Education Opinion

‘States Must Provide Leadership’

By Gail Lieberman — February 22, 1995 4 min read

In Illinois, we view inclusion--driven by a student’s individualized education program--as one of many ways school districts can serve the special needs of students with disabilities. Local school officials must form a partnership with students and their parents to provide education and other services in the least- restrictive environment. The general-education classroom is the starting point for the delivery of services, including specialized instruction and services. Inclusion, therefore, is one placement option for educating students with disabilities.

Local communications and decisionmaking is fundamental to any I.E.P. and to success in service delivery. However, states must take a leadership role that supports and strengthens local policies. That is what we have done in Illinois.

Illinois’s state superintendent of education, Joseph Spagnolo, cited the state’s position on inclusion at a recent state board of education meeting. He said:

“The state is responsible for insuring that laws are followed, for providing leadership for the development of sound educational practices, and for making technical assistance available to districts as they implement those practices. However, given the extraordinary diversity which exists among the state’s schools and schoolchildren, I believe that decisions about the appropriate instructional approaches are the responsibility of the local school or local school system.”

Mr. Spagnolo went on to recommend what the Illinois state board of education’s position on inclusion ought to be:

  • To support local districts in implementing federal requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, recognizing that federal law requires looking at a youngster’s home school as the first placement.
  • To reinforce the federal rules that clearly state that “placement decisions must be made on an individual basis.”
  • To clearly articulate that decisions concerning application of specific education approaches of any kind are within the realm of the local school or school system.
  • To provide technical assistance on an as-needed basis for those who wish to pursue inclusion.
  • To deal with educational issues of any kind, including inclusion, in such a way as to help develop understanding in a balanced and unbiased way.

Other states have not stated their policies so explicitly. Instead, they have put into place all of the mechanisms necessary to promote inclusion--namely, having the general-education classroom as an appropriate setting for the necessary specialized instruction and related services. Or they may be in the process of removing the known barriers to inclusion so that, should they choose inclusion, an inclusive classroom can be the norm rather than the exception.

We in Illinois have learned that many of the challenges regarding inclusion revolve around information and training.

Schools often lack an understanding of the basic issue and have little knowledge about strategies to implement such services successfully, and fears, suspicions, and turf issues on the part of teachers and parents can sometimes be impediments. Teachers also lack adequate preparation and information about assistive devices and services, and staff and students lack adequate support services.

General--education staff often feel they were not trained to work with students with disabilities. Had they chosen to work with special-education students, they would have sought appropriate training in college and looked for positions in that field.

Conversely, special-education staff, without dual credentials in general education and special education, fear the loss of their jobs. University training programs generally have not dually trained students. While all students going through an education program must take an overview course on students with disabilities, it does not generally cover curriculum modification, behavior management, and other areas necessary to work with students with disabilities in the regular classroom.

Finally, parents do not receive adequate information about inclusion. They do not know, except through horror stories, what the impact may be of “those children” coming into “their classrooms.”

One final barrier to inclusion is financial. The finance formula currently in use in Illinois was adopted in 1965; it still provides a district financial incentives to offer services in a separate setting or in a private school.

Districts, therefore, need to re-examine their policies and implement broad-based information and training campaigns in order for inclusion to succeed statewide. The Illinois state board of education is in the process of developing a statewide information campaign. We will also work with the two state teachers’ unions to provide the information and training required before inclusion can become a reality throughout the state.

The role of the state director of special education is to understand the situation at the state level, work to support inclusion locally through technical assistance and other appropriate supports and services, and seek to remove any barriers that may be in the way. It is crucial to maintain watch to insure that students are not “dumped” in an inappropriate inclusive setting, without sufficient supports and services for them and the staff. States have the responsibility of providing leadership, monitoring, procedural safeguards, and technical assistance for local service delivery.

Inclusion is a misunderstood term. (Many of us in special education remember when ‘mainstreaming’ was not understood either.) With adequate information, training, and planning at the state and local levels, parents, youngsters, and school personnel can decide on and receive services in the appropriate setting.

That setting will be, likelier than not, the general-education classroom.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 1995 edition of Education Week as ‘States Must Provide Leadership’