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Playing on Shakespeares famous quote from Hamlet, I rephrase the words and pose the question "To include or not to include: that is the question?" Whether 'tis nobler to strive for mandated total inclusion of students with disabilities in the general education classroom one-hundred percent of the time often being taught by inadequately trained general education teachers and thereby acknowledging that the whole may "suffer" for the "good" of a few? Or are the students with disabilities better served by specially educated and trained professionals in environments better suited to meet their individual, unique educational needs and thereby acknowledging that a few may "suffer" for the "good" of the whole?
The ultimate solution is an acceptable combination of both but the research is inconclusive; educator support for/against the benefits/problems of inclusion is divisive; and the quality of adequate training to implement is lacking. Yet, all sides agree that if the correct inclusion model is used under the most beneficial circumstances to all students in the most educationally encouraging and least restrictive environment with appropriately trained general and special educators, then the greater good of all is served.
My early public-school educational experiences were shaped by a "Special is Special" and "Regular is Regular" perspective and as Kipling (1892) wrote, "never the twain shall meet." In my suburban, bedroom-community public schools in the 1960's/70's, separate education for special needs students was the norm. "Normal" students attended regular public schools and special education students attended special education schools. Personally I never interacted with "special kids" given that I wasn't even aware that kids with mental, physical, or emotional issues existed within my community. Inevitably, my public school foundation and subsequent initial views on inclusion were extremely biased toward separation, until I attended college.
Being raised in a very accepting home, I personally embraced what I was taught, not to "see" gender, race, or handicaps in a person but I had very limited exposure to the latter two groups. That all changed upon entering university in 1978 where my frame-of-reference relative to numerous social ideologies went through enormous paradigm shifts (exposure to diverse racial and alternative lifestyles practices, cultural differences, and the partial integration of special needs students into the general student body population and classroom.) My fellow classmates were becoming more special needs diverse yet generally only those with physical challenges were present in my classes. The premise being given the academic rigors of college classes, if the social skills were proficient and the physical issues did not inhibit intellectual learning, inclusion was accepted. In hindsight I see this as a very limited inclusion "norm" which society embraced at the time yet recognize a push for broader diversification and inclusion practices was also occurring.
Today, 27 years later, I recognize that my interaction with special needs individuals has been significant but seldom in the area of education. Accordingly, when assessing my pre-trimester position, I also acknowledge that the educational world has changed all around me yet my viewpoints, knowledge, and teachings are rooted in the past. Compounding this issue is my substitute teaching experience at a private, international school in Shanghai, China that uses a rigid pre-screening/interview process to basically exclude special needs students the school recognizes it is not equipped to handle. My real Special Ed "education" began with EDUC 542 (Fundamentals in Special Ed) which opened my eyes to the legal issues, historical transformations, and contemporary disputes in this area. Thus in pursuing my teacher-certification, I have been forced to address the same challenging issues the education world has wrestled with for years, namely how to make inclusion of special needs students in the general education classroom the best solution for all.
Research Regarding Inclusion within General Education
Overview - Definition
Traditionally, inclusive education has predominately centered on placing special needs students in the general education classroom for a specified period of time. In its most basic form, Halvorsen & Neary (2001) define inclusive education to mean "Students with disabilities are supported in chronologically age-appropriate general education classes in their home schools and receive the specialized instruction delineated by their individualized education programs (IEP's) within the context of the core curriculum and general class activities." Jackson (2008) broadens the definition to encompass a social dimension stating that inclusion also means all students "socially belonging and immersed in the same curriculum material."
Friend (2011) sees inclusion as a "belief system" that must be "shared by every member of a school as a learning community - teachers, administrators, other staff members, students, and parents - about the responsibility of educating all students so that they all reach their potential. [It's] about welcoming all students to access learning and recognize that the diversity of learners in today's schools dictates that no single approach is appropriate for all." (p. 21). Friend's view is all students benefit from inclusion and ultimately the learning experience (cognitive, social, physical, emotional) will be far more enhanced in the near/long term. Block (2007), acknowledging limits, agrees, "the least restrictive environment may not always be the general classroom for some students who would benefit from a smaller, quieter environment, but both special education students and their peers benefit highly from being in general classes."
Yet even the seemingly straightforward task of defining inclusion is complex and divisive. Jackson (2008) points out that "the literature often uses the words inclusion or mainstreaming without definition, leading to confusion over the findings. Is inclusion in a segregated center defined as segregation or inclusion? What about 'mainstreaming' (a disabled child is isolated in the classroom with an aide), is this inclusion or 'on-site segregation'? How broad should the definition be? Should a range of racial, psychological, cultural and other aspects that were canvassed be a part of a necessary inclusive definition?"
