In 1954, the United States Supreme Court overruled the “separate but equal” clause of Plessy v. Ferguson with the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring that “separate” educational facilities are inherently unequal. While Brown v. Board was aimed at addressing racial segregation, it is worth noting the implications of this view of separate educations because students with learning disabilities are often educated separately from their peers. Our current education system divides students into different categories and programs based on their perceived levels of academic ability under the assumption that this is the best way to help students reach their fullest potential. This is problematic and leads to students’ missing the benefits of an inclusive classroom. Though it would not be a simple task, students who have learning disabilities should be educated alongside students who do not, using cooperative classwork, where students work together to complete an assignment or task, whenever possible.
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a person with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” For this blog, I will be focusing on learning disabilities, particularly those that do not completely inhibit functions that are vital in a traditional classroom, such as communication. However, I do recognize that the line that I am drawing between which disabilities/experiences of disabilities my proposal would apply to and those it would not is not completely clear, as no two people with the same disability have the same experience. The degree to which a person is able to participate in inclusive and cooperative learning would have to be determined on a case by case basis.
Article 26 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that everyone has a right to an education. Article 24 of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) states that all people with disabilities have the right to “an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning.” The use of cooperative classwork among students with and without disabilities would hopefully help more effectively access these rights for both parties. Additionally, by helping the members of each group become more accustomed to interacting and being part of a common social group, this can also help individuals with the types of disabilities that are focused on in this blog to access their right to employment (which is given in article 23 of the UDHR and article 27 of the CRPD) and their right to participation/inclusion in their communities (article 27 of the UDHR and article 19 of the CRPD).
Our Current System
When discussing whether students who have disabilities should be educated separately from students who do not, it is helpful if we begin by considering why we use the system we currently have. A literature review titled “Implicit Assumptions in Special Education Policy: Promoting Full Inclusion for Students with Learning Disabilities” was published by Moira Kirby in the Child Youth Care Forum in 2016. In the review, Kirby aimed to find special education trends relating to “inclusive practices, Response to Intervention (RTI), and student achievement.” She argues that the educational system currently used in the United States, while meant to increase access to education, perpetuates certain students’ isolation from others, as it is based on problematic assumptions about disabilities. The first assumption is that disabilities are deviant conditions that should be “eradicated.” The second is that “all special services should be delivered in a separate environment.” These assumptions inform the implicit biases about degrees of educational ability. Kirby also argues that these assumptions must be changed in order to “promote access and equality for students with learning disabilities.” In her article, she states, “The question is not, how can we fix a disability, but how can we make our classroom environments a place where all students can learn, regardless of their need.”
The educational system that is currently in place in the US involves separating students with learning disabilities, “low-performing” students, students who meet “average” expectations, and “high-performing” students. This system is well-intentioned, theoretically giving each group of students the unique resources they need to reach the height of their personal capabilities. In practice, however, this system is quite flawed. It is a system based on expectations (typically informed by assumptions and implicit bias), which become harmful to many students, especially those with learning disabilities, due to stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is “the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group” and the effect that that risk can have on the individual’s performance. Many people assume that students with disabilities will do poorly in school, and when students with disabilities know this, they often adopt those same expectations for themselves. If academic success seems unlikely or even impossible, this can become a barrier to the motivation and access to resources that can lead to it. Stereotype threat also leads students with learning disabilities to underestimate the quality of their academic performance overall, even at times when they are doing well. They can start to assume that they simply cannot do well in school.
This sort of negative self-evaluation can also be damaging to a person’s mental health and well-being. If one consistently sees themselves as not good enough, smart enough, or strong enough to do things well, it can be easy for them to fall into depression, anxiety, or another struggle with mental health.
Another problem that comes with stereotype threat is that it takes up precious cognitive resources. Students spend part of their cognitive resources thinking about the expectations they are held to, distracting them from the work they are trying to do, and preventing them from using all of their resources to their advantage, which contributes to a decreased ability to perform well.
In her research, Kirby found that teachers who had been asked about inclusion in the classroom tended to attribute the success of attempts at inclusion to the students’ physiological traits rather than the value of inclusive practices. She points to this belief as one that could potentially lead a teacher to believe that students with disabilities could be taught only separately from others. They were also often found to lack confidence in their abilities to teach students with disabilities. Parents also either had negative or neutral views on the impact of inclusive education.
