The Better Question: How Can We Improve Inclusive Education?
This article is a response to “Has Inclusion Gone Too Far?” (features, Fall 2018) by Alison Gilmour. Gilmour’s response to Schifter and Hehir’s piece, titled “How Can We Improve Special Education without Asking Uncomfortable Questions?” is available here.
In her recent article, Allison Gilmour asks whether policymakers have gone too far in promoting inclusion under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). She asserts that there is a lack of evidence that inclusion benefits students with disabilities, as well as insufficient research on the impact of including students with disabilities on their non-disabled peers and teachers. While several of Gilmour’s points are true on their face, her assumptions lead to problematic conclusions. In particular, she suggests that researchers should examine whether students with disabilities have negative effects on their peers and teachers in order to determine if students should be placed in inclusive settings and ultimately argues that policymakers should rethink the law’s emphasis on inclusion. In our view, these conclusions are misguided and even dangerous.
Gilmour’s positions are hardly new, but they are important to counter. Her argument is rooted in the following ableist assumptions: 1) Students with disabilities should have to prove success in order to be included in general education; 2) Students with disabilities are distinctly different from students without disabilities; and 3) Inclusion is a type of special education. Additionally, she takes a deficit-approach in which any failure of students with disabilities is attributed to inherent problems within the students—they do not succeed because they cannot succeed—and relies on this argument to justify their removal from general education.
We flip these assumptions, acknowledging: 1) There is inherent value in educating students with different backgrounds and learning needs together; 2) Students with disabilities are not distinctly different from other students, but rather require additional supports, services, interventions, and accommodations in order to make progress in general education; and 3) Inclusion is a placement where students can receive special education services and research-validated interventions such as those Gilmour cites. Above all, we assume that the success or failure of inclusion depends on the quality of instruction rather than the capabilities of the child.
Assumptions about the Least Restrictive Environment
Gilmour notes that “Inclusion did not become the widespread practice it is today because of a robust evidence base that supports its effectiveness. Rather, it is prevalent because of federal laws that establish special rights for SWDs and their parents.” She thereby implies that the least restrictive environment (LRE) provision, which requires students with disabilities be educated “to the maximum extent appropriate” with non-disabled peers, should have been evidence-based—that is, that students with disabilities should need to demonstrate success in order to be included in general education. This position fails to recognize the provision’s historical underpinnings as a demonstration of societal values.
Several events preceding IDEA’s passage demonstrated the need for a legislative push toward inclusive education for children with disabilities. Importantly, the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) set the nation against segregated education for students of color. In the years that followed, the logic of that decision was extended to children with disabilities. Parents advocated for their children’s inclusion, exposés highlighted the mistreatment of children with disabilities in institutions, congressional hearings revealed that millions of children were being excluded entirely or underserved by the public school system, and federal appellate courts ruled that children with disabilities had a right to education under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
As Martha Minow notes in In Brown’s Wake, the preference for inclusive education within IDEA was an overdue acknowledgement of the societal value of inclusion. Contrary to Gilmour’s concerns about possible adverse effects of inclusion on children without disabilities, Congressman C. D. Daniel, during the debate over IDEA, highlighted the positive spillover effects of educating children with disabilities alongside their peers: “Lessons of patience, understanding, and the ability to provide peer encouragement are just as valuable as traditional educational lessons to the future citizens of this nation.”
The courts have consistently favored inclusive placements and provided more explicit guidance as the law itself has been amended over time, with bipartisan support, to promote more inclusive education. The 1993 appellate court decision, Oberti v. Board of Education, established a notable precedent. In this case, a school district sought to place a young boy with Down syndrome in a segregated placement after he exhibited disruptive behavior. The court wrote that “if placement outside of a regular classroom is necessary for the child to receive educational benefit, the school may still be violating IDEA if it has not made sufficient efforts to include the child in school programs with nondisabled children whenever possible.” To explain its reasoning, it noted that “Congress understood that a fundamental value of the right to public education for children with disabilities is the right to associate with nondisabled peers.”
Most recently, the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Endrew F v. Douglas County School District (2017) strongly supported the placement of most students with disabilities in general education classes—while also recognizing that some children with complex disabilities may need more intensive services delivered in other settings. The court recognized that, for the majority of students with disabilities who are primarily in general education classrooms, IEPs should be calculated to enable them to progress from grade-to-grade. The opinion notes, “When a child is fully integrated in the regular classroom, as the Act prefers, what that typically means is providing a level of instruction reasonably calculated to permit advancement through the general curriculum.” This ruling is significant because the court clearly places the burden on the school district to provide appropriate services and accommodations, not the child.
To be sure, these court decisions emphasizing the value of inclusion are statutory in nature, not constitutional. It is plausible to argue, as Gilmour does, that Congress should amend IDEA to place less emphasis on inclusion. As we have demonstrated, however, such a change would mark a sharp departure from the values that informed the law’s enactment and have enabled it to maintain broad bipartisan support for more than four decades. We see no justification for such a change.