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Special Education: Rethinking Expectations for Inclusive Learning

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How does a school educate its special education students alongside kids who don’t have a disability? At Susan Gray School in Nashville, teachers and scholars are collaborating on what many say is a model example of inclusive learning.

Before a federal law passed in 1975, only one in five children with disabilities were enrolled in U.S. schools. Many states had laws on the books outright barring kids with serious disabilities — like blindness, deafness or severe intellectual disabilities — from enrolling in public school.

With the passage of what later became the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the special education landscape has changed considerably. Today a steady stream of funding helps cover the cost of educating these vulnerable students, with specialized instructors and individual learning plans the new norm in many special education settings.

The nation has come a long way, but one fight rages on: Should special education students learn among peers with no diagnosed disabilities or receive separate accommodations?

A team of seven Vanderbilt University professors explained in depth the controversies and complexities around inclusion of special education students in regular education classrooms at EWA’s National Seminar in May.

Under IDEA, to the maximum extent possible, children with disabilities are to be educated with children who are not disabled. As inclusion has grown, so have the complexities. For some students, inclusion can be extremely successful, but for others, it can be a failure, explained Doug Fuchs, a professor and chair in special education and human development at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

But many U.S. classrooms are poorly funded and crowded – a tough setting for a teacher charged with educating disabled and non-disabled students alike.

Complicating matters is the dearth of credentialed special education instructors, said Alexandra Da Fonte, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt. Shortages are even more critical in the areas of autism, vision impairment and severe disabilities.  With an undersupply of teachers and limited budgets, special education students often spend the most time with paraprofessionals, non-certified school employees who act as teachers’ assistants and are some of the least educated and lowest paid employees, said Erik Carter, an associate professor at Vanderbilt.

Inside the Susan Gray School, the full inclusion model is on display. About one quarter of the preschoolers in each of the eight classrooms have disabilities. With a team of lead teachers, co-teachers, teaching fellows and home/community-based teachers, the school has the resources for full inclusion to work successfully. Vanderbilt students also spend time at the school, conducting research and learning how to meet the needs of students with varying abilities.

“When they leave our program, they know how to do inclusive education,” said Kaiser, the Susan W. Gray professor of education and human development.

The preschool children with disabilities learn socialization and friendship development while students without disabilities learn acceptance. The school has seen success by appropriately training educators, collaborating with families and having a clear vision of its purpose, Kaiser said.

There are 13 categories of disabilities under IDEA, from autism and emotional disturbance to intellectual disability and visual impairment. Only about 1 in every 1,000 students meet the criteria for a visual impairment, and about 65 percent of those children have a co-occurring disability, explained Deborah Hatton, a Vanderbilt associate professor and director of the school’s program for visual disabilities.

For those students, the goal is to have access to the general curriculum and an expanded core curriculum that includes learning braille and assistive technology. Nationwide, there is now a “huge shortage” of teachers for students with visual impairments, she said.

To be in the “intellectual disability” category, students must have an IQ of 70 or less and have deficits in adaptive behavior, explained Christopher Lemons, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt. While many of those students are in self-contained special education classrooms, over the last decade, a chorus of stakeholders has pushed for full inclusion.

But many of those students do not meet educational goals without interventions outside the general education classroom, Lemons said. Students who were pulled out for special instruction had greater improvements in reading levels. Full inclusion violates the principles of special education and does not have to be an “either/or” situation, he said. Lemons compared full inclusion to having a heart valve replaced in the office of a general practitioner.

“Special education was created because students need something different,” he said. “You need an expert for highly detailed procedures.”