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Inclusion 'Backfiring?'

A few weeks ago, I pointed out a good story about special education teachers with emergency credentials, written by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the nonprofit Hechinger Report.

Now, Sarah Butrymowicz, the reporter with Hechinger, has come back with a thoughtful entry on her organization's blog about whether inclusion in special education has been a failure. Definitely read the post for the entire tenor of her comments, but here's an excerpt:

While others might not go so far as to say the whole model has backfired, many experts are concerned. In fact, while doing research for a recent article about emergency-certification programs for special-education teachers, I found myself having the same conversation with expert after expert. Yes, these emergency-certification programs were of serious concern to them, but of equal or greater concern to them was how few general-education teachers are prepared to work with the special-education students they'll inevitably have in their classrooms.

Sarah is raising a question that I've certainly heard before. And I'm glad one of her readers noted that it's not appropriate to lump all students covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act together. Surely, one might imagine that students with a speech disability (that's about 20 percent of the kids in the IDEA) should be able to spend most of the school day in a general education environment, for example.

But it's also true that many teacher-training programs offer only cursory attention to the needs of different types of learners, as Sarah notes. So if general education teachers are ill-prepared for students with disabilities, what's happening in the self-contained classroom, where students spend all day with teachers who have that special training general education teachers may lack?

In New York City, advocates have asked that same question, and the truth is that the students with disabilities aren't being served so well there, whether they're in "inclusion" or self-contained classes. The Arise Coalition found in a 2009 report that fewer than one in five students with disabilities graduates in four years. And among students with disabilities in self-contained classrooms, less than 5 percent graduate. This population is also two and a half times more likely to drop out of school than other special education students.

I am sure that the students in self-contained classrooms in New York include some pupils with very serious cognitive disabilities. But another problem seems to be that students in a general education classroom may get access to an academic curriculum, but few supports. Students in self-contained classrooms get support, but not as much access to the general curriculum. (See this report for a deeper examination of that issue)

All this suggests to me is that the issues of appropriately teaching students with disabilities is larger than just a debate over inclusion. Educators have a lot of work trying to best educate students, wherever those students are.

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