Full Inclusion: One Reason for Opposition

by Donald B. Crawford, Ph.D.

Full inclusion is a philosophical movement based upon the notion that all students, regardless of the level or type of disability, should be educated entirely in the same general education classrooms as their same-age peers. Advocates of a policy of full inclusion feel that special education classrooms constitute a form of segregation and that seperate classrooms for special education students, like classrooms segregated by race, are inherently unequal. Led by TASH (The Association for Severely Handicapped Persons), advocates of full inclusion have been forcing open the doors of general education classrooms so that students with even the most severe handicaps will be admitted.

The policy of full inclusion says that all students should be educated in general education classrooms, and that this policy should be implemented immediately with all students. Such a policy differs markedly from the notion of least restrictive enviroment (LRE) as written in the law. LRE mandates choosing the least restrictive place to educate a student in which he or she can receive an appropriate education. A policy of full inclusion contrasts sharply with the longstanding practice of mainstreaming, where students with mild handicaps were gradually moved into general education classrooms once their academic deficits had been remediated. As a special educator for many years, I successfully mainstreamed many of my special education students after I had prepared them for the academic tasks of the classroom they were entering. While the movement for full inclusion pulls at the egalitarian heart-strings of many Americans, Including myself, I have serious misgivings.

There are several reasons for disagreement with the policies of full inclusion but this paper will address only one. This cause for disagreement has to do with the way in which implementation of full inclusion policies really carry with them a hidden agenda. This hidden agenda is to force all general education classrooms into using the kind of loosely organized, child-centered, discovery-oriented and ultimately ineffective practices of progressive education.

Often when policies of full inclusion are promoted one hears something about forcing the schools to adopt "fundamental reforms" that the speakers feel are desperately needed. This discussion may also include talk about "success for all" or "eliminating failure". The advocates usually seem very enthusiastic about the policy of full inclusion because it will necessitate certain instructional methods. Some advocates of full inclusion clearly articulate that the presence of all students with disabilities in regular classes will force an end to the type of traditional instructional practices they oppose.

"As long as placement options other than the regular classroom exists, educators won't have to restructure general education to accommodate all children...children who challenge the system are simply removed from it, so the system itself doesn't have to change...The belief that certain children can't be included in the regular classroom is based on the false assumption of lockstep instruction..." (Sapon-Shevin as quoted in Willis, 1994)

If the schools are to restructure themselves to deal with full inclusion, what will these restructured schools look like? Those who have been following the discussions of school "reform" can anticipate the details of the new schooling.

"The schools that most readily adopt the concept of inclusion are generally those that already embrace instructional practices which are designed to provide challenging learning enviroments to children with very diverse learning characteristics. Such practices include heterogeneous grouping, peer tutoring, multi-age classes, middle school structures, "no-cut" athletic policies, cooperative learning, and development of school media centers which stimulate students' electronic access to extensive databases for their own research." (Rogers, 1993, p.4)

"If teachers design a rich set of activities around a topic, they shouldn't have trouble selecting which are appropriate for different learners, whether they're gifted, ESL, or have cerebral palsy...Inclusive instruction is hands-on, participatory, active, and cooperative...Innovations such as whole language, authentic assessment, and critical thinking are part and parcel of inclusion." (Sapon-Shevin as quoted in Willis, 1994)

Because there is such an unbelieveable diversity there can only be a large number of individuals and small groups working without any direct assistance or supervision. The full inclusion classroom would include such a wide range of abilities that teacher-led, whole-group instruction would simply be impossible. It is likely that teacher-led, small group instruction would not be possible either, given enough diversity in the classroom. Not only must the teacher deal with students who have not yet learned to read, but also with students who have not yet learned to speak. The cooperative groups and peer tutoring are a necessity because the students with average academic abilities must fill the role of teacher for the students with lower ability.

The advocates of full inclusion have the hidden agenda of promoting the adoption of progressive education practices. In the progressive education or full inclusion classroom everyone is exposed to a "rich set of activities," and each student does what he or she can do, or what he or she wishes to do and learns whatever comes from that experience. This is discovery learning and as parents you may be aware that students do not always push themselves as well as they might.

You can see the progressive education model in full flower in the new participatory hands-on science museums. If you think this works to teach students well, go along with a group of students to such a museum. If you watch closely you will see that the students who are less capable play with things but don't read or pay attention long enough to understand what they are doing. And even the above average students will be unable to explain much of what they "learned" after they emerge from the museum. Finally the brightest students will be able to explain some of what they learned, but the likelihood is that you could have directly taught the same information to those students in a few minutes with a slide projector and without taking the whole afternoon at the science museum!

Advocates also mention multi-age grouping as a reform that can help deal with full inclusion. Unfortunately this is not multi-age grouping for the right purposes, according to a review of all the studies on the effect of non-graded and multi-age grouping.

"The article concludes that non-graded organization can have a positive impact on student achievement if cross-age grouping is used to allow the teacher to provide more direct instruction to students but not if it is used as a framework for individualized instruction." (Gutierrez & Slavin, 1992, p.333)

The experiments prove that achievement is not helped if multi-age grouping is used to allow students to pursue their own ends or to let everyone work individually. Full inclusion advocates want precisely this kind of enviroment and wish to eliminate direct instruction of homogeneous groups of students, which they consider "lockstep" instruction. By supporting full inclusion all the time, advocates hope to make it impossible to do direct instruction anymore. This will have a negative effect on achievement of all students.

There are several reasons for opposing a policy of full inclusion even though that policy sounds like the "right thing to do" on first hearing. As has been stated earlier, one reason is because full inclusion of an extremely wide range of abilities into general education classrooms makes direct, systematic instruction nearly impossible. In addition, once full inclusion is implemented, teachers are forced to change their teaching methods to more child-directed, discovery-oriented, project-based learning activities in which every student works at his or her own pace. This has never produced high levels of achievement anywhere it has been tried. (Return to Topics Overview)


Dr. Crawford is a professor of special education at UW-Eau Claire
References: Gutierrez and Slavin, (1992). Achievement Effects of the Non-Graded Elementary School: A Best Evidence Synthesis. Review of Education Research, 62 (4), pp.333-376; Rogers, J. (1993, May). The Inclusion Revolution. (Research Bulletin No.11). Bloomington, IN: Center for Evaluation, Development, and Research of Phi Delta Kappa; Willis, S. (1994, October). Making Schools More Inclusive: Teaching Children with Disabilities in Regular Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD Curriculum Update


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