Should schools mainstream special ed students?

BlogHer Original Post

In October, November, and again in December, The Wall Street Journal ran articles--two of them on the front page--on special education in the U.S. The first article looked at the history of parents asking taxpayers to pay for private school tuition for special-needs children when the local public school district was unable to meet those students' specific needs. The second article looked at a backlash by parents and teachers against the increasingly popular practice of mainstreaming special education students. The third highlighted districts' decisions to place special needs students in mainstream classrooms based on the cost savings such a move engenders. The articles both fit into a larger ongoing discussion in the blogosphere of mainstreaming these students and touched off new conversations about students' needs and taxpayers' responsibility to meet those needs. Here's a roundup of the conversations women--parents, teachers, administrators, and others--are having about mainstreaming.

Kelly Gorski gets directly to the heart of the issue:

Some students who are mainstreamed can learn in a regular education environment and then seek external assistance through learning support teachers; other students, however, with more immediate needs, cannot or will not be their own self-advocates and therefore, help will be given too little too late.

In media, the kid in the wheelchair has become a kind of mascot, beloved by all in his gang, but this is only a fragile and idealized image. In a real-life classroom where all of the children are non-disabled except the one who drools uncontrollably, who hears voices, blurts inappropriate statements out, or who can’t read a simple sentence when everyone else can, further isolates himself, becomes secluded, will not ask for aid, and eventually close up to any other assistance offered since he/she is already branded “stupid.”

If these students feel the world is against them, and that if they open their mouth they will be ridiculed, it is easier for them to escape by pretending to be invisible and only look as if they understand. Regular and special education teachers can only do so much for a disabled student who will not open up, or who are smart enough to fake comprehension.

(Gorski has written more on the issue here).

Anne at the blog "Mainstreaming: A Special Education Debate" offers both a blog post analyzing the issue and a concise rundown (in the blog's sidebar) of the advantages and liabilities of mainstreaming. She points us to even more aspects of the debate delineated at Raven's Guide to Special Education, which includes these pros and cons:

Arguments for mainstreaming

It is nearly impossible to achieve socialization in abnormal settings.

Instruction and training given in segregated settings do not prepare students for participating in integrated settings.

Regular education teachers trained in mainstreaming techniques will be more effective in dealing with non-disabled students having exceptional problems.

Disabled and non-disabled students will learn to understand and appreciate each other by attending the same classroom.

Special needs students who have not been given special education labels already are in regular classrooms.

Mainstreaming can help special education students develop self-confidence, new skills, and greater independence.

Mainstreaming can help non-disabled students appreciate individual differences and become comfortable with disabled students.

Arguments against mainstreaming

Not every disabled student can benefit from mainstreaming.

If not done well, mainstreaming may result in greater prejudice, stereotyping, and rejection of a disabled student.

Placing a disabled student in a regular classroom without adequate support may demand so much teacher attention that other students will be neglected.

Large class sizes interfere with the ability of regular teachers to meet the needs of both disabled and non-disabled students.

Mainstreaming is being forced through legal actions without considering the appropriateness of the placement.

Many regular teachers are poorly prepared to meet the needs of disabled students placed in their classrooms.

Many administrators do not provide adequate support to regular teachers receiving disabled students.

The Baltimore Sun reprinted one of the WSJ articles on its blog, and the piece drew some passionate and informed comments from readers. Artie commented that mainstreaming, under the keyword "inclusion," has become a hot trend in K-12 education--but it's a trend that too often ignores the specific academic and behavioral needs of individual students:

The term "inclusion" has become so "the thing" in public schools that too many students are often pushed into the "mainstream" classroom before they are ready. There are two issues that I always considered during IEP meetings. For the majority of the children with an IEP, intelligence was not the problem at all! They very easily could compete with and even do better academically than many of the regular education students. I will always remember one of my favorite students my second year teaching was a young man with an IEP full of various recommendations. That young man was the only student I had, in both years of teaching, who never got below a 95 each grading quarter.

The other main issue, however, is behavior. For some of the children with disability, the disability does not affect their academic skills, but does prevent them from feeling comfortable in a big classroom setting with upwards of 35 students and only one teacher available to help them all. I always lovingly said that all my students in my BCPSS "mainstream" classroom were special - just some were more special than others.

Maria, a special education teacher who blogs at at Disability Rants, protests a "one size fits all" approach to education, an approach that she feels was expanded by No Child Left Behind:

One of the reasons I became a Special Education teacher is that I thought I could tailor my students education to their specific needs. I felt that was ideal for any child but in Special Ed. I actually was given permission to do so. I believed in giving my students a good education with opportunities for them participate with their general education peers when appropriate. Afterall, I had been mainstreamed myself--so I knew given the right circumstances it could work. I never believed in standardized testing for general education or special education students. That's a subject for another blog. The point is, I liked SPED because it gave me the chance to opt my students out of standardized tests.

Then NCLB happened. On top of that, the consent decree specific to my district. This all happened not even 5 years into my becoming a teacher. All of a sudden, I was required to teach grade level standards to students 2 or more years behind in their education regardless of their readiness for grade level work and completely disregarding the fact that they may have just been placed in SPED because they had been failing for years already. Also, in order to give my students "equal access" to grade level work by mainstreaming them even if they really were not ready emotionall, behaviorally or academically. I sincerely believe in mainstreaming--I do. But it should be at the discretion of the ones who know the student best--the teachers and parents. It should not come as a blanket statement form a faceless government who does not know the face of my students."

Finally, what's a roundup without a reference to another roundup? Estee Klar-Wolfond of the Joy of Autism blog brings together comments from others on the subject of inclusive education.

Want to learn more about special education issues and special education students? A Special Education Teacher in Washington, DC has a terrific list of resources--including video and slide presentations--in her blog's sidebar.

In reading various blog posts and comments on mainstreaming, I was interested to note that people on both sides of the debate used the phrase "up to the challenge" to describe both students and teachers. Students may not be "up to the challenge" of a mainstream class. Teachers without special ed credentials may not be "up to the challenge" of integrating special-needs students and meeting their needs. What's your opinion? Who's really not "up to the challenge" here--students, parents, teachers, districts, state boards of education, the federal government, or all of the above?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.

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