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Competing visions for educating students with disabilities: inclusion versus full inclusion.

How dos one explain the fundamental differences between inclusionists and full inclusionists? Inclusionists and full inclusionists advocate for different children with different needs.

Because we write infrequently for early childhood audiences, we thought it appropriate to introduce ourselves. We are both professors of special education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University and former teachers of young children, with and without disabilities. The first author (Doug) was a 1st-grade teacher in a private school in Baltimore for emotionally disturbed children, a 3rd- and 4th-grade teacher in public schools in and just outside of Philadelphia, and a staff psychologist for the Minneapolis Public Schools' Special Education Preschool Program. The second author (Lynn) was a 1st-grade teacher in Philadelphia and a resource-room teacher in a K-6 public school in Minneapolis.

As public school teachers, we worked routinely with special educators to include children with disabilities in our classrooms. As staff psychologist of Minneapolis's Special Education Preschool, Doug collaborated with early childhood educators to create the district's first transition program, which bridged special preschool and kindergarten settings. As a resource-room teacher, Lynn taught most of her non-readers to read and reintegrated a majority into regular classrooms. More recently, we have enlisted the help of teachers and administrators in Middle Tennessee to work with us on federally sponsored research to develop methods for including children with disabilities in general education classrooms. These methods, and evaluations of their effectiveness, have been described in research journals (e.g., Fuchs, Fuchs & Fernstrom, 1992, 1993; Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathes & Simmons, 1997; Fuchs, Roberts, Fuchs & Bowers, 1996) and practitioner publications (e.g., Fuchs, Dempsey, Roberts & Kintsch, 1995; Fuchs, Fernstrom, Scott, Fuchs & Vandermeer, 1994; Fuchs & Fuchs, 1988). Our research projects have helped move more than 300 children with disabilities from resource rooms, self-contained classrooms and special day schools into the mainstream.

Two beliefs have guided our work as practitioners and researchers. First, we believe it is our responsibility to provide meaningful support to teachers helping young children with special needs master skills in such domains as self help, communication, friendship making and reading; these skills are necessary for their development both as students and children. Second, to the maximum extent possible, we believe that children with disabilities should learn and play alongside their nondisabled peers. We would hope that these beliefs and our accomplishments prove us committed to the inclusion of children with special needs.

At the same time, we try to be realists. We pursue practices and policies that we consider possible. We are skeptical of the imaginary, theoretical or quixotic. Consequently, we are "inclusionists," not "full inclusionists" - a critical distinction.

What Are the Differences Between Inclusion and Full Inclusion?


Continuum of services. Inclusionists believe it is the job of classroom teachers and special educators to help most children with disabilities learn important skills, knowledge and self-control that will facilitate graduation from high school, or even college, and that will help them get a good job. Such achievements, say the inclusionists, depend on the regular classroom and a continuum of special education placements [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. In principle, each special education placement on the continuum (from residential facility to special day school to self-contained classes and resource rooms) offers specialized, differentiated, individualized and intensive instruction, all of which are continuously evaluated for effectiveness. Teachers in these settings are experts in instruction: for example, they know multiple ways to teach reading; they blend the best of phonics instruction with whole language; they use the district's basal reading series as well as hundreds of high-interest, low-vocabulary books; they understand the frustration and shame of older non-readers; and they know how to motivate hard work. To the fullest extent appropriate, teachers and students work on general education curricula and have an explicit understanding of the level of academic accomplishment necessary for success in regular classrooms. The goal of special education instruction outside the regular classroom is to move students as soon as possible into settings closer to, if not in, the mainstream itself where they will perform satisfactorily.

Finite capacity of regular classrooms to change. Implicit in the inclusionist position is this idea: The regular classroom's capacity to change is finite. Whereas classrooms can and should be made more flexible and responsive to a broad range of instructional needs, including those of many students with disabilities, there is a limit on how much a given classroom can be expected to change, and on how many students will be able to receive direct tailored instruction. Inclusionists express several reasons for this belief, none of which is meant to detract from teachers' professionalism. First, regular classrooms typically have a large number of children, ranging from 25 to 45. Project Star (Finn & Achilles, 1990), widely acknowledged as the best exploration of the relations between class size and student achievement (see Viadero, 1998), showed that students' academic performance improved only when their class size was reduced to 13-17 students. Inclusionists wonder, however, whether such small classes are possible in the foreseeable future.

