It’s time to debate ‘mainstreaming’

It’s time to debate whether debate whether mainstreaming special-education students is fair to all students, argues attorney Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, author of Fixing Special Education, in a Wall Street Journal commentary.

When teachers focus on students who need more attention, other children get less attention, writes Freedman. Yet parents of regular-education students rarely challenge policies that place high-need children in mainstream classrooms.

The special-education system in the U.S. is highly regulated by law, expensive, and sometimes marked by litigiousness. Those working to reform the system are almost exclusively people with a direct stake in it—including school representatives, parents of students with disabilities, advocates, lawyers, special educators, academics and government officials.

Fourteen percent of students are in special education today: 70 to 80 percent have mild or moderate disabilities, including learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, social and emotional disabilities, ADHD, etc. While federal regulations govern special ed, 80 percent of funding comes from states.

Students with disabilities have the right to be in the “least restrictive environment” to the maximum extent “appropriate,” with added resources such as computers, large-print or recorded books, and personal aides, if needed.

Look into the research on inclusion and you will find that this policy is generally based on notions of civil rights and social justice, not on “best education practices” for all students. The effectiveness of inclusion for students with disabilities varies—some groups and individual students benefit; others don’t. This is one reason why inclusion remains controversial in some segments of the disability community.

Very little work has been done to establish how inclusion affects regular students—whether they are average, English-language learners, advanced, poor or homeless. Studies seem to support the social benefits of mainstreaming for children with disabilities and possibly for regular-education students, but what about the effect on their academic progress?

Teachers may tell you (privately) that inclusion often leads them to slow down and simplify classroom teaching. Yet the system is entrenched and politically correct.

Educators and parents should join a “robust, inclusive and frank national discussion” on how to fix a broken special education system, Freedman concludes.

I’d be very interested in what teachers really think about inclusion. How many are getting the supports they need to do it well?

About Joanne


  1. Joanne,

    Thanks for posting this op-ed and seeking input from teachers.I too am very interested to know what parents and teachers ‘really think about inclusion’ and special education itself. I wrote the op-ed to promote that long overdue, important national discussion about special education among all stakeholders–regular and special. Inclusion is an example policy, part of the larger discussion.Thanks for helping to get us talking!

    • Somebody should tell Ms. Freedman that she is saying the same things about including students with disabilities that racists were saying 50 years ago about including Black People. “it’s not fair to the other kids, “it’ll bring their grades down” “they won’t be able to learn the way white kids can”. She is an ignorant bigot who has made hundreds of thousands of dollars helping school districts break the law and keep our kids from being included. Shame on you, Ms. Freedman…. there’s a special place in hell for haters like you.

      • And I’d also like to add that Miriam Kurtzig Freedman’s continuous attempts to pit parents against parents and spread her bigotry against students with disabilities is shameful. We cannot legally exclude students with disabilities from general ed classrooms anymore than we can legally exclude Hispanics, Chinese and African American students.

  2. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    When someone says it’s “time to debate” something, they usually mean it’s “time to debate again, until my side wins.”

    Just sayin’. There was a debate about inclusion before it happened.

    Which doesn’t mean it was a well-reasoned or reasonable debate. (I happen to think it came to the wrong conclusion.) But it might not be this time, either.

  3. Anyone who suggests that all students should not be mainstreamed, let alone not admitted to regular schools, is immediately demonized by the spec ed entrenched interests. Logic is ignored, as are common sense and basic economics; it’s all about emotion.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    “segregation” “stigma”.
    If I had time, I could come up with about 437 other loaded words the proponents of inclusion would use. Everybody knows they’re BS, but after a point the cumulative effect overcomes the general knowledge that they’re BS.
    As with other issues in education, empirical results are anathema. Or perhaps irrelevant. What we have is unsupported assertions founded on the insistence that the asserter speaks from higher moral authority and a surfeit of wonderfulness.
    To bring this from general political discussion to the subject of inclusion requires no modification whatsoever.
    There is always an up side, even if it can’t be actually pointed to. Downsides do not exist.
    I have a special-needs nephew whose worst ed experiences came with inclusion. Not all kids are sympathetic and when the aide is not provided, sometimes the non-sympathetic will drag the unfortunate into the bathroom and piss on his head. Principal told my sister to get in line to sue, being more afraid of the professional litigators such as the ACLU and NAACP than an outraged parent.
    Inclusion is a matter of the confluence of a number of interests. It’s cheaper. It makes the includers look good. It makes the proponents feel good. It removes the “difference” from kids who really are “different”.
    If teachers are supposed to pay attention to different intelligences–whether they actually exist or not–it would follow you need to be really concerned about the really different. Logistically, that’s difficult under inclusion.
    IOW, as expensive as it is, individualized programs.

