Has special-ed inclusion backfired?

Has special-ed inclusion backfired? On Hechinger Ed, Sarah Butrymowicz questions whether students with special needs are best served by spending all or most of their day “with a teacher who likely knows little about how best to teach them.”

Federal mandates that students must be educated in “the least restrictive environment” possible.

Some classrooms are led by a general-education teacher helped out by a special-education teacher, in a team-teaching model. In other cases, however, students with special needs receive instruction from specialists only a few hours a day or week in pull-out sessions. That is, many special-education students spend the bulk of their days being taught primarily by general-education teachers.

Yet a typical general-education teacher-in-training only takes one or two courses about special education.

Some teacher-prep programs don’t require a single course focused on teaching students with disabilities; half of secondary programs don’t require field experience with special education students.

Is more training the answer? Or should we rethink inclusion? Teachers have only so much time, energy and ability to “differentiate instruction.” I suspect they could teach more effectively — and be less exhausted — if students were grouped by performance level.

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Comments

  1. Amy from Texas says:

    I vote for performance level classes, but on a case by case basis. Special ed encolpasses so much variation that there is no easy answer.
    Many kids seem too vulnerable to be in regular ed classes- the other kids resent the “modifications” i.e. “Why does he get to use a dictionary?

  2. Some teacher-prep programs don’t require a single course focused on teaching students with disabilities; half of secondary programs don’t require field experience with special education students.

    How can you “require” field experience? At Stanford, they placed you at a school. Odds were good that there was one or two learning disabled students in one of the two classes you taught, but there was no way to require it.

    A learning disabilities class isn’t required in all teacher ed programs? But in any event, learning disabilities and “special ed” are two different things.

    I suspect they could teach more effectively — and be less exhausted — if students were grouped by performance level.

    Well, yeah. But that’s a big political football.

  3. I suspect they could teach more effectively — and be less exhausted — if students were grouped by performance level.

    As do most people. But given the fact that tracking will produce a strong racial coorelation, no one will touch it or permit it.

  4. I would say the best model, at the elementary school level, is when there are two teachers for a class of students that includes both regular and special ed. However, the two teachers have to work together well. It also doesn’t work for some children that get overwhelmed in larger groups.

    Special ed is a large spectrum of abilities; some children do very well fully integrated, others need to be in self contained classrooms, and some children are somewhere in the middle. What doesn’t work is pushing for all children to be in a regular ed classroom with little support for the teachers and children.

    The only thing I have seen that I absolutely don’t like is separate facilities for elementary children with disabilities. The quality of instruction was low, parents were almost never in the building because every student was bussed to school, aides seemed to run the school, etc. However, it may have just been that school.

    I can’t say that I have a lot of experience or knowledge about secondary school. I would say for the most part separation is important for some children. Especially those that need to concentrate on life skills to live/work independently or semi-independently.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    People talk about tracking for students all of the time.

    Very seldom to people talk about tracking for teachers. What do I mean by this? I mean that specialization tends to breed efficiency: when a city’s ditch diggers dig their ditches, and their pipe layers lay their pipes, and their paper pushers push their papers, things proceed quickly and efficiently.

    It’s possible, of course, to cross-train an entire workforce so that everyone can lay pipe and dig ditches and push papers. But unless you’re recruiting only the highest level of omnicompetents, there is no way that your workforce is going to be able to perform as well as a specialized workforce.

    We already have a certain amount of teacher specialization: we have math teachers, and history teachers, and, yes, special ed teachers. Common sense tells us that a trained math teacher who has taught math will be better at teaching math than a trained English teacher who hasn’t. What’s more, it would be counterproductive to train the English teacher to teach math as well (unless the need were truly dire) because that would take away from the time and mental energy available for getting better at teaching English.

    So we get this at the end of the article:

    In a more perfect world, teacher-training programs would fully follow the philosophy of inclusion, and all would require dual-certification in general education and special education. Currently, only a minority of programs even offer dual-certification, according to Joanna Uhry, a professor in Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education.

    She’s well aware, though, that this type of institutional overhaul is a daunting task. “I think it’s possible,” she said, but “I don’t know how to go about doing it.” Presumably, it would make teacher-training programs longer and more costly — not attractive moves in the current economic climate.

    Yes, it would make the programs longer and more costly. But that’s not the real risk that I’m seeing here. It would also result in the teachers being WORSE general-ed teachers (on average) than they otherwise would be, because their attention and energies are necessarily split. Adding time to the program allows you to fit in all the additional material, but adding more time to the program doesn’t make the candidates you already have any better at mastering multiple tasks.

