Has special-ed inclusion backfired?

While talking to someone with a strong background in speech pathology and literacy recently, I learned of an interesting theory: Inclusion for special-education students, this educator said, has “backfired.”

Now, she didn’t necessarily mean that special-education students should be quarantined from their peers or that the inclusion movement didn’t have good intentions — just that there have been some unexpected consequences since we’ve moved toward inclusion.

Samuel Habib, about whom the 2008 documentary "Including Samuel" was made, sits in his supportive corner chair and smiles at a friend at Shaker Road School in Concord, NH. (Photo courtesy of Dan Habib)

One of the biggest unforeseen effects is that students with special needs who spend the majority of their time in a general-education classroom – over half of the six million U.S. students with disabilities – are spending hours every day with a teacher who likely knows little about how best to teach them. Special-ed students might be mainstreamed with their peers now, but whether they’re getting a better, or even equivalent, education than before isn’t clear.

While others might not go so far as to say the whole model has backfired, many experts are concerned. In fact, while doing research for a recent article about emergency-certification programs for special-education teachers, I found myself having the same conversation with expert after expert. Yes, these emergency-certification programs were of serious concern to them, but of equal or greater concern to them was how few general-education teachers are prepared to work with the special-education students they’ll inevitably have in their classrooms.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990 — which began as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 — mandates that students must be educated in “the least restrictive environment,” meaning special-education students must spend as much time as possible in a general-education classroom, unless “the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

Some classrooms are led by a general-education teacher helped out by a special-education teacher, in a team-teaching model. In other cases, however, students with special needs receive instruction from specialists only a few hours a day or week in pull-out sessions. That is, many special-education students spend the bulk of their days being taught primarily by general-education teachers.

Yet a typical general-education teacher-in-training only takes one or two courses about special education. He or she gets a brief introduction to the subject — which might cover how to recognize various disabilities and how special education works — but doesn’t receive in-depth training.

According to a study released last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 27 percent of programs that prepare elementary teachers and 33 percent of those that prepare secondary teachers don’t require a course exclusively focused on students with disabilities. Similarly, 42 percent of elementary programs and 49 percent of secondary programs don’t mandate field experience with special-education students.

And many of the schools that do require such classes have added them in recent years, meaning that teachers who’ve been in the classroom for a decade or more likely lack this background.

In a more perfect world, teacher-training programs would fully follow the philosophy of inclusion, and all would require dual-certification in general education and special education. Currently, only a minority of programs even offer dual-certification, according to Joanna Uhry, a professor in Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education.

She’s well aware, though, that this type of institutional overhaul is a daunting task. “I think it’s possible,” she said, but “I don’t know how to go about doing it.” Presumably, it would make teacher-training programs longer and more costly — not attractive moves in the current economic climate.

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[...] An educator argues that special education inclusion has “backfired.” (Hechinger) [...]


I demur.

It is difficult to distinguish kids with IEPs and other kids in inclusion classes. Some kids are referred and tested, other kids are not, both kids may struggle with learning issues.

The team teaching model allows the teachers to differentiate, not just for the Special Ed kids, but for all kids.

Self-contained Special Ed classrooms are “black holes,” kids never get out of classes and few graduate.

Rather than “out of classroom” specialists dual teacher models should predominate.

dorothy siegel

The ASD Nest Program is a NYC Dept of Education full inclusion collaborative co-teaching program for higher functioning children on the autism spectrum, and it works for all children in the class. One reason is that all teachers and therapists receive seven graduate credits of training on interventions that work with these children. Another is that all teachers and therapists meet weekly to formally “case conference” the children, deciding together on the strategies and adaptations that they will all use. Having all teachers and therapists “on the same page” is necessary, not a luxury. If this country really cared about educating ALL our children, we would use this successful model in a sufficiently large number of general ed classrooms to accommodate all the children with disabilities who could benefit from this approach.

john thompson

Hate to say it, but you’re right. I’ve often loved my full inclusion experiences. And since the teacher next door to me teaches a tested subject he gets an inclusion teacher to team with. But when I have an average of 18 kids on IEPs, and then ELLS, and 30 kids in a hardcore inner city high school class, I can’t handle the most extreme Emotional Disturbed kids in that mix. One or two would be great, but full inclusion often crosses the tipping point. Also I can handle a half dozen SED kids in the morning, but after lunch its nuts.