Second, the 25 to 45 students are not all performing on grade level. According to Rodden-Nord and Shinn (1991), a typical 5th-grade class includes a few students reading below the 2nd-grade level, a handful of students reading above the 6th-grade level, and most students reading somewhere in between. Few teachers differentiate their instruction to address this broad range of academic achievement (Baker & Zigmond, 1990; Fuchs, Fuchs & Bishop, 1992; McIntosh, Vaughn, Schumm, Haager & Lee, 1993). Instead, many teachers present the same lesson and instructional materials to all students.

One reason for this result is that not all teachers use "best practices," such as cooperative learning, classwide peer tutoring or phonemic awareness training. Student achievement, including that of many children with special needs, tends to increase when teachers implement these or other research-backed instructional activities. Even so, about 30 percent of children with disabilities typically fail to respond to these best practices, suggesting that even very knowledgeable and dedicated teachers using effective practices cannot be responsive to all children.

Given 1) the large number of students per class, 2) the dramatic variability of academic accomplishment among non-disabled children and 3) the fact that a significant number of students with disabilities are not helped by best practices, inclusionists believe that full-time placement in regular classes will not serve the academic needs of some children with disabilities. Instead, they are more likely to benefit from special education placements.

Full Inclusion

Why the regular classroom? Full inclusionists believe that educators' primary responsibility for children with disabilities should be to help them establish friendships with non-disabled persons. Therefore, within that context, educators should help change normally developing children's stereotypical thinking about disabilities and help children with disabilities develop social skills, which, in turn will enable them to interact more effectively within an increasingly broad network of acquaintances, co-workers, family members and friends. Friendship making, attitude change and social skills development can only occur, say full inclusionists, in regular classes, for the simple reason that these objectives require the presence of age-appropriate, non-disabled children.

In addition, full inclusionists claim that children with special needs must be placed in regular classrooms full-time (e.g., Lipsky & Gartner, 1991; Stainback & Stainback, 1992). There are two important reasons for doing so. First, say the full inclusionists, only full-time placement confers legitimacy on special-needs children's place in regular classrooms. Constant coming and going between special and regular classes can make such children neither "fish nor fowl," highlighting their differences in the eyes of their peers. Second, full inclusionists fear that as long as special education placements exist, educators will understand that there are "dumping grounds" for students who are especially difficult to teach. Full inclusionists say that by eliminating special education placements, all classroom teachers will have no choice but to transform their classes into settings responsive to all children - including Title I, gifted and talented, and bilingual students. Full inclusionists concede that this will require fundamental changes in the roles of special and regular educators and in the teaching and learning process. They insist, however, that we are morally bound to make such changes, and these changes are very doable.

Reinventing schooling. One of the new roles that special educators need to assume, first and foremost, is that of collaborators with classroom teachers. A popular form of collaboration is "co-teaching," whereby the special educator plays a primary, secondary or coequal role in helping adapt the mainstream experience for children with disabilities. Special educators, according to full inclusionists, should spend 100 percent of their time with mainstreamed students, with and without disabilities, who require additional help.

For full inclusion to work, however, major changes in the role of special educators must be accompanied by an equally fundamental change in the nature of conventional teaching and learning. "Meaningful change," says Ferguson (1995), "will require nothing less than a joint effort to reinvent schools to be more accommodating of all dimensions of human diversity" (p. 285). The meaningful change many full inclusionists describe includes a radical constructivist vision of teaching and learning and a concomitant de-emphasis, if not outright rejection, of standard curricula, accountability and standards. Stainback and Stainback (1992) write:

"From a holistic, constructivist perspective, all children simply engage a process of learning as much as they can in a particular subject area; how much and exactly what they learn will depend upon their backgrounds, interests, and abilities. (p. 72)"

"The teacher may share his or her knowledge of "tricks of the trade: with students through "mini-lessons" or by other means, but the focus is on facilitating students to become actively engaged in their own learning.... The classroom is often filled with real-life, purposeful projects and activities. There is little focus on practicing skills such as punctuation, capitalization, or noun-verb identification in isolated ways - these are learned in the context of writing activities. (p. 70)"

"There is little or no focus on remediating deficits and weaknesses - are addressed or compensated for as children become excited about learning and engage in real-life, purposeful projects and activities. (p. 70)"

Reflected in these calls for the reinvention of schooling is a belief that, as we head into the next century, schools, teachers and administrators have an infinite capacity for change; professional roles and relationships, and notions of what should be taught in schools, and by whom, are constrained only by our imagination, goodwill and level of commitment.

