The Nova Scotia Department of Education’s Special Education Policy (2008) outlines the commitment to inclusive education in the province. It states that every student is given a suitable, quality and inclusive education based on his needs. There are, however, two noticeable streams of training within this system. The first can be categorized as the ‘mainstream’. In other words, those students meeting desired provincial grade-level and participating in related standardized assessment. The second group could be categorized as ‘special needs’. Special needs, or ‘exceptionalities’ as written in the provincial document (p18) include: cognitive impairments, emotional/behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, physical disabilities and/or health impairments, speech impairments and/or communication disorders, sensory impairments (vision/hearing), multiple disabilities, giftedness. Despite recognizing as an inclusive system, there continues to be clear structures in place of what is ‘expected’ or ‘normal’ for students, and for those who require something ‘supplementary’. When teachers are supplementing strategies for some students there is a chance that these ‘developments take place in isolation and therefore are fragmented’ (Head, G., 2011, p3). As well, Florian and Black-Hawkins (2012) point out the limiting challenges of ‘bell-curve thinking’ (p826) on the development of students who fall outside of the norm.
In the early 1980s, a general movement against public debt and rising unemployment rates established across Canada, including the province of Nova Scotia (Sattler, 2012). The prevalent public-school systems were, to a significant extent, becoming scapegoats for this economic decline, ‘because of their perceived inadequate preparation of students for the new knowledge economy’ (Sattler, 2012, p.5). Despite the education system falling under provincial rather than federal jurisdiction, a movement towards a market-based neo-liberal framework for education could be seen across provincial governments as one step in helping to improve the economy. In an effort to increase the economic competitiveness and prepare students to be productive members of the workforce, school boards took an approach to education that focused on standardization, performativity and accountability. Examples of how neo-liberalism has been shaping the educational system in Nova Scotia are: provincial, board & school-based assessments, individual school accreditation processes, outcome-based curriculums, and the notion of curriculum mapping across school boards. The commonality between the first two examples is the competition created between students as well as institutions based on achievement levels in mathematics and language art; whereas, the latter examples are strategies to increase consistency and ease in assessment of standards including both instructors and candidates. Student progress within the system depends upon meeting or surpassing standard expectations. Those students who do not demonstrate acceptable understanding or performance become subjects of the special education stream in which the curriculum is modified or adapted to perceived needs. It should be kept in mind that these changes toward increased standardization and measurement were happening at the same time as an inclusive approach to education was being added to the agendas of most school boards across Canada (including Nova Scotia). As a result, we have not only an inclusive approach that strives to promote education for all students within their community regardless of language, physical or cognitive disability, race, religion, and color (DiGiorgio, 2010), but also a standardized approach with a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum.