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NASBE Endorses 'Full Inclusion' of Disabled Students

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State school boards must take steps to create inclusive education systems in which students with disabilities are taught alongside their nondisabled peers, a new report by the National Association for State Boards of Education recommends.

The report is one of the strongest endorsements to date from a general-education group for the concept of "full inclusion'' of disabled children.

Unlike the traditional special-education practice of mainstreaming, under which disabled students spend part of the school day in regular classrooms, full inclusion calls for teaching disabled pupils in regular classrooms throughout the day.

Rather than helping students in separate resource rooms or center-based programs, special-education teachers under the full-inclusion system come into regular classrooms to team-teach or provide additional support in other ways for disabled students.

"There should be no mistake about the implications of this vision: The [report] is calling for a fundamental shift in the delivery of education,'' the document says. "Schools in an inclusive, restructured system must look very different from the typical school that exists today.''

The report, entitled "Winners All: A Call for Inclusive Schools,'' was released during the state boards' group's annual conference in Cincinnati last month.

To bring about more inclusive schools, the report makes a number of specific recommendations. State boards must set down policies that support integration of disabled children, it urges, and must specify, in setting standards for the education of all students, that their standards truly mean all students.

"Most state boards have been talking very much in terms of goals for all students and they're looking at schools to be radically restructured,'' said Virginia Roach, who directed the study for NASBE. "The element that's been missing is that special education hasn't necessarily been at the reform table.''

In addition, the report calls on states to change teacher-licensure and -certification rules so that new teachers will be prepared to teach children with disabilities as well as those without. And it calls for the support and creation of training programs to help special educators and regular educators learn to collaborate in the classroom.

School-finance systems, the report says, should be overhauled to "sever the link between funding, placement, and handicapping label.'' Funds should be provided on the basis of instructional needs, not head counts, it proposes.

'A Fundamental Mismatch'

The recommendations stem from a two-year investigation by board members from 17 states. After hearing from special and general educators, parents, students, academics, and administrators, the group concluded there was "a fundamental mismatch between schools and the disabled children they were supposed to serve,'' Ms. Roach said.

Citing national studies, she pointed out that only 57 percent of disabled students leave school with either a diploma or a certificate of graduation. Moreover, only 49 percent of disabled youths are employed two years after leaving school.

Part of the problem is that, in the 17 years since the landmark Education For All Handicapped Children Act was passed, a "separate and isolated system has been created to serve students with disabilities,'' the study contends.

"There's this real 'our kid-your kid' mentality,'' Ms. Roach observed. "It's, 'We do better by our kids and stay out of our program.' ''

The report also argues that mainstreaming practices often fall short of their goals. In elementary school, students with disabilities join regular classes for art, music, and physical education. But they often miss out on opportunities to develop their social skills during free-play times.

In secondary school, the report adds, nondisabled students and their teachers often view the disabled student as an "add on'' to the general-education program.

Moreover, funding mech-a-nisms have "contributed to the segregation of students into isolated programs and have served as an incentive for overidentification of students so that school districts could receive more support from the state and federal government,'' the report maintains.

Once labeled, students often remain in special-education programs throughout their school careers, the study adds.

Not 'One Choice'

The call for full inclusion remains a controversial topic, however, among special educators and some parents of disabled children.

Parents are wary of the practice because their children may have already encountered problems in the regular-education system, or because they fear losing hard-won rights and special-education services.

Special educators say some disabled students need separate environments when their behavior problems are severe or they have unique learning needs. Deaf students, for example, often contend they are more isolated in regular classrooms in which neither teachers nor classmates understand sign language.

"You can't have one choice,'' said Frederick J. Weintraub, the director of communications for the Council for Exceptional Children. "We support a continuum of options for disabled students, with the full belief that you have to strengthen the inclusive option.''

Other disability groups and advocates, on the other hand, see the debate as a civil-rights issue, maintaining that all children have a right to learn in regular classrooms.

The aim of NASBE's recommendations is not to abolish the "continuum,'' Ms. Roach said. Instead, it is to create a system that does not narrowly limit who can provide special education or where that instruction can take place.

State Steps to Inclusion

While special educators are divided on the issue, the state boards are the second general-education group to endorse full inclusion this year. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development at its convention in April approved a resolution favoring the practice.

And, according to the report, several states have taken steps in that direction. They include:

  • Vermont and Pennsylvania, which have passed laws creating "instructional-support teams'' to provide help for students who are having trouble learning before they are placed in special education. In Vermont, the practice has resulted in a 13 percent decrease in special-education referrals over two years.
  • Oregon and Pennsylvania, which have abolished funding systems that allowed school districts to be reimbursed for the difference between the costs of educating students with disabilities and the average costs for nondisabled students. The systems were replaced with formulas that provide little incentive for identifying large numbers of disabled students.
  • New Mexico, where the state board last year formulated a policy stating that "all students must be educated in school environments that include rather than exclude them.''
  • California, which is funding 41 pilot full-inclusion projects in school districts around the state.

Copies of the report are available for $10, prepaid, from the National Association of State Boards of Education, 1012 Cameron St., Alexandria, Va. 22314.

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