Cheryl M. Jorgensen, Ph.D., is a member of the affiliate faculty with the National Center on Inclusive Education at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire. In 2008 she received the National Down Syndrome Congress Education Award for her leadership and pioneering research supporting the inclusion of students with Down syndrome. She has written this open letter to Shael Polakow-Suransky, the chief academic officer for New York City schools.
It’s time to restructure all of our schools to become inclusive of all of our children.
We have reached the tipping point where it is no longer educationally or morally defensible to continue to segregate students with disabilities. We shouldn’t be striving to educate children in the least restrictive environment but rather in the most inclusive one.
Inclusion is founded on social justice principles in which all students are presumed competent and welcomed as valued members of all general education classes and extra-curricular activities in their local schools — participating and learning alongside their same-age peers in general education instruction based on the general curriculum, and experiencing meaningful social relationships.
We know inclusion works. In the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 2004 Congress found: “Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities."
The largest study of educational outcomes of 11,000 students with disabilities, the National Longitudinal Transition Study, showed that when students with disabilities spent more time in a general education classroom they were more likely to score higher on standardized tests of reading and math; have fewer absences from school; experience fewer referrals for disruptive behavior; and achieve more positive post-school outcomes such as a paying job, not living in segregated housing, and with having a broad and supportive social network. These results were true regardless of students’ disability, severity of disability, gender or socioeconomic status.
Furthermore, as the recent WNYC story states, the achievement of students without disabilities is not compromised by the presence of students with disabilities in their classrooms. Some studies even show that implementing inclusion on a school wide basis improves achievement for all students.
And just as important as academic outcomes are the attitudes and values that all students learn when they are educated together.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network says, “How children are treated in schools often mirrors how they will be treated in later life. As with other minorities, segregated school placements lead to a segregated society, whereas inclusion in the earliest years promotes increased opportunity and greater understanding of differences for all involved. A society that separates its children [during their school years] is likely to maintain those separations indefinitely, reinforcing attitudinal barriers to disability in all aspects of life.”
Not only do we know inclusion works, we know how to make it work.There are resources for teachers and administrators from large, urban schools on how to implement inclusive education. You can find hundreds of books, research articles, guidelines for inclusive practice, testimonials from students with and without disabilities, teaching strategies, and strategies for designing instruction and assessment for all learners to help guide you and your teachers.
The city's Department of Education has been screening videos like "Including Samuel" for staff members as part of its special education reform.
Every single barrier you can think of has been addressed by others, and that knowledge is there for the taking.
Imagine what you could do for the children in the 1,700 New York City schools if the resources you are currently spending on out-of-district placements and separate special education schools and classrooms were allocated to create well-supported inclusive classrooms. It’s the right thing to do and it works for all students.