The future of inclusive educational practice: constructive tension and the potential for reflective reform.
- Karl Marx
Marx's epigram succinctly captures the enduring tension between thought and action - words of (dubious) wisdom and works of observable change - that becomes a noticeable part of any effort at social reform. Educators experience this tension whenever they attempt to discuss inclusion, often having to field silent (and sometimes not-so-silent) accusations: "You academics spend all your time interpreting inclusion. You should either do it, stop it, change it - pick one." The audience generally is convinced that everything has already been said on the issue. A kind of iron curtain seems to descend, cutting off discussion and reinforcing practitioners' cynicism toward the latest academic panacea.
The audience has a point: What is left to say in the "inclusion debate"? For more than two decades, special educators across the globe have been pursuing reforms in the design and delivery of special education services (Befring, 1997; Dalmau, Hatton & Spurway, 1991; Dunn, 1968; Fullwood, 1990; Gartner & Lipsky, 1987; Goodlad & Lovitt, 1993; O'Hanlon, 1995; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1995). Children with special needs have been served through mainstreaming, integration, reverse mainstreaming, inclusion, inclusive schooling, inclusive schools and schools for all. The debates generated by these various proposals sometimes have been cordial, sometimes acrimonious, but always revealing of the issues, assumptions and politics that interpret the practices of our field.
Certainly, these various slogans have meant different things at different times in different districts, states and countries, contributing to both contusion and debate. Advocates reject the idea of separate and segregated schooling, citing civil rights infringements. Others seek to frame the debate in terms of specially designed, technically different, but necessary instructional technologies. All the discussions have tended to devolve into opposing positions:
* Inclusion is for all students. Inclusion is only for some.
* Inclusion means full-time placement in general education classrooms. Inclusion can combine some time in general education classrooms and some time in specialized learning settings.
* Inclusion can focus primarily on social learning and friendship for students with disabilities. Inclusion must result in useful academic learning to be considered successful.
* Inclusion will be detrimental for students without disabilities. Inclusion will be a positive experience for students without disabilities.
* Too many general educators are opposed to inclusion. Too many special educators are opposed to inclusion.
* The evidence does support inclusion. The evidence does not support inclusion.
Such polarization can serve to highlight the disjunction between what is being said and what is being done. Interpretations seem to gather their own momentum, while an underlying inertia affects actual efforts to change schools. For example, the latest annual report to Congress (United States Department of Education, 1996) on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) reveals just how inclusive practices in the United States are, yet how differently applied. The report showed that during the 1993-94 school year, approximately 43 percent of the children between the ages of 6 and 21 who were served under Part B of IDEA spent at least 80 percent of their time in general education classrooms. This number is about as close as aggregate data can hope to come to describing the availability of inclusive education to the 5.5 million students with IEPs in U.S. schools. Even so, these figures obscure the significant variability across disability categories, ages and geographical locations. For example, the inclusive placement percentage drops to 8 to 10 percent when the focus narrows to students with significant disabilities, such as mental retardation and multiple disabilities. Almost 60 percent of children labeled as mentally retarded still spend most of their school day in a self-contained class, a figure that has remained constant over the last decade.
These numbers are discouraging when one considers that the earliest and most vocal advocacy for inclusion has been on behalf of students with more significant disabilities (Ferguson, 1995; Lipsky & Gartner, 1997; Stainback & Stainback, 1992; Taylor, 1988). Despite many individual success stories, students with milder disabilities are the ones who now spend more time in general education classrooms. Moreover, it is researchers and advocates for these students with "milder" disabilities who have been among the most active opponents to inclusion (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1994; Gresham & MacMillan, in press; Hallahan & Kauffman, 1994; Kauffman, 1989).
In the midst of inclusion debates, general education has been examining its own practices and results. Past solutions do not seem sufficient for the next millennium (Asuto & Clark, 1994; Elmore, 1996). Shifting demographics, shrinking resources and increasing public scrutiny all have pressured the education community to change the "fundamental assumptions, practices and relationships, both within the organization and between the organization and the outside world, in ways that lead to improved student learning outcomes" (Conley, 1991, p. 15). Yet, here as well, it often seems that the more the rhetoric changes, the more the organization and practice - the "grammar of schooling" (Tyack & Cuban, 1995, p. 9) - stay fundamentally the same.