    • My older child’s inclusion experience was that the ‘difference’ was magnified, not removed. In elementary school, the classified age-mates peers notice the oppositional defiance and tantrumming as not developmentally normal. Add in the removal procedures when violence occurs, and the inappropriate responses in social situations, and the ‘difference’ becomes further magnified.

      My younger child’s experience was the usual..if you know how to read, stay away from those who can’t, ’cause they are angry about their ‘failure’ and will attack when the adults’ eyes are elsewhere. After his experience, I would never put an academically advanced elementary child in with a child who is behind. All that does is keep the school psych and principal very busy explaining that the discipline code doesn’t apply to sped, and the the parents of the reg ed children need to send their child to private school if they don’t want him to be a target, since there is no money for an honors elementary program.

  5. The explosion in homeschooling might be the resource
    for parents who don’t want to deal with mainstreaming,
    bullying, and any number of issues plaguing many public
    school systems these days.

    Mainstreaming a student who has a mild handicap (physical, etc) makes a LOT more sense than trying
    to take a student who needs a full time aide to do
    basic things, and placing them in a regular classroom
    where the other students may be shortchanged on
    their education due to the ‘mainstreamed’ student.

    The U.S. is probably the only nation on earth that
    has policies like this, most other countries wouldn’t
    allow severely handicapped or students with severe
    mental handicaps into the public school system in
    the first place, most of them would probably be placed
    in institutions.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Bill. They’re in public school because they are with their families and not in institutions. “Placed” in an institution has an implication of taking a kid the family would prefer to keep.

  6. Xarthagorous, Slayer of Ignorance says:

    In my experience with both inclusion and mainstreaming, inclusion is much more successful than mainstreaming alone. Firstly, the special education students in an inclusion environment are almost always in the normal IQ range and can do the normal class load. They just benefit from having an intervention specialist (IS) in the room to help. Secondly, the IS helps everyone, not just the special education students, and I too, as the subject area teacher, help both populations. Thirdly, the special ed students in inclusion would NOT be served at all in resource room classes because these students are far too high functioning. Finally, by having the inclusion sections I think our district serves the needs of students in most circumstances. We do have advanced classes for the tier of student that move too fast, however, sometimes a student’s disability does not limit them even being in that class. Only our special classes (Gym, health, music, art, etc) get all students without an inclusion teacher, and there are issues with the ability level of those kids in those classes.

    • However, in many school districts students with moderate to severe cognitive disabilities are fully included. Usually with an aide, but the aide is not responsible for modifying the curriculum for the student. Behavior is frequently an issue. I do think this model can work, but the challenges are not trivial. Also, it’s clear that for many parents the goals for this sort of student are social rather than academic.

    • If the student is capable of doing grade-level work, why is she in special education to being with?

      • The student has a medical condition such as Asperberger’s, Autisim that impairs their ability to function socially or emotionally without support or their ability to learn from the way the teacher is teaching, or they have a physical handicap.

        • OK– I can see why kids on the autism spectrum might need to be in ‘Special Ed’ at least for classes on socialization and facial recognition. But why are kids with physical handicaps being shunted into the program? Why should the kid in the wheelchair get pegged as ‘special?’ Is it about having access to physical therapy during school hours?

          (It just seems unfair to the bright kid who happens to have CP to peg her as needing ‘inclusion,’ when she’s actually fine academically! )

          • Just FTR — very bright kids with CP may still need inclusion, in the form of an aide to scribe for them if physically unable to write, or similar issues.

          • Kiana- Oh, that makes sense. I just have friends who had a ton of trouble because their daughter had CP, and the public school assumed that because she was ‘mainstreamed’ she couldn’t do grade-level work. (She’d come out of a parochial school.) So they constantly had to go and fight for their daughter to be in the honors classes (which were, frankly, still too easy for her) because she was pegged as ‘special ed.’ However, she was allowed to type instead of hand write. And she didn’t have gym class. So…. I tend to worry about kids with physical disabilities getting pegged as ‘mainstreaming’ when really, they only need minor accommodations (I’d consider a scribe pretty minor) especially as technology advances and makes it easier for kids with poor fine motor skills to complete their school work.

            It’s more the labeling thing, I think. It may seem snotty, but a lot of the kids I know who are “special ed” because of physical things really resent being lumped in with the kids who have mood and behavior issues and the kids who can’t read.

  7. I’d say I mostly agree with Xarthagorous, though my school is unable to provide additional support (in the form of a special ed teacher or aide) to every class with inclusion students. If I had a co-teacher for each inclusion class, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend inclusion for those students who can handle it.

