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What Does the Research Say About Inclusive Education?
by Kathleen Whitbread, Ph.D.

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The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a precursor to legislation protecting the rights of children with disabilities to a public education. In the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren, referring to segregation of children by race, stated:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments…it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity…is a right which must be made available on equal terms. We conclude that in the field of education, the doctrine “separate and equal” has no place (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954).

These same arguments, originally applied to race, have been repeated on behalf of children with disabilities, many of whom continue to be educated separately from their non-disabled peers despite legislation mandating otherwise (U.S. Department of Education, 2003).

There is a strong research base to support the education of children with disabilities alongside their non-disabled peers. Although separate classes, with lower student to teacher ratios, controlled environments, and specially trained staff would seem to offer benefits to a child with a disability, research fails to demonstrate the effectiveness of such programs (Lipsky, 1997; Sailor, 2003).

There is mounting evidence that, other than a smaller class size, "there is little that is special about the special education system," and that the negative effects of separating children with disabilities from their peers far outweigh any benefit to smaller classes (Audette & Algozzine, 1997).

Students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms show academic gains in a number of areas, including improved performance on standardized tests, mastery of IEP goals, grades, on-task behavior and motivation to learn (National Center for Education Restructuring and Inclusion, 1995).

Moreover, placement in inclusive classrooms does not interfere with the academic performance of students without disabilities with respect to the amount of allocated time and engaged instructional time, the rate of interruption to planned activities and students’ achievement on test scores and report card grades (York, Vandercook, MacDonald, Heise-Neff, and Caughey, 1992).

The types of instructional strategies found in inclusive classrooms, including peer tutoring, cooperative learning groups, and differentiated instruction, have been shown to be beneficial to all learners. For example, Slavin, Madden, & Leavy (1984) found that math scores for students with and without disabilities increased by nearly half a grade level as a result of working in cooperative learning groups.

Peer tutoring resulted in significant increases in spelling, social studies and other academic areas for students with and without disabilities (Maheady et al, 1988; Pomerantz et al, 1994). The use of graphic organizers, study guides, and computer accommodations resulted in significantly improved performances on tests and quizzes for students with and without disabilities (Horton, Lovitt, & Berglund, 1990).

In addition, children with intellectual disabilities educated in general education settings have been found to score higher on literacy measures than students educated in segregated settings (Buckley, 2000).

Quality inclusive education doesn’t just happen. Educating children with disabilities in general education settings with access to the general education curriculum requires careful planning and preparation (Deno, 1997; King-Spears, 1997; Scott, Vitale, & Masten, 1998).

Research shows that principals, special education directors, superintendents, teachers, parents and community members must all be involved and invested in the successful outcome of inclusive education (Villa, 1997; Walther-Thomas, 1997). Teachers - both general and special education - must collaborate to create learning strategies and environments that work for all students.

Related service personnel, including speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and school psychologists will be expected to deliver their services in the general education environment rather than in therapy rooms and will need to incorporate their services into the general education curriculum and schedule (Ferguson, Ralph, & Katul, 1998).

Educators must rethink assessment, as No Child Left Behind and IDEA 2004 both call for more extensive evaluation of students’ progress, including the use of standardized assessments.

Research highlights the benefits of efforts on the part of schools to find meaningful and creative ways for parents of children with disabilities to participate and contribute in the school community (Ryndak & Downing, 1996).

The benefits of strong family-school partnerships are well documented in the literature. Student academic achievement is higher when parents are involved; in fact, the higher the level of parent involvement, the higher the level of student achievement (Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Christenson & Sheridan, 2001). Other benefits of strong family-school collaboration include improved student attendance, higher aspirations for postsecondary education and career development (Caplan, et. al., 1997), improved social competence, (Webster-Stratton, 1993) and lower rates of high-risk behavior on the part of adolescents (Resnick et al., 1997).

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) strongly emphasizes the involvement of families at every step of the special education process, from referral to evaluation, to Individualized Education Program (IEP) development, to monitoring progress.

Yet, many parents of students with disabilities are not fully participating members of their child’s IEP Team. Data from the first year of the Special Education Elementary Longitudinal Study (SEELS) funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) as part of the national assessment of the 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 97), showed that:

  • Nearly 90 percent of elementary and middle school students with disabilities had a family member attend their IEP meeting but only two-thirds of parents reported collaborating with school district personnel on the IEP development.
  • Parents of students with specific learning disabilities and speech/language impairment were the least likely to attend IEP meetings or training sessions. Since these two disability categories comprise 70 percent of all students (ages 6-21) served under IDEA, the SEELS study implies that the majority of students with disabilities have the least involved families.
  • Only 25 percent of students had an adult family member who had participated in an informational or training session on understanding their rights and responsibilities under IDEA. Those who attended viewed the meetings as very helpful (49%) or somewhat helpful (44%).

A national survey by Public Agenda, When Its Your Child: A Report on Special Education from the Families Who Use It, revealed that a large majority (70 percent) of the parents surveyed say that too many children with special needs lose out because their parents don't know what's available to them. More than half (55%) said that parents have to find out on their own what services and supports are available. This finding underscores the need to provide more training and information to parents on how the special education process works and their rights under IDEA.

A lack of information about the special education process can lead to conflicts between parents and schools.

In studies of conflict resolution in special education, breakdowns of communication between parents and schools were often caused by “parents not being adequately informed as to what limits are contained in IDEA and school district personnel not being adequately informed about the extent and complexity of the…federal statues and regulations” (Feinberg et al, 2002).

IEP and Inclusion Tips, co-authored with Anne Treimanis, is our attempt to provide parents with tips and strategies for making inclusive education a reality for their children. It is our hope that these tips will prove useful for families as they advocate for their children, and will allow parents to come the IEP table as true and equal partners in the IEP process.


For more information on Inclusion, Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) and Mainstreaming, click here.

About the Author

Kathleen Whitbread is an Assistant Professor and Associate Director of Programs for the University of Connecticut A.J. Pappanikou Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research, and Service.

Dr. Whitbread has over 20 years of experience in designing and managing programs in education and human services. She has collaborated with educators in the former Soviet Union, the Netherlands, Italy, and the United States to increase compliance with educational laws and improve the quality of education for children with disabilities in this country and abroad.

Dr. Whitbread is the editor of The Inclusion Notebook, an award winning, internationally distributed publication of best practices in inclusive education. Kathy is currently conducting research in the area of early literacy for children with intellectual disabilities and conducts preservice and inservice training in inclusive education, positive behavioral supports, person centered planning and parent-professional partnerships.

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