Debates certainly can help clarify points of difference among various positions. Equally often, however, such academic arguments generate more heat than light, only serving to obscure deeper issues that, if considered, lead to resolutions that would move thinking and practices forward. Unless ways are found to make the inclusion debate relevant to teachers, students and families, neither critics nor supporters will have successfully moved from interpreting the world to helping change it.
Let us be clear about our starting point. We consider ourselves to be strong supporters of inclusive schools. We are convinced that communities, schools and classrooms can and should be restructured to support diverse learners, both with and without disabilities. We think that the linear logic of placing children with disabilities along a continuum of less or more restrictive placements should be replaced by a logic of redistributed support and expertise that allows all types of students to learn together in all sorts of arrangements. That being said, however, our aim is not so much to defend our interpretation of inclusive schools, as it is to analyze honestly what underlies the tensions that permeate the debate. We do not expect that such an effort will dissolve those tensions. Rather, we hope to use the tensions constructively to light a path that will take us from academic argument toward schools that work for teachers and students.
Tensions in Interpreting Inclusion
What tensions underlie the rhetoric around inclusion? To answer this, we first need to clarify what we mean by "tensions." Contradictions are hopeless dichotomies: polar opposites that defy peaceful synthesis. Antagonisms are less obdurate in their opposition, less disruptive in their interaction. Antagonisms are not necessarily easy to resolve, but the energy generated by antagonism can help overcome the organizational inertia that is always the first barrier to effective reform. What results is not so radically new that it destroys all that came before, yet neither is it identical with any single proposed option. The tension, therefore, continues in response to the new reality because no side has been absolutely triumphant, yet progress has been made.
We want to focus on two tensions that we consider fundamental to the debate about inclusion. We will argue that these two tensions need not be seen as hopeless contradictions, but rather can be approached as constructive antagonisms that lead to a process of enduring reform. The future of inclusion may not be found in our choice or the choice of others. Instead, it may be found in a reflective process of recognizing the true sources of tension among all of those advocating for education restructuring, and living with the somewhat unpredictable outcomes. In this, we follow the advice of Tyack and Cuban (1995):
"Reforms should be designed to be hybridized, adapted by educators working together to take advantage of their knowledge of their own diverse students and communities and supporting each other in new ways of teaching. It is especially important to engage the understanding and support of parents and the public when reforms challenge cultural beliefs about what a "real school" should be and do. (pp. 135-136)"
The Tension of Time: Inclusion in the present and Future Tense
Much of the discussion around inclusion seems to be a case of parallel play, rather than true interaction (Ferguson, 1995; Hallahan & Kauffman, 1994; Lipsky & Gartner, 97; Manset & Semmel, 1997; Taylor, 1995). Inclusion often pits those who believe that differently abled students' social relationships and civil rights are paramount, versus those who tout academic skills and individual development. For those of us who have focused our research, teaching and advocacy on students with severe disabilities, the importance of those children gaining friendships and participating in the larger school community arises from a long history of their exclusion and marginalization. Others, especially those whose emphasis is on students with mild disabilities, insist that inclusion decisions revolve around evidence of academic achievement (Manset & Semmel, 1997). At one extreme, the social relationship position portrays the academic achievement position as one that refuses to acknowledge those with disabilities as a minority group fighting to overcome social discrimination. For its part, the achievement side often portrays the social relationship side as composed of self-righteous fanatics who discount the facts of research. We think the key to exploring this issue is to consider how these positions are grounded in a much older debate about the nature and purpose of schooling itself.
