The Illusion of Inclusion: How We Are Failing Students with Learning Disabilities

We are now in an era where many schools endorse and embrace the goal of full inclusion for students with disabilities. And undoubtedly, inclusion is key to obtaining educational and social equity.
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The education world is abuzz trying to make sense of disheartening findings that, since 2013, scores in reading and math have gone down or remained stagnant across fourth and eighth grades. What we aren't talking about, however, is the performance of students with disabilities, who continue to lack proficiency at astounding rates.

"It's OK to say dyslexia!" U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tweeted shortly before his agency released guidance targeting the needs of the 2.5 million students with a learning disability. But while the government highlights the unique needs of students with learning disabilities, they are seemingly getting lost in misguided policies and practices in the name of educational equity.

Access to equal educational opportunities for students with disabilities has been a hard-won battle. In 1975, President Ford signed the first comprehensive federal law acknowledging the educational rights of students with disabilities. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, since amended and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, was the result of years of advocacy that highlighted the inadequate (or nonexistent) services for millions of students with special needs.

Forty years later, we are losing sight of where we started.

We are now in an era where many schools endorse and embrace the goal of full inclusion for students with disabilities. And undoubtedly, inclusion is key to obtaining educational and social equity.

Unfortunately, inclusion is often falsely translated to mean the "place" where teaching and learning occurs, stemming from the ideological belief all students should be educated in the general education classroom--that instruction provided outside of this setting is akin to segregation. While general education can and should be strengthened to better meet the needs of all students, for many students these practices alone are not enough.

Students with learning disabilities are bright and capable but have seemingly unexplained and significant challenges with specific academic skills (reading, writing, math, or a combination). These difficulties are brain-based, not related to the home environment, student motivation or attitude, or other developmental delays. For this group of kids, who represent more than 40 percent of students receiving special education services, school can quickly become a frustrating place.


These students need something more, and reducing their access to specialized services is educational inequity hiding under a shroud of blind ideology. Inclusion need not be exclusive of students receiving instruction from professionals who have specialized knowledge on teaching methods that meet their unique learning needs.

While the Department of Education has emphasized our responsibility to help students with learning disabilities reach their full potential, we know these students experience one of the highest dropout rates (19 percent) among all students with disabilities. More discouragingly, national data have shown that students with learning disabilities have high rates of school disciplinary problems, criminal activity, and unemployment or underemployment as young adults. According to the Nation's Report Card, only 12 percent of fourth graders with disabilities are performing at a level of proficiency in reading, and only 16 percent in mathematics. These outcomes should make it clear the struggle for educational equity for all students is a story still unfolding.

It is true the goal of full inclusion has always been educational equity. But many schools insist "inclusion" is defined by placement in the general education classroom and, as such, students lose access to supplemental instruction that takes place in a resource setting. More concerning, even while this approach has resulted in less than hopeful results, special education services are being diminished.

To be academically successful, more than three decades of research tells us students with learning disabilities require explicit and intensive instruction targeted to meet their specific learning needs. The general education teacher has neither the training nor the flexible time to provide this type of instruction. By training, they are exceptionally good at providing instruction across the content areas, organizing curriculum and guiding classroom learning. But they do not have specialized knowledge about processes involved in the development of reading or mathematics skills that would allow for the type of explicit, diagnostic and responsive teaching required by students with persistent learning challenges.

Why can't special education and general education teachers work together to provide this instruction? They can. Co-teaching and collaboration can increase the success of all students. However, the supplemental instruction required by students with learning disabilities needs to be delivered in smaller group sizes. Many schools have moved toward "push-in" model where these students receive interventions in small group within the general education classroom. This has resulted in little success.

But this is where we have arrived. Limiting access to appropriate instruction to maintain the illusion of inclusion.

One should not misinterpret the demand for specialized instruction as dismissive of the critical importance of inclusive schooling. Nor should one assume that the time spent receiving this instruction will diminish students' access to core curriculum; on the contrary, several hours of explicit, intensive instruction each week may mean that a student is attaining foundational skills (such as reading text) that not only make it more likely to benefit from the core curriculum, but also provides a greater chance for long-term school success.

Are we denying students simply because of a misguided belief remedial instruction or learning in a resource room is incongruent with inclusive practices? Are we stuck in an ideological disagreement about what educational equity truly is? Maybe what is really "special" about special education is we had to fight to get here, and we refuse to remain quiet when our students are left behind.

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