Let's Stop Pretending That We Can't Do Better Than Segregated Special Education Classrooms.
The burden to make inclusive schools should be on state and district administrators, not teachers and families.
I’ll admit I am fortunate to have a little bit of perspective.
For years, I tried to reconcile working and supporting segregated special education classrooms. Thirteen years in the classroom and three years as a district-level support specialist to be exact.
And for all the talk of me being an inclusionist, there is a certain amount of shame that I carry because it took so long for me to exit a system that promotes the segregation of students with disabilities (especially those with significant disabilities).
Now before y’all get defensive, allow me to explain my thinking.
I don’t fault any educator or family for choosing to stay in a segregated setting because there are no other options.
Take for instance my story. Since I became a teacher, I wanted to work with students with the most significant disabilities. Where are the vast majority of students with this learning profile? They are in segregated special education classrooms. So in order for me to work in more inclusive settings, I would have to leave students that I loved to be around.
Or using another (though hypothetical) example: a family who believes wholeheartedly in inclusive schools, but the amount of work that it would take to change their neighborhood school culture and practices seems insurmountable, so they ostensibly give up and enroll the student in a private school or settle for a self-contained classroom.
A Failure of Educational Leadership
These aren’t examples of the educational system working. They are representative of what many educators and families go through, and to put a finer point on it, they show a failure of educational leadership.
I open up about this on the latest episode of The Think Inclusive Podcast, “Why I Call Myself An Inclusionist.”
Educational research that has been around for decades has shown that inclusive education benefits students with and without disabilities. So why aren’t we doing it?
It was easy to try to rationalize why things were not changing fast enough when I worked in a system that wasn’t inclusive. But now that I am out, and working and talking with educators in school districts that are implementing inclusion the way that it was intended, there is simply no excuse for me not to state the obvious.
Let’s stop pretending that segregated special education classrooms are the best we can do.
I get that some may not be able to wrap their head around what this looks like. But fortunately, there are some excellent examples. See 5 Videos That Will Change Your Mind About Inclusive Education (thinkinclusive.us) All it takes is for a state or district administrator to investigate it for themselves.
What is even more frustrating is that educational frameworks like Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, Universal Design for Learning, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and Response to Intervention all work in tandem with an inclusive system. Meaning if you are actually implementing tiered interventions and instruction, you don’t have to have segregated special education classrooms!
Skeptic: But how do you know that, Tim?
Me: Because I see examples of it with the school districts that MCIE is working with. I hear about it with the people I interview for the podcast. And there is documented evidence in the research.
If you don’t believe me, look for yourself. Or email me and we can set up a time to talk.
I empathize with people who feel powerless. Like there is nothing we can do to change the system. But I won’t pretend that there isn’t a better way to educate all students and that we haven’t known about it for a long time.
One last thought. When you sit in Individualized Education Program meetings, and the team gets to the placement discussion, have a robust discussion about how supplementary aids and services can be provided in a general education classroom setting. Remind everyone that special education is a service, not a place. Don’t let a team get away with acting like a segregated self-contained special education classroom is a forgone conclusion. And if you disagree with the team (whether you are a family member or educator), make sure it is recorded in the minutes.
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The Case for Inclusive Education: Sabrina’s Story
As Sabrina’s general education teacher, Nancy Preto, talked with Nelia and began to prepare for Sabrina’s inclusion, she realized that a traditional whole-class instructional approach would not work. So she decided to create activity stations and focus on small-group instruction. During Sabrina’s first week, it was clear how these stations provided Nancy with opportunities for accommodations and modifications.
"Lets Step Pretending that blanket; One Size Fits all Classrooms are the Ideal". Is more like it! I spent some time in an inclusive kindergarten classroom. It was hectic and stressful...for me, one hour a week! Imagine the children and teacher. Two specific high needs children in the class were children with level 2-3 ASD. They each had aides working with them through the day. They were not coping well. There was plenty of elopement, meltdowns, throwing things. After witnessing her picture being ripped off the wall one little girl looked at me and sighed "Leo is bad- I mean special". In her five year old mind of course she understood that he was special because he could be "bad" and get away with it. Story time stopped and started no less then 5 times as the aides tried to help the boys sit quietly. One child got kicked so hard in the back when little Leo, in his distress, kicked his leg out in front of him to escape his special floor chair. I saw him look at her regretfully. He didn't mean to hurt anyone, he just didn't want to be... here. Another child was having a hard time seeing her printing page. "I will move by the lamp. We can't turn the other lights on because it can't be too bright..." "Does it help Leo and Aiden?" "Um... I don't know" We both looked at them... their aides trying to keep them engaged as they flailed on the carpet, trying to escape the crowded sensory rich room, no matter how dim the lights were. There were several table lamps casting soft lighting around the room. A gentle ambiance to be sure, maybe appropriate during rest/quiet time. All day in a poorly lit classroom however was not ideal for the learnings of young children. There was much that was far from ideal in this classroom despite all the best attempts at inclusion it seemed, rather, all the children were in the wrong place. The children whose safety and education came second to inclusion. The children who were chronically distressed in an environment inherently designed for neurotypical students continued to come second to a ideal that I had not seen successfully working. The teacher, whose efforts and patience were tested by the minute came second to the proposition of saving a lot of money when special services were cut in the name of inclusivity. Being a proponent of inclusion should more fairly mean the advocacy for ALL children to obtain the education that is best suited for them in an environment that supports their needs. Which means options are the framework this is built on. Reducing these choices is really counter intuitive to this goal. We toured a private school that had a stream for children who required more accommodations and smaller classes. They were included in many aspects of the school based on their unique needs. The director explained that because of polarity in abilities one child may join a grade three class for their language arts time and then later join a fifth grade class for math. Otherwise he had his own class where his needs were well considered. This sounded like a truly inclusive approach.
The efforts it takes to provide an inclusive school placement for students with disabilities, especially those with more significant disabilities is often one of monumental proportions. Fighting the 'segregated is better' paradigm requires, at a minimum, that educators, school administrators and parents believe in the benefits of inclusion for all, those with disabilities and their peers. The barriers in place often result in many giving up. Most parents, in the midst of raising their children, working and carrying out many other responsibilities do not feel they have the skills or know how to take this on. As you point out, one successful year can come apart with the introduction of a new educator or school administrator. After all these years, inclusion should not continue to be based on such a fragile foundation. We continue to have a great deal of work to see more inclusive communities come to fruition.