Putting Education Reform To The Test

Why Everyone Learns More When Students With Disabilities Are Included

Syracuse University

Julie Causton-Theoharis has researched the effects of inclusion on students with disabilities and those without. Research shows both benefit from being in the classroom toghether, she said.

More than 86 percent of charter schools do not enroll a single student with severe disabilities, according to a StateImpact Florida investigation.

School district data shows that students with disabilities are often clustered into a small number of specialty charter schools. Meanwhile, most charter schools enroll very few students with profound disabilities — if any at all.

Charter school advocates note that schools specializing in disabilities are opening across the state. Many readers responded with a shrug: “So what?,” they asked.

Researchers say those enrollment patterns matter because evidence shows both students with disabilities and students without disabilities learn more when placed in the classroom together.

“I think for a long time people thought inclusion was a good idea because it’s a social justice issue; because it’s really an educational right of all students to have access to the general ed content.” Julie Causton-Theoharis, an education professor at the University of Syracuse.

“But right now we’re pretty excited by the academic achievement gains of students with disabilities in inclusive settings. The other piece that’s a little surprising is the academic gains by students without disabilities.”

Those sentiments are echoed by Sandra Robinson, dean of the school of education at the University of Central Florida. Robinson recommended her granddaughter enroll in an elementary charter school operated by United Cerebral Palsy that serves a 60-40 mix of students with disabilities and without.

The school allows teachers in training to experience the classrooms of the future, Robinson said.

Critics of inclusion argue it is less cost-effective to educate students with disabilities and those without together. Schools which can concentrate in a disability reduce the need to hire outside specialists for therapy and other services.

Teachers have often opposed the idea, including the American Federation of Teachers in the 1990s. The British architect of inclusion once said the policy had a “a disastrous legacy.”

A common public perception — read the comments to our original story on NPR.org — is that students with disabilities are a distraction to teachers and classmates.

But advocates argue the extra resources spent to make classrooms inclusive pays dividends.

Often the classroom will have a general education teacher and a special education teacher. Those teachers will collaborate on lesson plans to make sure it’s tailored for every student in the classroom.

That is the case at UCP’s Orange County charters, where school leaders believe two teachers are better than one.

“Because you’ve got these two teachers teaching together and planning together they end up creating lessons that are far more differentiated, far more inclusive, often far more creative,” Causton-Theoharis said. “And all the students benefit from those resources being provided in the general education classroom.”

Causton-Theoharis often works with what she calls segregated schools to help them become more inclusive. She said schools are often reluctant to change at first.

“I think there is a lot of resistance and fear to inclusion. There’s always a vocal minority who says ‘This isn’t right; this shouldn’t be happening; these kids need to be separate,’” she said. “What we find after three years of working with a school is sometime those resistors are the ones that end up to be the biggest proponents of inclusion at the end.

“I have spent hundreds of hours in segregated classrooms,” she said. “I have yet to see a segregated classroom that is better than the general education setting.”


  • Shiri

    Thank you for this article. My son is an inclusive private school and everyone in the classroom benefits from it. He has Autism, and for the first time he is being social with other children, and is being challenged to do Kindergarden level academics, and is now reading and writing and doing math. The typical children in the class are educated on how to “help” him and include him in games, and he has really progressed socially because of it. The “typical” children learn how to be “teacher’s” and leaders and how to be tolerant of others with special needs. They are not afraid to be kind and accepting of children who are different, because they are educated about it and it is expected of them. These kids will have such an advanced understanding of social relationships and respect towards others. And my son gets to have friends. Everyone wins!

  • Theresa

    Great article!  We have had a very good experience with included classrooms also.  My daughter has Down syndrome and is in 2nd grade.  She has been included in the gen ed classroom since Kindergarten.   We have found that she blossoms and learns so much more in a school where inclusion is embraced rather than one where it is tolerated.  We are thankful for the administrators, teachers and classmates  in her current school who accept and encourage her to acheive.  She feels that acceptance, has excelled and loves school!

