Transformative Action Towards Equity: Strategic Remodeling of Special Education Programming to Support Students' Academic and Social Development


Funding Program:

SSHRC Insight Development Grant

Funding Amount:


In the field of education, the debate around how schools structure the education for students identified with special education needs or disabilities continues to be of international interest. However, both the theoretical literature and empirical evidence show that placing students in ability-based programs further disadvantages students in several ways. Within the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest and most diverse public education system, there is a collective of over 40 elementary school principals, vice-principals and superintendents that have committed to exploring how they can collapse their current self-contained special education programs and integrate students with special education needs into the regular program. The scope of this project includes both qualitative and quantitative analyses of the experiences of approximately 200-250 students, their parents and teachers, as well as over 40 administrators and superintendents.

Employing TDSB demographic, experiential and system data as well as qualitative data drawn from new and existing methodological tools, our research questions include:

  • Through this collective initiative, do best practices in special education service delivery and support emerge?
  • For students involved in the restructuring of their special education program, do their experiences of belonging and/or exclusion increase once they make the transition to the regular class?
  • Can administrators, educators, parents and students identify what other work needs to be undertaken to address barriers in attitudinal, classroom/school climate, gaps in professional expertise, etc. to ensure students are supported in the regular classroom?

To answer these questions, our work will address three objectives:

  • Discover best practices in program reform. For instance, across the 40 schools involved in this initiative, will administrators uncover similar processes that successfully support the collapsing of HSP and inclusion of students in their regular programs?
  • Identify the barriers to inclusion and belonging in school from the perspective of youth, parents & educators;
  • Establish a longitudinal analysis, for future exploration beyond the scope of the proposed project, whereby students who remain in self-contained special education classes throughout elementary and students who transition or engage in inclusive programming can be tracked throughout their tenure at the TDSB to reveal long-term trends in academic achievement across both secondary and post-secondary indicators.

In addition to addressing these research questions and objectives, the project will establish a longitudinal baseline sample to explore the impact of program placement, pedagogical practice and classroom climate have upon students’ academic achievement across both self-contained special education and inclusive placements as well as their trajectories across elementary and secondary programming including post-secondary access.