Inclusive Education isn’t Working

Photo: Greater Good in Education

Like all teachers, I have had kids with a wide variety of ability levels in my class. That’s just teaching. An average class might have 25-30 students. Thus, any class will inevitably bring a range of abilities, interests, and talents. There will be some kids with behavioral issues, some kids with a variety of learning disabilities, and even the occasional kid who was off the charts brilliant. 

Here is how most schools handle that much diversity in one classroom: we identified the needs we had in our class, we developed Individual Education Plans (IEP)—“we” being me, the special ed. teacher, the parents, the principal, and sometimes outside folks like psychologists, speech pathologists, etc. who may have been working with the child—and we implemented the plan. Historically, in almost every case, the student was withdrawn from my class for Math and/or Language Arts in order to attend a class taught by a Special Education teacher in a small group environment. This gave me time to cater to the needs of the rest of the kids in my class during Math and Language Arts. It gave my students with challenges the opportunity to learn in an environment that worked best for them. Everybody benefitted, everybody learned, and everybody had their needs met. 

The children in separate classes for chunks of time are every bit a part of our classes. The rest of the kids knew they left for part of the day but didn’t seem to know or care why. One kid asked me one day, “Can I go too?” The “gifted” kids—an unfortunate label that I never used—attended enrichment classes periodically to help them further develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. I loved that we found ways to meet the needs of all of my kids. 

Then came “Inclusion,” a theory that sounds great on paper but simply isn’t in practice. Kids would no longer leave their classrooms. All learning would happen in the same room with auxiliary teachers providing support. The research shows that kids with special needs improve their math and language skills when they are in the general classroom and that the other children in the class become more tolerant of differences. That might all happen if districts implemented inclusive education the way it was meant to be. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been.

Public schools just don’t have the budgets to provide the support that kids with academic or behavioural challenges need in the general classroom. Let’s say there are 9 students from 3 different 4th grade classrooms that are on IEP’s for a variety of challenges. Under the former system, these 9 students would leave their classrooms for anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes a day for small group instruction in Math and Language Arts with a teacher trained on how to meet their individual needs. Now, they get an hour or two a week of time from a teacher who comes into the classroom to help, who isn’t up to speed on what we’re doing, and who the kid doesn’t know very well because they only see them for an hour or two a week. 

Ironically, inclusion is supposed to not draw attention to the child by making them leave the classroom for individualized instruction. Under Inclusion, however, my high needs kids are more “centered out” than ever. It becomes obvious very early in the school year who the kids are that are working on lower expectations, who need some extra time, who need some extra instruction. When I do have an extra pair of hands in the classroom, they are there to help those kids specifically, and kids notice. How is that avoiding the “centered out” scenario? 

Because my time is stretched thin trying to meet all my kids’ needs, they are not getting the support they need or would be getting in a small group setting. This particular model of Inclusion is detrimental to all. My high needs kids are not getting the support they need so are not progressing the way they should and could be, and my average kids (I called these my “fall through the cracks” kids) are getting less time from me because my high needs kids require more of my time. It is a no-win situation.

So teachers are left to figure it out for themselves. Sometimes kids have unpredictable behavior tendencies. Sometimes they need one-on-one instruction. Sometimes they are disruptive because they are frustrated, and so is the teacher. Occasionally there may be a teachers’ aide assigned to one of the highest needs kids, but often the aide is a low paid high school graduate, not well trained in how to interact with these children, and who usually takes them out of the classroom because they learn better in an environment without distractions, and the teacher and the class need a break from the constant disruptions. How is this promoting Inclusion? 

It doesn’t. In its current form, inclusion helps no one. I know that the progressive folks in education will dispute this, but let’s get those folks into classrooms, and not just for an hour to observe a child in a classroom and come back to the teacher and say “He’s bored.” Come and spend two weeks in my room, all day every day. Then present me with some real-world practical solutions to the child in my class who constantly disrupts the learning of others, who throws chairs when he gets mad or frustrated, who refuses to do even the most mundane of tasks, who has not learned one thing in my classroom. Why can’t the progressive educators who think this is the best situation for all realize that there are some children who benefit greatly by learning in a small group environment with more, not less one on one time with a teacher, who cannot function in the busy-ness of a regular classroom with a myriad of distractions? 

Why does education have to be a one size fits all? Why are we forcing them to fit the mold, despite the fact that clearly, this is not what works for them, for the teacher, or for the other kids in the class? These children are more centered out than they ever were because Inclusive Education is a total bust for them. 

Let’s review the argument for inclusion ed. First, kids with special needs improve their math and language skills if they are in the general classroom. In my experience this is a strong ‘no.’ They learn less, as does everybody else in the class, because the teacher cannot possibly cater to all the needs in the class. There are some special needs kids—not all but some—who simply find it difficult to learn anything in the general classroom; they need a quieter, less busy environment with fewer distractions and more one on one teacher time. Second, the research shows that kids who are included in the general classroom all day long have a better chance of getting and holding a job. Hmmm, really? When Inclusive Education came in, there were no adults who had lived through this to base research on. Our children need the knowledge, reading, writing, and math they get in school to get a job. So let’s provide them with the best possible chance to teach them. 

It’s not like we are isolating these children in a small room with only 3 other kids all day long, every year. They spend an hour or two each day in an environment which best caters to their needs to solidify their basic skills and the rest of the day in the general classroom.

I am not opposed to Inclusive Education. I am opposed to how it has been implemented, which is detrimental to the learning of all children and driving great teachers out of classrooms. If we can keep Inclusive Education and provide all special needs children with the specially trained support they need and deserve in the classroom during the entirety of Math and Language Arts classes every single day, then keep it. If not, then we must admit that this experiment failed.


Kelly Wickstrom

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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