  • goodcitizen

    Great to see this article, as the pendulum swings. Even some school districts in Colorado, an “inclusion” state since the 1980′s have buckled under pressure and disinformation, and have begun to reinstitute segregated classes and even schools. As a National Board Certified Exceptional Needs Specialist, I can testify from experience that all children, even those without labeled disabilities are exceptional; and that when teachers get the resources available in the inclusion model (paraprofessional support, co-teachers, curriculum modification specialists, advice and consultation on how to maximize learning for ALL kids, then all kids learn better. Additionally, ALL kids learn through the inclusion model, critical social skills that they cannot learn in a segregated model. They learn that everyone is individual and brings gifts to the table of learning, that teamwork and collaboration, support and acceptance work better than bullying, mocking, seeing others as “different”, that a world view that promotes tolerance and diversity is more effective in a global world and in the workplace, that leadership means caring for all and maximizing each learner’s contribution to the group, small or large. Why can’t educators see this reality? It can only be obtained through experiential learning, so just do it!! Inclusion works!!

  • while this may sound great in the abstract, its utter nonsense, at least in upper grades where complex subject matter is being taught.  think of a class in trigonometry or pre-calculus in 2nd of 3rd year of high school.  can you really imagine a kid who has downs syndrome?  again, feelgood nonsense.  there may be areas where these kids can be intergrated, but for the higher achieving kids these would be dead weight.

    • Saul

      I totally agree.In lower grade levels,probably 7′th and below,inclusion might not be a bad thing…..But in higher grade levels,it doesn’t serve any great advancement to special needs children,and  holds back other children………..

    • Etymophile

      Not every student takes trigonometry or pre-calculus so it is presumptive to assume that special needs students would be considered for these classes.There are plenty of classes that these students can participate in — science, basic math, for example — and have success.

    • Airished67

      would a kid with downs syndrome really make it into a trig class? come on, who is the retard here…  Just another person who doesnt understands a simple life lesson.

  • Td Sbstn

    I was in High School in the north suburbs of the north side of Chicago in the 70′s. Special students were included in all out classes. Everything from epilepsy to severely mentally and physically handicapped. They had their special ed classes and also mixed in with ours.

    I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. I learned to not be “intimidated” by the handicapped and saw the class “tough guys” helping the less fortunate and even protecting them from stupid billies that would pick on anyone weaker than themselves.

    In the “real world” we have to deal with all types of people. And I’ve seen countless times people that were not exposed to the unfortunate among us be totally intimidated by them. I feel my life is so much better because of my experience growing up around them gave me a comfort zone when I’m in situations with special needs people. 

    Education is supposed to prepare us for life. Which includes dealing with all types of different people. It’s a part of growing and learning. And I’m glad and proud of what I learned from not being sheltered from those of us that are different and have different needs.

    • special needs mom

      What a wonderful and inspiring response. My son has special needs and each day we struggle with severe looks and stares. If more people like you existed the lives of special needs families would be a little less stressful. My son has his differences – we all do – but he has taught us an others some life long lessons! Thank you for such sharing your experience.

  • comment

    Although I can see the mentioned benefits for those with mental and physical problems, what about the impact on the education of the whole?  Classes used to be divided by intellegence (high, med, low classes) and taught to the level.  Now, all are together and teachers have to teach to the lowest common denominator.  Note that in the last 40 years, this has led to a complete breakdown of education (except at the highest private school levels), where Americans are failing to teach children for high income, creative careers.  We are left with what can’t be moved (car repair, teaching, fast food, etc.) and what is becoming cheaper here than elsewhere (call centers).  Technical, thought requiring jobs are moved to other countries (India, China, Eastern Europe).  Perhaps if the focus was education, rather than being “nice” to all, the US would stand a chance in the future.