For most of us in the "pro-inclusion" camp, inclusion of students with severe disabilities into general education settings is simply one dimension of a much larger struggle to include people with severe disabilities throughout society. Pro-inclusion adherents want policies that allow people with even the most significant disabilities (and their families) to live, work and play as full members of their communities. In terms of residential arrangements, for example, the reform effort for the past 30 years has concentrated on moving away from the use of large, separate facilities, toward small, individual homes in the same neighborhoods where everyone else lives. Similarly, vocational reformers have shifted their focus away from segregated work settings toward integrated environments that support people with severe disabilities.
These efforts are aimed beyond just preparing people with severe disabilities for some future roles as workers, neighbors and citizens. Reformers want to arrange the supports and opportunities for those roles to happen now, in our present communities. It seems a natural application of a larger orientation to treat schools as one more domain of life that needs to become more inclusive. In this context, school is not so much about preparation for a future as a successful adult as it is a realization of an opportunity to be a successful student. Or, to paraphrase Dewey, school should be not so much a preparation of citizens for democracy as a complicated exercise in democracy itself.
The other side of this tension approaches the inclusion debate more exclusively within an education context. This orientation tends to emphasize school's purpose as preparation for the future. While inclusion may be part of a larger debate about schools, it is still a debate about where and how individual students learn best.
Our point, of course, is that both sides have legitimate concerns. American society has vigorously debated the purpose of schooling for a long time, and the tension can be constructive. As one recent review of the education reform efforts in the past century said, "At its best, debate over purpose in public education has been a continuous process of creating and reshaping a democratic institution that, in turn, helped to create a democratic society" (Tyack & Cuban, 1995, p. 142). In time, inclusion may emerge as a process whereby schools and families negotiate how to both exemplify and prepare a community that works for all its members.
The Tension of Difference: Place, Failure and Diversity
The second tension that we want to explore has been referred to as the "dilemma of difference" (Minow, 1990). Basically, the tension reflects two approaches to advocating for students with disabilities in a society that has, historically, excluded and discriminated against them. We believe that the tension involves our response to similarity and difference. How should we advocate for students with disabilities in ways that do not, by the very act of our advocacy, emphasize how they differ from students without disabilities? Do we emphasize the differences (securing special labels, procedural protections and education specialists), trying all the while to avoid the stigmatizing conclusions of "inferiority" and "failure"? Or do we simply emphasize an essential similarity, and risk perpetuating the historic isolation by refusing to ask for reasonable accommodations and access to expertise and support?
This tension is not unique to the field of disability. Feminist scholars, in particular, have written about it (Minow, 1990; Silvers, 1995). Minow summarized the dilemma with explicit reference to how it affects people with significant cognitive disabilities and those who advocate on their behalf:
"Social, political, and legal reform efforts to challenge exclusion and degradation on the basis of assigned traits continually run up against the danger either of re-creating differences by focusing upon them or of denying their enduring influence in people's lives. This dilemma of difference burdens people who have been labeled different with the stigma, degradation, or simple sense of not fitting in while leaving the majority free to feel unresponsible for, and uninvolved in, the problems of difference.... [D]ecisions about housing, education, and employment for individuals with severe mental disabilities add to the dilemma of difference the difficulty of learning what the individuals most affected would themselves want. (Minow, 1990, pp. 47-48)"
Schools traditionally have responded to this dilemma of difference by opting to define, identify and respond differentially to difference. Initially, the differences that warranted this response were significant: students who were culturally, behaviorally, cognitively or physically different enough to "stand out in the crowd." Over the decades we have become increasingly precise in our ability to identify, name and treat a growing number of differences. It is this development of evermore precise differentiating that provides one motivation for those who support inclusion. At some point, the process replaces the "norm" with just so many specialized groups, each requiring their own specialized response, and each separated from true participation in schools and in communities by virtue of their differences. For others, the ever-increasing precision with which we can identify differences helps to create an educational technology capable of teaching everybody nearly everything.
Passage of the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act only seemed to increase the demand for different and specialized schooling, under the assumption that the more "different" the student, the more different the specialized services would be. Given the concomitant assumption that general education classrooms served all participants with the same standard offering, it is hardly surprising that we quickly established an entire separate public schooling system.