According to full inclusionists, the money previously spent on special education placements should be used to fund the rehauling of the teaching and learning process. Funding for residential treatment facilities, special day schools and self-contained classrooms then would be allocated to a full spectrum of specialists working full-time in the mainstream. Inclusionists, however, are skeptical about this scenario. They remember well a comment made by Richard Lamm, respected former Governor of Colorado: "Can we afford to spend more money trying to teach severely retarded children than we spend to educate our brightest children? We must ask ourselves - in a world of limited resources, does it make sense to spend $10,000 a year to educate a child to roll over?" (see Brooke, 1996).

Many Children, Many Needs

To recapitulate, we have discussed three important differences between inclusionist and full inclusionist positions. First, for inclusionists, the primary objective of schooling is to help children master skills and knowledge necessary for future successes in and out of school. Full inclusionists believe schools are most important for the opportunities they provide for friendship making, changing stereotypic thinking about disabilities, and strengthening socialization skills. Second, full inclusionists claim that the proper place for literally all children is the regular classroom. Inclusionists, by contrast, insist that a continuum of special education placements is necessary. Third, and implicit in the prior point, inclusionists believe that whereas regular classrooms can and should be made more accommodating of diversity, there is a limit on what one realistically can expect of such settings. Full inclusionists, on the other hand, believe all things are possible.

How does one explain the fundamental differences between inclusionists and full inclusionists? The answer is surprisingly simple: Inclusionists and full inclusionists advocate for different children with different needs. Most inclusionists speak for children with high-incidence disabilities, such as learning disabilities, behavior disorders and mild mental retardation. Most full inclusionists represent children with severe mental retardation. Therefore, when full inclusionists argue for regular class placements for children with disabilities, they are motivated by the concern that "their" children have opportunities to make friends with typically developing children, influence others' attitudes about disability and improve their own social skills. If "their" children's academic or vocational skills suffer, it is a sacrifice many full inclusionists seem willing to make. Inclusionists, by contrast, are primarily concerned that "their" children get appropriate academic instruction; if this is most likely to happen in a special day school, most inclusionists say, "so be it."

Weaknesses in the Full-Inclusionist and Inclusionist Arguments

Obviously, there are merits and flaws to both ways of thinking. Discussing several of the "soft spots" in both the full inclusionist and inclusionist positions can lead to a further exploration of these complex issues.

Full Inclusion

Uncompromising and presumptive. To ensure a place in regular classrooms for children with severe mental retardation, full inclusionists press for the elimination of special education placements for all children with disabilities. Their antipathy toward special education placements is based on a conviction that children with severe mental retardation will most likely continue to be assigned to, and confined in, those placements. This uncompromising position - regular classes for all, special education classes for none - reflects full inclusionists' apparent willingness to speak on behalf of parents and professional advocates of deaf children, blind children and children with learning disabilities, behavior disorders and mild mental retardation. We believe that this is a presumptuous attitude, and that it puts full inclusionists in direct conflict with many in the disability community. Bernard Rimland (1993), a well-known advocate and father of a child with autism, writes:

"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)"

Full inclusionists' willingness to speak for Rimland and everyone else unwittingly makes committed opponents of people who were once their comrades. It appears unlikely that full inclusionists will achieve the elimination of special education placements when so many equally fervent and politically connected advocates oppose them.

Accommodating all in one place? A second weakness in the full inclusion position is their unquestioned belief that regular education can accommodate all children. The dubiousness of this proposition can be argued with respect to many children with many kinds of special needs. It came to the fore recently and dramatically in the highly publicized and tragic case of Malcolm Shabazz, the 12-year-old grandson of Malcolm X. In 1997, Malcolm started a fire in the New York apartment of his grandmother, Dr. Betty Shabazz, from which she eventually died. In a subsequent family court hearing, Malcolm Shabazz was characterized as a "profoundly disturbed youngster with a history of setting fires and psychotic episodes dating to early childhood" (Gross, 1997, p. 18). One of his lawyers, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, told the judge, "We do not argue that he is not disturbed. We know he should be confined. The question is where" (Gross, 1997, p. 18).

What would full inclusionists recommend for Malcolm? Given their unqualified rejection of separate programs, one might assume they would wish to place him in a mainstream classroom of a community school, with perhaps a one-to-one aide and access to an itinerant therapist. Such a plan would not only jeopardize the lives of children and adults in that school, but also deprive Malcolm of the potential benefits of participating in a therapeutic community like Boys Town (see Weisman, 1994).