    • Tatyana

      what’s the last time you’ve been inside a school, private or public? not everyone takes the same level classes. in many schools, there are AP (advanced placement) classes, honors classes, “gifted” classes, and a lot of variety in general in everything from math, to science, English, foreign languages, etc. Our education system in the US is not great by any means and in poorer areas, education is severely underfunded, but it’s still not as bad as you put it. I graduated from a public school in the Chicago suburbs 8 years ago, and my school had a wide variety of classes. Many many children across the country have had these opportunities, in public and in private schools, although unfortunately not all. Education is surely not “nice” to all in this country, as you put it, but definitely not for the reasons you think. We need to fund education better, and teachers who are respected and well-paid will do their job of teaching and challenging children, like they already do in many schools across the country. 

  • Anonymous

    Like most good ideas and mandates, the concept of inclusion is only as good as the people who implement it. As a substitute paraprofessional in a public school system where I work primarily with students with disabilities, I have witnessed the gamut of experiences while in the “main” classroom with my students. In general I find that the other students are helpful, compassionate and quite comfortable interacting with a student with special needs. Teachers, however, vary greatly in their approach and attitude to having a kid with special needs in their classroom. It is surprising how many of my students are ignored or hustled out of the classroom as quickly as possible and encouraged to return to the resource room. I am also unsure exactly how much cooperative planning takes place between the special ed teachers and the regular teachers. I have yet to see any side by side teaching.I am certain that this is a matter of training and communication. Let’s not throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. Let’s continue to try to implement inclusion  so the reality meets the ideal. EVERYWHERE.

  • Djlauter

    As a high school teacher in California, I feel that this is really just an opinion piece without any convincing evidence that inclusion is better.  True, two teachers with a small to average class size are better than one.  Obviously a proper study would require the same amount of resources for classes with inclusion and without inclusion.  As for my opinion,  having 5 to 7 students with special needs in a class of 35 students does cause a lowering of standards for too many students.  There are many good reasons to have inclusion, but not when class size is over 25.  I also am convinced that many students benefit from honors and accelerated classes in high school.

    • Airished67

      Do you every have 5 to 7 students with special needs in a class with 35? I really doubt that! And having 35 students is close to unlawful anyway.

      And i hope your convinced that manny students benefit from honors and accelerted classes as much as being around disabled students. That is a lesson kids learn by seeing. 

  • Johnny4987

    Some years ago I saw a documentary about a developmentally disabled child being included in a classroom.  The child could not control himself, he would throw himself on the floor and scream in class.  But the lesson learned was: both the child and his classmates learned MORE by his presence. 

    From my point of view, the entire class wasted it’s time when distracted by the child.  Although the film maker tried to convince you otherwise, those children weren’t learning.  They missed their shot at learning the basics of English, history, math, science.  They will never make up that time.

    I didn’t send my kids to school so they could learn about social justice.  I sent them to learn English, science, math etc.  If you told me all the kids were now going to learn some kind of life lesson that’s currently in vogue, I would enroll my kids in a private school and look for a state where education is a little more dated.  I would do everything I could to avoid the expense of teaching other people’s kids to “prepare for life”. 

    Education is an extremely expensive undertaking and I want a return on my investment.  Note to paraD1951 – When you make the reality conform to the ideal EVERYWHERE please leave me an “out”.  I don’t want to be forced to pay for your fantasies – just  basic education for every American child.

    • Airished67

      your out… home school or private tutors.
       You send your kids to school for math english science…. Is that everything? We dont teach everything in school. Laws, banking, ect.
      If your child just happens to have a child with a obvious disability and you end up loving that child. Trust me you will be happy that schools have included disabled children. Because people wont look at you as some kind of freak when your in public with that child . They will be used to it.  btw your disabled days are comming. you wont be healty forever. You better hope kids learn more then your science  and math.

  • alexandria

    do special needs children who are in a public school benefit from being in a regular class room for at least a period of time in it?

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