    Now, some might counter that a degree of variety is good for you. After all, if your job consists of pushing the red button then the blue button all day long, and that’s all you do, then you’re going to have a miserable life — no matter how good you get at pushing those buttons (and you’d be awesome at it, make no mistake!). But teaching isn’t really like pushing a button. It’s an involved, dynamic, and social process. It involves complex perception and feedback mechanisms, and it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s not neurosurgery, but (at least in effect) it’s kinda close. So it’s not as if we NEED to add the special ed dimension to a teacher’s plate in order to give them a vibrant and healthy work environment.

    My point — I’ve gone on long enough now — is just this: we should consider carefully whether we want the generalist or the specialist in the classroom. “In a perfect world” everyone would have every talent in whatever degree they wished, and training without work or effort, and teachers would be able to teach any population flawlessly. But such worlds don’t really exist, and pursuing those worlds might cause as many problems as it solves.

  6. Current trends in education make educational inclusion especially problematic for children on the autistic spectrum, who don’t work well in groups, struggle with large/open-ended/interdisciplinary/arts & crafts projects, and require more structure and mathematical challenge than today’s group-centered discovery learning and Reform Math classrooms provide. (The list goes on: I blog about it here: http://oilf.blogspot.com/2010/05/autistic-students-looking-beyond.html).

    If my autistic son could be in a classroom full of students similar to him, taught by someone who specialized in high functioning autism, I would pull him out of his so-called “least restrictive environment” in a heartbeat.

  7. Considering most districts these days cut special ed teachers to the bone (at least in my state) so that we spend more of our time managing the ever-mounting piles of paper (and paper is officially more important than teaching) instead of teaching, this post is sweetly ironic.

  8. I teach two junior level math classes this year that are considered “inclusion.” There are about three inclusion students mixed into class with about 20 other regular ed students. The inclusion students have approximately a 2nd-5th grade math level depending on the child.

    I teach the class just like normal. I have to. The juniors in the class must all pass an exit exam covering algebra and geometry to graduate from high school. Today, one of the special ed students came to me in tears saying the class was too hard for her and she didn’t understand. She wanted me to try to get her moved into a class like her old math class (resource). I told her I couldn’t do that and that she would be in my room for the entire year. She walked sadly to her desk and promptly laid her head down and would not attempt a single problem the rest of the period. I fear she is right. She would be much better off in a class where her needs could be addressed by someone who knows what they are doing. As opposed to me. I have absolutely no special ed training whatsoever. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I don’t think what I am doing is helping these kids at all.

  9. This is especially relevant to my situation right now. In a room which is sized to fit up to 20 kids, I now have 27 kids, 2 CT teachers, and an aide. About half of the kids in there were pushed from 15-1-1 classes into regular classes. So now the few kids who are actually in a position to do the work are fighting for attention with kids who now not only outnumber them, but academically would be struggling in a 3rd grade classroom.

    “Differentiation”, in this case, would essentially mean simultaneously teaching 2 different classes. The big risk here is that the kids who are capable of excelling are going to be left behind. And, of course, since I’m equally responsible for the scores of the kids who belong there and those who were fraudulently passed on to me, is it any wonder that teachers are wary of even value-added merit-based systems?

  10. Roger Sweeny says:

    I suspect they could teach more effectively — and be less exhausted — if students were grouped by performance level.

    I suspect summer is hot and winter is cold.

    Alas, “inclusion” and “differentiation” are sacred. Until we care more about what students learn than we do about looking good, we will continue to fail both the high end students and the low end students by mixing them all together and pretending we are “meeting their needs.”

  11. Roger Sweeny says:

    In a more perfect world, teacher-training programs would fully follow the philosophy of inclusion, and all would require dual-certification in general education and special education….according to Joanna Uhry, a professor in Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education….Presumably, it would make teacher-training programs longer and more costly.

    Is it impolite to point out that it would mean more money and jobs for Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education?

    Funny how a more perfect world equals a world with more money and jobs for people like me.

  12. “Differentiation”, in this case, would essentially mean simultaneously teaching 2 different classes.

    That’s pretty much what I do–not with sped classes, but with a huge range of algebra abilities.

  13. It hasn’t backfired at all, it has accomplished exactly what the “reformers” intended, another subgroup of students to fail standardized tests they aren’t capable of passing so they can label the public schools failing.

  14. Inclusion–it’s a concept that grew out of the civil rights approach, not the educational approach. That is, we have it ’cause the law requires it, not because it works per se. Sad all around. Yes, it’s time to rethink inclusion–not for itself–but for figuring out what works for students. The discussion should be education-driven and research based (what works?), not law-driven.

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