Advocacy and administration: from conflict to collaboration

Date01 April 2004
Published date01 April 2004
AuthorLindy Zaretsky
Advocacy and administration:
from conflict to collaboration
Lindy Zaretsky
York Region District School Board, Thornhill, Ontario, Canada
Keywords Schools, Leadership, Education, Parents, Advocacy, Disabled people
Abstract Reports the findings of a qualitative study investigating the interactions relating to
special education between principals and parent advocates. Specifically focuses on variations in
perspectives among the principals and parent advocates on disability, special education and
inclusion. Places a particular emphasis on exploring the perceived power imbalances in
decision-making processes and in incompatibility or conflict among values and interests. Data
collected through a series of individual interviews and group dialogues involving both advocates
and administrators, reveal how the participants define and manage their respective professional
roles as they engage with one another in resolving ethical dilemmas in special education. The
findings provide rich illustrations of shared decision-making processes, alternative knowledge and
understandings of special education and disability, and more politicized forms of parent
involvement. These dialogical interactions also reveal the inequities, power imbalances and politics
within organizational arenas that promote conflict. Proposes democratic, critical, and collaborative
approaches to interactions as appropriate processes for managing such conflict.
Historical patterns of hierarchical control in school systems, and the current
dominance of performance criteria, efficiency, and economic agendas as
meta-values, pose significant challenges to the promotion of democratic forms
of interaction between parent advocates and principals. Unexamined values,
competing conceptions and adversarial practices common to educational
processes have major implications for how questions get framed, who gets
invited to ask the critical questions, and what becomes admissible as
alternative solutions to problems in special education.
Conceptual understandings of special education and disability are informed
by numerous disciplines which themselves draw on different scholarly
traditions – namely the medical sciences and the social sciences. There is a
considerable lack of conceptual clarity and agreement in both scholarly inquiry
and practice in the field. Conceptual differences, coupled with the practical
demands of meeting the needs and interests of various stakeholders, make
special education a uniquely problematic area of study and practice (Barnes
et al., 1999; Burrello et al., 2001; Clark et al., 1998; Skrtic, 1995; Slee, 2001;
Thomas and Loxley, 2001; Zaretsky, 2003). Yet for the sake of children and
their education it is these very complexities and tensions associated with the
study and practice of special education that warrant more focused and
intensive examination.
Among the people with a vested interest in disability and special education
are, of course, principals charged with the day-to-day running of schools and
parent advocates attempting to maximize educational benefits for their (and
The Emerald Research Register for this journal is available at The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Journal of Educational
Vol. 42 No. 2, 2004
pp. 270-286
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/09578230410525649
other) children. Illuminating the divergence of perspectives among the
stakeholders holds the promise of deepening our understanding of how and
why principals and parent advocates come to know disability and special
education in different ways.
Principals’ and parent advocates’ underlying and contrasting assumptions
about such notions as “normal”, “deviance”, and “inclusion”, can generate
dilemmas that confound their attempts to resolve highly problematic issues in
special education. If anything, these complexities demand that scholars and
practitioners adopt a more critical disposition to the theoretical knowledge
behind special education and re-examine the ways in which special education
and disability have been traditionally framed at the micro-level of local school
practices. There is a need for more culturally and politically contextualized
approaches to interactions between principals and parent advocates so they
can examine their own and others’ assumptions and openly acknowledge
which interpretations are guiding their actions. Furthermore, democratic forms
of interactive practice might support principals and parents in understanding
how different perspectives dominate and shape their values and practices in the
decision-making arena.
Framing the research study
The qualitative study described in this article focused on parent advocates’ and
principals’ perceptions of their interactions related to the resolution of problems
in special education. Three specific questions were addressed:
(1) How do principals and parent advocates come to know and understand
special education in different ways?
(2) In what ways do differences in competing conceptions of disability,
special education and inclusion compete with each other for dominance
and thereby compromise interactions?
(3) How do principals and advocates define democratic practice in their
dialogical interactions?
These questions provide the analytic focus of this study, and lead to a
discussion of parent advocates’ and principals’ roles in developing more
inclusive practices capable of managing highly contentious issues in special
Six experienced elementary school principals and seven parent advocates
participated in this study. The principals were selected from several district
school boards in the province of Ontario, Canada to provide a sample not solely
reflective of any single district’s programs, practices and policies in special
education. The parent advocates were affiliated with various special education
advocacy organizations found throughout the province of Ontario, Canada.
These advocates had a minimum of two years’ experience in an advocacy role
and at some point had children with special needs enrolled in a district school
Advocacy and

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