The Struggle for Inclusive Schools

Greg Warnusz

Washington University

MLA Colloquium: Family, Community and Nation

Spring, 1994

Two cherubic kindergartners beam from a front-page photo in a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The one in the background looks like everybody's girl next-door. The other, seated behind a portable computer, is unmistakably a child with Down's syndrome. Just as unmistakably, these girls are classmates. "'Inclusion' Gains Momentum in Schools," declares the Sunday paper's headline (Eardley and Volland, 1994). The article goes on to explain how the latter child uses the computer to talk, and, other things being equal, will eventually earn a high school diploma.

Television station KMOV's (Saint Louis, Missouri) program Newsmakers, on April 30, 1994, featured interviews with parents who want their handicapped children included in regular classrooms, and parents of other handicapped children who don't want their children so included. Also interviewed were a psychologist who cautioned against generalizing about the appropriateness of inclusion, and a special education administrator who insisted on individualized decisions to include any handicapped student in regular education.

In an elementary school in suburban Saint Louis, the principals circulate among their 120 teachers a memo describing inclusion. Essays and journal articles attached describe its benefits and show how open-minded teachers elsewhere are making it work. Inclusion is "new in Missouri," according to the memo. In the 1992-93 academic year, the principals announce, two of the school's eight fifth-grade classes will take up the inclusionary practice of Class Within A Class (CWC).

The contemporary movement in public education called inclusion raises a host of issues, among them fairness, public expense, the rights of labor and the purposes of public education. Beginning with a glossary and a summary of the movement's development, this paper then examines how inclusion's advocates would promote community-building as a goal of inclusive education. We also look at expressions of resistance to inclusion among some educators, and draw a modest conclusion.

Chronology I--Personal

To understand the present controversy, it helps to name and describe some of the landmarks among recent developments in American education. This chronology is presented in part in an autobiographical way, for the writer has long been the subject, as well as observer and occasional critic, of such movements.

I studied in the 1950's in an urban parochial elementary school. From observation and from overhearing remarks of teachers and parents, I gathered that the ability to master the curriculum was unevenly distributed among the students. Of the two classes at each grade level, one was populated with the "faster kids," that is, the ones thought likely to master the curriculum more thoroughly and quickly than the other class, the "slower kids." In my own class, at least at the primary level, there was a further division of students into three reading groups; group assignment seemed to correlate with how conversational one could make the text sound when reading aloud. I also noticed a positive correlation, imperfect but pronounced, between students' mastery of the curriculum and their cooperation in the school's discipline plan.

In the parochial high school I attended we were also tracked, based first on our entrance exams, and, in subsequent years, on our cumulative academic performance. The whole system of numerous parochial high schools in my city was tracked; there were the college-prep schools, the general schools, and one or two vocational schools. They were called, without embarrassment, the A-track, B-track and C-track schools. I gathered from friends in the city's public schools that similar stratification prevailed there, too.

We were also dimly aware of special residences, which may or may not have contained schools, for the mentally retarded. One in our city was run by a church, in a forbidding building that had been an orphanage. The state-run institution lay on the outskirts of town, behind low stone walls and very broad lawns that kept the residents, if not the very institutional dorms, invisible from the road.

None of this surprised me or my contemporaries, for although we believed we lived, and proudly, in one of the world's few lands of equal opportunity, we had accepted as natural the uneven distribution of many of life's desiderata, such as athletic prowess, physical beauty, intelligence and wealth, as well as other characteristics like criminality and laziness.

So it was a great revelation to me to hear, in the late 1960's, a radio interview with the mayor of Overland Park, Kansas, on the subject of juvenile delinquency. He made a convincing case that some students found school very frustrating and became very resentful because of their repeated failures. This anger, coupled with perceived lack of opportunity, made them turn to delinquency. Furthermore, the mayor explained, these young people failed in school not because they were stupid or lazy, but because something called learning disabilities prevented them from learning easily with normal instructional methods. I gathered that a learning disability was like colorblindness, which I understood. In other words, it was not the students' fault; no matter how hard they tried by normal means, they weren't going to get it. The mayor went on to say it made great economic sense for the community to give these students special educational help, at some cost, rather than pay the greater costs of their crimes later, and the costs of prosecuting, jailing and rehabilitating them.

