How well do the education systems of Spain, Germany, and the United States address the needs of a multi-cultural and diverse classroom?
Our group’s interest lies in uncovering the reasons why certain groups of students are treated differently both within and across school systems. We are also interested in finding out how discrimination across different modes of education affects pupils’ development and progression into later stages of life. In an increasingly globalized and diverse world, countries have to deal with a wider variety of students. Different schools, teachers, and societies have reacted in different ways, which have differential effects on each type of student. Each one of us will investigate four different areas of interest relating to education: different teaching styles, differential treatment in special education programs, the effectiveness of immigration support programs, and the impact of discrimination based on gender and sexuality. Then, we will all come together and compare and contrast varying degrees of disparities in education among Germany, Spain, and the United States.
Octavio will study how teachers are trained in each country. He will specifically point our advantages and disadvantages to each type of teacher training and relate them back to their effect on students. He will see which teaching styles are the most effective at creating equal opportunity for all students.
Roxana will study how governments and civil society help immigrant students integrate into society at large. She will evaluate the depth and breadth of programs aimed to help immigrants adjust to life in a new country. She will see what is effective and what is not in order to determine what the ideal way to bring education closer to its intended meritocracy.
Mitchell will study LGBTQ discrimination within school systems across Germany, Spain, and the Untied States. He will see what policies are most effective in helping LGBTQ youth achieve full integration into larger society. He will look at the roots in homophobia, how it affects LGBTQ youth, and how education systems can best address the situation to ensure that LGBTQ youth have the opportunity to take full advantage of the education system.
I will study how education systems in different countries handle children who have autism. Having worked with students with autism before, I hope to discover the strengths and weaknesses of each country’s programs for autism. I want to know which countries are most effective at leveling the playing field and how they came to do so.
Beginning with the Ancient Greeks, education has served as a way to teach students the values of society. It has primarily functioned as a meritocracy, measuring student’s intellectual ability and then rewarding those that did well. Ideally, each student would have an equal opportunity to succeed. Today, many education systems function in the same way, supporting the intellectually gifted. However, success is not equally attainable for all students. The barriers and opportunities available depend on the policies and culture of each country.
In the United States, the education system varies by state. The path of education advances from primary to secondary school and then to college or vocational school. Curriculum is organized by the state and the federal government as well as the state governments’ organized standardized tests.
Spain has a similar system where students advance through the same stages (primary, secondary, etc.). However, after the age of 16, only successful students are awarded a Secondary Education Certificate, which is necessary for them to continue on to university. This has resulted in Spain having double the mean of the EU’s dropout rate (Simon). Furthermore, students are not assessed through standardized tests (Simon).
The educational system varies throughout Germany because each state implements its own educational policies; the federal government plays only a minor role. Optional Kindergarten education is provided for all children between two and six years of age, after which school attendance is compulsory. The German school system is free and compulsory until 9th grade. After the Grundschule (primary school from the ages 6- 10), teachers recommend each student for one of three different types of secondary education. Parents have the final decision about which school their child will attend. Hauptschule is designed for students going into trades such as construction. This is completed after 9th or 10th grade (ages 14 to 16). During apprenticeships, students then attend Berufsschule, a dual-education vocational high school. The Hauptschule has been subject to significant criticism, as it tends to segregate the children of immigrants with schoolmates whose German is also poor, leading to a cycle of poverty. Realschule is designed for students who want to apprentice for white-collar jobs not requiring university studies, such as banking; complete after 10th grade (age 15 to 16). Those who change their minds and decide to attend university can proceed after testing to Gymnasium. Some areas of Germany combine Realschule and Hauptschule under one organizational and educational umbrella. Gymnasium is an academic preparatory school for pupils planning to attend universities or polytechnics. Some offer a classical education (Latin, Greek), while others concentrate on economics. The curriculum leading to the Abitur degree were recently reduced from 13th grade to 12th grade (ages 17 to 18 - "G8," eight years of Gymnasium). In order to attend Gymnasium, students must obtain a letter of recommendation from their previous teachers. The Gesamtschule, a mixed ability school, puts all pupils in a single building, combining the three main types; these are still quite rare.
