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December 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 4

Voices: The Teacher / Once the Shouting Dies Down

Recently, I tuned in to an episode of the ABC news magazine Turning Point, which was devoted to inclusion in the Baltimore County public schools. The focus was Sean, a young boy with Down syndrome, and his first year in a regular classroom. I had expected controversy, but not the open hostility I saw. Indeed, only the clothing of the protesters suggested the object of their ire was not a newly integrated school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.
Some opposition came from parents of special education students, who worried that their children would be forced to attend regular schools and lose essential special education services. But by far the greatest opposition came from parents of “normal” children, who believed their children's education would come to a screeching whalt as teachers spent all their time working with the “included” students.

Nothing Exotic

Most arguments against inclusion seem to have a single unstated assumption: All special education wstudents need a completely different, almost hermetically sealed learning environment. As an educator of students with a variety of abilities and disabilities, I can say that this is just not so. They may need more time to complete assignments. They may need intensive help in specific subjects. But they rarely need special or exotic teaching methods or technologies.
Indeed, I have found that I am most effective when I avoid such methods and concentrate instead on my students' strengths: how they've learned what they already know; how they actually process information. Once I figure this out, I can structure my lessons to take advantage of their most efficient methods.


A second lesson my students have taught me: Expectations are every bit as important as teaching methods. Their effects on students are not always easy to measure, but they can mean the difference between productive independence and an isolated, lonely existence living on government entitlement payments. It is impossible to quantify a “borderline retarded” student's joy upon discovering Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, or mastering the basic functions of WordPerfect software. I've seen both accomplishments, and I firmly believe they could not have happened had I been convinced they could not.
Sometimes, expectations produce the unexpected. One of my WordPerfect students, an essentially nonverbal, sheltered workshop employee, used the word processor to express his reservations about the reunification of Germany. Through his long, carefully typed deliberation, I learned that he and his family had once lived in that country.

Special Resources

Not all students with disabilities require special education services. Some simply need physical accommodations, such as wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. In general, though, for inclusion to work, special education resources must follow the “included” student into the regular classroom.
As the television program made clear, Sean got the special help he needed from special education teachers, and that help was no more expensive than traditional special education. Meanwhile, the regular classroom teacher maintained a normal classroom pace.
Inclusion is not appropriate for all students. Those with sensory impairments requiring Braille or sign language may need special classrooms. Students with severe, disruptive behavior problems should not be placed in regular classrooms until these problems are under control.
With common sense and open communication among parents, teachers, and school administrators, however, inclusion can work. As a society, we all too often substitute hysterical shouting for rational debate. These days, we also seem too willing to let radio and television talk show hosts, and other frequently biased and superficial pundits, do our thinking for us. When the subject is as important as the education of our children, we should heed the advice our own teachers gave us: Research a topic thoroughly before drawing any conclusions.

Edward B. Grebenstein Jr. has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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