, the theory went, the remediation would be complete, the broken part would be repaired and the child would be returned to the regular classroom as an efficient and successful learner.

Unfortunately, this did not happen nearly as often as we would have liked.

By the mid- to late 1980's our school saw the curious phenomenon which we have come to think of as child as ping-pong ball. The situation developed as follows: a child with limited English would apply for admission to the school. He or she would be referred to the ESL department for testing. The test results would be unclear. There was something more than just a lack of English. Something else was wrong. Perhaps it was a learning disability or perhaps a language disorder. The child was clearly not an ESL "pure type." The child was then referred to the Learning Center for additional testing, which of course could not provide meaningful results because of the child's lack of English - ergo the ping pong ball syndrome. The child simply did not fit within the organization of the school and would often spend weeks in a Kafkaesque limbo of complicated placement procedures, in a no-man's land between departments whose specializations rendered them incapable of meeting his needs and whose structure denied his existence.

To further compound the situation, the regular classroom teacher had, by this point, come to believe that she or he did not possess (and in many cases did not need to possess) the specialist expertise required to teach exceptional children. Here we saw the beginning of a cycle of fragmentation, territoriality and bureaucracy within which the school, for its own convenience, defined the learner a priori, before looking at the reality of the child.

To their credit, increasing numbers of teachers were questioning the effectiveness of the model. Concern was being expressed about the services we were providing to our exceptional students. Classroom teachers voiced concern about the preparedness of ESL students for the mainstream; special educators questioned whether children with learning disabilities were, in fact, ever "fixed" and how effectively skills were learned in isolation from curricular application. Parents asked about the emotional impact of excluding children from the regular classroom and about how their children would ever catch up on the missed subject area content. And administrators queried the amount of time that was consumed in prolonged testing, labeling and placement.

The time was right for a long, hard, critical examination of the special services provided and IST moved into the second phase of its special education development, a more reflective, dispassionate discourse that made frequent reference to research and to the successes and failures of other schools. A Task Force of teachers, special educators, ESL teachers and administrators was established to study the services we should be providing and to make specific recommendations for change. After a year of hard work, the Task Force reached the unqualified conclusion that we were not meeting the needs of ESL and LD children.

The Task Force raised disturbing questions about the limited focus on social language of the ESL curriculum. Our ESL graduates could post a letter, order a meal in a restaurant and ask directions to the toilet, but they did not possess the academic language to explain the process of photosynthesis, compare characters from a novel study, or analyze the causes of a historical conflict. They did not have the language that would allow them to integrate easily into the academic life of a regular class and deal with abstract concepts or perform higher level cognitive tasks.

Our Task Force also raised pointed questions about whether students with learning disabilities ever did catch up with their peers and whether coping skills taught in isolation were readily transferable to the mainstream. Questions were voiced about the social effect of the "pull-out" model and whether the student became stigmatized. What were the attitudes and perceptions of the special needs student towards being removed from the classroom? Was the school inadvertently contributing to a social estrangement that would lead to lower self-esteem? Were we, unconsciously, reinforcing a destructive, self-fulfilling prophecy? Perhaps most telling was the final question of the report: "Can we honestly say that the services we are currently providing to exceptional students genuinely facilitate their construction of individual meaning and mediate the creation of knowledge?"

The Task Force's recommendations raised eyebrows, hackles, voices in the staff room, professional insecurities, financial questions and logistical obstacles. But most importantly, the recommendations also raised new ideas and new hopes for the future.

The controversial recommendations were:

  1. That the Learning Disabilities Department and the ESL Department be brought together in one unit, perhaps to be called Student Services, and that in future, personnel for the Student Services Department should have expertise in both ESL and learning disabilities.
  2. That the Student Services Department develop a school-wide program for highly capable children.
  3. That, as much as possible, children with learning disabilities and ESL children be kept in the regular classroom with the Student Services teacher providing in-class support and curricular accommodations.
  4. That collaborative partnerships of classroom and Student Services teachers be formed that would be provided common planning time so that thematic units could be co-taught.
  5. That assessments of student achievement take various forms and focus upon what a student could do, not what a student could do in comparison with other students or, even worse, what a student could not do.
  6. That the school stop conceiving of ESL as a "subject area" with its own discrete curriculum. Rather, we should conceive of it as a necessary bridge to the content areas (we do not learn English or any other language for its own sake, but rather for what relevant use we can make of it.)
  7. That the school reaffirm it has only one curriculum for all of its students which can be differentiated to meet the needs of exceptional students. However, such differentiation does not mean a reduction in academic rigor nor a decrease in so-called educational standards. In fact, in many cases, such as curriculum compacting, it means an increase in academic challenge.
  8. That all special education testing and labeling of students cease unless such testing and labeling could be shown to be of specific value to the student (for example, to determine a preferred learning style or to demonstrate a bonafide learning disability in order to qualify a student for special accommodation on an external test such as the IB or SAT).
  9. That a five-year professional development plan be constructed that focused on the following areas:

           • Teacher - to - teacher collaboration (co-planning and co-teaching);

           • Language acquisition and development (that, as much as possible, all our
             classroom teachers should also become ESL teachers);

          • Awareness of the different learning needs of students within the regular
            classroom - learning styles, etc.; and 

         • Awareness of the needs of Highly Capable students.
  10. That the population to be served by the Student Services Department be defined as any child who would need assistance with learning; that all children would automatically qualify for such help; and that the assisted population be understood to be fluid and transitory - different today than it was yesterday, perhaps than it might be tomorrow.

Needless to say, the Task Force's recommendations provoked wonderfully spirited discussions and slowly, too slowly for some but much too quickly for others, the International School of Tanganyika began to explicate its core values, redefine its mission towards exceptional children, and restructure itself.


[1] Individual Education Plans have an important role to play in inclusive schools in determining objectives and monitoring progress and achievement. However, the Behavior Modification Methodology which was all the rage in the 1970's severely limited our approach to children with learning disabilities by over-emphasizing one dimensional accountability. We were able to measure progress that was behaviorally demonstrable; cognition, understanding and appreciation were considered to be subjective and therefore ignored.

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