If every school had 10% special ed or so, full inclusion would be great. But when a school is 30 to 40% IEPs, it creates a critical mass of problems. And like I said, the kids on IEPs aren’t distributed evenly. I had 210 kids last year with 2/3rds having a paper trail due to IEPs, ELLs, or the criminal justice systems. Elective teachers had it worse, sometimes much worse.

Beth Blake Davis

An Inclusion program provides for an Inclusion teacher working in the classroom alongside the RegEd teacher when there are Inclusion students being educated. Virginia Beach,VA has been doing this since the 90′s with great success. However, where it encounters problems are where ‘shortcuts’ are taken; 19 IEP students in a class of 26, or an overly ambitious IEP team deciding that a more severe (usually SED) student should be included.


This conversation would be more useful if it didn’t lump all children with IEP’s together. Any experienced teacher will tell you that some children with disabilities — including the most common, LD based on difficulty reading — should have full inclusion as the default choice, with additional small-group or 1 on 1 help in reading. Children with physical/motor disabilities can usually be fully included. Mild cognitive disability can often be served with some effective pull-out instruction. And so on. But there are types and levels of disability where even a co-teaching situation is not in the best interest of the child. If the main goal for the child is social, we have to ask ourselves if a classroom is the best place to achieve that goal. If the classroom is a stressful experience for a child to the point where s/he needs frequent escape from it, that should tell us something.

john thompson


I sure hope I didn’t sound like I was lumping all kids on IEPs together.Neither am I lumping all kids on SED’s or mentally ill kids together. The majority of both groups have kids have often made my classes better. The most severely of my mentally ill kids and kids with emotional distrubances have been among my best contributors in class. I’ve had morning classes with more than 19 kids on IEPs with more than 26 students that were wonderful. Things change in the afternoon, with gangbangers who are from different sets and 3/4ths of a class over 30 are on IEPs, 504s, ELLs, or parole. But as I wrote, I’ve seen electives get more kids on IEPs in one class than is comprehensible, like maybe 30 or 40 in a class of 60 or 70.

Worst, the argument for that approach was that it was “for the kids.”

Lou-Ann Land

I have taught the entire gamut. Self contained school, self contained classroom, mainstreaming/social inclusion and full inclusion. Full inclusion by far is the most beneficial to all students and teachers. It is amazing what students learn when they are exposed to the full curriculum with high expectations to learn academics.
If a program is not implemented correctly with the appropriate supports in place for the student and the general education teacher, then of course it is going to fail. We can no longer punish children by saying inclusion does not work because we refuse to put the needed supports and time/energy in place to make it work.

david l holmes

Quite simply, Least Restrictive Environment [LRE] should never be considered a place but, rather, what takes place. An educational setting with improperly trained personnel for a child with an IEP is inappropriate and highly restrictive.

Barbara OT,PhD,PT

“Unintended consequences” indeed. The evolution of special education since 1975 indicates that special education is neither static or homogeneously implemented. I like to say – the I in IDEA and IEP stands for individual. Whether or not inclusion has “backfired” depends on how one measures the effects.

Kym Grosso

It is not inclusion that failed. Rather it is the school systems who fail to implement inclusion correctly who fail.

You have a choice with inclusion. You can do it correctly. Or you can throw a student in a class with no adaptations, no support, no understanding of their learning disability whatever it may be. And then wait for the child to suffer and inclusion to fail.

Bottom line is that inclusion can greatly benefit students when done correctly. It can be an amazing experience that teaches the child with a disability to learn and socialize in a typical world while teaching tolerance and acceptance to their typical peers.

Last year, I wrote an article on how to make inclusion work for children with autism. http://blog.autisminreallife.com/2010/02/28/making-inclusion-work-for-children-with-autism.aspx In addition, there are many other thoughtful articles written by authors who address this issue in detail. Perhaps if school administrators and teachers put the effort into making inclusion work, they would not be commenting that inclusion is a failure. Inclusion can and does work when done correctly.


