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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 4

Sometimes Separate Is Better

In their sometimes strident insistence that all children with disabilities belong in regular classrooms, full inclusionists may seem to speak for the majority of advocates for those with disabilities. They don't.

For more than a decade, a debate has simmered within the disability community over how best to reform special education services. With heated demands from two quarters, the controversy is now boiling over.
  • those who argue for a complete dismantling of special education—no more special education placements, no more special education students, no more special education teachers (for example, Stainback and Stainback 1992); and
  • those who say special educators should provide services to disabled (and nondisabled) students, but only in regular classrooms (for example, Giangreco et al. 1993).
What both types of full inclusionists have in common is the belief that all children with disabilities should be in regular classes full time.
The second group roiling the waters includes those school administrators and fiscal conservatives who have seized on full inclusion as a way to reduce special education costs (for example, Leo 1994). Although we are sympathetic to the cost problem and recognize that in some districts too many students are placed in special education programs, we believe eliminating special education placements in the name of full inclusion will deprive many students with disabilities of an appropriate education.

Least Restrictive Environment

A basic principle in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), our most important federal law for educating students with disabilities, is that special-needs students should receive education in the “least restrictive environment” (LRE). The concept has two parts:
First, it encourages social interaction between disabled students and their nondisabled, age-appropriate peers by requiring teachers and others to “assure to the maximum extent appropriate, disabled children ... are educated with children who are not disabled.”
Second, it requires that special-needs students receive an appropriate education, which in some cases can override the goal of social interaction: Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of disabled children from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature and severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.
Congressional sponsors of IDEA recognized that the mainstream may not be capable of providing an appropriate education to all students, and that mainstream schooling may even be harmful to some special-needs students (Stafford 1978). Accordingly, Congress developed a “continuum of alternate placements”—from part-time resource programs to self-contained classes in regular schools to separate day and residential treatment facilities—to ensure an appropriate education for all students with disabilities. This continuum became part of the regulations governing the IDEA. Thus, legally speaking, a least restrictive environment must satisfy two criteria. It must (1) provide students with disabilities an education appropriate to their unique learning needs, and (2) do so in as close proximity as possible to normally developing, age-appropriate peers.

A Case for Full Inclusion

A majority of the disability community in this country supports the two-part definition of least restrictive environment and acknowledges that when a student is not benefiting from instruction in a regular class, a compromise must be struck between the legitimate social needs and the equally valid educational needs of the child. However, a small but influential group of advocates for children with mental retardation, including The Arc (formerly, the Association for Retarded Citizens), reject the notion of least restrictive environment, claiming that schools have but two essential and related goals for children with disabilities: to improve their social competence, and to change the attitudes of teachers and students without disabilities who some day will become parents, taxpayers, and service providers. Critics of the least restrictive environment argue that this can happen only when special-needs students are placed in mainstream or integrated settings (for example, Gartner and Lipsky 1987).
The Arc and others reject the principle that social interaction and appropriate education are different objectives that sometimes compete with each other. Rather, they believe the two are one and the same: Social interaction with nondisabled peers is the appropriate education for students with disabilities. It follows that any placement outside the regular classroom is inappropriate. These critics, then, turn their backs on the entire continuum of special education placement options, advancing a policy of full inclusion, whereby literally all children with disabilities would be in regular classrooms full time.
Why do full inclusionists reject special education placements? First, they argue, special education historically has served as general education's “dumping ground” for “undesirables” and “unteachables.” Second, they say, children with mental retardation are frequently viewed by classroom teachers as the most undesirable and unteachable pupils. Thus, so long as separate placements exist, their children will be educated apart from the mainstream. Full inclusionists believe that abolishing separate placements will force mainstream teachers to deal with the children they heretofore had avoided and, in the process, transform regular classrooms into a more resourceful and humane system.

Separate but Unequal?