Students with special needs are assigned to Förderschule. These are partially integrated with non-handicapped students and they vary depending on the type of disability (Bonn 2012). In the system, there are many more types of specialized schools for vocational, teacher and academic training. After intense written and oral examinations, students can attend university. While there, they work towards a Bachelor’s Degree and some continue to a Master’s or a PhD. After this, students enter the job market.
My question of focus related to autism in the classroom is:
What are the disparities between the services and assistance schools says they should provide and what is actually implemented on the ground level?
Autism is a complex neurological disorder that affects the way a person thinks, behaves, communicates and interacts with others. Autism is a spectrum disorder. This means it affects some children mildly and affects other children much more. It has been said that If you know one person with autism, you know ONE person with autism (Kluth, 2003).It is highly unlikely that two individuals with autism will be affected in the same way. Because autism affects individuals differently it is unlikely that one intervention approach will help all individuals. The main characteristics related to ASD: language deficits, lack of social awareness and skills, and sensory integration differences. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 88 American children as on the autism spectrum; this increase is only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness (Autism Speaks).
Theories about inclusion shaped the framework for which I undertook research and analyzed data. An argument against inclusive education is that with an increasing emphasis on tests and grades, an extremely flexible classroom meant to accommodate a range of learners makes teaching to the test incredibly difficult. In segregated classrooms students have the possibility of receiving more 1 to 1 attention which can aid them in reaching their potential. However the potential benefits from inclusive education are that it teaches students lessons that cannot be evaluated by grades or standardized testing: social acceptance, relationship-building, and equitable attitudes among future generations. I believe that equal access to education is a basic human right. Implications of integrated education for students with ASD include improvement of the quality of life through development and implementation of successful inclusion programs that will carry over the lesson of tolerance, communication, and socialization into the daily lives of both students with ASD and their general. These are lessons that carry over into the adult lives of all students and enables students with ASD to remain active and socially connected within their communities as adults (Quinn).
In the United States, IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, establishes the minimum supports and services schools must provide to meet minimum requirements. The federal law governs how states provide early intervention, special education, and related services. It also ensures free appropriate public education in their local school district from age 3 to age 18 or 21. In order for states to receive federal funds, their schools must meet the eligibility funding criteria of IDEA. States may exceed the requirements and provide more services. They cannot, however, provide fewer services or promulgate state regulations or practices that contradict the guidelines of IDEA.. Students with ASD have a right to related supports and services to help them learn and receive the maximum benefit from their educational programs. If a student needs any of these "related services" to benefit from his/her education, they must be written into the IEP, Individualized Education Program. Frequency and duration of services, as well as relevant measurable objectives, should be included.
In Spain, the public administrations give students the necessary support from the beginning of their education or as soon as they are diagnosed as having special needs. The schools develop the curriculum for the student based on their needs and characteristics. They also develop an educational project, where the objectives and educational priorities are established along with the implementation procedures. The student’s education support should be in congruity with non discrimination, educational normalization, with the purpose of achieving their inclusion. Professional teams take into account parents’ and teachers’ opinions to integrate students in mainstream groups, in specialised classrooms within mainstream schools, or in special education schools.
In Germany, they are making strides towards inclusive teaching. The education system is setup so as students must earn their right to return to mainstream schools. The education authority makes the decision on whether to transfer a student following a request from Sonderschulen or from the parents. Students at special can be admitted to a Grunschule or Hauptschule if there is a chance that they will be able to “cope with lessons and achieve success”. Special education is classified with concern for the students special educational requirements into the following categories: blind, visually impaired, deaf, hearing impaired, mentally disabled, physically disabled, students with learning difficulties, students with behavioral problems, students with impaired speech, students with a disease. Preventative measures and co-operation in early intervention are becoming more and more important. “Students facing the threat of disability receive preventive assistance to help counteract the emergence of disability.” This conveys the idea that having a disability makes one subhuman and that it can and should be avoided.