As a teacher and a parent of an ID student I have to say that inclusion was the only course I ever considered. Life isn’t self-contained. In many of my experiences with students I found that self-contained classes did more harm than good for some students. Now, yes, some students flourish in self-contained. In many cases though, the option of inclusion should have been offered.

Shame should go to the colleges and universities — they have known since 1990 that inclusion was a reality. Will it go away — NEVER. In these 20 years inclusion should have been part of the curricula for education students.

Shame goes to those schools and teachers who STILL do not want to participate in inclusion. If you don’t want inclusion — DON’T teach! In my experience as a teacher — there are so many students (with and without IEPs) that need the skills of a teacher prepared for inclusion.

My daughter as an ID student was fully included her entire time in the public school system. Was it difficult? Yes — made that way by the system. Was it worth it! Undoubtedly!!! She graduated with a REGULAR diploma with a 2.8 GPA.

Sally Scheib

I have worked with regular education students and students with disabilities. Inclusion may backfire if it means that the student needs a full time aid everywhere that student goes. This is often not conducive to helping the student socialize with typically developing peers. Sometimes greater socialization occurs when students spend at least part of their time in special classes. But one size does not fit all. Inclusion should be encouraged, but let’s always remember that the student comes first, even when we believe strongly in a particular model.

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Deborah Mogianesi

I have just left a district that believed in full inclusion, but gave the teacher virtually no curriculum, training, support, principals that didn’t understand or care about it. They weren’t looking for a quality program to meet the students needs. They were covering their butts @ the educators expense of health phyically and mentally. I had 28 kids, mild/moderate, ED, autism, mentally retarded with two part time aids and one full time aid who had to push in with one of the students with autism. Many times I was left alone. I was expected to magically simutanlously teach each group with quality instruction and have perfect control over all student, ED included. I could not do this and give the students what they needed .I was set up for failure, but they didn’t seem to care and I was told I was over staffed. I was expected to push in with students and know every teacher’s curiculum in order to modify/accomm. I was so stressed it was effecting my health and sleep. I am teaching in special education equipt these students for successful adult living skills at any level. I was not a turkey teacher they were passing around. All special education teachers have the same expectations on them. As it seems everywhere when I read other blog entries. Something has to be done to format services by needs of students not procedures and train administrators who have no idea what best practice looks like and don’t give us the tools and resources to make it happen. My new school that is cutting edge is not much better which was a bitter disappointment and it driving me to becoming more interested in changing the system than teaching the students because when I do it is inefficient and ineffective and feels like a waste of time. It is time that special educators say,”THAT IS ENOUGH” when I have to take atavan to get through my day of work, something is very, very wrong. Many of us have rolled with it because we don’t want to short change the students, but are we doing that by not standing up for ourselves . Standing up for ourselves would greatly benefit them . The previous district finally figured out not all students should be fully included until they have the classroom skills to support is or they just become a classroom mascot or someone just ignored because they are doing completely differnt work. They create a class for those more than 3 years behind or with more severe issues then they hire a teacher who is not qualified 2 weeks into the school year with no training or curriculum set in place, How long before he fails and/or ends up on atavan as well. WELCOME TO SPECIAL EDUCATION.

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Miriam K. Freedman

As a school lawyer, I have been troubled by the fact that inclusion has too often become an end in itself, not a means to improve learning and achievement for all students. We often place children in regular classrooms without analyzing whether that is the way to teach them better and the way to teach the rest of the class better. For some, inclusion feels good–even though the research behind it is lacking and it may not lead to improved student outcomes. Query: if inclusion were so great, why do so many parents who file law suits for students with learning disabilities seek to remove their children to schools that have no inclusion?

Notably, the term “inclusion” is not found in the special education law at all. “Least restrictive environment” (LRE)–that term is found in the law. However, it has been misunderstood for years and led to countless lawsuits.

How to solve this? The LRE should be in an inclusive setting when that works for all students. The term should have been the LRAE–the ‘least restrictive APPROPRIATE environment.’

Too bad it wasn’t so. Let’s work to make it so.

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