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Spring-Summer 2000
Vol. 62, No. 3

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ReView Point
An occasional column of faculty opinion

Opening Our Schools to All

By Linda Ware

Linda Ware

Recent accounts of improved test scores and higher expectations for students with disabilities who are attending public schools are welcome news for educators attempting the reform known as "educational inclusion."

Educational inclusion begins with the belief that all children are entitled to an education in their home schools. In practice, this belief becomes more than access to their neighborhood schools. Inclusion necessitates understanding and undoing the history of exclusion in public education whereby policies and practices have ensured unequal opportunity. For this reason, educational and social inclusion must be considered simultaneously.

Schools have been intentionally structured as two separate systems--general education and special education. Teacher training, curriculum, assessment, funding, and administration reflect this dual structure. However, several unintended consequences emerged from this structure that are key to understanding reform leading to educational and social inclusion.

First, educational opportunity and equity have been applied only to general education, as evidenced by the limited options in special education.

Curriculum, assessment, and instruction in special education are more narrow in scope, and by all measures unequal to that in general education. Not surprisingly, students came to see themselves as less than capable, and so, too, did society. It was easy to believe that "real" problems resided in the students and/or their families rather than in our segregated educational system.

Second, as states reported enrollment figures to the Department of Education, disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic minorities in special education emerged.

These data have proven challenging to isolate from the effects of poverty, limited proficiency in English, and access to equitable education. However, the data serve as clear evidence of educational exclusion.

Third, separate certification requirements reinforced the belief that students with disabilities were the responsibility of some, but not all, teachers. Thus, institutional policy and practices ensured that shared responsibility for America's children was mere rhetoric.

The 1997 Amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act required states to shift accountability to meet state standards and to raise the bar on expectations for students with disabilities.

Now school districts must document their efforts to educate all students to the same standards. Nationwide, districts have begun to report improved test scores for students with disabilities, citing a number of factors such as improved teaching, improved curriculum, access to technology, and increased learning expectations.

Educational-inclusion reform requires both general and special educators to support practice and policy changes.

Students with disabilities are no longer assumed to belong in segregated classrooms, separated from their peers. Rather, they are viewed as belonging to the larger school community in much the same way they belong to the larger community in which they reside. For this reason, neither educational nor social inclusion can be accomplished by schools alone; society, too, must practice explicit inclusive values.

Inclusion reform is under way in over two-thirds of America's school districts. Among the more progressive districts, inclusion is synonymous with social justice, and thus educational and social inclusion are viewed simultaneously.

In these districts, inclusive educational practice pertains to general education reform and the related issues of curriculum, assessment, teacher preparation, and school climate that are needed to insure success for all. Inclusion is not considered a synonym for special education.

The University of Rochester and the Greece (New York) Central School District have initiated a five-year partnership, "Understanding Disability and Transforming Schools."

At the heart of this initiative is the belief that new understandings of disability are key to the success of inclusion.

Greece educators are asking hard questions about the meaning of educational opportunity for all, the meaning of disability, and particularly the meaning of ability. Previously unexamined messages that schools and society send about disability are being challenged by everyday interactions between students and their teachers.

Where once segregated classrooms reinforced cultural perceptions of the disabled as weak, pitiful, dependent, and passive, inclusion has begun to teach us otherwise.

National data indicate that as a consequence of educational inclusion, more than 95 percent of students with disabilities attend schools in regular classroom environments with their nondisabled peers.

These students are learning important lessons about the meaning of ability and attainment as they work with and learn from students with disabilities in ways that many adults have never experienced.

Clearly, America's children are learning an incredible lesson first hand: Educational inclusion is the first step toward social inclusion.

Linda Ware is an assistant professor at the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

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