The topic is relevant because Autism is becoming increasingly prevalent. In the United States 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with Autism. An evaluation of how effective the education system is in providing relevant services for children with ASD is important.
My methodologies included guest lectures, close reading of texts, and interviews. The combination of the three methods really helped to give me a greater understanding of what I was researching and why it was important. The guest lectures we had scheduled turned out to be such a valuable resource. We had the opportunity to hear from many teachers, a handful of professors, and other professionals. The lecture about German Education structure helped me better understand the school system and also made me realize how easy it is for a student to get forgotten in the midst of this rigorous merit based system. A great strength about guest lectures was that I had the opportunity to follow up and interview these resources. Often time the lecturer was able to connect me to other resources they thought would be helpful. The art of networking derived from this method. A weakness was that sometimes the lecturers contradicted one another. For example one lecturer provided an optimistic view of the education system and another provided a more jaded view. They both were great sources of authority so it was difficult to distinguish which better reflected reality. I also did close readings of scholarly articles I found through PSYCINFO. Some of the keywords I searched to find my sources were: autism, mainstream, segregated, placement, and education. An asset of doing close readings was that the articles helped me develop the types of question I wanted to ask. For example one of the articles discussed how students with autism struggle to socially integrate with their peers, which influenced me to inquire on the matter. A flaw of the method was that a lot of pertinent articles I found were outdated by 15 years so I had to really search for contemporary research. I had the privilege of interviewing many teachers, parents of students with ASD, workers of unemployment centers, people whose lives were touched by an individual with ASD, and other members of society. I asked everyone I interviewed if they had a child with autism, which classroom would they want their child to be placed in. I asked teachers if they had any training within their education to work with special needs students. And finally I asked parents of students with ASD about their experiences with the school system. A disadvantage of the interview process was the small and potentially biased sample I gathered. The conclusions I came to are contingent on whether the individuals accurately represent a larger sample. An advantage of the interview process was that in comparison to the text I acquired a genuine understanding of what is actually happening at the ground level. I think it is easy for text to paint a picture that conveys the idyllic model, but sometimes this is radically different from the flawed reality. Another advantage was that the answers I gather from this process shaped the type of research I needed to do. For example when I asked people in Spain what classroom they would want their child to be in I was surprised to learn they either wanted a main stream classroom or a special education school, but hardly ever the special education classroom within the mainstream school. Upon reflection it is so fascinating to realize how interrelated all of my methods became.
In Germany I had the opportunity to interview a professor who was an expert in the field of German education. He said there are debated about school systems providing equal opportunity. Germany questions whether equal opportunity will lower standards and therefore segregated. He explained how there are different opportunities for different people. He described how in Germany in order to diminish inequalities in access to education there is now 2 school types of high school: integrated secondary school ( where disabled students attend) and Gymnasium for the elite (a prestigious school that better prepares students for university). The recommendation on which school to attend is based on academic performance. In Germany many special needs schools were closed which caused a “forced integration” The teachers don’t have any formal training so they don’t know how to deal with students with special needs. The sentiment of teachers who aren’t trained is they are worried and overwhelmed and asking for either the skills or for colleagues to support them. Ideally they would want 1 to 1 aids. While the opinion changes individual by individual there is a general consensus for wanting segregation again. I had the opportunity to interview a young teacher, he told me in his path to become a teacher there was not training to work with special needs. He told me about a student he had in his class who “suffered from autism” and how the student was considered a difficult student. His use of the word suffer implies that the life of the student is of constant pain or distress and it provides a very negative connotation of what it means to have autism. The student he had was exceptionally smart in physics and science, which is why he said “I got very lucky to have an autistic student like him”. He described that despite excelling academically, the student was not fully integrated in his peer group. This case study is very indicative of the norm, students with autism in mainstream classrooms often face difficulties with social integration. His opinion was that all teachers should have psychology classes implemented into their schooling. They need to learn how to work with difficult students. He discussed that while teachers are not afraid of working with students with autism they are not welcoming and teachers don’t want these students because they do not have enough resources. Teachers have such a strong focus on high standards and subjects matters and materials but they lack the skills they need to be a teacher. Private schools are often the better choice as opposed to public schools because there is more success of getting the student into an integrated classroom. In Germany there is a lack of education and resources for student with special needs. When talking to an employer from the job center, he described how individuals with intellectual disabilities receive social welfare and they are not pushed to work, not punished for not being able to be employed. This idea creates the expectation that an individual with ASD is incapable of working when often they would love to be contributing members of society.