Difference in the education realm was and is considered a problem that individuals possess, requiring an individual response. The traditional, ability-based, norm-driven, categorical approaches to education use differences to sort students into categories. This helps teachers to match each student to a curriculum and set of teaching services. The corollary assumption is that all students, even those with "differences," seek to acquire admission to a normative group; hence, their education needs should address that goal. It is this reliance on a pathological definition of difference, and a service response that either remediates or at least ameliorates, that has defined special education, and the relationship between special and general education, since the turn of the century. Our debates about what constitutes effective schooling for our differently sorted students are really just a symptom of a deeper need to rethink and revise our understanding of difference - and therein lies the creative tension that inclusion challenges us to face.
On the one hand, students with severe disabilities teach us that reductive processes focusing on finding and relieving difference fail when faced with "too much" difference to remediate to a Bell curve standard. Rather than face an eternity of trying to measure up, students with significant disabilities and their parents want schools to enable students to find meaningful participation in democratic communities now. These families want the students to learn things that support immediate, meaningful participation, and recognition that such participation might always require support and assistance. Supported and assisted participation, if meaningful, is much preferable to either no participation or participation postponed until some measure of acceptable similarity is achieved. These agendas fly in the face of the standards-based normative thinking that dominates schools, even in periods of so-called reform.
On the other hand, individual attention and specialized instructional technologies really can make a difference for these students right now. The larger debates surrounding assumptions, paradigms, outcomes and metaphors for schools pale when viewed from the perspective of a struggling student. Teachers are the arbiters of this conflict day by day, lesson by lesson. While some see the need to fundamentally restructure schools, teachers who see their students struggling cannot avoid the conclusion that more individual, specialized and, all too often, separate help, delivered by someone else, is needed. And they are correct. Tutoring that uses specialized methods can help students achieve academic success.
Helping individual children is certainly the appropriate mission of teachers, even when that help must be provided in highly individual ways and in separate places. This is the dilemma of trying to change practice in the face of an inevitable tension between the immediate need and the larger good. Choosing one child's need might, as a result, hinder the larger process of rethinking and restructuring what we do for all students. At the same time, that child should not be a victim of inadequate reform.
To take even another tack, teachers will assert that the "norm," if it ever really existed in the untidy world of schools, has nearly disappeared as a useful construct for managing classrooms (Pugach & Seidl, 1995; Putnam, Spiegel & Bruininks, 1995). Diversity is becoming the norm. Each student only fits an imaginary norm some of the time in some ways. Most of the time, teachers face many different individuals - and the types of differences are increasing.
Diversity is fast becoming ubiquitous in schools and in general education classrooms. Yet the implications of diversity may still be escaping both general and special educators as they think about how to respond to day-to-day challenges of learning. Diversity all too often becomes "difference," in the sense of "finding a way to measure up to the norm." "Diversity," by contrast, challenges the very notion that there is one way to educate, one norm to be sought. Instead, different patterns of achievement fit various cultural, racial, ability and gender differences. In this context, "disability" might be thought of as only a small addition to the concept of diversity - difference in degree, but not type.
Given our history of treating difference, diversity could become just another word for difference - a deficit to be remediated or ameliorated. Instead, we might take a lesson from Norway (Befring, 1997) and try to view difference and diversity as opportunities for enriching and supporting each and every student's learning. It might be better, ultimately, to shift our view of difference or disability from that of individual limitation to a focus on environmental and social constraints. Support is grounded in the perspective of the person receiving it, not the person providing it. In this way, all student differences must define specific, personalized opportunities for all students.
Discovering and Using Tensions
Other tensions surrounding the inclusion issue offer opportunities for reflection and learning. One fruitful tension is the challenge of supporting educators so that they can work with a very diverse group of students, while also preserving the level of highly specialized expertise that some students require. Our experience suggests that the long separation between the people and practices of general and special education has diminished both. General educators often feel ill-suited to teach students with disabilities, even when they possess all the essential skills for constructing meaningful and effective learning experiences. Special educators believe they know much about teaching students with disabilities, but know little about helping those students thrive in general education classrooms. A productive agenda for re-creating schools could be the exploration of how to maintain both general and specialized knowledge in groups of teachers, while also developing the structural mechanisms to ensure that such knowledge gets shared and used.
