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E.D. Report Documents 'Full Inclusion' Trend

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For the first time, students with disabilities are spending more of their time in regular classrooms than in any other school setting, according to the Education Department's annual report on special-education programs.

During the 1991-92 school year, about 35.7 percent of the nation's more than five million students with disabilities were served in regular classes during at least 80 percent of their school day, the department reported.

The second most common placement was a resource room, with 34.4 percent of students, followed by separate classes, at 23.9 percent. Those figures include students ages 3 through 21.

But among students 6 years old or older, the most common placement is still a resource room.

The landmark 1975 law since renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that students be educated in the "least-restrictive environment" possible.

The difference in placements among younger children may be explained by the fact that states have been under a federal mandate to serve disabled infants and toddlers only since 1986.

Those newer programs may have begun by integrating disabled children with their nondisabled peers, while "full inclusion" for older children requires dismantling an established system of separate facilities for disabled students, said Lou Danielson, who oversaw the report as the director of the division of innovation and development in the office of special-education programs.

In 1986-87, only 27.2 percent of disabled students ages 3 to 21 were in regular classes, with the biggest proportion--40.9 percent--placed in resource rooms.

"This [trend] is generally a good thing if those kids and their teachers are getting the type of support that they need," said Thomas Hehir, the director of the office of special-education programs. "But we know that some kids are being integrated without the appropriate support."

According to data from a longitudinal study that was included in the department's report, many disabled high school students in regular-education settings are struggling.

More Supports Needed

Students in the study who spent most of their time in regular classrooms were more likely to fail courses than students taught in more specialized settings.

For example, a 9th grader who spent most of his time in regular academic classes was 10 percent more likely to fail one of his classes than a peer who spent just half his time in such classes.

The report says this difference is strongest early in high school, possibly because more students drop out or take more vocational courses after 9th grade.

The report cites a higher student-to-teacher ratio as another possible reason for failure. The average high school academic class with disabled students had one teacher for 23 students, while the average special-education class had one teacher and an aide for nine students.

Federal officials said the course placement of students with disabilities becomes more important as the debate over educating them moves away from merely providing access to the mandated "free and appropriate" public education to the bigger task of insuring they succeed in the classroom.

More Learning Disability

Consistent with other recent reports, the department found that the largest enrollment increase in special education occurred among learning-disabled students. They made up just over half of all students served in special-education programs, and 122,362 more students fell into that category in 1992-93 than in the previous school year.

The department has started a study--the results of which will be published in the next annual report--looking at eight states that have reported a significant jump in the number of learning-disabled students in recent years.

Mr. Hehir and other federal officials have hypothesized that the growth could be the result of an increasingly common tendency to label high-functioning students with mental retardation, and those with attention-deficit disorder, as learning-disabled.

Students with speech or language impairments made up the second-largest category with 22.2 percent of all disabled students, followed by mental retardation at 10.9 percent and serious emotional disturbances at 8.3 percent.

The report also found that:

  • A total of 5.17 million students with disabilities were served in federally financed programs in the 1992-93 school year, a 3.7 percent increase over the previous year.

    The previous year's report cited a 3.9 percent increase--the biggest annual enrollment jump in special education since reporting began in 1976-77.

  • States faced a shortage of roughly 27,000 special-education teachers and more than 5,400 paraprofessionals in 1991-92.
  • The dropout rate for students with disabilities has decreased steadily over the past five years, but more students in a few key states are leaving high school with "status unknown," making tracking graduation and dropout rates difficult.

Copies of the "16th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act" are available free from the U.S. Education Department, Office of Special Education Programs, 330 C St., S.W., Room 3530, Washington, D.C. 20202.

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