Inclusion and the L.E.P. Student

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With all the hoopla and debate surrounding inclusion, as it relates to students with disabilities, I am perplexed that there has been so little discussion about educating limited-English-proficient, or L.E.P., students in so-called inclusive settings. On the contrary, there seems to be more discussion about increasing the segregation of these students than about bringing them into the mainstream of regular classrooms, as the concept of inclusion implies.

In a recent issue of Education Week, for example, one article describes a school system's plan to establish "newcomer centers" for L.E.P. students ("Dade Board Backs Makeshift Centers for New Immigrant Students," July 13, 1994) while another reports on the shortcomings of national assessments that fail to include students with disabilities ("More Special-Education Students in Test Pools Urged," July 13, 1994). The irony in the juxtapositioning of these stories is that the same rationale was given for including students in one as was given for excluding students in the other: "provide better service to students to improve outcomes."

"Newcomer" programs can be found from San Francisco to New York City. They aim to provide transitional "one-stop shopping" for immigrant students and their families--in other words, to make medical, social, mental-health, and other services available at one site. The best of these programs also provide native-language instruction and cultural-orientation and adaptation strategies for students. When I first heard about such centers, I liked the idea so much I wanted to go out and set up newcomer centers. It is no secret that getting these types of services to limited-English-proficient students and their families in one location, with interpreters, with translation services, and in culturally appropriate ways, is vitally important. But while I applaud the work that newcomer programs do, I am concerned about their potential to increase segregation.

In fact, newcomer programs can segregate students to such an extent that the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights has studied whether or not such segregation would be a violation of federal law. The O.C.R.'s assessment of this question resulted in the agency's imposition of certain conditions on newcomer programs. Students may not be in these programs for more than a year, for example. Newcomer programs are to the field of English-as-a-second-language what separate facilities are to special education. Their rationale: providing better services. Their impact: increased segregation.

What would a program of full inclusion for L.E.P. students look like? Rather than pulling students out to teach them English, we would teach them English in the mainstream. They would build their conversational and academic English-language skills in the general-education classrooms. There would be, in the new rhetoric of education, a "paradigm shift" in how we deliver instruction to limited-English-proficient students. Whatever is now taught in the pullout class would be taught in the regular classroom. This is possible to do, but, in recent years, some E.S.L. educators have proposed instead "pull in" programs at the elementary level.

Pull-in programs, designed to provide English-as-a-second-language services in the general classroom, are very different from the E.S.L.-inclusion alternative I propose. Tutoring a limited-English-proficient child in a corner of a classroom is not much better, and is perhaps less efficient, than pulling the student out of the classroom. For this reason, some pull-in programs have evolved into team-teaching and collaborative arrangements in which the E.S.L. teacher teams up with the general-education teacher and becomes a de facto second teacher in the classroom. If we had a full-fledged discussion about inclusion and the limited-English student, teachers in this field would perhaps be able to build on these team-teaching approaches while anticipating the challenges and barriers inherent in the idea of inclusive education.

Although mainstreaming has always been a concept intimately tied to the teaching of English to speakers of other languages, we have not given enough serious consideration to the idea of providing English-as-a-second-language services in an inclusive setting. The time has come to do so. The inclusion of L.E.P. students may be as inevitable in the evolution of programs serving limited-English students as it has been for programs serving students with disabilities.

There are, in fact, many similarities between the two populations. Historically, there has been a pattern of exclusion in educating both. As recently as 30 years ago, students with disabilities were not allowed in public schools. Similarly, L.E.P. students then were either not receiving appropriate education in schools or were not allowed to enroll in them. Thanks to the work of advocates and legal agencies, these youngsters now have access. P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, opened the doors for people with disabilities, and two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Lau v. Nichols (1974) and Plyler v. Doe (1982), opened them for immigrant students. We've come a long way.

But special education often continues to be used today as a tool to segregate students with limited English. Most of us have heard the horror stories. A native Spanish-speaker comes to the United States, is judged "slow" because of his or her inability to speak the language, and is then "confirmed" as a special-education student after being assessed with an English I.Q. test. As school districts became more "enlightened," they set up English-as-second-language programs that segregated these students in another way. Just as special-education classes were often located in basements or in far corners of the school building, so too were E.S.L. classes.

Special-education and E.S.L. programs have undoubtedly made substantial progress. In one generation, we have opened the schoolhouse door to these students. But it is time now to move beyond unequal separate systems to integrated ones where all students have access to all the services necessary for their success.