Full inclusionists have also invoked the judgment of the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, to charge that special education placements are inherently unequal; that is, they stigmatize and create low expectations—first, in the minds of teachers, then in the hearts of students—and reinforce feelings of inferiority, culminating in poor school performance. Indeed, some full inclusionists have denounced special education as the moral equivalent of apartheid (Lipsky and Gartner 1987) and slavery (Stainback and Stainback 1988).
As provocative as the Brown analogy may be, Kauffman (1989) has argued that it is unfair and misleading: Equating ethnic origin with disability is (1) demeaning to blacks who suffer discrimination simply because of the color of their skin, and (2) trivializes the needs of students with disabilities whose differences require accommodations far more complex than any contemplated in this court ruling, which simply disallowed skin color as a criterion for access or opportunity. At minimum, Kauffman's analysis raises questions about whether Brown applies to special education.
Recent actions of judges, politicians, and educators have suggested that “separate is unequal” may not apply to single-sex education or to historically black colleges. For example, in a case involving the all-male Virginia Military Institute (V.M.I.), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth District in 1992 ruled that separate could be equal. Recognizing the benefits of single-sex education, the court ordered that women who wish to attend the Institute, should go to an alternative state-run program subsidized by the Virginia Military Institute (Manegold 1994). Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a women's studies scholar who testified on behalf of the Institute, said she had done so out of commitment to single-sex education and because “we're on the verge of eliminating all institutional choice” (Jaschik 1994, p. 30).
In response to another lawsuit, in which black plaintiffs charged that the state of Mississippi was providing inadequate support for black colleges and maintaining a two-tiered, unequal college system, the Board of Trustees for the State Institutions of Higher Learning proposed closing one black campus and merging another with a predominantly white university. That proposal prompted 15,000 black college students, educators, and politicians to converge on Jackson State University to demonstrate support for black colleges and to express concern that Mississippi appeared to be using this desegregation case as a tool for closing black colleges (Mercer 1994).

A Case for Special Ed Placements

The Virginia Military Institute and historically black colleges have this in common: Each provides a unique setting or culture addressing the strengths, needs, fears, or dreams of the groups seeking them out; each is nurturing, demanding, and empowering in a way that mainstream education is not and, probably, cannot be. Much the same can be said of many special education programs.
Although it has become fashionable to complain that special education flat out doesn't work (for example, National Association of State Boards of Education 1992), reviews of research indicate that many special education programs are superior to regular classrooms for some types of children (for example, Carlberg and Kavale 1980, Madden and Slavin 1983, Sindelar and Deno 1979). Good special education instruction is individualized, often through a trial-and-error process. Well-trained special educators select from a variety of instructional techniques, curriculums, and motivational strategies, and use evaluation systems that track student progress. By carefully combining and recombining these elements, while monitoring individual student growth, teachers can devise effective instructional plans.
In recent congressional testimony, Gerry Rosenberg, father of a 5-year-old who has cognitive and physical disabilities, described how this individualized approach works for his son in a public day treatment school in Gaithersburg, Maryland: For students like our son there are no bright road markers to assist in indicating what teaching techniques will work. Longview School serves as a laboratory in diagnostic and teaching techniques. [The staff's] wealth of experience allows for constant experimentation (Rosenberg 1994).
This individualizing strategy is in marked contrast to the one-size-fits-all approach observed in many regular classrooms (for example, Baker and Zigmond 1990, Fuchs et al. 1992).
Well-regarded special education day schools and residential programs also offer a comprehensive setting in which instruction can be interwoven throughout the day. Those who work with children with severe emotional and behavioral problems refer to this “wrap-around” environment as milieu therapy, defined by Weisman (1994) as follows: [Milieu therapy offers an] environment in which everyday events are turned to therapeutic use. Any activity in a child's day—from refusing to get dressed in the morning to answering a question correctly at school to picking a fight—offers the child-care worker an opportunity to teach, change, or reinforce behavior through therapeutic intervention. [Milieu therapy] aims to seize the moment while it is happening and the child's feelings are still fresh (p. 46).
In describing exemplary residential treatment schools such as Boys Town, Weisman notes that they offer children an “antidotal second childhood,” which is “highly structured and predictable as well as safe. Treatment communities impose rules, chores, and schedules, and emphasize neatness, cleanliness, and order” (p. 52).
We are not suggesting that all students with disabilities require such settings—in fact, relatively few do. Nor do we suggest that all special education placements are successful; alas, they are not. But none of this diminishes the fact that separate is better for some children, and that to abolish special education placements in the name of full inclusion is to deprive many of an appropriate education.

