Rethinking LRE

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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