In Spain I have found that the economy has eroded the resources. Overall autism is less recognized and often categorized as a psychological disability. In one interview a man told me about his colleague who has a child with autism. He was in a normal class in his pueblo, he had an assistant that would go to class with him. Then the class sizes increased, support was taken away, but he was kept in that class. Now he is pushed more and more aside where he is told to just go play while the teachers give the lessons to the rest of the students. He is being left behind because he can’t follow and keep up with this new classroom structure. This case is not uncommon as I gathered from my interviews. Spain has robbed special needs students of their right to learn and in the process are destroying education. When I asked a member of society if she knew what autism was, she only broadly recognized it, that however didn’t stop her from having an opinion. She described how private schools are the best route because the class sizes are smaller and there is more 1 to 1 attention. Some interesting quotes that I got from this interview were “Those kids.. it’s a pity… but we all hope it doesn’t happen to our kids.” “Those poor parents, that child will always be dependent. What will happen after the parents dies?” The last question is a very common worry for parents of children with autism. They worry about the welfare of their child after they pass, so I thought it was interesting that even someone who had no direct connection to autism could be so in tune. I interviewed a worker from Fet de Vidre- Centro Especial de Empleo, an employment center for special needs individuals. They are a state supported business, yet from 2011 they have only received state funding six times. She said it was an injustice that there are no resources for special needs individuals. She also described how special needs individuals often go to trade schools where they are matched by their capabilities. I talked to a medical student and he likewise only recognized autism, he told me how learning about autism was not integrated into their curriculum. He told me about how when he was in school, high functioning special needs students were integrated for some classes like art and gym, but were taken out of the class for math, language, and science. He described how the moment the students were taken out of the class room the were segregated out of the group. This has created a social stigma around autism and disabilities.
In the United States I have encountered more of an effort to understand ASD. President Obama is fully fund the Combating Autism Act, which provides nearly $1 billion in autism-related funding over 5 years, and work with Congress, parents and ASD experts to determine how to further improve federal and state programs. Overall there are more resources available and students are federally entitled to them. A student with autism has many resources including: a psychologist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, behavioral therapist, and the list goes on and on. While the United States is nowhere near perfect, after visiting Germany and Spain, I think we are heading towards the right direction in our effort to understand autism.
We, as a group, have determined that education is absolutely, unequivocally not a meritocracy. Well, at least, not in its current state. Octavio discovered that teachers in Germany and Spain are educated to teach their material, not to create diverse classrooms. While the United States fares better in this department, it is still relatively week. This type of environment does not allow multi-ethnic kids, or even students with different cultural views, to take full advantage of the education system. Multi-ethnic students won’t feel safe unless teachers take measures to promote classroom cooperation. Unfortunately, that goal is far from reality.
Roxana focused on support systems for immigrant students. She found that there were inadequate resources for immigrant students. The governments do not allocate very much money to help immigrants assimilate and as a result, they are put at a disadvantage. They do not know the language or culture and have had to start their lives without a strong foundation. The sparse services provided to them only begin to cover what they need to fully integrate into society.