The limits of the regular classroom and the need for a variety of special education placements is recognized even in Vermont, a state with nearly double the national average of students with disabilities in regular classrooms and long known as a leader in inclusive education (Sack, 1997). Two years ago, school officials in Rutland, Vermont, began The Success School, a separate program for disruptive students in grades 612. According to Ellie McGarry, Rutland's Director of Special Services, the school tries to eventually return most students to the regular classroom full-time. For other students, the goal is to provide them with the skills necessary to find a job. According to McGarry, a handful of students "wouldn't be in school at all if it weren't for [The] Success [School]" (Sack, 1997, p. 3). The district's Superintendent, David Wolk, says The Success School is "a common-sense way to help the inclusion pendulum settle in the middle. It's clear this is the best environment for those children" (Sack, 1997, p. 3).

Are special education placements immoral? The Malcolm Shabazz case raises a related issue. Full inclusionists sometimes argue that placing all special-needs students in regular classes is the right thing to do; it is a proper response to a moral imperative. They frequently draw a parallel to the integration of African American students into the all-white public schools of the Jim Crow South. Stainback and Stainback (1988) and Lipsky and Gartner (1987) denounce special education placements as the moral equivalent of slavery and apartheid, respectively. Increasingly, however, all-black schools are established by black-controlled school boards, such as the African-Immersion Schools in Milwaukee (see Johnson, 1990). Also, statistics show an increasing popularity of the roughly 100 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) (see Mathis, 1997; Mercer, 1994), which enrolled 280,000 students in 1996 (Allen, 1996).

Such schools defy easy understanding. Superficially, they suggest an African American community's rejection of integration, and a concomitant embrace of separateness. To understand all-black schools and HBCUs, one must realize an important means-end distinction: many African Americans support these schools because they view them as better able than the available mainstream integrated schools to prepare African Americans for a racially mixed, competitive world. In July 1996, on the occasion of celebrating Spelman College's successful campaign to raise $114 million - the first time an HBCU had topped $100 million in a single fundraising drive - Dr. Johnnetta Cole, Spelman's President, said:

"I can hope for a day when [HBCUs] . . . are no longer necessary . . . but if we were to close them down today we would shut off the major source of black Ph.D.'s. Three quarters of all black Ph.D.'s did their undergraduate work in [HBCUs]. A fundamental reason is that these institution create an environment in which ability of black students is expected and affirmed. (Honan, 1996, p. 19)"

William Gray 3rd, President of the United Negro College Fund, adds, "Black colleges tend to be a nurturing and friendly atmosphere, especially for the first generation of college attendees, much the way Catholic colleges were for early immigrants" (Allen, 1996, p. 5).

"Separate now, successful later" could be a motto for such schools, capturing both their reason for being and their overarching expectations. A similar means-ends distinction could explain the current popularity of all-girls schools and women's colleges. Whereas the National Organization for Women argues that single-sex schools do not prepare young women for the real world, Salomone (1997) claims that the research suggests otherwise:

"Young women in single-sex secondary schools demonstrate higher educational and professional aspirations, greater self-confidence, and less traditional views of women in the workplace. They tend to take math and science courses on higher levels, and outscore their coed counterparts on general academic and science exams. These gains continue even when they choose coed colleges. Not only do they attend more selective institutions, but they are more likely to obtain advanced degrees and choose nontraditional careers. Single-sex education has proven particularly beneficial to minority girls who, in one recent study, scored nearly a year ahead of their peers in public toed schools. (p. 44, 32)"

A similar logic explains why many parents of children with disabilities support special education placements. They want their children to achieve a measure of success in higher education and in the world of work, and they see specialized intensive education placements as means toward that end (see Belluck, 1996; Maloney, 1995). By referring to special education placements as "segregated" settings, full inclusionists display a fundamental misunderstanding of what such settings represent to many in the disability community.

The research base. There is at least one more problem with the full inclusion argument: The research base for full inclusion is small, and suggestive at best. This is especially true with respect to whether full inclusion promotes academic achievement among students with disabilities, a point persuasively made by Hunt and Goetz (1997) in their recent review of the literature. Nevertheless, many believe that implementing full inclusion cannot wait on research. Peck (1995) criticizes full inclusion that is conducted in conjunction with research as almost always a tentative, piecemeal effort - implemented, for example, by just one 3rd-grade teacher, or by several 3rd-grade teachers in a building, or by all faculty in one school in a district. Full inclusionists say that such small-scale implementations hinder the necessary reallocation of resources, reconceptualization of professional roles, and reinvention of the teaching and learning process that must accompany a genuine change-over to full inclusion. Proponents argue that full inclusion must be implemented comprehensively throughout a school district, or across a state, for its effects to be understood properly.