In 2015, “68.2% of students with learning disabilities spend 80% or more of their day in the general education classroom, while 24.1% spend 40-70% of their day in the general education classroom.” This in no way aligns with the idea that students with learning disabilities need to be educated separately from other students, and it highlights a point of concern. If many general education teachers do not feel like they are able to teach students with disabilities, and most students with disabilities spend a large part of their day in general education classrooms, what implications do these things have regarding those students’ education? Ideally, students would be educated by someone who felt they were qualified to teach them rather than someone who is uncertain about it. If students with different educational needs were consistently taught in the same classroom, teachers would all need to go through the training necessary to teach students with special educational needs, allowing them to better support their students.
An Inclusive Educational Environment Can Be Beneficial For All Students
The negative impact that a segregated educational system can have on students with disabilities is not the only reason to move towards a more inclusive system. Evidence that suggests that inclusive classrooms can lead to positive outcomes for all of the students involved.
In their article “The challenges of implementing group work in primary school classrooms and including pupils with special educational needs,” Ed Baines, Peter Blatchford, and Rob Webster review the results of two research projects: the SPRing (Social Pedagogic Research into Group-work) project and the MAST (Making a Statement) project. Realizing that most studies regarding collaborative work in education that had previously been performed had been on a small-scale and short-term basis, the authors reviewed the results of these two projects to come to a better, more reliable understanding of the challenges of inclusive group-work in primary schools.
The SPRing project was a five-year-long project that aimed to “develop and implement with teachers a programme of principles and activities that incorporated group work into curriculum and everyday school activities” and “to evaluate this programme relative to a control group in terms of academic progress, behavioral interaction and dialogue, and attitudes and motivation towards learning.” The developed program included a handbook and six training sessions where teachers could develop the skills that they need to incorporate group work into their lessons. The four main areas covered by the program included “preparing the classroom and group context for group work,” “preparing lessons and group-work activities,” “preparing adults to support pupils and groups,” and “preparing pupils for group work.”
The results of the SPRing project show that, relative to the control group, the students that participated in the program made more progress in general science tests, “were more actively engaged in task interactions,” had more sustained interactions, and “engaged in more high-level reasoning talk.”
The MAST project “involved systematic observation and case studies” of students with known special educational needs that were being taught in general education classrooms. This project’s results provided Baines and his co-authors with information about the interactions between students with special educational needs and adults/peers. The project found that students with special educational needs “were half as likely to work with or alongside peers” as other students. It was also found they were often isolated from the other students. Some of the reasons for this isolation included a student with special educational needs choosing to sit away from the others, and other students being afraid of or nervous about working with them. One factor that may contribute to each of these reasons could be that the students with special educational needs that were a part of the study may have had poor social and communicational skills. While difficulties with communication are an aspect of many learning disabilities, inclusive group work may give these students an opportunity and a safe environment in which they can develop these skills (though a student should never be pushed to do group work if it causes them an amount of stress that is genuinely detrimental to their well-being).
This isolation of students with special educational needs may also result from traditional students and school faculty viewing people with disabilities as “the other” as being outside of normal. This would help to explain why traditional students may be hesitant to associate with students who have disabilities. It could also explain why students with special educational needs isolate themselves from other students, as they may have internalized their peers’ view of them. They may feel like they are on the outside looking in, unable to be a part of the rest of the group.
In her literature review, Moira Kirby also addresses some of the benefits of inclusive educational settings, as suggested in different case studies. In one study, elementary school students scored higher in reading and writing when taught in a general education classroom rather than a separate special education classroom. Another study found that eighth-graders with learning disabilities had “significantly higher scores in math academic achievement tasks and self-concept” when taught in an inclusive classroom. Students from another study scored higher in math, science, social studies, and language arts.
Students without learning disabilities may also benefit from inclusive educational environments. Students who perform well could potentially benefit from working with students with disabilities and helping them understand the topics they are learning about and the group work they might do. Re-wording and explaining a concept to another person can
help cement one’s understanding of it. Additionally, if all teachers have to teach classes with children with different educational needs, they would have to be prepared to work with students with disabilities, which would improve the support that those students receive and broaden teachers’ perspectives. This could allow teachers to develop skills that would be beneficial in teaching all students, with or without disabilities.
