Hot Button Issues in Education Today: Inclusion
By Judy Moland

The concept of “full inclusion” calls for teaching all students in regular classrooms, including those with special needs. It is a subject that perennially prompts fierce debate.

Federal special education law states that “to the maximum extent appropriate,” children with special needs should be educated with peers who don’t have special needs in “the least restrictive environment possible.” The actual extent of inclusion varies from state to state: In 2003, many students ages 6 to 21 with special needs spent at least 80 percent of the school day in a regular classroom, according to “Quality Counts 2004: Count Me In,” published by Education Week in January 2004. See the data for your state.

Proponents of inclusion argue that every child has an equal right to an excellent education. Margie Romans, a first-grade teacher for 18 years, speaks highly of the system: “I’ve had autistic kids in my room, kids with language development problems, even a little boy who was deaf, and it was truly a joy to me.” She sees inclusion as beneficial for everybody. When “regular” students are around children with special needs, they are learning every day that in some ways these students are just like them, and in some ways they are not. Children with special needs see that too, Romans says.

While many advocates of inclusion say it fosters compassion and empathy, this is not always the case, says Rebecca Thomas, who has taught special education students for 23 years. “We’ve had children mainstreamed at the middle school level who were bright enough to be in regular classrooms, but it hasn’t always worked out,” she says. “For one girl who went to a middle school, it was very difficult. The kids made fun of her and stole her lunch money every day.”

Critics also argue that placing a student with special needs in a regular classroom is likely to consume too much of an already overworked teacher’s attention.

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