At the same time, I was meeting peers who were majoring in "special education." My sister earned a master's degree in education, specializing in "behavior disorders." In Saint Louis County, Missouri, where I lived, the Special School District was a decade old already. A structure and taxing authority that overlay all the county's school districts, it had been established, before any state or federal mandate, to educate physically and mentally handicapped students, many of whom were excluded from their district's schools (Eardley and Volland, 1994). Now the Special School District was making its presence felt in the persons of teachers assigned to local schools to educate their learning-disabled (LD) and behavior-disordered (BD) students. And with that, my awareness of the currents in special education debates almost equalled that of the public at large.

What remained was for me to accept what now seems to have been commonplace, that one of the goals of schooling is to foster the student's social development. I long assumed that school was for academic achievement, and that we all did our social development in our families, neighborhoods, churches, play groups, baseball leagues, and after-school jobs. Just how far schools should be expected to go in promoting social development is a key question in the inclusion controversy, since inclusion's backers say the practice will enhance the social development not only of the handicapped children included, but also of their other peers, who are expected to become more accepting of the handicapped. (On this see, for example, Davern and Schnorr, 1991.)

Chronology II--Professional & Academic

Meanwhile, educators, their own professors, and researchers had long ago begun the debates that would lead to the inclusion movement. We here review some of the events in that history, highlighting the vocabulary they have generated. (Lloyd and Gambatese's Introduction, and Hocutt, Martin and McKinney's Chapter 2, both in Lloyd, Singh & Repp, 1990, ably summarize the history. One table in the former article lists eighteen studies, beginning in 1932, of the efficacy of special education programs. Another table lists fifty-five European and North American events since 1760 "reflecting ambivalence about separate or joint schooling of handicapped and non-handicapped students.")

Many children, in order to learn some or all of standard public school curricula, need help in addition to what they would normally receive from a teacher in a "regular" classroom. Special education means all the endeavors to educate such children which are applied in addition to the regular education a school provides. These are known as pull-out programs if the students needing the services are withdrawn from the regular classroom to a resource-room, as it is called, to receive the services. The continuum of levels of special-ed interventions which various children might receive is sometimes called a cascade of services.

Public Law 94-142, passed by Congress in 1975, and formally known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, requires local school districts to provide a free and appropriate public education, (FAPE in some of the literature) to all children, regardless of handicapping condition, in the least restrictive environment (LRE) practical. Defining the least restrictive environment in which any given student can successfully learn is, to say the least, very controversial. Indeed, the campaign for school inclusion can be seen as a struggle between the notions of appropriate and least restrictive. That struggle is inherent in PL 94-142's mandate that "to the maximum extent possible" students with disabilities should be educated with students who do not have disabilities. For the record, courts "have repeatedly ruled that PL 94-142 in no way compels school districts to place handicapped students in regular educational classrooms, but only in the least restrictive setting consistent with their needs and that [sic] of other students" (Walker & Bullis, 1990, citing Rose, 1988 and Yell, 1989, 1990).

The same law requires the creation of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each handicapped student. The IEP is to be created by consensus of the child's regular education teacher(s), special education teacher(s), principal or principal's designate, school counselor, parent(s), sometimes the student himself or herself, and occasionally attorneys representing school and or parents. The IEP includes goals, usually for one school year, and detailed description of the instructional means and objectives in pursuit of the goal. The school cannot deviate from these means without getting parents' consent to amend the IEP. In the case of a child diagnosed with a behavior disorder, the IEP contains a detailed, graduated discipline plan.

Madeleine C. Will, then Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education, addressed the Wingspread Conference in Racine, Wisconsin, in December of 1985. Her speech was entitled Educating Children with Learning Problems: A Shared Responsibility. Often reprinted (Will, 1986), this speech gave the federal government's endorsement to inclusion, within some limits. She first praised the accomplishments of special education in the decade since enactment of PL 94-142, but went on to criticize pull-out programs for their rigid eligibility requirements, and for fostering a mind-set of fragmentation. She called for earlier intervention, in a subsidiarist way, to meet children's needs before they came to need more drastic special services. She pointed out that ten percent of our public school students are eligible for special education services under existing law, and another ten or twenty percent have mild or moderate learning and behavioral difficulties that interfere with their school progress. Now when an officer of the Reagan administration expresses concern for citizens who are out of the ordinary, and calls for remedies that are inclusive and innovative, and that, prima facie, require more expense and paperwork, this writer prepares to smell a rat. Will's agenda, it turns out, was not hidden. Her proposals are really quite moderate. But the more enthusiastic inclusionsists have stripped the ball from her hands and are racing in a direction in which Will advocated only small steps. Nonetheless the proponents of the fullest inclusion enlisted Will to write a foreword for one of their books (Sailor, et al., 1989).

