It wasn’t so long ago that special-education students were given sub-par educational opportunities, often sequestered away in windowless basement rooms, or worse. (Before the nation’s first comprehensive special-education law was enacted, man had already walked on the moon and my parents had already graduated high school.) Noting that those wounds are still fresh to some, I understand the push (ill-conceived as it is for today’s society) for “inclusion.” If we put special-education students in general-education classrooms, the argument goes, we ensure that we don’t regress to the pre-1975 days.
But we’ll also ensure that many of these students don’t get the best services possible. And that’s something I can’t understand.
Why must every school be mandated to handle every type of disability—even the “moderate” ones?
The latest chapter in the epic of “inclusion” was written in New York City this week by the folks at Inside Schools. In an article inflammatorily titled “Special needs children need not apply,” the blog offers voice to parents frustrated that their neighborhood schools aren’t ready and willing to educate their disabled children (surreptitiously promoting the “inclusion for all” rhetoric). Thing is, they shouldn’t have to. (To be clear, each district absolutely has an obligation to provide a free and appropriate education to all its students in the most suitable environment for them, whether they have special needs or not. Individual schools are another matter.)
Some background: In 2010, 260 neighborhood schools in NYC participated in a pilot initiative to bring pulled-out special-education students back into gen-ed classrooms. Come the fall, the Big Apple is expanding the program to all of the city’s schools. Students that were formerly referred out of the traditional classroom (and often into more therapeutic and tailored settings) are now being reintegrated into gen-ed. (To be fair, the most severely disabled students—those on the autism spectrum and those with multiple disabilities, as examples—won’t be participating in this program.) The goals of the program are three-fold:
- to close the achievement gap between students with disabilities and their peers without disabilities;
- to provide increased access to and participation in the general education curriculum; and
- to empower all schools to have greater curricular, instructional, and scheduling flexibility to meet the diverse needs of students with disabilities.
The third is the most troubling, both for schools and for the teachers within them.* (Ignore for now the truth that inclusion isn’t necessary to meet the first two goals.) New York schools educate over a million students each year—with about 165,000 of those youngsters having Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). In a system that large, why must all schools be empowered to “have greater curricular, instructional, and scheduling flexibility”? Why must every school be mandated to handle every type of disability—even the “moderate” ones? New York’s size gives it the opportunity to do exactly the opposite. Using its economy of scale, NYC can create unique programs for individual needs—a school with small classes and more therapeutic staff for students with severe anxiety or one with full-time, on-site occupational therapists for those with gross motor issues. (Specialized programs within select schools would work well, too.) Those institutions serving just a handful of special-education students simply don’t have the resources to make these types of tailored services reality.
(The Big Apple has already diversified many of its educational offerings—think iZone schools, small high schools, or places like Stuyvesant—making the “everything for all” call even more disconcerting here.)
Sure, this policy won’t work in Loving County, TX or Wall, SD. But in the city that never sleeps?
* This post focuses on school-level implications of this policy roll-out. For more on what this means for teachers, check out Rick Hess’s Straight Up! post on the topic.
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About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
May 16, 2013
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