‘Inflammatory’ poll is lack of understanding

All children are entitled to an education


We would like to take a moment to address a recent online poll question printed in the OBSERVER on June 13. The survey prompt asked readers: “Should Special Education children be integrated into regular classrooms?”

We are not going to discuss the percentage of respondents who answered “yes” or “no.” Frankly, there is no reliability or validity to this data, therefore it is not worthy of mention. The poll question itself, however, merits some discussion. Historically, many individuals with exceptionalities have faced discrimination and abuse due to ignorance and misinformation. We simply cannot understand how this poll slipped under the purview of the editors at the OBSERVER. To call this poll “inflammatory” is being kind. This poll question was offensive and disheartening, but more importantly, contributes greatly to misconceptions regarding special education and inclusion. The purpose of this letter is to educate the general public about students with exceptional learning needs, inclusion, and special education.

It is inaccurate to refer to any student as a “special education child” as the poll indicated. Every child is a student of the home district he or she resides in, therefore, every child is a student first, with some of those students requiring specialized instruction. Many would argue every child requires specialized instruction to reach his or her potential, but for the purpose of this letter we are specifically referring to children who have been diagnosed with an exceptional learning need.

Typically, these students fall on both ends of the continuum academically. Some students require specialized education due to challenges they may face and others require specialized education due to gifts and talents. Many do not realize that children with gifts and talents are considered “exceptional” and also benefit from specially designed instruction. We do not think it is bold to suggest that if the poll had asked “should gifted children be integrated into regular classrooms?” the response would have been much different.

Another misconception is that school districts have the option of electing to be “inclusive.” The inclusion of students with exceptional learning needs is a right guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA, reauthorized in 2004). Again, it is assumed that every child will receive an education in a general education setting to the maximum extent that is appropriate. The extent to which a child with exceptional learning needs will NOT be included in the general education setting and will receive specialized instruction or a specialized education program is decided on an individual basis. This determination is made by the district’s Committee on Special Education (CSE). This committee is comprised of district personnel, as well as the individual with the exceptionality and his or her family. Placement decisions can be very difficult for both school personnel and families. Many families feel that inclusive education has benefited their children both academically and emotionally (Burstein, Sears, Wilcoxen, Cabello, & Spagna, 2004). Families also have concerns that specialized services cannot be delivered in a general education setting and fear that their children may become targets of ridicule or bullying (Pivik, McComas, & Laflamme, 2002). According to the poll results posed in the OBSERVER, the latter concern may be well-founded.

The number of children who require specialized education and where this education occurs is also often misunderstood. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2017-2018, 14% of all public school students received special education services. Of these students, 34% were classified as having a learning disability, 19% were classified as having a speech or language disorder, 14% of students were classified as having a health impairment, 10% were classified as having autism, 7% were classified as having a developmental delay, 6% were classified as having an intellectual disability, 5% were classified as having an emotional and behavioral disorder and the remaining percentage of students were classified as having multiple disabilities, hearing impairments, and orthopedic impairments among others.

We cite these percentages to clarify the types of challenges the majority of students are facing and to dispel the misconceptions regarding what special education entails. More than half of the children receiving special education services are diagnosed with a disability that is not visually apparent, and in most cases, likely have an IQ that is average to above average. In fact, in 2015 the majority of students receiving special education services spent 80% or more of their school day in general education settings. Furthermore, the percentage of students who spend less than 40% of the day in general education settings is about 13% and the percentage of students who are in separate schools is just over 3% (IES NCES Fast Facts, 2019). We hope these statistics highlight the absurdity of secluding every student with exceptional learning needs. In addition to disregarding human dignity, seclusion-for-all simply isn’t sustainable from an educational or economic perspective. Before we turn to the last misconception, we would like to leave the reader with a sobering fact. The United States Social Security Administration predicts that one in four 20-year-olds insured for disability benefits will become disabled before reaching retirement age. While the reader may not be personally affected by exceptionality, we hope this statistic clarifies that the term “disability” is likely going to touch every individual in some way in his or her lifetime.

Lastly, we would like to address the misconceptions regarding the inclusion of students with exceptional learning needs in general education classrooms. Many studies have suggested that the academic performance of students with exceptional learning needs is enhanced when they receive appropriate accommodations and modifications within the general education setting (Idol, 2006; Wilson & Michaels, 2006). It is believed this is due to a more challenging curriculum and individualized supports. It was once widely believed that having students with exceptional learning needs in general education classes would compromise the rigor of the curriculum. However, in general, studies suggest that inclusive classrooms do not interfere with and may enhance the educational experience for students who do NOT have exceptional learning needs (Burstein et al., 2004).

Some studies suggest the performance of all students is enhanced due to the range of strategies and individualized teaching and support from teachers in inclusive classrooms. In light of this research, one may question why misconceptions regarding inclusion persist. Unfortunately, part of the problem lies in the attitudes and beliefs of the general public, which is the sole purpose of writing this letter.

We hope that a better understanding of individuals with exceptionalities and their educational needs will help to dispel some of the common misconceptions. Another plausible explanation is that success stories of inclusion are often overlooked. For many children with exceptional learning needs, success in a general education classroom may look very typical. In other words, “success” may be measured by academic success and behavior that is “typical” compared to his or her peers and is overlooked because it is not what we recognize as “outstanding” by typical standards. It is also quite possible negative attitudes toward inclusion stem from environments where inclusive education has proven to be a challenge. Inclusive education requires expertise in specialized instruction, additional planning, and administrative support. Teachers have cited common barriers to successful inclusive programs, including lack of training, insufficient support, and little time to collaborate with peers (Burstein et al., 2004). Those of us in the field of special education recognize these challenges and are dedicated to remedying them. However, blame should never fall on children when adults face challenges with implementation. In our experience, the majority of teachers and administrators we have worked with over the years are dedicated to helping all children in the classroom. Therefore, to improve the outcomes of our students with exceptionalities, we need to do our best to support our schools and their programs. This cannot be accomplished by publishing polls designed to be divisive and degrading.

Jessica Gugino, Ph.D., is assistant professor of special education, College of Education at the State University of New York at Fredonia; Laura Geraci, Ph.D. is associate professor of special education, College of Education at the State University of New York at Fredonia; Marybeth Muldowney, MS.Ed, instructor of special education, College of Education at the State University of New York at Fredonia; Christine Givner, Ph.D., is dean and professor, College of Education at the State University of New York at Fredonia; and Kathleen Magiera, Ed.D., Professor Emerita, College of Education at the State University of New York at Fredonia

References: Burstein, N., Sears, S., Wilcoxen, A., Cabello, B., & Spagna, M. (2004). Moving towards Inclusive practices. Remidial and Special Education, 25, 104-115; Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. å 1400 (2004); Idol, L. (2006). Toward inclusion of special education students in general education: A program evaluation of eight schools. Remedial and Special Education, 27, 77-94; National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Statistics, (2019). Inclusion of students with disabilities: Fast facts. Retrieved from: ; Pivik, J., McComas, J., & Laflamme, M. (2002). Barriers and facilitators to inclusive education. Exceptional Children, 69, 97-107; Wilson, G. & Michaels, C. (2006). General and special education students’ perceptions of co-teaching: Implications for secondary-level literacy instruction. Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 22, 205-225.