Mitchell focused on LGBTQ discrimination in education. He found that LGBTQ students are indeed discriminated against in schools and that the education systems were inadequate when dealing with harassment. Homophobia causes a disproportionate number of LGBTQ youth to drop out of school, think about suicide, perform worse in school, and feel unsafe. In addition, they don’t have proper social support systems to help them through tumultuous times. This, in turn, does not allow LGBTQ students to realize their full potential. They cannot take advantage of the education system if they are constantly living in fear of their peers.
I researched whether or not schools had systems in place to support kids with autism. It turns out that neither Germany and Spain have adequate resources for these students. Kids with autism are grouped with other kids who have mental disabilities. Oftentimes, there aren’t even schools or special classrooms for these students. They are integrated into regular classrooms and asked to play while the teacher addresses his/her class. Although the United States has admirable policies toward children with autism, budget cuts have made support increasingly hard to find. In all three countries, children with autism have a distinct disadvantage in the school system. They are not supported as they should be and as such, they are not able to receive a quality education.
My position is that professionals should be trained in ways to ensure a free appropriate education in the least restrictive environment for all students. I believe in a classroom if I were a teacher it would not be my job to figure out if a student should be participating, but it would be my responsibility to figure out how they can participate. I believe teachers should appreciate and honor individuality and provide an appropriate and challenging education to all students. Inclusion in education should respect and build on the strengths and uniqueness each student brings to the classroom. I think that too often, students with special needs are placed in specialized programs without regard for their unique abilities or needs.Autism is becoming increasingly more prevalent. Autism does not discriminate. Autism is very real; it is very beautiful, very challenging, and very global. Overall the research reinforced my desire and passion to be an advocate for children who are habitually disregarded. Often time, parents who have children on the spectrum feel very alone and feel like they are the only advocate for their child, I want to serve as a support system and help their children achieve their potential. When systems don’t work, the responsibility falls on the back of their parents. I feel that because I have the patience to work with children with special needs, I also have an obligation to do so. And it is a responsibility that I feel honored to have. Some further questions that arose from my project were: If the Eurozone can’t take care of their youth as promised-with education and employment, if that promise is not being kept, what are the implications of the nation’s identity? How does a country with economic issues achieve ideal education? Furthermore how do you concretely define an ideal education?
When conducting my research I was very surprised by the varying ability to recognize autism. With autism being so prevalent in the United States, and with the background information I gathered about Germany and Spain, I assumed that autism would be more broadly recognized. Many people I talked to either hadn’t heard of autism or had some preconceived notion about it, for example Rain Man. It was very apparent to me that autism awareness wasn’t high, not many understood what autism really is. This lack of awareness even occurred as I conducted some interviews with teachers, which really begged the question: How are they prepared to encounter a student with ASD? However it is important to acknowledge that when I was undertaking my interviews even if the individual couldn’t provide me with concrete information, the very fact that they weren’t familiar with autism was valuable information. One cultural bias I did uncover was the assumption of belief that people with special needs were somehow less than human. There is a social stigma with being identified as having special needs, through observation the stigma seemed most ubiquitous in Spain. My biases derive from my experiences with children who have autism, in school, camp, research, and personal settings. As I was doing the research I discovered how much my personal biases played into everything I did. My passion for the field and for these children made me cringe every time I came across pervasive stereotypes. During some of my interviews I had to really try to bite my tongue whenever individuals said they pitied children with autism or described their lives as full of suffering. But I realized saying nothing was more harmful because it encouraged these misconceptions, so I attempted to respectfully inform them what autism was and how contrary to common belief many children with ASD will experience more happiness and feel more love than most. I also informed them how some of the greatest minds in the world were autistic. This project is really personal because in my career I want to work with children that have autism and I want to be an advocate for children who are often overlooked and just excluded because they don’t develop typically. I also realized how much I enjoy collaborating with fellow students. I really appreciated being a part of a research group because I felt like I had the opportunity to really learn from my teammates. As I got to know them and learned their stories, I understood why they were passionate about their topic; and their enthusiasm rubbed off on me. My project was significantly enriched by being able to collaborate with the amazing minds in my group.
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