When my oldest daughter started in the Chicago Public Schools some 14 years ago, I was thrilled that our school system celebrated diversity by including physically disabled children in regular classrooms.

When I returned to the public schools as a substitute teacher last year, it didn’t take long for me to observe that mainstreaming, which had started out as such a good idea, had become a serious problem, endangering not only special education children but those in regular education as well—producing disastrously unequal and ineffective results.

As I chatted with teachers, administrators and parents, I learned I wasn’t alone in this view. Worse, few people wanted to talk about the issue out of fear of retaliation by a well-organized lobby of special education advocates.

When I mentioned that I wanted to write an opinion piece on the topic, those with School Board experience asked me, “Why would you want to bring that kind of trouble to yourself?” Yet, they concurred that children were being hurt and the story needed outing.

So, as a parent and a substitute teacher, I ask you to suspend your preconceptions and think about how all our children can best be served in a cash-strapped system that has failed to prepare and equip classroom teachers with the resources needed to properly carry out the task of full inclusion.

In 1998, CPS and the Illinois State Board of Education settled a federal class-action lawsuit—known as “Corey H.”—that had charged the district with illegally segregating disabled children. The settlement led to widespread expansion of inclusion. With more mainstreaming, disabled students were to be given equal access to magnet, vocational, charter and gifted programs and educated with non-disabled peers in what the settlement termed the “least-restrictive environment” possible.

But some say inclusion then went too far.

“It was kind of overkill,” says one member of a CPS special education team, who nevertheless was quick to reject the past practices of segregation that led to the 1992 lawsuit. “Instead of looking at that child and saying, ‘What is the least-restrictive environment?’ many people thought it meant just putting every kid back in the [regular] classroom.”

“The good in mainstreaming was that these kids were allowed in the public schools, and they deserve a good and a fair education,” the team member adds. “But does that mean you have to put them in every classroom?”

Behavioral problems need extra attention

When disabled children are in every classroom, what happens? I am hardly alone in having had to manage classes that included children whose disabilities really require full-time, one-on-one attention. I—and others who spend every day in elementary classrooms—regularly see children who are unable to pay attention because of low IQs resulting from lead poisoning or exposure to drugs in utero or children with autism or some other disability. Now think about how that child functions in a classroom.

“These kids would sit and concentrate on pulling the threads out of the carpet by color instead of focusing on the lesson I was teaching,” recalls one retired reading teacher. “They would tie and untie their shoes repetitively. They would crawl. They would try to get into and under things. I sometimes felt they wanted to get into a box and shut it. … I sometimes wondered, ‘Does [this] child need me to teach him reading, or does my child need a neurologist to teach him reading?’ “

Teaching under such circumstances is nearly impossible. Not only is the child in special education learning little or nothing, but classmates often are completely distracted by such behavior or choose to mimic it. Clearly, students who exhibit such behavior are disruptive and require teachers to take time away from other students to manage them.

When teachers must take extra time to control a situation involving problem behavior, the class suffers from the loss of learning time. Disruptive behavior isolates and stigmatizes a child, and the stigmatization of a disabled child only deepens misconceptions and prejudices about all disabled children. It continues to be amazing to me that even at the youngest ages, children readily label others—”He’s bad, he never listens”—and so on.

Many educators favor tracking

Without exception, the teachers and administrators I have spoken with praise the practice of grouping children by need and ability so their needs can be fully addressed.

“As a teacher who taught [part of] the day in a mainstreaming situation, and during reading time in a tracked situation, my life was far better, and my sense of success was greater, when I had the children in a tracked situation in which they were grouped according to ability,” says one veteran.

Compounding the problem is the increase in class sizes, which means that teachers must now teach larger groups with more diverse abilities.

“There are so many irresolvable conflicts because of the range of needs these kids have, and you deprive the more advantaged students of challenge,” says the retired reading teacher. “You deprive the slower students of [the chance to reach] mastery. You drive down the morale of the faculty. De-tracking creates a situation where teachers cannot use the entire class time to meet the needs of faster- or slower-achieving students, and cannot give individual attention to the middle students.

“Teachers frequently respond by grading faster students on achievement, slower students on effort,” the teacher continues. “Parents are confused by this and become belligerent.”

Then there is the emotional cost.

One administrator tells a story of a 1st-grade child with cerebral palsy who was in a regular classroom. The toll on others in the class was great. The teacher was wracked with guilt, believing no one was being wellserved. The 6-year-old classmate assigned to be the student’s helper developed an ulcer. The emotional costs to students, teachers, parents and administrators of efforts to expose students to a child with disabilities are infrequently discussed and almost never quantified.

Student needs require ‘tailoring’

The diversity of need in a large urban school system that serves large numbers of low-income, immigrant and other children who need additional resources adds to the complexity of implementing inclusion.

“We’ve got to give these kids a fair chance to address their weaknesses and become strong in life later,” one retired teacher points out. “You have to give them an opportunity to succeed. Projects and after-school activities are wonderful opportunities for [disabled] kids to mingle, but when you have to teach academic skills, individualization becomes important.”

That is the key: assessing and then addressing individual needs. “You have to be the dressmaker. You have to tailor,” says the retired reading teacher. The issue should be, “What really helps children?”

At the core of this question is another one: “What is the best interest?” one administrator points out. “Sometimes parents with children with disabilities feel if the child is put in regular education then they will be ‘regular.’ There’s a reality that the parents have to accept.”

In our efforts to achieve equity for children, special education advocates have persuaded us that mainstreaming is the answer for virtually all special kids. Special schools, let alone special classes, are not the fashion right now. And, as most educators I’ve interviewed over the years acknowledge, education is usually driven by the fads and fashions of the field. “When is the pendulum going to swing? When are the regular ed parents going to say, ‘You are hurting us.’? ” one administrator asks.

Educators and parents need to think seriously about who is being served by inclusion, and how well they are being served. Why aren’t we figuring out a way to keep the best interests of all our children at the forefront?

Mara Tapp is a Chicago journalist whose work has appeared in local publications as well as on National Public Radio and its Chicago affiliate, WBEZ-FM. She teaches in the Chicago Public Schools and at Columbia College.

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