It occurred to me that, since the fall, I haven’t explained what I’m doing in New Zealand. I’m sure some of you have not read that post, and even if you did, my project has morphed since then. In short, I am here on a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching grant. To read more about what that is, see my post You Got a Fulbright?.
I was drawn to New Zealand because of the recent work they have done in special education, most notably, the Learning Support Update. At this point in my career, I can trace so many issues with education straight up the chain-to administrative decisions, district policies, or even public policy and legislation. I am often frustrated that education policies are dictated by people disconnected from classrooms and schools. Those who actively work with students are rarely given a voice.
I was intrigued by the Learning Support Update because it claims to have engaged with parents, whānau (family), educators, and specialists, among others, when developing this policy. The ministry used the input provided by these groups to identify six main areas for improvement and developed an action plan. The ministry website reports positive results with the pilot program in the Bay of Plenty region.
Initially, my plan was to research how the Learning Support Update was developed and implemented, and how it has impacted the inclusion of students with special needs in the general education classroom. I hoped to discover a model for how top down change can positively impact education at the classroom level AND provide pragmatic strategies for improving special education inclusion immediately. However, as I mapped out my research, I realized I was trying to do too much.
By the time I gain approval from Victoria University to begin my research, I’ll only have 3-4 months to conduct all of my interviews and observations AND complete my project. One day, as I was reading the Education Review Office’s 2015 report on special education inclusion in New Zealand, it struck me that they were conducting the research I was hoping to do. I was trying to review the effectiveness of the Learning Support Update as a whole and provide hard evidence of the ways in which it is and isn’t working. I was trying to do the work of a government office with an extensive staff, and I was trying to do it by myself in three months! Realizing this made me finally admit that I needed to narrow down my project. Sure, I have 1,000 questions I want answered, and 1,000 topics I want to research; however, I have a finite amount of time and I need to prioritize.
So, I immediately let go of 999 of my questions and topics and narrowed down my project. Ha! Just kidding! Do you even know me? Obviously, the tears and anxiety came next. The anxiety was mostly wrapped up in two competing interests of mine. On the one hand, I would like to come back with knowledge that can immediately be implemented in schools. If I was willing to stop here, I could easily come up with a project topic. My adviser suggested I look at flexible seating and its effectiveness with students with special needs. She even said, “That would be a much easier project!” The problem was that these types of projects completely ignore my interest in policy, and it really is the issues at the top that drive me to create change. So, despite all of my tears and anxiety about not being able to come up with a project idea, I was completely unable to choose a project solely based on its ease.
After about a week of stressing out about this and beginning to question if Fulbright had made a mistake in choosing me, Elijah picked up a Ministry of Education pamphlet I had lying around, glanced at it, and said, “Why don’t you choose one of these areas they identified as needing improvement?” Ding ding ding. This is why I keep him around. Immediately, I realized I had the same thought way back when I was filling out my application, but for some reason had opted for the broader approach. So, I knew at once which area I would choose: collaboration among stakeholders.
Now, my project aims to identify how the Learning Support Update’s goal of strengthening collaboration among stakeholders (i.e. educators, parents, whanau, etc.) was realized and how stakeholders currently collaborate and communicate when developing and implementing Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for special education students. I will conduct interviews with principals, teachers, and parents and ask questions about roles in the IEP process, methods of collaboration amongst stakeholders when planning and implementing IEPs, and any changes or improvements made post Learning Support Update. I will also interview representatives at the Ministry of Education about the development, implementation, and results of the Learning Support Update.
I am particularly excited to research this topic in New Zealand. The culture here, especially with the Māori influence, is focused on family and community. It is my impression that parents and whānau play an active role in education and have strong partnerships with schools. I am excited to learn from these schools and hope to return with ideas for strengthening the partnerships within the IEP team. I am also excited that I found a way to maintain the policy piece. Not only will I be asking questions about collaboration, but I will be asking how improvements in this area have been realized. How did the Ministry support schools in implementation? What changes did schools make and how did principals facilitate these changes? Do all stakeholders see eye to eye on these improvements and the support given?
In the end, I hope to use my findings to provide professional development both about collaboration among IEP team members and about strategies for successfully implementing change initiatives.
Now that I have a topic that is both interesting to me and doable within my timeframe, the anxiety has vanished, and the tears have dried up. Yet again, I feel excited about this opportunity and ready to get to work. The ethics committee should be reviewing my research proposal on March 12. So, hopefully I can get interviewing soon after.