Inclusion in the us inclusion in the United States: Theory and Practice Kim Michaud

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Inclusion in the United States: Theory and Practice

Kim Michaud

Thomas E. Scruggs

George Mason University


The movement toward inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classes has seen considerable growth in recent decades. However, significant challenges remain, to both the conceptual foundation and practical application of inclusive principles. This chapter will discuss the theoretical and practical foundations of inclusion from the perspectives of, first, the history of this movement: from the 1975 law that provides that all children are entitled to a free, public education, to the perspective that full inclusion is a civil right for all students, vs the perspective that a continuum of services is the most fair and appropriate system. With this in mind, inclusion should be purposeful, and removal from the general education classroom should only occur if important learning goals cannot be met. Consequently, what is being taught, how it is being taught and where it is being taught will be examined. The contribution of RtI with respect to concepts of inclusion is addressed. The chapter concludes with theoretically and concretely based support of inclusion with qualifications in regards to specific populations whose educational goals may not be fully met entirely within the fully inclusive, general education classroom.

Inclusion in the United States: Theory and Practice

In the United States at the present time, few if any question the essential right of individuals with disabilities to a free, appropriate public education. However, the optimal place for this education has been the subject of some debate. Zigmond and Kloo (2011) made a clear distinction between the definitions and corresponding purposes of general versus special education. While the term general education describes the free, public schooling that is “mandated for and offered to all children” (p. 160), special education is specifically tailored for individual students, “who have physical, cognitive, language, learning, sensory and/or emotional abilities/disabilities that deviate from those of the general population and whose abilities/disabilities require special education services…making an appropriate education available…” (p. 160). In the United States, general and special education programs took various forms since colonial times, but remained totally separate until the end of the 20th century. Until that time, students with physical or cognitive disabilities were legally excluded from public general education classes (Johnson, 1986; Zigmond & Kloo, 2011).


General Education

Public general education began in the United States long before it actually became a sovereign nation in 1642, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as both mandatory and free college preparatory schooling for all elementary age white children to ensure children had the ability to read the bible, to prepare ministers and “perpetuate the Protestant morality”(Kelley, 2003, p.4). Shortly after America gained her sovereignty, general education, public or private, state mandated or not, was conducted in one room schoolhouses in order to produce a, “body of moral, loyal and productive citizens” (p. 8). By the 1830’s, under the leadership of Horace Mann and in response to the Industrial Revolution, general education underwent another reform. Schooling became conducted in large buildings, classes were segregated according to age, it was paid for by the state, mandated, and its primary function was to help children learn how to lead moral lives, and develop into trained, qualified workers. As Kelley indicated, by the1950’s more than 80% of the population received post secondary training by vocation or technical schools, but the United States’ illiteracy had fallen to less than 3.2%.

The 1960’s and the years that followed brought yet more changes, which included the end of racial segregation, the legal inclusion of all students with disabilities, the loss of religious and even moral/ethical instruction, and a replacement of the goal of post secondary vocational training for most with a big push towards college education for as many as possible. Yet according to Kelley (2003), “there was no one focused on preparing our teachers, and consequently their students and society-at-large, to transition gradually from the Industrial Revolution model of education into a High Tech/Information one” (p. 22). Public policy actually equated schooling’s purpose with making money, and so without a reality anchored, focused purpose, by 1994 the United States Department of Education determined that 50% of the population was functionally illiterate, incapable of balancing a checkbook, reconciling a utility bill, reading a train or bus schedule, or understanding a newspaper’s editorial. The federal, state, and district responses to remedy this crisis have not only effected general education, but special education as well, for it is within this time period that special and general educations intersected officially and legally for the first time.

Special Education

As was stated previously, special education paralleled but did not intersect general education until recently. From colonial times until the early 19th century no education was provided for those with disabilities, for they either resided in poorhouses, charitable centers, or remained at home with no education (Kirk & Gallagher, 1979; Zigmond & Kloo, 2011). Education was provided during the 19th century for individuals with visual or hearing impairments, mild to severe retardation, and severe emotional disabilities in residential programs. When general education became mandatory on the state level, individuals with disabilities were sent to the general education classrooms, since it was mandated, although when they caused what was considered an “undue burden” upon the teachers, they were either expelled or excluded in separate classrooms (Zigmond & Kloo, 2011). By the 1950’s, students with disabilities could receive education through services or programs which we now define as the continuum of services; consultant assistance, separate classes, specialized day schools, residential and hospital programs were available to educate those with a variety of disabilities. However, at this juncture, public schools were not yet required to provide education for all students, including those with disabilities. For example, as late as 1973 in the state of Virginia, schools were allowed to exclude, “children physically or mentally incapacitated for school work” (Code of Virginia, 1973).

