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Does Inclusion Help or Hurt Students?


StarrPoints The philosophy behind inclusive schools is that all children have the right to be educated with their peers in regular classrooms in neighborhood schools. The question is, can it be done? Read what teachers who have done it say about the reality of inclusive education!

December 4-8, is National Inclusive Schools Week. The philosophy behind inclusive schools is that all children have the right to be educated with their peers in regular classrooms in neighborhood schools. Although inclusion proponents are adamant in asserting that inclusion is a right of all students, in practical terms, the philosophy addresses the rights of those children with special emotional, physical, or educational needs. No one ever questions the right of typically developing children to be educated in a typical classroom setting.

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In today's StarrPoints, columnist Linda Starr reveals what teachers say about inclusive education. What do you think? Does inclusion benefit the students in your school? Why or why not? Share your reflections on a StarrPoints message board.

Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four "nearly grown" children, has been an education writer for almost a decade. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

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Many people do question, however, if not the right of special education students to be educated in regular classrooms, certainly the wisdom of doing so. I was one of those people. As a former teacher, I couldn't begin to imagine how a classroom teacher could address the challenges of educating "special" students and still adequately deal with the wide range of skills and abilities demonstrated by "typical" students. In my opinion, every student -- not to mention every teacher -- must certainly suffer from the attempt.

In an effort to prove my point, I did some research. I asked some regular classroom teachers to tell me about their experiences with inclusion. I expected to hear a lot of complaints about disruptive students, about students who couldn't handle the academic pace, about students who were socially isolated, about typical students who weren't getting the attention they deserved, about the time required to adapt curriculum and deal with assistive devices, about the lack of support, and more. And, truthfully, I did hear a few complaints about all those things. What surprised me was that every complaint concluded with the words, "but, done right, inclusion is tremendously beneficial to every child."

Those who believe their schools are "doing it right" told me that adapting the curriculum to meet the needs of individual special education students also forces them to adapt the curriculum to more closely meet the individual needs of each student in the class -- and that the ongoing support of special education teachers and paraprofessionals provides them with the time and resources they need to do it successfully.

In addition, those teachers told me, the expected social benefits of inclusion provide unexpected educational benefits as well. The normal daily interactions that occur in the classroom allow special education students to form friendships that result in less disruptive behavior, increased independence and self-confidence, and an increased willingness to take academic risks. "Typical" students, in addition to becoming more tolerant, caring, and understanding, become more willing to give -- and to ask for -- help. Both groups of students, the teachers said, develop social and academic skills that enhance their classroom achievements and their chances for future job success.

I was convinced -- and ready to become an enthusiastic advocate of inclusion! Then my "experts" shared the results of "doing it wrong." Teachers who are not provided with additional training and with the support of special education personnel, they told me, have neither the time nor the specialized skills necessary to adapt curriculum or to develop activities that encourage appropriate social interaction. Those teachers, they said, often do fail -- and their students fail right along with them.

In addition, in cases in which inclusion really means "mainstreaming" (special education students are "brought into" a regular classroom for certain periods of the day) or when special education professionals focus solely on special education students instead of supporting, and interacting with, all students, individual differences are magnified and social isolation is increased. Done wrong, inclusion isn't simply ineffective, they said; it's inexcusable.

Inclusion, my experts told me, is not just another educational fad. It really works -- if it's done right.

National Inclusive Schools Week is a great time to find out whether your school is doing it right. I'm convinced that it's worth it!