Posted by: Principal/Editor | April 27, 2012

“Tsunami’ in Special Education

I have spent 22 years in the special education service, teaching students with intellectual disability and autism.  All these years special education teachers, myself included, developed diverse instructional strategies through formal, informal and incidental training to equip ourselves with the knowledge and skills to teach and manage special needs students.  Though there are researched, tried and tested approaches to teaching and learning, most of our skills developed are through personal experiences developed into tacit knowledge.  Each day is a challenge for us and more often than not, we deployed trial and error strategies in helping our students learn.  At times the efforts paid off while at other times we kept ‘hitting our heads against the wall’ while still searching for that ‘enlightenment’ to make a difference in the education lives of these students.   Nevertheless, many persevered as we believed that even if the difference that we make is negligible, it would mean a lot deal to the students and their families.

Special Schools are established and run by Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs).  As these VWOs are independent of each other, policy formulation and implementation are very much school-based or at the most, organisation-based.  Teachers, middle management as well as school leaders and school management committee collectively formulate policies for schools.  Teaching and learning is student centric and individualised.  Education policy implementation is very much received with little resistance as teachers are able to ‘see’ the rationale of its intent and the benefits it brings to the students.

Over the last few years, since the Enabling Masterplan (EM) 2007-2011 was announced and implemented in the disability sector, the climate in special schools changed drastically.  A more active role played by the Ministry of Education, with ‘influx’ of policies, processes, initiatives, prototyping being implemented.  Within a short span of 4 years, I’ve observed these initiatives being ‘piled’ onto the teachers’ shoulders.  Let me share one of the initiatives that is currently being implemented.  In 2010 the Special Education Branch (SEB) of MOE implemented a Reading Mastery (RM) programme.  RM was piloted to students aged 9-12.  Using the Direct Instruction approach, the pilot showed slow but significant improvement in the reading ability of these students.   In the following year, RM was extended to students aged 13-18.  Much to the displeasure of teachers, the programme was carried out as planned.  The programme, which was initially intended as a trial for one term, took more than 70% of the language periods in that school year.  Teachers had to drop the current language curriculum, which prepares students for national assessment, and replaced those periods with teaching RM.  As a result, students in these age category didn’t perform well in the assessment.  At the same time, no results were disclosed as to the success of the RM initiatives on these students from MOE who collated the RM data.  Teachers feedback their concerns and frustrations on the initiative which they shared didn’t benefit these teenagers.  As much as they didn’t dismiss the benefits of the initiative, they felt that the initiative and instructional strategy deployed were not age appropriate for these students.  Thus, students were not engaged and behavioural issues ‘erupted’ as students get more restless and felt that the RM is ‘belittling’ them and they were embarrassed ‘to face’ their classmates who were better readers.

Despite, the teachers’ feedback and concerns, the initiative continued again this year, taking up yet another 70% of the language periods.  At this juncture, I’m not disputing the MOE’s initiatives in trying to help special schools equipped its structure, system and processes with the intent of providing quality education for special needs students.  However, in doing so, I felt that there is a lack of understanding of how special needs students learn and even more, the lack of understanding of how instructional strategies differed between special schools and mainstream counterparts.

Though, the initiative may have shown improvement in the reading ability of students age 9-12, does it mean that it will reap similar results when implemented to students age 13-18?  A ‘one size fits all’ policy initiative may work well in the mainstream schools, but in special schools with students of diverse needs and ability levels, do we still ‘push’ the initiative regardless of it outcomes or implications?  The point that ‘disturbs’ me the most is that the policy implementers are oblivious of feedback given by teachers who had to implement the policy initiatives and still proceed to continue the initiative in the second year.

Posted by Noraini



  1. Dear Noraini,

    to clarify: when you mention that the Enabling Masterplan (EM) 2007-2011 was announced and implemented in the disability sector and that MOE is now playing a more active role in terms of introducing new policies, processes and initiatives, does it mean that MOE is de facto over-riding / over-ruling all the former in-house SPED policies and practices?

    The case study you presented makes me wonder what MOE’s SEB is doing / how it functions. It just seems like common sense that SEB should consider input from SPED schools during its policy formation process, and also consider feedback from SPED schools in reviewing these policies. It certainly sounds as if SEB / the relevant authorities are not doing enough of that right now.

