Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Inclusion: Non-Trivial Responses to Non-Trivial Questions

Staring at me from a blank screen were two questions:

1) Do Inclusion classes impact positively on the educational achievement and social development of children with disabilities?
2) What are the implications for students without disabilities in inclusion classes?

And as I stared back, also blankly, my first thought was to write two, one-word replies.

1) Sometimes.
2) Many.

Not sure if my response was the right vein of humor for the venue, I discarded the first thought and wrote from the second thought that came to mind. I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide whether the trivial answer sufficed, or whether the expansion was, indeed, an improvement.

On the large scale, these are both "it depends" questions. Inclusion as a solution to special education ignites philosophical debates in many schools of education; is the topic of ongoing Federal lawsuits; and is a relatively under-studied area in the research literature on educational outcomes.

Inclusion classes may or may not impact positively on the educational achievement and social development of children with disabilities. As others have noted, success or failure of an inclusion effort has largely to do with the number, type and severity of disabilities of the “children with disabilities” in question. The same goes for the size of the class and its resources, and let’s not forget the interpersonal and teaching effectiveness of the teachers in the inclusion class in question. The students without disabilities in the inclusion class could benefit greatly from exposure to additional resources, mentoring, and coaching; or they could be endlessly distracted by medical, behavioral, and crisis interventions required for their disabled peers’ sustenance.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) creates statutory rights for students with disabilities that are somewhat different from rights of children without disabilities. These statutory rights may appear at times to be at least partly contradictory with one another, and certainly create tension within the education system. Specifically, under IDEA, children with disabilities ages 3-21 are entitled to a free, appropriate education that BOTH confers “meaningful educational benefit” AND is conducted in the “least restrictive environment” practical.

For years, the rallying cry of special educators who preferred increasingly inclusive practices was, “Special Education is a SERVICE, not a PLACE.” The idea was that instructional practices that could be moved into classrooms, should be moved to classrooms, and learners who could benefit from the general education curriculum with supports, should do so. This makes sense on a number of levels.

Presently, a very popular approach to providing free, appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities is to declare a district a “full inclusion” or “total integration” setting. This type of approach minimizes the chance that a district will be cited by the federal or state regulatory auditors for spending an inordinate proportion of funds on a small number of self-contained special education classrooms or for over-identification of minority students as having disabilities.

While “full inclusion” as a district policy indeed achieves the goal of minimizing broad, population-based scrutiny, it also tends to increase the chances of individual families, particularly well-funded, highly-educated families, bringing lawsuits. The difficulty with supporting only one type of educational environment for all students with disabilities is that not all needs are best met in one setting.

Federal courts have held that the question of service delivery location (i.e., inclusion setting vs. special class setting) is secondary to the question of whether the child makes substantial educational progress. In one case, Federal Courts have upheld a family’s argument that their child had a right to full inclusion (K. B. vs. Nebo, 2004; U. S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals). In a different case, a different Circuit upheld the District’s petition to move a child from inclusion to a special class, when the child was not making progress in an inclusion setting (Hartmann vs. Loudoun County Board of Education, 1997; U. S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals).

Banerji and Dailey (1995) conducted a study of children in grades 2-5 with specific learning disabilities. They found that both nondisabled and learning-disabled children made gains of about one year’s academic achievement in an inclusive setting. Teachers, children with and without disabilities, and parents all had high praise for the model, indicating that the social acceptability of an inclusive special education model is excellent.

As pleased as the authors and the participants were with the findings, it gives me pause that the educational outcomes were what they were. Joe Torgesen has long maintained that “special education as per usual” for reading disabilities (arguably the most common affliction in American education today) is not effective enough – without special education, students stop progressing; once special education is implemented, students begin making about a year’s progress in a year’s time, but they never “close the gap.” Without explicit, systematic instruction in phonetics and orthography, rate- and phonics- disabled readers do not ever read on grade level. Without opportunities for intensive instruction (which would be difficult if not impossible to accomplish in a “full inclusion” environment without any pull-out services), how will these students “close the gap”? They won’t.

If it seems virtually impossible to “close the gap” with “garden variety poor readers” in a full inclusion setting, then how will it ever be possible to remediate much more challenging problems, like oral-motor apraxia, traumatic brain injuries, and selective mutism in a fully inclusive classroom? Without even a hedge, I can predict: It won’t.

My fear is that very soon, instead of working for habilitative and normalizing educational outcomes for these students, the new goal will be that it is enough that these children are in the same classroom as their peers – but nobody cares what they learn. It will be the opposite problem as “warehousing.” Their needs will be hiding in plain sight.

So now, I wish to return to the idea that “special education is a SERVICE, not a PLACE.” Some services are intrusive, and are therefore best provided in a location that facilitates their delivery. If extra time or special materials are needed to provide specialized instruction, let us make those available to highly-trained instructors – let us not worry if their “place” is not a general education classroom.


Banerji, M., & Dailey, R. A. (1995). A study of the effects of an inclusion model on students with specific learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 28, 511-522.

Kluth, P. (2003). You're going to love this kid: Teaching students with autism in the inclusive classroom. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing)

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