"I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do something I can do."... ...Helen Keller.
Commentary of the Day - June 30, 2003: The Gospel of Inclusion - Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).
Special education has helped many students. For some it's been an educational lifesaver. But special ed is increasingly a disaster in progress –- prohibitively expensive, deliberately underfunded, buried in paperwork, manacled by regulations, and tyrannized by lawsuits. Its ever-changing principles and policies are too often founded on pseudoscience, self-esteem, wishful thinking, and a seemingly willful disregard for classroom reality.
This blind eye to the facts of life in the regular classroom has become a real problem now that special ed experts have decided that most special education needs to take place there.
This latest edition of the special ed gospel is called inclusion. Inclusion preaches that special ed students, no matter how incapacitating their disabilities, can and should be placed in the regular classroom.
In case you're wondering where this brainstorm came from, it's one of those rare instances where liberals and conservatives put aside their ideological differences and joined forces to come up with a terrible idea. Liberals thought putting disabled kids in regular classes, regardless of how well they could learn there, would be good for their self-esteem. Conservatives thought it would be cheaper.
They were both wrong.
Don't misunderstand. Including special ed students in regular classrooms often works out fine. Lots of kids with learning problems just need extra help, extra time, or supplementary services during the day. The trouble comes when advocates and experts obsess about inclusion for every student, even those with what they themselves describe as "severe disabilities." These disabilities include "significant" learning handicaps, emotional disturbance, and mental retardation. Some inclusion zealots place multi-handicapped adolescents in diapers in regular classrooms.
Inclusionists demand "special services" for students with "special needs" but never in a "special" setting. When classroom teachers point out that some disabled kids can't receive a specialized, appropriate education in a regular class with twenty other kids, inclusionists howl about inflexible, "one size fits all" teaching methods. They fail to see the irony in their insistence on a "one size fits all" placement in those regular classrooms for all students, regardless of their disabilities.
There's no shortage of expert voices hawking inclusion. One copyrighted system, [Choosing Outcomes and Accommodations for Children] –- COACH -- promotes grouping students together without regard for ability as "desirable and beneficial," not because I can teach them better that way, but rather because kids can "learn from each other in a diverse learning environment." COACH focuses on "individually determined valued life outcomes" and strives for a "balance between the academic/functional and social/personal aspects."
In life I'm all in favor of balance. In the classroom where I teach English, academics come first.
Inclusionists may be short on perspective and common sense, but they're long on zeal. COACH, for example, wants "all" students "welcomed" in the regular classroom "regardless of disability type or severity." They establish a quota system where the percentage of special ed kids in a class can't exceed the percentage of special ed kids in the school. In other words, you can't group special ed kids together, even if it would help them learn, because that would put too many of them in the same room. COACH also nullifies any notion of standards. According to COACH partisans, the idea that "all fifth graders" in a fifth grade class should be expected to do "fifth grade work" is "incorrect."
COACH sees inclusion as a matter of "access and equity." But it's a mockery of equity to define educational success in terms of the proportion of special ed kids in the room. Equity doesn't mean identical. Equity means fairness. Placing a student in a class where he's doomed to learn less than he otherwise could isn't fair, especially to that student.
Naturally, inclusionists deny that anybody's learning less. COACH insists that all kids can succeed in the regular classroom, even if their "learning goals" and intellectual ability "differ significantly" from their classmates’.
All it takes are the right "accommodations." Some of these "educational program adjustments" are as simple as saving the tougher questions for the brighter students, something every teacher with a brain already does. Others, however, are nightmarishly impractical and counterproductive.
COACH recommends that content "be adapted to an appropriate level." The problem is, once you get beyond the early grades, this doesn't work. You can't, for example, adapt atomic structure or polynomials or strict construction of the Constitution for a student who reads and thinks at a third grade level.
This, however, doesn't trouble the COACH folks. Their manual describes a high school biology class where most students are working on the "anatomy and physiology of the human heart." Meanwhile a student with "severe disabilities" works alongside them on his academic goal, "taking turns." Or how about placing a disabled kid in a yearlong French class even though "there would be no expectation of competencies in French."
Don't we have better things to do for kids like this, like maybe teaching them to read? Sure, you can sit a disabled student in my history class. And you can pretend he's included when he's really in over his head. But is this sham worth a precious year of his time, time that could be spent working one-on-one or in small groups on skills that he really needs and that he might really master?
Inclusionists complain that classroom teachers like me don't care about special ed kids. I say COACH plays word games with student's lives. Their experts recommend placing a disabled student in an algebra class. They acknowledge that the rest of the kids will be learning algebra while he'll be working on adding and subtracting. According to Coach's definitions, though, they're all working on the same "subject content." The disabled student just has different "learning outcomes."
This is a kid who can't add. He doesn't need double talk and charades. He needs help working at his own level.
And I'm uncaring?
Imagine a hospital where a critically ill coronary patient gets placed on a regular convalescent floor so he can be with patients who aren't as sick as he is. He wouldn't receive appropriate care, and he probably wouldn't recover as fast, or at all.
And we wouldn't call it inclusion.
We'd call it malpractice.
©2003, Peter Berger
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.
The IP comments: Poor Elijah hits head-on an issue that many in education prefer to avoid because it is so emotionally charged. We like to think that in a compassionate and democratic society that inclusion should be a primary goal in education. The IP generally is in favor of including special ed students in regular classes when it can be determined that they would benefit from being in a regular class at least as much as being in a separate special ed class. Many students with physical handicaps ranging from moderate to severe who have the ability to keep up mentally will do just fine in regular classes. Others might not. Helen Keller, the author of our lead quote, is an example. It is not at all clear that she would have achieved as much in a "mainstream" class as she did with the help of a dedicated "special ed" teacher. Likewise, students with severe emotional problems or severe learning disabilities may very well do better under the guidance of teachers who have been specially trained to work with these problems. Poor Elijah has it exactly right when he complains about the "one size fits all" approach of some inclusionists. The program for each special ed student should be tailored to his or her individual needs, with input from parents, teachers and other appropriate professionals. What are your thoughts on this issue?
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