    BTW, during the MLS school visit to your school, your P and VP didn’t really mention too much about the challenges you raised. Then again, the session was really focused on us gaining a better understanding about all the good that your school is doing, and all the obstacles (minus MOE interference) it has to overcome. Perhaps it wasn’t the right platform and we weren’t the right people to discuss EM /SEB matters with….


  2. Dear Noraini,

    I salute your efforts and dedication as well that of your counterparts in SPED in making a difference to the lives of our children with special needs. While I can’t say that I totally understand what the SPED educators are going through as a result of the ‘tsunami’ that has struck SPED, I can certainly resonate with what you have shared.

    If I can borrow your analogy, we, in the mainstream have been struck with so many ‘tsunamis’ at such a fast rate that they have become waves that we just have to deal with on a daily basis. Whether this is good or bad, it really depends on the nature of the waves (nature of policy), the way the captain of the ship (leadership) manages his crew and the ship to brave through the waves and whether or not the crew has a say in exploring other routes to avoid or overcome the huge waves to get to the same destination in the end.

    I’m not sure to what extent the SPED schools have a control over the Reading Mastery (RM) programme. I also wonder if the SPED teachers have been consulted prior to the implementation of the initiative. But from my understanding of your sharing, feedback after the programme was rolled out seems to have fallen on deaf ears and I find that really upsetting.

    To draw comparisons with what is happening in the mainstream primary schools, let me cite various initiatives such as the ICT MasterPlans, STELLAR (in the teaching and learning of EL) and Holistic Assessment (under PERI recommendations). I believe that teachers and teacher-leaders do understand that these ‘waves’, if left alone to direct the ship, will somehow take the ship to shore, a destination that we all want to go to. All the stakeholders have to believe that’s the destination we want to end up at. Without this common goal, no amount of good leadership can manage the resistance to the policy or reform. So, for example, for as long as teachers and parents are still focussed on the product instead of the learning process, Holistic Assessment may not be able to take on a full flight in schools. Unfortunately, because of the ever-present high-stake national assessment, this battle will not end.

    Coming back to RM in SPED, I wonder if you and your counterparts truly believe in the benefits of the programme, assuming that the SPED schools and SEB (MOE) do want to get to the same destination. Even if there may be different focus ie. national assessment vs literacy for life (…I’m not sure if this is the real objective of RM), can these two actually meet halfway?

    For example, when my school decided to roll out a teaching and learning package for Reading Comprehension, we received a lot of resistance from parents who felt that the approach we were taking was too focussed on skills at the expense of exams techniques. They felt that skills-teaching was taking time away from drill-and-practice which they still think is the key to academic achievement. Whenever I got such feedback from concerned parents, I felt like I was fighting a losing battle. While we were hoping to develop thinking skills in reading beyond the assessment and develop literacy for life, parents seem to be contented that their children do well in the exams. So we seemed to have different destinations in mind. So, we are now looking into tightening the alignment between skills-teaching in reading comprehension and assessment with the hope for an equilibrium of some sort, meeting halfway, so to speak, and getting the best of both worlds.

    Is there room for such compromise with RM in SPED schools?

    Thanks, Noraini, for your sharing.


  3. I so feel everyone’s pain. So many fads / ideas / plans / strategies / competencies floating around, so many adoptions, drop then re-adopt or adopt new ones etc. Before we learn to grapple and understand one change another is coming your way. Academics need to make create new ideas and persuade that their way is the ‘right’ way – that is their industry. We in ours should be less reactive. We should study in carefully and question critically, it’s objective, usefulness and viability.

    Many new programs get dished out, especially when new ‘leaders’ get into position. But being good efficient and obedient Singaporeans, we often do not ask why but just do it like NIKE. This is especially true when programs are implemented and pushed from the very top. Very often new groundbreaking ideas are just repackaged ideas with additional modifications etc. Schools spend huge amount of resources adopting, training and executing but within a few years, lose steam and the program dies off. Non-sustainable. Worse, the program might be detrimental to the students. We need to be able to separate fads from fundamental and important changes. That is what middle managers and school leaders need to pay attention to so as to not make our teachers cynical and fatigued to changes.