    The periods where I have several special ed students but no additional support are very challenging. I often feel that it’s very difficult to differentiate in those classes because the kids with behavioral issues really struggle with self-control if everyone isn’t doing the same thing. I can’t be everywhere at once in the classroom. In those classes the kids who move faster often have to either stay at a slower pace than they are capable of OR do more independent work than might be ideal so that I can work with the kids who really need more support than one adult can give them in a class of 30.

  8. Roger Sweeny says:

    As a high school teacher, my experience has been that the smaller the differences between the students, the more smoothly the class runs and the more students learn. This seems to be the experience of other teachers, also.

    I would love to see an experiment done in which there are not two or three levels of a course but as many levels as there are classes–so if there are 13 English classes in ninth grade, there would be 13 levels, with children put into a level by perhaps a simple average of 7th and 8th grade English grades.

    My hypothesis is that more (and more enough to pass any statistical test) would be learned than in previous years of ninth grade at that school.

    • The problem is, the highest level class would be mainly Asian with a few Whites, the next couple of classes would be mainly White and Asian with a few minorities, and the lower classes would be mainly Black, Hispanic and Special Ed. This would immediately be answered with cries of “disparate impact” and your nearest Lefty judge would rule it unconstitutional.

    • I’d say a test, not grades. Because a lot of really bright kids who read a lot and write well do poorly in middle school mixed-ability English classes because they’re bored out of their minds and just take the tests and ignore all the homework and stupid projects because they’d rather just read books at their level and write interesting stuff.

      And grades in a mixed class don’t always reflect ability, because some teachers grade on whether a student is meeting his potential. So two A’s might represent vastly divergent abilities…..

      • I would love to meet the teacher who can so accurately evaluate a student’s “potential”, whatever that means, that the teacher can grade with that potential as a standard.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        I went with grades because 1) it’s simple, and 2) it would give those bored kids an incentive to do well to get into a class they would be more interested in.

  9. Stacy in NJ says:

    The assumption in many of the comments here that the SE kids are the disrupters is laughable. While some kids with behavioral issue are certainly disruptive, the more common reality is that the disruption is the caused by the “normal” kids who use the SE kids as punch lines or punching bags. Many parents with kids on the spectrum homeschool or use private schools because their kids have endured incredible bullying at the hands of peers.

    • It depends on the district. When my Aunt worked in ‘Special Ed’ in Philly, the program went from being kids with autism and downs and real disabilities to being predominantly kids with “Anger Management issues” who regularly attacked teachers and fellow students.

      Too many schools use SE as a dumping ground for ‘problem kids,’ which hurts the kids who really need it, and when the ‘problem kids’ go to mainstreaming, hurts everyone else too.

      • Exactly. My childrens’ included elementary classes did not have anyone that was not labeled ‘ED’ (emotionally disturbed). Unlabeled violent children were not an issue; the discipline code applies to them and in this area, the victims’ parents do recover costs in court. Sped classified violent children are protected and victims’ parents do sue the district to recover costs. Around here the full inclusion is actually decreasing; the first round of lawsuits has been settled and the result is more 1:1:6 classrooms with the students not going to the regular classroom unless they are in an emotional state that allows them to learn rather than disrupt.

        • A friend of mine had an ED student who outweighed her by over 100 lbs. The girl was bipolar and frequently off meds. She would throw things, which in an art class with scissors, craft knives, glue and paint is a dangerous thing. It wasn’t until the girl tried to beat up the school nurse that the girl was removed. And this girl could remain in our school six more years until she’s 21.

  10. As a high school teacher in an elective course, it is a common thing for ESL/ELL students as well as seriously disabled students are folded into my classes with little regard for their abilities. A couple of years ago an autistic student who could not read nor write nor speak was placed in my AP Studio Art class. The reasoning of his counselor was “he likes to draw.” I have also had students urinate on themselves and even a student who threatened me and other students almost daily. The thing is the law reads that these students must have their IEP’s served first regardless of the size of the class. When you have a class of thirty or more and ten of them have paperwork for some situation or another, it makes it where they kids who want to take the class are left to their own devices while the teachers tries to accommodate the special needs students. The irony is that special ed classes are rarely over tend students, but they will average that in to the larger regular class sizes to give the appearance of a lower student/teacher ratio. If numbers are what rule with administrators, then special needs students should be counted as two students for purposes of forming the classes. This avoids overloading one class with too many needy students and keeps teachers sane. This last year we had to fill out as many as seven reports per special needs student every week. This is ridiculous and it makes me resent some students because I cannot serve all of them due to overload and lack of aides.

  11. I was not impressed by Ms. Kurtzig Freedman’s op ed piece. Clearly she is very smart; however, I believe her view is tainted by her role as an attorney representing schools. I would be curious to know how much money she and her firm have grossed over the years representing schools in connection with special education cases.