Inclusion of all children with disabilities in regular classrooms seems to be the law of the land. But is it the right thing for all kids? And how are teachers handling it?
Inclusion -- the idea that all children, including those with disabilities, should and can learn in a regular classroom -- has taken firm root in many school systems, although it is not specifically required by law.*
To oppose inclusion would seem to advocate exclusion. Yet, some observers maintain that full inclusion isn't always the best way to meet student needs. Critics of full inclusion ask whether even students with the most severe disabilities benefit from placement in regular classrooms.
Further, some outgrowths of inclusion involve rethinking the structure of the regular classroom. Inclusive classes may require more than one teacher. And teachers and students may need specific technology to help students with disabilities perform better.
While few educators oppose inclusion completely, some express reservations about how full inclusion works in the classroom. Albert Shanker, writing for the American Federation of Teachers in 1996 in "Where We Stand," asserted, "What full inclusionists don't see is that children with disabilities are individuals with differing needs; some benefit from inclusion and others do not. Full inclusionists don't see that medically fragile children and children with severe behavioral disorders are more likely to be harmed than helped when they are placed in regular classrooms where teachers do not have the highly specialized training to deal with their needs."
What appears to be a major in hurdle in the path to finding the proper method for inclusion is the fact that very few major policy making groups have addressed the issue in decades. The National Education Association (NEA) the largest and most powerful teachers' union displays its official stance on the topic which the group approved in 1994.
Groups with a more narrow purpose are only slightly more current with thier information. Both Kids Together and the National Dissemination Cetner for Children with Disabilities offer resources from February 2010.
While the debate is still in the forefront of the industry and the arguments made in the remainder of this article are valid, it is clear that the discussion has become stale.
In contrast, the National Association for State Boards of Education (NASBE) strongly endorses the "full inclusion" of students with disabilities in regular classrooms. In 1992, NASBE released a report titled "Winners All: A Call for Inclusive Schools." The report called on states to revise teacher-licensure and certification rules so that new teachers would be prepared to teach children with disabilities as well as those without disabilities. It also recommended training programs to help special educators and regular educators adapt to collaborating in the classroom. Another organization that has approved a resolution supporting inclusion is the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).
Educators are not the only ones battling over inclusion. Not all parents of students with disabilities support the approach. Some parents fear losing special-education services they have fought for and believe their children will be "dumped" into regular classrooms without appropriate support.
Controversy over full inclusion spotlights another, larger, issue in education.
Some organizations endorse goals that assume inclusion is a given. One such group, the Consortium on Inclusive Schooling Practices, states that it focuses on "systemic reform rather than changes in special education systems only."
The Consortium's three broad goals are:
"Examine all sides of the debate, and it becomes clear that inclusion is a microcosm of education reform," maintains an essay, "To the Best Of Their Abilities" (Teacher magazine, February 22, 1995). "The issues extend far beyond special education. 'All children can learn at high levels' has become a rallying cry for improving schools. How can policymakers, practitioners, and parents work together to ensure that students in every classroom in every school are achieving that ideal?"
Even the staunchest backers of inclusion recognize that it requires support services and changes in the traditional classroom. Here, from the Utah Education Association, is a listing of provisions that must be met for inclusion to work best:
If these conditions are met, the fear of dumping students in regular classrooms becomes moot.
Despite the debate over inclusion, how far it should go, and how much it should cost, the latest developments in special education, to some observers, offer more cause to celebrate than to despair. A November 4, 1996, Time magazine article titled "The Struggle to Pay for Special Education" summarizes the current state of special education this way: "The good news is that huge strides have been made to improve the plight of special-needs students. 'The question now being asked,' says Judith Heumann, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, 'is how can we do it, as opposed to should we do it.'"
*Federal law still requires that a full continuum of placement options be available to each special education student and that placement decisions be made by the Individual Education Program (IEP) team, based on the student's needs. Congress and the courts, however, have affirmed the legal right of children with disabilities to be educated in the least restrictive environment possible. To many, that means "full inclusion," with all students belonging in regular classrooms. To others, it means full inclusion for some children with disabilities and for other children with disabilities a different approach.
Article by Sharon Cromwell
Copyright © 2004 Education World
Article originally published 10/27/1997