Everyone remembers kindergarten: the days of finger-painting, singing the alphabet, and having an excuse to put unidentifiable objects in their nose. As the grades got higher, the memories of finger-painting morph into studying, songs turn into taking notes, and finally our nasal passages are clear. The memories of kindergarten are common and universal; everyone can bring themselves back to that classroom. But the consensus ideas of middle school and high school is much more blurred, unique to every student, and the great contributing factor to the educational experience in these levels is the “track” system used across the country. From day one, students are place on a general education track or a special education track which determines what classes they take, what friends they make, and how much help they receive.
In recent trends in American educational systems, these two tracks have slowly been merging, a trend known as mainstreaming or inclusive education. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 1994, 48% of persons with special needs received “educational services” within regular classrooms. In 2000, that number jumped to 70%, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But as these paths cross, the educators, parents, and children involved have had differing opinions on the implication of these tactics, and even if mainstreaming has a place in American schools.
Supporters of inclusive classrooms have a multitude of studies and experiences to back their opinion because this topic has been under such scrutiny in the recent past. Mainstreaming is the educational idea that a child with special needs should be placed into a regular classroom as much as possible and a special education classroom as little as possible, making the student part of the community and less isolated. Obviously, these plans depend on each case because of the support needed, but each plan is based on an unrestrictive theory: that the child should be restricted from normal interactions as little as possible.
The main support for mainstreaming is from a social aspect. By placing a student with special needs into a regular classroom, they are able to learn, develop friendships with, and model themselves after students without disabilities. Not only does this foster their social needs, but it also teaches them proper social behavior. Inclusive education “involves children ‘belonging, being valued, and having choices’” in the eyes of supporters. Students benefit because of the academic standard that is set amongst the integrated classroom, and academically improve quickly. Not only do the children with special needs benefit, but the general education students learn that kids with special needs are part of the educational community as well, and do not deserve to be treated differently.
Some find that the disadvantages of mainstreaming are too big a hindrance to both parties involved. Those who believe that separate classrooms are better for children with special needs feel that they cause a distraction to the other kids, and in some cases, prohibit the teacher from doing their job. Mainstreaming also requires more staff training and knowledge of special education techniques, and it takes valuable time and resources to bring a school district up to standards. Parents of general education kids usually worry that inclusion will lower education standards of the classroom.
Because this topic has been in the limelight recently, there have been multiple advancing studies as well as government adaptations. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendment (IDEA) passed in 1997, requiring children with disabilities to be taught with their peers “in the least restrictive environment as possible.” After integration, Zigmond and Baker found that teachers’ behavior did not change after the addition of special needs kids to a classroom, and the behavior of nonhandicapped students actually improved. Such studies are not rare, like this one from the National Center for Special Education Research, this one by Sharon Lynch showing evidence in the science department, and this one by John Wallace, and support those who believe integrating America’s classrooms would have a serious benefit to the country’s students. As a matter of fact, these studies have been taking place across the world: Ghana, Macao, and Bangkok. According to Cook, teachers’ attitudes towards inclusion is directly related to the effectiveness of their methods, and currently, teachers’ attitudes have never been higher. All of this hard evidence points to an urgent matter that, if implemented correctly, could seriously alter the productivity and quality of education in our nation.
In the news recently, there has been an explosion of mainstreaming in suburban public schools, such as Abington Heights Middle School in Pennsylvania. Over the past two years they have seen an exponential growth in the number of children with autism that they are catering to. In Pennsylvania, about half of the autistic kids in the state spend around 40% of their time in regular classrooms, and the program is receiving funding to accelerate their techniques. Earlier this month, Tom Freston, a former Viacom Executive, began a legal fight against the New York City. The issue currently in question is “Must parents of special-education students give public schools a chance before having taxpayers reimburse them for private-school tuition?” The result of the case will have a serious implication on the funding that the government gives to education, and the mainstreaming effort will be directly impacted. And just a few days ago, a newspaper highlighted the actions of a teacher living in Arkansas who testified against her school district in order to support a young girl. Grace Blagdon was advocating for Sydney Taylor, a little girl with down syndrome. Grace’s testimony said that any disabled child with supportive parents and a qualified aide had the ability to be mainstreamed.
The implications for mainstreaming in any school are tremendous, affecting not only the kids with special needs, but everyone in the building. By manipulating the way that this group of children learn, schools are beginning to see changes in academic and social relationships between students and adults. In this study by Gary Siperstein, the attitudes of general education students towards mainstreaming was quantified, and brought interesting feelings up front. Across the nation, the study found that students perceive their peers with disabilities as much more impaired than they truly are. The consensus was that disabled students could participate in “nonacademic classes” but not academic classes. The study also found that most kids feel mixed emotions towards mainstreaming, finding both positive and negative aspects, but would not like to interact with their disabled peers, especially outside of an academic setting.
This mixed idea towards mainstreaming from children implies that there is an even larger confusion for administrators and parents, which is evident in the debate that has formed around the issue. But with attitudes and hard data presenting conflicting evidence, it leaves the fate of children with special needs in question. By mainstreaming in American schools there may be sacrifice on the part of teachers, students, and parents, but, from our best current knowledge, there will also be enormous gain on everyone’s behalf.