The term Regular Education Initiative (REI) has come to stand for the principal stream of argument in favor of including all children, regardless of their handicaps, in regular education settings. Among the REI's principal advocates in the professional literature are Wang, Reynolds and Walberg (1986) and Stainback and Stainback (1992). Wang's Adaptive Learning Environments Model (ALEM) was an early experiment in inclusion (Wang, Peverly & Randolph, 1984), the testing of which has drawn severe criticism (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1988). Madeleine Will's dictum is sometimes used to summarize the changes proposed: ". . . we need to visualize a system that will bring the [special education] program to the child rather than one that brings the child to the program." (Will, 1986, cited in Jenkins, Pious and Jewell, 1990). Proponents of REI admit that special education was "progressive when developed," (Gartner and Lipsky, 1989), but is no longer so. They make four principal criticisms of current practice of special education:

1) The dual system it creates also creates dual levels of expectation on the part of teachers, who don't expect the special-ed children to succeed, and unwittingly fulfill their own prophecy.

2) Regular classroom teachers are too willing to refer even slightly problematic learners to special education (and out of their classrooms). This practice is called overidentification. (Will (1988) reported that the majority of learning-disabled students spent 21% to 60% of their school days in pull-out programs, 12% of such students spent more than 60% of their school day separated from the regular classroom. Only 15% of learning disabled (LD) children receive their instruction in regular classrooms.)

3) There is a stigma associated with being placed in special education that damages a student's self-esteem. Undesirable in itself, this also interferes with learning.

4) Dividing a student body leaves handicapped and non-handicapped children unexposed to each other, perpetuating each group's ignorance and insensitivity about the other. A divided school experience makes each group more ready to accept discrimination against the handicapped in the future.

Mainstreaming is the now more or less passé term for re-integrating variously mildly handicapped students into regular education.

Teachers use many methods to increase the chances that all students in an inclusive class can be successful. Class Within a Class, mentioned above, means that a special education teacher simultaneously teaches and coaches handicapped students in the same room while a regular education teacher conducts the class as a whole. In cooperative learning, students learn skills of working together, arriving at consensus, and completing as a group a single educational project. (Cooperative learning, of course, need not be restricted to situations of inclusion.)

Here is an example, included in the aforementioned principals' memo. Among "strategy ideas for supporting [handicapped] students in regular classes" is this:

12. ACCEPTING VARIED LEARNING GOALS -- "When appropriately organized, regular education classes can provide a wide variety of appropriate learning opportunities and challenges for students with a wide range of learning needs, interests, and capabilities. Students with diverse abilities can participate in meaningful ways in age-appropriate regular classes. For instance, during a map reading activity, one student may be called upon to discuss the economic system of the country, another may be requested to identify a color, while another may simply be requested to grasp and hold a corner of the map."

Taken from "Educating Students with Severe Disabilities", [sic] by Susan and William Stainback, Teaching Exceptional Children, Fall, 1988.

There is little that is controversial in the above scenario. The details suggest that the authors are talking about one child with no intellectual handicaps, another who is mildly mentally retarded, and a third child physically handicapped, perhaps with severe speech problems. For all three the map reading activity would constitute accomplishments appropriate to their abilities. Nor would the integration of such students pose much of a problem. Presumably the IEP of the retarded child would preclude the teacher's trying to get him or her to discuss any country's economy, while the rest of the class squirms. And what teacher or parent would exclude a physically handicapped child merely on the grounds of the handicap? Where inclusion really does raise the hackles of teachers and parents is in the cases involving learning-disabled students and disruptive behavior-disordered students. As America frets about its competitiveness, school boards, anxious parents, and teachers themselves (not to mention critical journalists, pundits and talk-show demagogues) are all stirring the pot of what is expected of our public schools. In such a milieu, no one wants to spread any thinner the schools' principal resource, teachers' time and energy. We'll examine this more when dealing with resistance to inclusion.

Community as a Goal of Inclusion

The very idea of a public school, as public, bespeaks society's desire to socialize its young in tolerance and inclusivity. This did not keep many states from segregating their schools racially before 1954, and from continuing de facto segregation thereafter. But that practice mirrored a majority's idea of what society should be like: as equal as practical but definitely separate. Those who advance the inclusion of the handicapped in regular schools are asking society, "Do you want to socialize our young to expect and accept the segregation of those with disabilities?"