This all changed with the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal, “civil rights law that prevents discrimination against individuals with disabilities by any institution that receives federal funds and provides for a free, appropriate public education (FAPE)” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p. 11). It applies to all students with disabilities, guarantees against discrimination, and focuses on accessibility and equivalence (Zigmond & Kloo, 2011). Two years later, in 1975, the first special education law was passed. Public law 94-142 (1975), later called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), was enacted to ensure that states, in return for federal funds, would provide all students with disabilities a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment (LRE). What is fundamental about this law is that it promised unequal education opportunities for students with disabilities, not just equal access to education ( Zigmond & Kloo, 2011).

There are several important provisions that are central to this federal legislation. In order to ensure that all students with disabilities, regardless of its severity, can receive a free and appropriate public education, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) must be written. This is a written agreement between the school and the parents detailing the unique curricula that will be provided to that individual student so that he/she can access an appropriate education. A specialized team which includes the special and general education teachers, school personnel and the student’s parents/guardian, details the curriculum which will focus on the academic and practical skills which will meet the student’s unique needs and plans (Heward, 2009; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010). When the IEP is written, it must delineate the goals of instruction(s), what individual(s) will provide the various instructions, the setting(s) of those instructions, and the means of assessing goal attainment. An important provision must be taken into consideration when determining how these services are to be delivered to the student, for “critical to IDEA legislation is the concept of least restrictive environment…students with disabilities must be educated in the setting least removed from the general education classroom” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p. 7). It is required that each school district provide a continuum of alternative placements; a continuum which includes seven levels from the least restrictive, generally thought of as the general education classroom, to the most restrictive, the hospital or residential institution (IDEA Regulations, 34 C.F.R. § 300.551; see also Rozalski, Miller, & Stewart, 2011). However, since the placement in the general education classroom is seen as a presumptive right, reasons for alternative placements must be clearly documented (Yell, 1995).

At this juncture it is necessary to understand the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 which was the federal response to the general education crisis that was mentioned previously, for it most certainly affects both the curricula goals of both general as well as special education. Not only the placement within the setting which is least removed from the general education classroom is a presumptive right for all students with disabilities, but it is also their presumptive right to obtain the academic and practical goals of their non-disabled peers as realistically as possible.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

The No Child Left Behind Act (2001) was the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). Its underlying focus, therefore, was to ensure that all students, in particular those low-achieving students in high-poverty schools, be challenged to reach proficiency in language arts and math by 2014 (The Education Trust, 2004; Forte, 2010; Schraw, 2010). This federal mandate is to be worked out individually by the states by requiring them to implement a system of standards, assessments, and accountability. States are also required to put aside a portion of their federal Title I funds (funds received to provide quality education to low-income children) to provide additional assistance to schools showing difficulty in meeting their progressively increasing standards (The Education Trust, 2004). These funds are to be used for expenditures such as transporting students to a better performing school, supplying technical assistance, implementing different curricula, hiring a private management contractor, or converting to a charter school (Council for Exceptional Children, 2002; The Education Trust, 2004).

Each year a school must determine if it is meeting the achievement goals that its state had set. “If the school as a whole and each individual group within the school has met or exceeded the statewide goal in math and language arts, 95% of all students and groups of students have taken the test, and the school has met the statewide goal for the additional academic indicator, then the school has met AYP (“Adequate Yearly Progress”; The Education Trust, 2004, p. 3). If a school does not reach the AYP in the same subject for two consecutive years, then parents, teachers and outside experts must work together to develop a two year plan for improvement. Subsequent years of lack of adequate student progress leads to using state funds for additional tutoring, restructuring, transportation to other schools, or alternative governance. Conversely, if a school is shown to make AYP two years in a row, it is no longer seen to be in need of improvement (The Education Trust, 2004; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010).

Students with disabilities who can access grade-level standards with accommodations participate in the state assessment with the accommodations that are indicated in their IEPs. For students whose IEP team determines that it is not appropriate to participate in the state assessment they are given alternative assessments. State districts can provide up to 1% of all students with alternative assessments, a cap which was put in place to eliminate systems that had had inappropriate lowered expectations for students with disabilities. A district or even a state can apply for a waiver of this cap if it is determined that more than 1% of its students are severely cognitively disabled. Because there are schools who serve this particular population, the 1% cap does not apply at the school level (The Education Trust, 2004).