Concerns and Challenges
Though there are many advantages to adopting a more inclusive educational system, there are still concerns and challenges that also come with it. One concern is that students with learning disabilities may face social rejection from their peers. For their article “The Social and Emotional Situation of First Graders with Classroom Behavior Problems and Classroom Learning Difficulties in Inclusive Classes,” Johanna Krull, Jürgen Wilbert, and Thomas Hennemann surveyed 2,839 first graders and found that students with “classroom learning difficulties” (CLD) and “classroom behavioral problems” (CBP) were at a greater risk for social rejection than their peers. However, the authors found several outliers in their data, where students with CLD or CBP had higher rates of social acceptance, and they interpret this to mean that, under the right circumstances, an inclusive education system is possible. In their article, Baines and his co-authors suggest that social rejection in this context can decrease over time when students are involved in inclusive group-work (if the students remain in the same groups throughout that time). Group work allows students with disabilities who struggle with social skills to develop those skills. It will enable other students to better understand people’s experiences who are different from them, which may lead them to be more willing (and happier) to be inclusive and build friendships with other students. If a student has no/little prior experience with students with learning disabilities, it would not be surprising to find that they are nervous or uncomfortable interacting with them.
When discussing the possibility of an integrated classroom, people are also concerned with the impact of having children with severe behavioral issues in general education classrooms, as they may become distracting or disruptive to the point of preventing any productivity in the class. This may be a factor that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some children that are deemed as being too disruptive have the potential to become less disruptive with exposure to a traditional classroom setting. There are likely situations where students truly are too disruptive to allow for a productive classroom, but that is certainly not always the case. It is important that, if a student is found to behave in a distracting way, that they are not immediately moved into another classroom after a single incident (although consideration should be given to the severity and the nature of the interruption). They should be given the opportunity to try and adjust to the traditional classroom environment before they are placed in a different one.
Another concern is that educating students at such a range of degrees of ability in the same classroom might prevent both students with learning disabilities and students that are currently in advanced programs from reaching their fullest academic potential. This concern is largely connected to the assumption that being in the classroom means that students would all be learning from the exact same curriculum, but that is not necessarily true.
In her article, Kirby suggests that a completely inclusive classroom might not involve basing lesson plans on the categories that students have been assigned to. Instead, each student would have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). In our current public education system, children in special education programs must have an IEP, a “map that lays out the program of special education instruction, supports, and services kids need to make progress and thrive in school.” Each child has an IEP team, including their parents, at least one general education teacher (unless the child does not work with any), at least one special education teacher, a school district representative, a school psychologist/specialist, and the child. After the IEP is developed, the team regularly meets to discuss progress and possible changes for the plan. If every student, whether they have general or special educational needs, has an IEP, then (in theory), each student could have their personal needs recognized and met in the classroom. Kirby also suggests that making IEPs standard for all students could reduce the impact that the stigmatization of learning disabilities has on students, as school faculty would be less reliant on separating students into different/broad categories to teach them.
Of course, creating an IEP for every student in the public school system is much easier said than done and is a much more attractive idea in theory than in practice. It would require a significant shift in the allocation of resources in education, which may not be practical with the financial resources we currently have access to. It would also be asking many teachers, as they would no longer be able to teach with a singular lesson plan. It is unrealistic to expect teachers to carry this burden themselves, as they are already spread too thin, given more responsibilities than they can reasonably handle. Having IEPs for every student would likely require a serious increase in the number of teachers at each school or at least an increased/reinforced support system for school faculty. Perhaps a more feasible solution could be developing IEPs for students with a clear need for increased educational support that involves their being more present in the traditional classroom than in a separate one. While this is still likely to feed into the stigmatization and othering of students with disabilities, there do not seem to be any strong alternatives that are both practical and successful in avoiding stigmatization altogether.
In short, we should aim to educate students with and without learning disabilities together whenever possible, even though it will take a lot of time and effort to do so. We currently separate students based on expectations of their academic abilities, and these expectations are informed by and reaffirm problematic assumptions about people with learning disabilities. This can be harmful to people with learning disabilities and prevent students with all degrees of educational needs from accessing the benefits that can come from an inclusive classroom. However, it is important that we recognize and genuinely consider the concerns and challenges that arise when we look to put inclusive education ideals into practice. It is also important to recognize that the conclusions that can be drawn based on the resources used to support this argument are limited, as many gather data from anecdotal situations and small samples sizes. These factors prevent the results of sources from being reliably representative of experiences with inclusion and students with learning disabilities on a larger scale. The application of my argument is also limited, as I have focused on students with learning disabilities that do not completely prevent them from effectively learning or functioning in a general education classroom. While an integrated school system is generally optimal, there are some students for which that kind of system genuinely would not work. We cannot treat all students with disabilities as if their experiences are the same by assuming that all would do poorly in an inclusive classroom or that all would be unquestionably better off in an inclusive classroom. Overall, even though it will not be easy, even if we can never achieve a perfectly integrated educational system, it is an important goal which we should work towards for the benefit of all students and their educational rights.