Stainback, Stainback and Jackson (1992) list advantages of inclusive schools, some practical and some, in my judgment, idealistic. They say inclusive schools emphasize the building of community. They admiringly cite Flynn (1989), who first quotes Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, urging colonists to "delight in each other, ... rejoice together, mourn together," then cites Alexis de Tocqueville's warning, in 1835, that American individualism would lead to social fragmentation, and concludes with Robert Bellah's 1985 pronouncement that de Tocqueville's dire predictions had come true. The Stainbacks and Jackson admit that community is hard to define, but describe such schools as those where "everyone belongs, is accepted, supports, and is supported by his or her peers and other members of the school community while his or her educational needs are met."

The authors explain why this is necessary today, because students' social and instructional supports "that in the past were provided to students through strong, intact family units; multiple siblings; ongoing, stable neighborhood friendships; and extended family relationships are sometimes lacking in today's world due to changes in family structure and mobility in an increasingly complex society. The increasing pressures of drugs, gangs, suicide, and increased family breakup also add to the need for acceptance and a sense of belonging. Inclusive schools can provide this support and assistance since they focus on building interdependence, mutual respect and responsibility."

How Appropriate a Goal?

I find evaluating propositions like this very difficult. On one hand, the above critique of society is persuasive, and children's needs are compelling. And we have acknowledged that students' social development is a legitimate goal of public education. Furthermore, schooling's other main goal, academic achievement, is compromised when a student's social situation is burdensome or threatening. So something must be done. But on the other hand, I am reminded of The School and Laundry Syndrome of Richard Overfelt, long a principal in the Parkway Discrict of Saint Louis County, Missouri, and now adjunct professor of education at Northeast Missouri State University. He describes the ever increasing expectations that Americans place on their school systems. Some day soon, he predicts, parents will send their children to school with the family's dirty clothes, and expect the school to send home at the end of the day not only educated children but also washed, dried and folded laundry.

Catholic schools in the United States had this goal made explicit for them in the early 1970's, when their bishops called for focusing their schools' mission on doctrine, community-building within the schools and their sponsoring parishes, and the preparation of students for service to the community at large. That's well and good for religious schools; the bishops' manifesto, after all, was called To Teach as Jesus Did.

But like all government entities, public schools here have to avoid entanglement with religion and the appearance thereof. To what, then, in our law or tradition, could a public school or school board appeal to justify such community-building efforts? And is not individualism at least as highly ranked as community among the virtues endorsed by American civil religion? My point is not that community-building should be avoided in the public schools; quite the contrary. I just can't figure out how to justify it at the same time we're asking so much else of our schools.

As one who increasingly rubs shoulders with social scientists, I also have to wonder how to measure success in the endeavor. Controversial though they are, standardized tests provide an acceptable measure of academic progress. But how does social development, in an individual or in a class of students, admit to measurement? I have an anecdotal description of how one BD student's behavior changes were monitored; the measurement was painstaking, and consumed much of the teacher's time in addition to the time she spent actually modifying the child's conduct. (The alert reader will correctly sense the nearness of lawyers, for this was a classic case of an inclusion that wasn't going to work.) The same teacher does use a measure of sorts of the behavior of all her students, a discipline book. ("Jamie, you fired that eraser at Beth; put your name in the book. Your name in the book and two checkmarks earn you a detention.") The teacher uses the book, and posts the classroom code of conduct clearly, both to be fair and to protect herself from defensive parents. But can she also measure how accepting her students become of one another? Should she, or her students, be held accountable for something so elusive, or so easily feigned?

The Passion of the Pros and of the Cons

In their critique of the common separation of special from regular education, some champions of the REI wax as fervent as last century's abolitionists. Pearpoint and Forest (Stainback, Stainback, 1992, Foreword) say of special education, "Over time, this small empire has turned into a support system for segregation. It has had unanticipated, tragic long-term outcomes for the vast majority of children who were and are labeled--often with the best of intentions. Reports, commissions, and studies confirm that once students are segregated, they are doomed to live life lonely, rejected, without friends, and without jobs. The brutal truth is that the statistical outcome of segregation is a 'life' characterized by poverty, often terminating in institutions that no longer work, that are outrageously expensive, and that are devastating to the human spirit." Although the reference escapes me, I remember another author comparing special education's pull-out programs to apartheid.