It is certainly desirable that all students be educated so that they can achieve levels of proficiency, however, NCLB, as it stands now, does not fully take into consideration the individualization necessary to provide education to students with disabilities (Crockett, 2002). To equate the educational needs of all students with all disabilities with students from the other subcategories (majorities, minorities, low income, and limited English proficiency) ignores the uniqueness of educational pacing and goals that is included in special education. NCLB state guidelines base the goals and their assessments upon what is deemed proficient only for the non-disabled population. Although this is certainly suitable for some, it does not take into consideration the full range of disabilities. In fact, there is a resultant increased practical and philosophical tension that exists in the United States school system which continues to erode the evidence based unique individualization that special education could provide to the full range of disabled students.

The preferred specially designed instruction consists of small differentiations in assignments made available to groups of needy students in diverse classrooms to keep everyone working on the same page and responsible for learning the same material (Zigmond, Kloo, & Volonino, 2009, p. 196).

It is for this reason that the Council of Administrators of Special Education (2007) included recommendations to Congress which would incorporate the individual protections of IDEA into NCLB by having IEP teams individualize both assessments and goals that are personally appropriate for each student with a disability. Two polarized concepts must become aligned if the full range of students with disabilities is to benefit from appropriate educations. The Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE; 2007) argued, “individual protections of IDEA…be incorporated into NCLB regarding the meaningful assessment of the full range of students with disabilities. NCLB should permit Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams make ‘individualized’ decisions regarding assessment of students based on identified IEP needs and goals”(p. 2). Likewise, the recommendations for inclusion of functional life skill assessment and recognition of high school diplomas earned in more than four years are important special education leadership policy adjustments (Zigmond et al., 2009).

These purposes also have implications for general education staffing and training. General education teachers need to be taught appropriate strategies, and co-teaching where appropriate needs to be competently implemented (Mastropieri, Scruggs, & Mills, 2011). Unfortunately, research to date on co-teaching suggests appropriate strategies for students with special needs are not generally being implemented, and special education teachers are not serving as full partners in the co-teaching relationship (Scruggs, Mastropieri, & McDuffie, 2007).

Full Educational Inclusion as a Basic Civil Right

Shortly after the implementation of PL 94-142, and in the spirit of least restrictive environment, special education underwent incremental changes toward greater inclusion of students with disabilities in the general education class, from special class and special school, to resource room with “mainstreaming,” toward advocacy for full inclusion in general education class activities for students with mild disabilities (Will, 1986) and severe disabilities (Taylor, 2004; see also Fuchs & Fuchs, 1994; Kavale, 2002). By the 1990s, arguments for “full inclusion” of all students with disabilities entirely in the general education classroom were commonly heard (Lipsky & Gartner, 1996; Stainback & Stainback, 1990; Taylor, 2004).

Advocates for full inclusion have argued that full-time general education placement is a basic civil right for all students, including those with disabilities (Lipsky & Gartner, 1996); conversely, removal to special classes or resource rooms is viewed as a form of segregation similar to racial segregation (Wang & Walberg, 1994). These advocates refer to the Supreme Court verdict on Brown v. Board of Education (1954) regarding “separate but equal” schools, and subsequent civil rights legislation as support for their position. In further support, it is observed that many minority students are overrepresented in special class placement (Gartner & Lipsky, 1989). It is argued, then, that inclusion is to be viewed as an inherent right not to be denied, rather than a privilege to be earned (Sapon-Shevin, 2007).

Some advocates for full inclusion reject the idea that disability is a personal deficit or defect, rather than a socially constructed function of the interrelationship between individual learning needs and the environment. “The school cannot ‘fix’ the impairment but it can change the environment; it can correct the mismatch between individual student needs and available services” (Gartner & Lipsky, 1989, p. 30).

It is further argued that full inclusion reduces stigma, where students are no longer required to leave the general education classroom for special services (Kliewer & Bicklin, 1996); that full inclusion is more efficient, by preventing fragmenting of the school day, and lost time in multiple transitions, and lack of generalization from special class learning (Raynes, Snell, & Sailor, 1991); and that full inclusion promotes equality:

The most important reason to include all students in the mainstream is that it is the fair, ethical, and equitable thing to do…It is discriminatory that some students, such as those “labeled” disabled, must earn the right to be in the regular education mainstream or have to wait for educational researchers to prove that they can profit from the mainstream, while other students are allowed unrestricted access simply because they have no label. (Stainback & Stainback, 1990, pp., 6-7)

