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What is inclusion?

Students learn, and use their learning, differently. Being different is both a fact and a goal for most of us. Nevertheless, the goal of education should be that all students benefit by becoming important and contributing members of their communities.

Inclusion is an effort to make sure students with disabilities go to school along with their friends and neighbors while also receiving whatever especially designed instruction and support they need to succeed as learners and to achieve to high standards.

Inclusion presents this challenge not just on behalf of students with disabilities, but also on behalf of students who are different in other ways. Different languages and cultures, different homes and family lives, and different interests and ways of learning all need accommodation and adjustments from educators.

The 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) supports inclusive thinking and practices. The new IDEA calls for involving students with disabilities in general education curricula, assessment practices, and classrooms. It encourages general and special education teachers to work together for the benefit of each and every student. The Committee Report that accompanied the new law to Congress explained the legislators’ intent: Inclusion is a philosophy of acceptance and flexibility.

Is inclusion the same as mainstreaming?

No. Inclusion is different from past efforts of mainstreaming and integration. Mainstreaming was an effort to return students in special education classrooms to general education classrooms. Most people assumed that formerly mainstreamed students would be able to generally keep up and fit in.

Some people also argued for moving, or “mainstreaming,” the assistance and support that students had received in separate classrooms to general education classrooms. But for the most part, such specially designed assistance and support stayed in separate classrooms.

Integration first focused on moving students from separate schools to local schools. Usually, they moved to spend most of their time in separate special education classrooms. When this move didn’t result in more frequent interactions between students with and without disabilities, or much difference in learning, integration advocates sought to move students with disabilities into general education classrooms.

But just getting to be in a general education classroom was not sufficient to ensure and improve students’ learning. Teachers needed to arrange their teaching to meet the needs of each student. When they didn’t, students often moved to the edges of the classroom to wait for help from a special educator or assistant. Being on the edge of the classroom usually meant that they did not really participate with everyone else or become members of the class.

The new emphasis on participation in the general education curriculum … is intended to produce attention to the accommodations and adjustments necessary for disabled children to access the general education curriculum and the special services that may be necessary for appropriate participation in particular areas of the curriculum.

U.S. Senate, 1997, p. 17.

Place was not enough. Just making sure students with disabilities got to go to school along with everyone else did not result in more and better learning.

What was missing was learning the important and useful things that would help them contribute to their communities and workplaces. Once teachers did begin to change their teaching to help each student learn, we realized that all students learn better if teaching is tailored to their abilities, interests, and purposes. In fact – tailored to their very own differences.

Inclusive schooling practices embrace the idea that since everyone is an individual, we need to organize schools, teaching, and learning so that each student gets a learning experience that “fits.” Our past separate system of special education taught us that we could provide individual attention when it was needed.

Schools of the future need to ensure that each student receives the individual attention, learning accommodations, and supports that will result in meaningful learning to high standards of achievement. In fact, our schools need to be inclusive schools, using inclusive schooling practices.


Excerpted from: Improving Education: The Promise of Inclusive Schooling. (2000). National Institute for Urban School Improvement, Education Development Center, Inc.

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