The number of students with disabilities who spend most of their school day in regular classrooms has risen over the decades, and represented about 63 percent of school-age children and youth in the 2016-17 school year.
But the academic outcomes for students with disabilities remains poor. And that’s because there’s been pressure on placing students in general education classrooms, when the focus needs to be on effective educational practices, whether they’re in inclusive settings or not, says Allison Gilmour, an assistant professor of special education at Temple University.
“Location isn’t the same thing as services,” said Gilmour, the author of “Has Inclusion Gone to Far”, an editorial published in the journal Education Next. “We need to shift our focus from where students are educated, to how they’re actually educated.”
In making her argument, Gilmour draws attention to studies that links inclusion to positive benefits, such as a 2017 study that found improved academic results for students with disabilities in inclusive settings, as well as for students with disabilities who took career and technical education classes.
But Gilmour said it’s difficult to draw conclusions from those findings, because students with disabilities in inclusion classrooms might have less-intensive needs than other students who have special education needs.
Gilmour also notes that there’s ample research that demonstrates teachers, as well as students, have a challenging time dealing with students who have behavioral disabilities, and that teachers who report serious behavior problems in their classrooms spend less time on instruction. (It’s important to note that not every student with a behavior problem has a disability, and not every student with a disability has behavioral problems.)
State and federal policy, however, place inclusion as a goal to strive for. Gilmour writes that “decisions regarding placement in a general-education classroom, special-education classroom, or a mixture of settings should be determined by students’ individual needs. If a student is not making progress in an educational setting, the student is not accessing the curriculum. Oftentimes, students may need intensive and individualized instruction to make progress and gain access to the general-education curriculum. This level of instruction might not be possible if a student is taught exclusively in a general-education setting.”
In an interview, Gilmour said that her piece should also be seen as an argument for better support of teachers, particular general education teachers, who often aren’t getting the specific training they need to best instruct students with disabilities in their classrooms. That training needs to come both from teacher-preparation programs, as well as professional development from districts, she said.
“Surely we can do better than what we’re already doing,” she said.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.