Historically occurring in primarily separate surroundings, including special education within the general education classroom has now evolved to being legally mandated. Arguably, this requirement is a major contributor to the disagreement on properly defining inclusion and its associated strengths/weaknesses.
Kilanowski-Press, Foote, & Rinaldo (2010) effectively summarize the factors leading to the current state:
Inclusive special education is common in U.S. schools as a result of PL 94-142 and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) amendments to this legislation (IDEA, USDOE, 2004). The recent reauthorization of the IDEA upholds the original provision of the least restrictive environment (LRE) for students with disabilities. LRE mandates exceptional learning needs students be educated in the setting most like that of peers without disabilities as long as their academic goals can be met in this setting (IDEA, USDOE, 2004). While securing a continuum of services for students with disabilities, this act reemphasizes the focus and intent on inclusive practice. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB; U.S. Department of Education [USDOE], 2002) also impacts the educational community's perspective on inclusive special education programming since it mandates that all students be taught by a teacher who is highly qualified in the content area in which they are teaching.
Taken together with the LRE provisions of IDEA, Kilanowski-Press et al. (2010) believe this has resulted in "an increase in the consultative model of delivery service for disabled students in the general education classroom, especially at the secondary level where special education teachers cannot be expected to be experts in every content area." If mandated inclusion benefits all students, then are general education teachers adequately trained and prepared for special needs students? They are asked to meet the overarching educational demands of students for which they were educated and qualified to teach along with the increased challenges presented by those whom they are mandated to include but are not necessary trained or adequately prepared to meet. Loiacono & Valenti (2010) further illuminate the inclusion/prepared staff paradox:
Federal and state legislation consistently calls for evidence-based intervention strategies to be used in teaching children with [special needs] by highly qualified staff (NCLB) creating a significantly problematic and stressful challenge facing public school officials today. Most teachers graduate from university teacher preparation programs with minimum training in evidence-based practices for [special needs] children. Consequently, educators continue to be challenged to learn disability-specific teaching skills to address meeting the learning needs of an increasing number of [disabled] children in the public school systems. How then are new teachers who lack adequate preparation to assume the day-to-day responsibilities of managing the classroom to also teach responsibly and effectively in inclusive settings?"
Loiacono & Valenti's (2010) study, focused solely on autism, nonetheless highlights the increasing challenges general education teachers face in meeting curriculum content, standards, and assessment demands for all students. Debatably, can these same educators be considered "highly qualified" and meet the criteria outlined in NCLB if they lack the special needs instruction and evidence-based intervention methodologies training required? Paradoxically, without teachers who have adequate special needs training then how will those students demanding these skills demonstrate the evidence-based improvements required?
"Traditional" vs. "Inclusive" Perspectives
Research expressing "grave reservations" around practices related to including disabled students in general education classes with their non-disabled peers is nearly as prevalent as those strongly advocating for placing almost all students in the general education classroom full-time. Not all agree that moving from a more to a less segregated classroom environment is a move in the right direction. As Sasso (2001) expresses, "Inclusion is just another practice supported by post-modem critics of special education. A major problem is the proponents' interpretation of inclusion confuses independent and dependent variables. Having convinced themselves that all children should be housed in regular education, they treat inclusion as an outcome, while inclusion actually has an effect on the child that can be positive, negative, or somewhere in between."
However, as Friend (2010) notes, "Most professionals fall somewhere between the two extremes in their thinking about inclusion. They strongly support inclusive practices and access to general education for most students. They acknowledge that unless careful attention is paid to administrative understanding and support, teacher preparation and commitment, and pragmatic details (planning and schedules), caution must be advised." (p. 22). The preponderance of research reaffirms this view and supports inclusive education, legally mandated or not, given the numerous intrinsic benefits derived from broader exposure. While supportive, many findings cautioned not to create a "one-size fits all" inclusion mentality, process, or model recognizing that the LRE, in some cases, may not be best served within the general education classroom.
In examining the "Traditional (Segregation)" and "Inclusive" viewpoints, Fitch (2003) conducted a qualitative study considering "inclusion of students with disabilities in the mainstream of general education from the perspective of included as well as excluded special education students over an extended period of time." The study followed "developmentally handicapped" students in a variety of inclusive and segregated classrooms over a period of 6 years. The tables below highlight the divergent views of their results:
TABLE 1 - Traditionalist Beliefs/Ideology
Diversity in schools and society is problematic.
