By David Riley
November 28, 2006
News stories appear daily about the state of our schools and their failure to meet the needs of our children. The nation’s education agenda is a constant source of debate usually focused on how to best educate students, what they should be learning and when, and how we will know if they’ve learned it. But in at least one area, our schools and classrooms have made progress and can be shown to be doing remarkably well: we are now including more children in the nation’s academic agenda than ever before.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires all public schools to offer a free public education to all eligible children with disabilities and these children have the right, by law, to be educated in the least restrictive environment appropriate for their needs. In the past 20 years, in part due to IDEA, and because of the hard work of schools and communities, children once isolated and marginalized are now thriving, productive members of a larger school community. Children who were routinely denied educational opportunities are now discovering, exploring and, most importantly, achieving.
In the 2003–04 school year, about half of all U.S. students with disabilities participated in regular classrooms for nearly all of the school day. Between 1994 and 2004, the percentage of students increased by five percent. In Massachusetts, many districts are putting a great deal of energy into serving students—including those with complex special education needs—in the general classroom. In each of the past five years, those numbers have increased. Nationally and here in the Commonwealth, we are moving in the right direction.
Schools in Natick, Needham, and throughout MetroWest also report progress.
In Newton, every school has an inclusion facilitator, trained in moderate and severe disabilities who works with classroom teachers and aides to provide full access to the curriculum for all students. In grades 2–12, students with language-based learning disabilities are in the general classroom staffed with both a general and special education teacher, resulting in significant academic gains for these students. Kids with complicated disabilities are also included. A 5th grader with cerebral palsy who uses a motorized wheelchair and special technology, participates with her classmates in the general classroom. She’s passing MCAS state assessment tests.
In Framingham, the district has been committed to inclusive practices for 15 years. Special education students have become valued members of the school community and schools throughout the district emphasize the benefits to families who feel a sense of belonging to school.
Many see positive changes in every-day events. The English teacher who describes a student with learning disabilities as a kid who writes great stories using that special computer program. The custodian who asks a deaf student to teach him how to sign “have a good day.”
Schools that make progress have made a shift in thinking and have begun to look at students and the curriculum in a new light. Research has consistently shown that including all students does not mean “scaling down” the curriculum. It means offering a variety of opportunities for all children to succeed. Discussion, hands-on learning, and inquiry-based projects are all examples of inclusive teaching that have, again and again, been shown to improve academic achievement for all students.
This week is National Inclusive Schools Week, a time to recognize that being inclusive is not about being politically correct. It is about making sure that our educational system works for all students including minorities, students of low socio-economic status, students just learning English, and students with disabilities. We need to tear down the barriers that divide us on the subject of including more children in the school classroom. But while we all know that there is so much more to do to, let’s take a moment to applaud the progress made toward building more inclusive school communities and pledge to share these successes, so we can realize academic success for all of our students.