The rhetoric of inclusive education is strong and loud in some parts of the country and at some levels of the system. But reality often differs dramatically from the rhetoric. The battleground for inclusion is less likely to be in the superintendent's office or the school board meeting than in the courthouse. With a growing body of case law on the rights of children with disabilities, perhaps the rhetoric of inclusion for those students will be transformed into reality by court edict.

In English-as-a-second-language circles, however, we have not even begun to see inclusion as an issue, though we have made progress. Our best E.S.L. programs have moved away from grammar-based approaches and foreign-language teaching methods. Some are moving away even from pullout programs. We have developed thematic lessons, provided access to National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards, and begun to advocate for the inclusion of L.E.P. youngsters in the discussions of outcomes-based education and in the development of content standards in other academic-subject areas. In far too many places, however, our pullout practices remain unchallenged. Sometimes, we still segregate students into bilingual programs. At other times, we propose extreme segregative structures such as the newcomer centers.

Where are the advocates, the lawyers, and the parents? Our special-education friends have realized that building a separate and dual system was a mistake. We ought to learn from them.

There is no "least-restrictive environment" requirement in serving L.E.P. students, as there is in serving students with disabilities, and immigrant parents are much less organized. L.E.P.-student placement is not ruled by legal requirements and processes; neither is instruction insured, as it is in the case of students with disabilities, by an individualized education plan. There are few policies dictating what to do, how to do it, and where to serve L.E.P. students; there is little state and federal funding available to develop inclusive programs for limited-English students. All of these barriers to inclusion can and must be surmounted. We built the barriers. We can tear them down.

Many of the strategies that work with children with disabilities also work with L.E.P. students. Team-teaching and collaborative practices reduce the anxieties of classroom teachers working with these students. Peer tutoring and cooperative-teaching techniques allow them to learn from their English-speaking peers. We can take other concrete steps to further the inclusion of E.S.L. students in the general classroom. We can do some or all the following:

  • Adopt a "zero reject" model. This would mean that, regardless of the language proficiency of a student, we would provide services in the mainstream. The result would be ownership: We teach all who come to us.
  • Expand two-way bilingual programs. Meaning: Bring English monolinguals and other-than-English monolinguals together and instruct them in English and in the "other" language. Result: bilingualism. English plus.
  • Establish student-support teams. Meaning: "Borrow" heavily from leaders in inclusion and develop collaborative or consultative teams composed of E.S.L. and general-education teachers. Result: efficacy. Schools will feel that they have the tools and support to educate all.
  • Learn from the experiences of special education. Meaning: Refrain from continuing to build a separate system (we already have special E.S.L. certification areas, separate higher-education departments, and so on). Adapt "best practices" for L.E.P. students. Result: savings. We will save time, money, and, what is more important, a generation of students.

If we assume that students have a right to be included with their English-proficient peers, if we make the general classroom the base for providing services, and if we prepare English-as-a-second-language and general-education teachers to teach all children via collaborative teams, we will make substantial progress in providing appropriate education to limited-English students in inclusive settings.

Special-education advocates have long cautioned against going backward, losing civil rights gained in past struggles. In the same way, E.S.L. professionals are warning about the dangers of the sink-or-swim approach. A full-scale national discussion about inclusion and limited-English-proficient students should not be an excuse not to provide services. We must provide appropriate services to L.E.P. students. But there is no evidence that these services are best provided in separate settings. Neither the courts nor the federal government require segregated services for limited-English students. Certainly, full inclusion of L.E.P. students would not contradict any theoretical approach adhered to by teachers of English to speakers of other languages.

Special-education programs and English-as-second-language programs too often result in the removal of blacks, immigrants, and students with disabilities from the mainstream. Yet, in 1994, these populations, in addition to women, are the new mainstream. Too often, those of us working on separate and separatist programs have been unsuspecting perpetuators of dual, separate, unequal systems.

To be effective and equitable, we must change our own paradigms of what constitutes best practices for serving these populations. We must take advantage, during these times of uncertainty and ambiguity, of systems and practices that deliver our students into the mainstream. Now is the time to voice our concerns. Now is the time to advocate for a new mainstream composed of those of us who have been excluded in the past. Now is the time to propose systemic solutions to the "problems" of serving diverse students.

The time has come to consider, study, plan, and implement inclusive education for students with limited English proficiency. Let's learn from our colleagues in special education. Let's join their struggle for equality, access, and excellence. Their struggle is our struggle. We are in it together.

Jose Manuel Torres is a policy analyst with the National Association of State Boards of Education in Alexandria, VA.

Vol. 14, Issue 08, Pages 38, 40

Published in Print: October 26, 1994, as Inclusion and the L.E.P. Student
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