Has Inclusion Gone Too Far?
Education Next Issue Cover Weighing its effects on students with disabilities, their peers, and teachers
The model of special education known as inclusion, or mainstreaming, has become more prevalent over the past 10 years, and today, more than 60 percent of all students with disabilities (SWDs) spend 80 percent or more of their school day in regular classrooms, alongside their non-disabled peers (see Figure 1). This is not the full inclusion favored by some disability advocates, wherein all SWDs would be educated in inclusive classrooms all day; however, many supporters celebrate the increasing acceptance of differently abled students in general education as an opportunity to improve the academic and long-term trajectories of these traditionally underserved learners. In theory, inclusion provides SWDs with access to the grade-level curriculum and the same educational opportunities as their peers.
Unfortunately, research has yielded only weak evidence that inclusion confers benefits on SWDs. Studies that report better academic and behavioral outcomes for SWDs who are taught in a general-education setting suffer from methodological flaws. Even less evidence suggests that general-education teachers are adequately prepared to meet the unique academic and behavioral needs of SWDs. Further, studies of inclusion seem to assume that SWDs are educated in a vacuum; that is, they fail to examine the experiences of non-disabled classmates.
In this article, I explore policies and existing research on inclusion to describe what we know, what we don’t, and how current knowledge should inform decisions about where to educate SWDs. An underlying theme of this discussion is that inclusion influences not only SWDs but also their peers and teachers. The interplay between and among these three groups suggests areas of research that can inform future discussion about inclusion and how it can work well for all stakeholders.