The idea of districtwide or statewide change without a validated blueprint, however, strikes many in the disability community as quixotic and unacceptable. Many say such dramatic change cannot be implemented before much more is understood, through small-scale implementations with careful controls and evaluations (e.g., McKinney & Hocutt, 1988). If full inclusion should prove harmful, how easily can such a policy be undone if it is implemented districtwide or statewide?


The inclusionists' argument also has its weaknesses. For example, there is little evidence about the effectiveness of special education placements or information on the number of students who eventually leave these placements for the mainstream.

Are special education placements effective? Critics believe special education placements do not provide specialized, effective instruction. They say the typical special educator "pulls students from general education classrooms and places them in . . . segregated classes, in which they . . . are given watered-down curriculum and . . . less rather than more instructional time" (Wang & Walberg, 1988). Full inclusionists claim that if they could eliminate special education programs and place all students in regular classrooms, they would be doing no worse. Full inclusionists also believe that children with disabilities probably would be better off in the regular classroom, because the atmosphere is more stimulating, demanding and socially acceptable.

So much for beliefs; what does the research say? Unfortunately, much of the research on the efficacy of special education is old and poorly conducted, and findings from the better-done research is contradictory. Across four independent integrative reviews of this body of work, however, agreement exists on this point: For certain special-needs students, special education programs appear to promote greater academic achievement than do regular classrooms (see Fuchs & Fuchs, 1995a).

Even so, such a conclusion is a bit shaky. It also begs the question, Is special education effective as practiced in big cities and small towns? Alas, here too, the answer is less than persuasive. We do not know if special education is effective in most places, because there is virtually no information available. Since the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 (recently reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA), school districts and state departments of education have defined compliance with the law in terms of whether individual educational plans, or IEPs, have been written properly, not whether they have led to valued student outcomes.

In the absence of such data, it is reasonable to suspect that, in more than a few places, special education instruction is ineffective. Our reasoning is based on what we know about effective special education instruction: Well-trained special educators select from a variety of instructional techniques, curricula and motivational strategies, and they use ongoing evaluation systems that track student progress. By combining and recombining these elements, while monitoring individual student growth, teachers can devise effective instructional plans. It is implicitly understood that effective special educators work intensively with a relatively small group of children. In many districts, however, special educators have heavy caseloads of 30 or more students. Tennessee, for example, places no legal limit on the size of these caseloads. Equally troubling, as a response to the inclusion movement, college and university teacher preparation programs seem to be moving away from preparing good special education instructors, and are focusing instead on preparing good consultants or co-teachers. While these roles may be complementary in principle, in practice, we believe, teacher preparation programs may be sacrificing the substance of how to teach for the process of how to get along with regular educators.

Does the continuum of special education placements work? For more than two decades, the continuum of services model has guided the education placement of special-needs students in virtually all 15,173 school districts across the country. Although a majority of the disability community continues to support the model (see Kauffman & Hallahan, 1995), increasing numbers of critics (e.g., Stainback & Stainback, 1992) and supporters (e.g., Fuchs & Fuchs, 1995b) view it as contributing to this disturbing fact: Once a student is placed in a separate special education program, that program too often becomes a terminal assignment in the child's education career. In an article in The New York Times, Carol Gresser, then president of the New York City Board of Education, was quoted as claiming that less than 5 percent of students with disabilities in the city's public schools ever returned to regular classes (Dillon, 1994); in Buffalo, New York, and Rochester, New York, the percentages are 0.7 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively (J. Henry, personal communication, February 2, 1995).

Where To Go from Here?

By describing what we believe are chinks in the armor of full inclusionist and inclusionist arguments, we do not mean to suggest that there can be no correct policy for students with disabilities. Rather, we wish to impress on the reader that people of goodwill think very differently about this complex and divisive issue. A majority of the disability community remains committed to the continuum of services, as do we. But we also see the need for greater accountability in special education; we believe that special education's effectiveness should be defined primarily in terms of student outcomes and moving students "up" the continuum into regular classrooms.

It will not be easy to identify an appropriately ambitious goal for each student, measures of meaningful progress, or ways to hold students, teachers, parents, the district and others accountable. Yet this is a most important task if we are to ensure a responsible system of service delivery in the next century for students with disabilities and their parents.


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Douglas Fuchs and Lynn S. Fuchs are Professors, Special Education, George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee.
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Author:Fuchs, Lynn S.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Aug 6, 1998
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