What the Majority Wants

Most full inclusionists are concerned primarily about students with mental retardation, a group that constitutes about one-tenth of all students with disabilities. Consequently, they cannot presume to speak for everyone when they state without qualification that the regular classroom is the only acceptable placement for special-needs children. In fact, their position is opposed by the American Council on the Blind, the Commission on the Education of the Deaf, the Council for Children with Behavior Disorders, the Council for Exceptional Children, and the Learning Disabilities Association, whose public statements strongly endorse special education placement options and, implicitily or explicitly, reject full inclusion.
Are supporters of special education placements less concerned about integration into the mainstream than full inclusionists? Not at all. They recognize, however, that this may be a long-term, rather than an immediate, goal for some children. Immediate placement in a regular classroom may actually close the door on many children's opportunities to learn to read and write, to go to college or vocational school, to control their behavior and to learn to like themselves, and to become responsible and productive citizens. In short, supporters of special education placements see such options as means to an end.
The professional and grassroots groups supporting special education placements do not presume to dictate the placements of children with mental retardation. Bernard Rimland (1993), a well-known advocate and father of a child with autism, is typical: I have no quarrel with [full] inclusionists if they are content to insist upon inclusion for their children. But when they try to force me and other unwilling parents to dance to their tune, I find it highly objectionable and quite intolerable. Parents need options (p. 3).
Unfortunately for those in the disability community who seek solidarity through compromise, full inclusionists are unwilling to limit their policy agenda to children with mental retardation. Presumably they fear that so long as special education placements exist for any child, there is a chance that children with mental retardation will not make it to or remain in the mainstream. The insistence by full inclusionists that all acquiesce to their vision reminds us of certain TV evangelists who declare that all must prepare for the Second Coming by following exactly their prescribed teachings. Although full-time placement in regular classrooms may be appropriate for many children with disabilities, it will fall considerably short of a heavenly experience for others—a prospect that will not go unchallenged by a majority of the disability community.

Baker, J. M., and N. Zigmond. (1990). “Are Regular Education Classes Equipped to Accommodate Students with Learning Disabilities?” Exceptional Children 56: 515–526.

Carlberg, C., and K. Kavale. (1980). “The Efficacy of Special Versus Regular Class Placement for Exceptional Children: A Meta-Analysis.” The Journal of Special Education 14: 295–305.

Fuchs, L. S., D. Fuchs, and N. Bishop. (1992). “Teacher Planning for Students with Learning Disabilities: Differences Between General and Special Educators.” Learning Disabilities Research and Practice 7: 120–128.

Gartner, A., and D. K. Lipsky. (1987). “Beyond Special Education: Toward a Quality System for All Students.” Harvard Educational Review 57: 367–395.

Giangreco, M. F., R. Dennis, C. Cloninger, S. Edelman, and R. Schattman. (1993). “`I've Counted Jon': Tranformational Experiences of Teachers Educating Students with Disabilities.” Exceptional Children 59: 359–372.

Jaschik, S. (May 11, 1994). “Judge Says Va. Military Institute Can Maintain All-Male Admissions.” The Chronicle of Higher Education: 30.

Kauffman, J. M. (1989). “The Regular Education Initiative as Reagan-Bush Education Policy: A Trickle-Down Theory of Education of the Hard-to-Teach.” The Journal of Special Education 23: 256–278.

Leo, J. (1994). “Mainstreaming's `Jimmy problem.'” U.S. News and World Report 116, 25: 22.

Lipsky, D. K., and A. Gartner. (1987). “Capable of Achievement and Worthy of Respect: Education for Handicapped Students As If They Were Full-fledged Human Beings.” Exceptional Children 54: 69–74.

Madden, N. A., and R. E. Slavin. (1983). “Mainstreaming Students with Mild Handicaps: Academic and Social Outcomes.” Review of Educational Research 53: 519–569.

Manegold, C. S. (May 29 1994). “Citadel's Tradition Clashes with an Age-Old Issue.” The New York Times: A-9.

Mercer, J. (May 11, 1994). “Marching to Save Black Colleges.” The Chronicle of Higher Education: 28, 31.

National Association of State Boards of Education. (October 1992). Winners All: A Call for Inclusive Schools. Washington, D.C.: NASBE.

Rimland, B. (1993). “Inclusive Education: Right for Some.” Autism Research Review International 7, 1: 3.

Rosenberg, G. (March 17, 1994). Hearing on Inclusion Re Reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Select Education and Civil Rights Committee on Education and Labor.

Sindelar, P. T., and S. L. Deno. (1979). “The Effectiveness of Resource Programming.” The Journal of Special Education 12: 17–28.

Stafford, R. (1978). “Education for the Handicapped: A Senator's Perspective.” Vermont Law Review 3: 71–76.

Stainback, S., and W. Stainback. (1988). “Letter to the Editor.” Journal of Learning Disabilities 21: 452–453.

Stainback, S., and W. Stainback. (1992). Curriculum Considerations in Inclusive Schools: Facilitating Learning for All Students. Baltimore: Paul Brookes.

Weisman, M. L. (July 1994). “When Parents Are Not in the Interest of the Child.” The Atlantic Monthly 274, 1: 43–44, 46–47, 50–54, 56–60, 62–63.

Douglas Fuchs has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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