Taylor (2004) listed a number of objections to the widely accepted concept of least restrictive environment (LRE). For example, it legitimates restrictive environments, therefore rendering them inevitable for many students. It also confuses intensity of services with segregation, assuming different settings are necessary for different services. LRE infringes on the rights of individuals, by assuming some degree of restriction is necessary, and looking to “professionals” to make this determination. Further, LRE equates development and change with moving through various educational environments, rather than altering the environment to accommodate student development (see also Heward, 2009, for a discussion). In sum, many full inclusion advocates, while appreciating the principle of IDEA legislation, find little to admire in any separate placement for instructional purposes, and prefer to see all students in their regularly assigned, general education classroom (Gartner & Lipsky, 1989).

Right to Individualized Education Delivered through the Continuum of Services:

What is Really “Inclusive”?

Many advocates of special services, however, think differently about the real meaning of inclusion. Speaking with reference to the continuum of services, Kauffman and Hallahan (1995), argued:

Exceptional children by definition require extraordinary education – that which is different from the standard education that serves most students well….Failure to create and maintain explicit structures accommodating exceptional individuals inevitably results in the neglect of those for whom the core services are inadequate. (p. 172)

Proponents of the LRE model argue that many services, specialized equipment or resources, and specialized curricula are not available in general education classrooms, and general education teachers have not been uniquely trained to apply the pedagogical skills and strategies required by exceptional students (Kaufmann & Hung, 2009; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010; McLeskey & Waldron, 2011; Zigmond & Kloo, 2011). Block (1999) argued,

It seemed some inclusion advocates wanted us to take medically fragile children out of hospitals and seriously emotionally disturbed children out of treatment centers simply to declare the continuum of placement options was dead. It did not occur to these advocates that some children, while a great minority, really needed alternative placements to learn, maintain health, and grow. (p. 32)

In fact, it has been argued that it is highly unrealistic to expect that each school, let alone each class have the specialists, materials and programs, with the unique goals and corresponding curricula to help all children achieve academic, social and vocational competencies that correlate with their potential, when this must include students that could represent all 13 categories of disabilities. Can all classrooms be expected to contain lower reading levels, braillers, speech synthesizers and specialized training (or medical) equipment (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010; Scruggs & Michaud, 2009)? Can all general curricula include the Braille Reading Program, American Sign Language Program, and the Intensive Basic Skills program (Kauffman & Hallahan, 1995)? To better illustrate, it could be helpful to delineate some best practices in the areas of instructing elementary age students with learning disabilities, students with intellectual disabilities, students who are deaf, and those who are blind.

McLeskey and Waldron (2011) reviewed the characteristics of high quality instruction of both reading and math for elementary school aged students with learning disabilities (LD). Their table, which delineates the components of this high quality instruction, indicates that this instruction should be, “intensive, explicit, should be delivered to small groups, and should be closely monitored” (p. 50). Such specialized instruction has been shown to result in the ability of a substantial percentage of this population of students to catch up with their peers (McLeskey & Waldron, 2011). Unfortunately, a substantial number research investigations indicate this type of instruction is not being delivered by general education teachers (Zigmond & Baker, 1995; McLeskey & Waldron, 2002), nor by general education or special education co-teachers in general education classrooms (Murawski, 2006; Murawski & Swanson, 2001; Scruggs, Mastropieri, & McDuffie, 2007; Volonino & Zigmond, 2007: Weiss & Brigham, 2000). In addition, some research has suggested that even special educators in resource rooms were found to be unable to provide the instruction that they had specialized in because they were overwhelmed with large class sizes of heterogeneous students from across several grade levels (Moody, Vaughn, Hughes, & Fischer,, 2000; Vaughn, Moody, & Schumm, 1998). McLesky and Waldron therefore recommend a change in current delivery service options for elementary students with LD which is comprised of a continuum of supports adapted from Alberta Education (2010).