Still another tension that holds promise involves establishing and maintaining high achievement expectations for diverse groups of students. Currently, a good deal of confusion exists about how national standards fit into learning, and how to incorporate the diverse learning agendas and accomplishments of a variety of students, especially students with disabilities (Gagnon, 1995; McLaughlin, 1995). Does "standard" mean standardization in the sense of every student accomplishing exactly the same learning to the same picture of mastery, performance or other measurement? If so, how can a standard accommodate all students? If the call for higher standards and high expectations means that each child really excels, then how can we compare the achievement of high standards from one student to the next?
We hope our challenge is clear. The only way we can move beyond the limits of our interpretations to new and creative understanding is by better understanding the tensions created by our debates. Sometimes the legitimate aspects of differing points of view, when understood as legitimate, can help move us away from "either/or" thinking toward a "both, and" approach that, while never completely resolving the tensions, does move us ahead.
Reflective Change and the promise of Inclusion
Can educators realistically hope to harness the energy of these fundamental tensions without dismantling everything in the process? On our good days we feel optimistic that the commitment, creativity and thoughtfulness needed to make such an effort possible exist in abundance in our public schools. Perhaps a place to start is by focusing on any shared values that could serve as a touchstone.
As part of a new federal grant that will look at the intersection of issues in urban school reform and inclusive educational practices, a group of researchers, educators, family members and community activists have begun their work by trying to craft just such a set of beliefs (Kozleski, Ferguson, Riley & Ferguson, 1997). The following list represents one group's efforts to recognize debate, but also encourage the move from endless interpretation toward effective change:
* All students can perform to high standards. Communities, schools and families must fundamentally believe in and value each student's contributions, gifts, capabilities, strengths and talents. Schools and educators must help children succeed in the learning process, regardless of a student's race, cultural class, disability, gender, language or family situation.
* The essential purpose of education is to enhance learning and improve the lives of students. Ensuring access to knowledge, skills and information will result in improving the life chances of each individual.
* Learning is a continuous process that occurs in all contexts. Children learn in a variety of places - school, home, neighborhood and community. The "teachers" in these environments help children to understand and make connections among different experiences. Effective education attends to children's learning in all of these environments.
* Diverse learners require diverse practices. Effective educational practice must employ different approaches and strategies tailored to the particular learning abilities, needs, styles, purposes and preferences of diverse children and youth.
* Education is a collaborative endeavor. Meeting the needs of children and youth in inclusive settings increasingly requires that groups of educators and others work together to plan and deliver effective learning. This collaboration must erase traditional professional boundaries created by discipline, disability or category in order to achieve inclusive school communities.
* Inclusive schools embody the concepts of community, diversity, collaboration and achievement. The basic premise of inclusive school communities is that all children have unique contributions to make, and that they belong in typical schools and classrooms, and should receive appropriate supports to help ensure their success. All students should have access to similarly broad education outcomes.
* Systematic school improvement requires partnerships grounded in a scholarship of practice. Practitioners, researchers and policymakers must collaborate to address real-world problems and generate practicable solutions for improving classrooms.
* Evaluations of the results of schooling must respond to the different and legitimate information needs of learners, teachers, community members and policymakers. Teachers, students and families need information about how well schools are educating all students collectively in order to allocate resources that align reform practices with high quality results.
We do not offer the above set of beliefs as the final word about how to educate children, nor do we mean them as some sort of "loyalty oath" designed to smoke out those less pure in their allegiance. We started off our comments with a lament that perhaps everything had already been said in the inclusion debate. We hope these beliefs are a way to renew the conversation.
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Philip M. Ferguson is Associate Professor, and Dianne L. Ferguson is Associate Professor, University of Oregon, Eugene.
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|Author:||Ferguson, Dianne L.|
|Date:||Aug 6, 1998|
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