Last week I stumbled across a recent comment left by one of the students on a TEDx talk I gave a few years ago. The comment was deeply moving, largely because of the kindness of the student’s words, but also because this student* was one of the inspirations for my research project on the impact of teacher attitudes on student outcomes.
While the concern I feel for all my students stays with me after they leave my class or I have moved on to new schools, the concern I felt for this particular young man was keenly felt. The student was highly capable but I felt they were rarely given the respect they (and all students) deserve, nor the opportunity to fully flourish within that school. While, at least from their comment, this student seems to have retained their compassionate nature, the flaws in our education system remain.
What we owe to students is complex. Education is not a singular good that can be easily transferred from teacher to pupil. Rather, education is a cluster of goods and certain goods will inevitably conflict. The goals of education must then be clearly defined, striking an ideal balance between the varying goods owed to students and desired by society. Here I take a view of educational justice that is informed by Colin MacLeod and Elizabeth Anderson. I believe educational justice should not simply be focused on private goods such as academic results or job preparedness (although these are of course important). Nor should we be striving solely for democratic competency and economic productivity within our graduates. While harder to measure, educational justice must also incorporate positive and fulfilling experiences during one’s schooling (involving, for example, healthy personal relationships, treating others as equals, and/or personal fulfilment through education).
I do not know for certain whether, since my departure from this particular school, this student was provided a just education. I do know that students continue to exit schools without the goods they are owed and that we can and ought to better.
This is the second part of a draft version of a talk given at the Victorian Postgraduate Philosophy Conference and that I am giving this week at the Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference in Wellington, New Zealand. Part one can be found here.
The imperative of integration can be seen to conflict with disabled students’ attainment of educational goods. The term ‘disability’ picks out a highly diverse group of students. This creates significant variation in regards to the impact integration may or may not have on individuals.
Many of the risks regarding the extension of integration as an imperative for special education provision result from the scale and diversity of those picked out by this term. Specifically, integration into general education may result in students being isolated from other like-members of their minority group. The limiting of scope for homophilic relations could have a negative impact on both self-respect and civic virtue, especially where disabled students face stigmatisation from their fellow students or teachers.
Limited homophilic relations could lead to isolation within the integrated community, diminishing students’ self-determination, dignity, or community connectedness. Where this occurs, stigmatised disabled students will have lost some of the goods they are owed by education. Specifically, goods connected to flourishing such as positive and fulfilling experiences during one’s schooling and positive peer relationships. Importantly, these goods often determine access to other educational goods, as students’ academic outcomes are negatively affected where they feel unsafe or disconnected from others within schools. The resultant learning environment is unlikely to fully attend to the student’s social, emotional, or educational needs, rendering the generalist classroom non-conducive for the attainment of educational goods. This is exacerbated where segregated background conditions, combined with difficult in-classroom experiences, creates hostility towards integration within the teaching profession.
Within already integrated classrooms, segregated background conditions influence the scale and burden of conflict between integration and educational justice. Successful integrated conditions are unlikely to result where integrating processes are informed by negative attitudes. Thus, integration will be unsuccessful where teachers hold either conscious or unconscious negative attitudes towards disability. Teachers in such classrooms fail to model inclusive behaviour to students, while entrenching stigma and impeding the social, emotional, and educational success of students. Importantly, educational goods will not be successfully attained where poor facilitatory processes are in play.
States owe certain goods to their citizens. States may provide access to these specific goods via specially tasked institutions. For example, such states provide access to adequate healthcare for their citizens via the healthcare industry. Within these societies schools are institutions charged with securing educational goods for the citizenry. Due to the role of education providers in these societies, in the case of a conflict between integration and educational justice, integration may not take precedence over goods for which education is given the special task of securing.
Within this context, the distribution of ethical work is such that schools’ primary duty is to educational justice. Other imperatives ought not then be extended to the education context where so doing would undermine the ability of schools to attain educational justice for students.
Inclusion places disproportionate harms on vulnerable groups, limits said groups attainment of educational justice, and can reinforce negative attitudes towards disability. Within schools, integration currently entails undesirable processes and fails to bring about the state of affairs schools are tasked with; that is, securing educational goods within the population. Integration within the context of special education may then be left impermissible. If integration is an imperative of justice, as a process or a condition, integration by nature ought to be just. If integration requires morally impermissible actions or if it results in a worse state of affairs than not-integrating, then integration is not a moral imperative for schools.
This leaves voluntary separation justified for disabled students. For Michael Merry, voluntary separation is justified in its ability to enhance the conditions necessary for equality and citizenship. I would further contend that within the educational context, voluntary separation is justified for stigmatized groups where integration undermines their access to educational goods. Voluntary separation may become the just and rational choice for families where special education providers not only better attend to the educational justice requirements owed to students, but also better foster students’ self-respect and civic virtue.
While voluntary separation may indeed be justified under present integrated condition, integration is not inherently impermissible within the classroom context…
Cont. next week with an argument for the professional moral duties of teachers and how we can (and ought to ) shift integration’s burdens off students with disabilities.
*while an inspiration for this project my comments in no way ought to be read as identifying this student as disabled or neuroatypical. The project of properly conceptualising integration as an imperative of justice is of course much broader than disability, inclusion, and the duties of schools.