Teachers, like parents, can be most passionate in arguing about methods and procedures in education. To be an effective teacher, one simply has to care a lot about what one does. (A perceiver from a lower economic class might assume teachers are "in it for the money." But given their own educations, human-relations skills, work habits and patience, today's public educators could earn as much in much less stressful jobs. Most evenings, my wife, a sixth-grade teacher in a suburban public middle school and a former BD specialist, briefs me about her day's work. I listen to the litany of struggles with recalcitrant pre-adolescents, litigious parents and passive-aggressive colleagues. Frequently I ask, "Are you sure you want to do this until you retire?" But she is sure. There's nothing more rewarding, she feels, than those moments, frequent enough, when the kids "get it" and get excited about it.) So many regular educators care a lot about the potential dilution of their effectiveness if they have to integrate special-education students into their classrooms. One of their champions is Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers. He published an editorial-advertisement in national magazines earlier this year, decrying a BD inclusion case like the one described above.

The REI promises regular educators help in meeting its demands, help in the form of partnership. As Will (1986) put it,

The heart of this commitment is the search for ways to serve as many . . . children [with learning problems] as possible in the regular classroom by encouraging special education and other special programs to form a partnership with regular education. The objective of the partnership for special education and the other special programs is to use their knowledge and expertise to support regular education in educating children with learning problems.

But as late as 1990, Jenkins, Pious and Jewell found nothing in REI more "impressionistic, or poorly defined" than this call for partnership. They dissect the possibilities and problems in classrooms where partnership might mean something like the Class Within a Class described above, and foresee paramount questions of "ownership of problems and hegemony." If special education is to support regular education, is REI asking one set of professionals to accept subordination to another?

Hill M. Walker and Michael Bullis confront the bête noire of many a regular classroom teacher, the integration of the student with behavior disorders (BD) (such students make up between two and three percent of the total school population). The authors describe the competing currents of education reform in terms out of Kuhn's famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and conclude that the major paradigm shift in the direction proposed by REI advocates is unlikely any time soon, at least for integration of BD students. They show that the BD segment of a typical district's population is usually underidentified (by two out of three, according to one measure), and speculate about the political and economic reasons why. Walker and Bullis take districts to task for failing to use methods proven effective with BD students, methods well known and quite accessible in the literature of special education. Then they cite studies showing regular teachers have low tolerance for students' maladaptive behavior, and use referrals both to aid exceptional students and to keep their own classrooms more homogeneous and manageable.

Concluding Observation

From my reading and from discussions with teachers and school administrators, I venture some conclusions. Among advocates of the REI, there are some who are simply carried away, perhaps by their compassion for handicapped children in general. Their sweeping, unqualified call for universal inclusion ignores evidence (for example, the many studies cited by Walker & Bullis) that what they propose would harm many of the children they want to help.

To Walker and Bullis' opinion about the likelihood of widespread implementation of inclusion, I would add a concurring one. The REI seems likely to improve children's social development more than their academic achievement. But from my readings about the varieties of movements in public education and public policy today, I think that's a balance with few supporters.


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Eardley, L., & Volland, V. 'Inclusion' gains momentum in schools. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 116(79), (March 20, 1994), 1A,4A.

Fuchs, D. & Fuchs, S.L., Evaluation of the Adaptive Learning Environments Model. Exceptional Children, 55 (1988), 115-127.

Gartner, A., & Lipsky, D.K., Restructuring for Quality, Chapter 4 of Lloyd, Singh & Repp's The Regular Education Initiative.

Lloyd, J.W., Singh, N.N., Repp, A.C. The Regular Education Initiative: Alternative Perspectives on Concepts, Issues, and Models. Sycamore, IL: Sycamore Publishing Co., 1990.

Sailor, W., Anderson, J.L., Halvorsen, A.T., Doering, K., Filler, J., & Goets, L. The Comprehensive Local School: Regular Education for all Students with Disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1989.

Stainback, S., & Stainback, W., eds. Curriculum Considerations in Inclusive Classrooms. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1992.

Stainback, S., Stainback, W., & Jackson, H.J., Toward Inclusive Classrooms. (in Stainback & Stainback, eds., 1992).

Walker, H.M., & Bullis, M. Behavior Disorders and the Social Context of Regular Class Integration: A Conceptual Dilemma?, in Lloyd, Singh & Repp, 1990.

Wang, M.C., Peverly, S., & Randolph, R. An investigation of the implementation and effects of a full-time mainstreaming program. Remedial and Special Education, 5(6) (1984), 93-105.

Wang, M.C., Reynolds, M.C., & Walberg, H.J. Rethinking special education. Educational Leadership, 44(1) (1986), 26-31.

Will, Madeleine C. Educating Children with Learning Problems: A Shared Responsibility [the December, 1985, Wingspread Conference address as published]. Exceptional Children, 53 (Feb., 1986), 411-415.