Open Season On Inclusionary Education

I will never forget squeezing my wife’s hand under the conference table, her eyes teared in elation, when Ellie’s school agreed to educate her in an inclusive Kindergarten classroom. It was an opportunity — actually a legal right — that far too many students like Ellie are deprived.

Nearly six (6) million students in the U.S. have a disability, according to the U.S. Department of Education (DoEd). Each of those students has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a bespoke plan authored by the school district with input from the student’s teachers, therapists and parents that documents the student’s annual goals and governs how and in what setting the student is educated. Placement is critical because it dictates if a student will be educated in an inclusive basis with non-disabled students which research has shown can benefit all students.

Each spring (a/k/a “IEP Season”), millions of parents attend meetings to develop an IEP on their child’s behalf. The process involves reviewing stacks of assessments that document all that is different about their child and benchmark his/her progress against typically developing peers. An emotionally charged annual review where the desired placement one year provides no guarantee for the next.

Ellie, my eight year old daughter, has Trisomy 21, or Down syndrome. Down syndrome is the most common chromosomal condition, affecting more than 400,000 Americans, according to the National Down Syndrome Society, and is associated with delayed cognitive ability and physical growth.

Decades of research has proven that inclusive education substantially increases academic performance and the rate of employment for individuals with Intellectual Disabilities. For example, Ellie benefits from modelling speech and behavior patterns after her typically developing peers and is challenged by the elevated expectations of a general education class. Case in point, Ellie is reading at a grade appropriate level and meeting many milestones, though not without challenges. And beyond quantitative measures, Ellie is excited to go to school and is engaged in learning. Attending school with her two typically developing brothers validates her place in our community.

Interestingly, research suggests that the benefits of inclusion extend to typically developing classmates. The presence of a classmate with an Intellectual Disability fosters empathy, tolerance and patience. These virtues are fundamental to developing “emotional intelligence,” a concept revered by educators, parenting gurus, and business leaders alike. And given no evidence exists that inclusion adversely affects typically developing students, inclusion provides an enriched environment for all students.

Furthermore, the benefits of inclusion extend to adults as well. A recent study by McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm, found that the presence of employees with Down syndrome in the workplace can improve “organizational health,” a measure positively correlated with financial performance. Survey respondents indicated that working with individuals with Down syndrome made them better equipped to handle diversity and manage conflict.

Ellie is enrolled in an inclusive classroom at our public elementary school. While the term “inclusion” is not formally defined by the DoEd, it is generally accepted to mean an education approach by which all students are educated for at least 80% of the school day in a general education classroom. Ellie is separated from her classmates only for speech and related therapy sessions and is supported by a teacher’s assistant who tethers her to the pace of the curriculum.

Sadly, Ellie’s positive educational experience contrasts the national norm. According to data from the DoEd, only 17% of the 400,000+ students with an “Intellectual Disability” were educated in an inclusive setting during the 2014–2015 academic year. That statistic varies considerably across state lines, with New York at merely 6% whereas neighboring Connecticut is at 36%, a rate six times greater. And our Nation’s Capital does not lead by example at a rate of 9% with all neighboring states scoring below average. Moreover, these statistics have stagnated for years, reflecting limited improvement, rather than recent anomaly.

To be clear, inclusive education is not appropriate for all students. Some students benefit from specialized resources or can be disruptive in a general education setting. However, the relatively low frequency and inconsistent application of inclusionary practices nationwide contradicts the well documented benefits of inclusive education and Federal law.

A key principle of decades old Federal law, called Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), states, “To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities are educated with children who are not disabled, and that their removal from general education occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactory.” In short, LRE means that special education is intended to be a ‘service’, not a ‘destination’. And it means the school bears the burden to prove that a student cannot be satisfactory educated in a general education setting before denying that placement. Parents, however, often perceive the inverse, that the onus is on them to prove that their child belongs in a general education classroom.

I’ve consulted former senior administrators of the DoEd to understand why the rate of inclusive education is so low. A confluence of factors are cited but the most significant reason is “attitudinal.” School administrators, while typically well-meaning and subscribers to the LRE principle, sometimes ‘just don’t see’ how inclusion is appropriate for the student at hand. And that student’s parents may not be fluent on the benefits of inclusion or their legal protections. The inherent subjectivity of student assessments and placement recommendations coupled with the information asymmetry tilted toward school administrators enables this subtle discrimination.

My hope for this “IEP season” is to recognize and address the “attitudinal” deficits of our educational system and make “inclusion” a priority, rather than an often ignored obligation. For our teachers and administrators to focus on their students’ abilities, rather than disabilities, to think creatively about enabling support services, and to bet on their students rising to the opportunity. To belong. Missed opportunity for inclusion diminishes the education opportunity for students, not merely those branded as “special.” The stakes are high. And yes, this does affect their ‘permanent record.’