Disabilities are innate conditions of certain human beings. Those "with disabilities" are essentially different. Disability labels are inevitable, objective, fair, and beneficial.
Support and interventions are most appropriately and effectively provided in separate settings by special education experts. Progress is achieved by professional expertise, technology, diagnosis, and intervention.
Special education and lower-achieving students will improve ("catch up") to their peers if they receive specialized, skill-based, intensive, individualized instruction in separate settings.
Learning is primarily developmentally linear; it takes place one sequential step at a time.
Competitive school structures are natural, fair, and expected; homogeneous grouping is inevitable.
Special education is a rational system of services that helps those individuals labeled or identified.
TABLE 2 - Inclusive Beliefs/Ideology
Knowledge and competence are purposely constructed in a variety of ways.
Diversity is expected and valued. Individual and group diversity contributes positively to classroom climate, learning outcomes, and community quality.
Human commonalities cross socially constructed categories of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. It is unnecessary and damaging to publicly label and group people according to different norms.
Everyone benefits in a socially inclusive learning environment where all individuals are valued. Teachers with different expertise co-teach in inclusive settings providing optimal social/academic results for all.
Competitive structures and activities are socially constructed and not inevitable. Collaboration, cooperation, and mutual support are preferred forms of interpersonal interaction.
Selective research also demonstrates that inclusive education provides these additional benefits:
Enhanced classroom climate - "Promotes a climate increasing sensitivity and acceptance of diversity while decreasing teasing and bullying and removing the demarcation between those in ''special education'' and those who are not." Vakil, Welton, O'Connor & Kline (2008).
Improved graduation rates - "A 62% increase in the percentage rate in inclusion for students with mild disabilities." Goodman, Hazelkorn, Bucholz, Duffy & Kitta (2011).
Increased usage of co-teaching model - "Offers shared instructional responsibility for diverse student groups and enables instruction to students within an inclusive school." Friend (2007).
Assistive technology - "Usage of adaptive technologies can open a new world to children with physical limitations and could increase access to their world." Sax, Pumpian & Fisher (1997).
Tolerance - "Enhances teacher acceptance and tolerance of disabled students and skills in delivering lessons obliging students at various learning and performance levels." Idol (2007).
Summarizing what facilitates and what presents barriers to inclusion and ways of supporting inclusion in the classroom, Schwartz, Odom & Sandall (1999) developed the following eight synthesis points:
Inclusion is about belonging and participating in a diverse society.
Individuals -- teachers, families, administrators -- define inclusion differently.
Beliefs about inclusion influence its implementation.
Programs, not children, have to be "ready for inclusion".
Collaboration is the cornerstone to effective inclusive programs.
Specialized instruction is an important component of inclusion.
Adequate support is necessary to make inclusive environments work.
Inclusion can benefit children with and without disabilities.
Returning to my twist on Shakespeare's Hamlet "To include or not to include: that is the question?", my post-trimester position is now a resounding yes. The course materials, lecture presentations, and research findings have provided conclusive evidence of the enduring benefits all students obtain from inclusion of special needs students in the general education classroom. Faced with the daunting challenges as a future educator of determining exactly how I will best accomplish this process, my ideological perspective has nonetheless changed. I wrestle with how can I possibly teach all of the diverse disability issues my future students will present: from the more severe mental-retardation/autistic end, to emotional/physical/ learning disorders and ADHD and other impairments in the middle, to gifted and talented and twice-exceptional on the other end of the spectrum. At the same time, I also realize I must meet the needs and requirements of my non-disabled students at the same time, ensuring their greatest likelihood of success as well.
Baglieri & Knopf (2004) argue that inclusion is a "moral imperative in promoting social justice." Accepting their point, inclusive education must consider the best interests of all students and cannot promote a cause at the expense of student(s). Alternatively, Alice Mendoza (2004), a teacher at a Bainbridge Island, Washington public school, describes a more holistic, cooperative view of inclusion that I support: "Inclusion for educating our special needs students is not a model but a philosophy that is modified according to what is most effective and beneficial for individual students." However, Baglieri & Knopf (2004) expand upon their initial "moral imperative" assertion to summarily express my current position, "A truly inclusive school [teacher] reflects a democratic philosophy whereby all students are valued, educators normalize difference through differentiated instruction, and the school culture reflects an ethic of caring and community."
To effectively illustrate my transformation I provide on Table 3 a progression from my initial personal public school segregationist perspective to a "all things to all people" perspective to my current inclusive, differentiated instruction perspective.