Universal and Targeted Supports would most often be provided in a general education classroom by a classroom teacher, while Specialized Supports would most often be provided by a special education teacher in a separate setting. Futhermore…a systematic progress monitoring system should be used to determine the effectiveness of supports and ensure that these activities add value to the education of students with LD. (p. 55)

Similar to students with LD, students with an intellectual disability (ID) typically require direct, systematic instruction in math, reading and daily living skills which can best delivered by special educators trained to use interventions for supporting cognitive deficits (Kauffman & Hung, 2009). A special educator knows how to vary the pace, intensity, duration, reinforcement, and structure of instruction, when to alter teacher-student ratio, how to provide curriculum appropriate for functioning level or needed skills, and how to tailor fitting and precise monitoring of skill acquisitions. For both reading and math, Kauffman and Hung, (2009) indicated that although some students with milder forms of intellectual disability might be able to learn in the general classroom environment with appropriate modulation of instruction and consultation/collaboration with a special educator, others may need to be taught these skills in a separate environment; whether that be a separate class or school. The feasibility of teaching of daily living skills was found to be more problematic when taught in the general education classroom, because the other students had already mastered those skills. Kauffman and Hung, therefore, also recommended that the continuum of services must be available for students with intellectual disabilities. “Special education for children with intellectual disabilities should occur in the general education classroom whenever possible, but the first concern of special education should be improving children’s learning, not the place or with whom they learn” (p. 455).

As was stated at the beginning of this chapter, education for blind and deaf students began in the early 19th century in residential institutions. It was within these residences that the special instructional tools and strategies needed for these students to overcome their physical limitations in order to receive an education which would allow them to reach their potential and live full lives were perfected. Speaking about educating blind students, Bina (1995) indicated that, “without [the] solid foundation like Braille and mobility skills, positive integration into schools now or later in life becomes extremely difficult” (p. 272). He likened two hours of Braille instruction per week or per month to attempting to teach a student to swim by throwing them in the deep end without the prerequisite skills. Instead of being educated to thrive, blind students without sufficient specialized instruction will end up just barely surviving. Similarly, deaf students who do not grow up learning American Sign Language taught by parents who are also deaf, and who are mainstreamed into general education classrooms with only the aid of an interpreter, not only struggle academically, but lose out on the ability to communicate with other human beings (Lane, 1995). Moreover, both Bina and Lane argued against the popular notion that being educated separately is stigmatizing and prevents integration into society. Instead they asserted that inclusion in general education classes which provide no contact or camaraderie with others like themselves, can itself be debilitating and isolating. “How can we ever learn to cope as deaf people, without the shared experience of other deaf people all around us” (Lane, 1995, p. 279)? “I feel that blind children shouldn’t avoid contact with other blind children and that such contact is clearly beneficial” (Bina, 1995, p. 271).

LRE advocates have argued that the continuum of services can provide the individualized, special instruction that students with disabilities need academically, socially, and practically in order to maximize their unique potential. They have also maintained that it is the civil right of students with disabilities to receive an appropriately different education. “There needs to be a balance between focusing on changing the person with a disability to be more ‘normal,’ by attending regular schools and classes and being included in the standard curriculum, versus changing society to accept people who have disabilities” (Kauffman & Hallahan, 1995, pp. 166-167).

Current Issues: Response to Intervention

In recent years, schools have incorporated the concept of Response to Intervention (RtI) in their programming. Originally planned for identifying learning disabilities, RtI procedures have played an important role in the attempt to prevent placement in special education classes (Vellutino, Scanlon, Small, & Fanuele, 2006). RtI involves several “tiers” of instruction. Tier 1, the general education class, is expected to consist of high quality, evidence-based intervention targeted toward all learners (the inclusive classroom). If students fail to demonstrate adequate progress in this tier, they can be placed in Tier 2, where they receive more specialized instruction, either within or without the general education classroom. If students fail to progress adequately within a period of several weeks in this tier, they may be referred to Tier 3, generally regarded as assessment and placement in special education services where appropriate (O’Connor & Sanchez, 2011; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010).

RtI bears a tangential relation to inclusive education. Generally, it is considered that the purpose of RtI is to prevent, or limit, placement in special education services, and therefore could be said to support inclusive efforts. On the other hand, students are often pulled out for intensive remedial services (although not usually for extended time periods); and the general implication behind RtI is that general education class membership may be something a student “earns”


In earlier times, students with disabilities were routinely excluded from schools, or confined in institutions or other completely separate programs. Today in the United States, nearly half of all students with disabilities receive instruction in the general education classroom at least 80% of the school day, and over three-fourths receive instruction in the general education classroom at least 40% of the school day (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). Further, ideas of the complex nature of the concept of inclusion, although not resolved, have been considerably refined over the years. Full inclusion advocates, while not entirely successful in eliminating separate special services, have nevertheless greatly influenced the movement of students with disabilities into general education settings, and compelling greater justification for placements that are less inclusive. The concept of least restrictive environment has maintained, although the benefits of general education class placements have been highlighted. In the future, it is hoped that optimal instructional techniques for students with various disabilities will continue to be explored, as well as the optimal means for delivering this instruction in the least restrictive environment.


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