Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Differentiation has become the catch phrase in education today. Perhaps, the word has become so ubiquitous in the educational world because of the ever- increasing move towards classrooms that are inclusive. Since the early inception of education in the United States there has been great debate concerning how to best group students. Questions have arisen as to whether students should be grouped according to ability, or whether cohorts should be grouped together regardless of ability. In 1867, many educators had decided that the best decision would be to group students according to their ability (Shields, 2002). In later parlance, the practice of grouping students together according to skills and abilities became known as “tracking.”

However, over the years the separation of students according to their abilities began to display severe and alarming pitfalls. First, the education received by those in “gifted” programs was so superior to those students received in “regular” programs that many began to question the efficacy and democracy of a system that was separate, but in many cases not equal. According to research done by Shields (2002), authors on the subject of inclusion would argue that “ability grouping goes against our democratic ideals by creating academic elites,” the arguments against ability grouping were thus centered on moral and ethical implications. In later years, the arguments for inclusion would be catapulted by reforms in special education.

In the mid to late 1970s, advocates of students with special needs began to demand more rights for students with mental and physical disabilities (Fisher, Frey, Roach, 2000). Often, it was argued that these students would be more successful in a least restrictive environment (LRE), or one in which students with special needs would be placed into the general education setting while receiving certain modifications to their instruction. It was said that these students were often relegated to the basements or sequestered to classrooms that were out of sight, and often out of mind. Instead of receiving an education that challenged these students while accommodating their unique needs, they received an education that was watered down and contributed to a regression in performance (Fisher et al, 2000, 65). With Public Law 94-142, it became highly recommended that LRE was the instruction of choice for students with disabilities (McLeskey, J., Pacchiano, D.,1994). In the mid 1990s when classrooms moved towards the inclusive model teachers, administrators, researchers, and advocates were under the assumption that the LRE would increase performance for students with disabilities. However, this assumption relied on the premise that in order for inclusion to be successful their needed to be school wide reforms that adapted to these new types of heterogeneous classrooms.

In the following paragraphs there is a discussion about the research and recommendations for successful inclusive classrooms, the challenges that real world contexts pose in implementing the research (based on personal experience and research), and recommendations for the future of special education in the general education setting.

What does it take for an inclusive classroom to be successful?

There have been significant studies demonstrating that heterogeneous classrooms have incredible potential to raise the performance of students with special needs. In a study done by Gartner and Lipsky (1987) it was discovered that special education students who had been grouped heterogeneously scored in the 80th percentile, while those who had been grouped homogenously scored in the 50th percentile. The question for educators and administrators then is what were the structures and practices that contributed to this success? For the most part, special education in the inclusive setting is based on the collaborative team teaching model. In a study done by Trent (1998), collaborative team teaching had the potential to develop significant student gains if certain conditions were present. In the case study offered by Trent (1998) two teachers were followed for three years and their collaborative team teaching relationship was documented in both the practices and attitudes each teacher brought to the table. After recording significant gains in student progress, Trent (1998) notes some key factors that contributed to the success of this particular collaborative team teaching model. The conditions went above and beyond the relationship formed between collaborative partners and delved deeper into school structures, and included “adequate planning time, changes in the organizational structure of schools, and administrative and fiscal support” (Trent, 1998).

What are the challenges that real life classrooms face in implementing successful inclusive classrooms?

As mentioned earlier, the most common form of inclusion classrooms is based on the collaborative team teaching model. This model was conceptualized on the premise that there would be a general and special education teacher in every classroom where students’ individualized education plans mandated it. However, in practice, due to budgetary constraints, there are usually too few special education teachers to be present in the inclusive classroom, leading to a lack of services received by special education students. Additionally, when special education teachers are present there is often a dearth of shared common planning time, where lessons can be created by both the content specialist and modified accordingly by the special education teacher. As a result, the potential benefits stemming from the relationship between the special and general education teacher is rarely realized. The last challenge faced by collaborative team teachers is that even if conditions are optimized as far as planning and collaboration are concerned, class sizes are often too big for even two teachers to reach the needs of all students. This can lead to special education students falling behind, and conversely gifted students becoming stifled.

Is there hope for inclusive classrooms in the real world context? Questions for future research.

According to Fisher et al (2002) it is very hard to “draw conclusions about inclusion because there are very few models to study. There is no single formula that lays out an approach to implementation that is universally followed by schools that adopt an inclusive approach to service delivery.” As a result, much of the practice in schools is ad hoc and very often based on adaptation as opposed to forethought. Additionally, while Trent (1998) noted that special education students have the potential to achieve great gains in inclusive classrooms real life contexts challenge this notion. According to Trent (1998), researchers need to stop offering “cosmetic solutions” and instead “proceed to careful study to identify what works and what can be sustained within the complicated context of schools.”

As a teacher in a school that has a special education population of over twenty percent I have often found it difficult to reconcile my philosophical leaning towards inclusion in the face of the “complicated context” of my school. When I have ten IEP students in one class and they are mandated to have a special education teacher with them at all times of the day, and there is only one special education teacher for each grade, are they really being serviced? The question then becomes, if budget and school structure constraints take away from the spirit of collaborative team teaching, are we really helping or hurting our special education students? Would my students be better off in a homogenous classroom taught by a teacher trained to meet their needs, or in a heterogeneous classroom with students at higher levels and little additional instructional support? If we are to continue to move towards inclusion classrooms based on the collaborative team teaching model, then there are serious implications for budget, school structures, and professional development for teachers. Additionally, as Trent (2008) has noted, research needs to seriously consider the context in which education exists in order for practitioners to find real world applications.

Works Cited:

Fisher, D., Fry, N., Roach, V. (2000) Examining the General Programmatic Benefits of Inclusive Schools. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 6(1), 63-78. Retrieved July 11, 2009, from EBSCOhost database.

Gartner, A., Lipsky, D. K. (1987) Beyond special education: toward a quality system for all students. Harvard Educational Review, 57, 367- 395.

McLeskey, J., Pacchiano, D. (1994). Mainstreaming students with learning disabilities: Are we making progress? Exceptional Children, 60(6), 508. Retrieved July 14, 2009, from Platinum Periodicals.

Shields, C. M. (2002) Comparison Study of Student Attitudes and Perceptions in Homogeneous and Heterogeneous Classrooms. Roeper Review, 24(3),115-120. Retrieved July 12, 2009, from EBSCOhost database.

Trent, S. C. (1998) False starts and other dilemmas of a secondary general education collaborative teacher. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 31(5), 503- 514. Retrieved July 13, 2009, from EBSCOhost database.

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