    • I appreciate Noraini’s use of the metaphor of the tsunami to represent nation-wide policies that grow out of small-scale pilots, and fully sympathize with that feeling of being overwhelmed. Too often, the good that can be seen from one pilot venture is assumed to benefit all other similar situations, and I would join her in asking policy makers to stop and consider the efficacy of using such an approach at the nation-wide level.

      It sounds to me like her teachers had the right thing going in trying to make meaning of the way they should help their students, even if the process took longer than our results-hungry culture seem able to tolerate. Isn’t this the kind of ownership we wish our schools to have and isn’t this what we need if we are to fulfill the goals of TLSN? The policy may not be wrong, and may actually benefit more in the long run, but I would suggest that there be greater partnership between policy-makers and practitioners so that initiatives can be contextualised in implementations and better customized to the needs of each school.

      Do take heart and keep giving the feedback, Noraini. I think it’s the best way to help our country move forward to a shared vision of what education can be for our children. I am hopeful that the latest changes will help pave the way for more voices to be heard.

  4. i think that quite often the rationale of the policy is good and the ideas behind the policy have been well thought through. The problem comes about when the implementation of the policy is not alligned with the intention of policy. As schools are given the autonomy, if leaders do not interpret the policy right or they shape it to what they feel is beneficial to the school, thats when the teachers face much unhappiness. Teachers so often are not even made to understand the policy intentions but just asked to implement based on their leaders interpretations. Heres why the leaders understandings are very important.

  5. The phrase “The road to hell is often paved with good intentions.” seems apt to describe the situation here. It is clear that both MOE and the school have the student’s learning at heart. Perhaps, there was a misalignment or miscommunication of needs or expectations at the planning, implementation or evaluation stage/s that resulted in the frustration. That being said, do the teachers in other SPED schools share your sentiments?

  6. The beginning circumstances for change are oft different from school to school. There is a recognisable need for change. The following are just a couple of thoughts for consideration

    Borrowing terms from Schon(1983), it may because the high ground of theory may not flow as well, through the conduit into the lowland of practice.Sometimes we are not willing to wait for conditions to become viable for the change to succeed and et we succeed.

    A school can choose to embark on introducing research to heads and members of the faculty. The next couple of years would probably mean a lot of failure – productive failure before competency arrives. Can the faculty afford to or be willing to wait for the beginning circumstances to change before looking for success.

  7. It is quite sad that the good intention from one party ends in frustration for the other. The importance of getting feedback and having the courage to tweak and modify the original plan is critical in any policy/program implementation. Just like an effective lesson conducted in one class might not work well in another. There are other factors to consider, eg the age/ability of learners, the learning environment, the culture of the school etc. There needs to be reflection and evaluation of any program initiatives.

  8. Dear Noraini,

    I always think that teachers who are serving in SPED schools have a heart bigger than many of us in the profession. One of the greatest wishes on mine with regards to education is for us to be truly inclusive. But there are many challenges and one of the hardest to overcome is the need to customise the teaching to students’ needs, not learning needs. By being overly focused on what we think they should learn, we sometimes overlook the fact that we should see each student as an individual. and each of them have different needs, not just learning needs. We tend to tackle the academic issues without looking deeper into what is stopping / slowing these children from learning.

    And when we “technicalise” the SPED schools too much, what is our ultimate outcome? For them just to be economically viable? I believe that students with special needs carry within each of them a purpose, – and increased interaction with them will help our future citizens to be more empathic, not sympathetic, more accepting and be more willing to celebrate differences.

  9. Dear Noraini, hats off to all teachers in special education school. I understand that all of you definitely face more challenging situations than those of us in mainstream schools.

    Personally, I have felt frustrated many instances when new policies and initiatives were rolled out to schools. I understand that each policy is rolled out with good intentions but the problems lies in the implementation. Usually teachers struggle because of time constraints. When we want to try out something new, we have to give up on other things which we have been practicing. It is important for schools to identify what can be taken out before trying out new initiatives so that teachers don’t have to struggle. Yet, whatever we do should benefit the pupils. It is a difficult journey but let us all continue for the sake of our pupils.

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