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The Purpose of Inclusion: Setting or Vision?


GreenSara is currently a learning specialist at Moretown Elementary School in Vermont, after 21 years in the regular education classroom.

“Well, if I am going to be in the dumb group anyway, I may as well be in the dumb group in the resource room, instead of in my own classroom.”
Brittany, Grade 3, 1990

These are not the words that a classroom teacher, in a fully inclusive model school, wants to hear. Especially not a teacher who has gone out into the wider educational circuit and run workshops called “How to Include All Students in the Regular Classroom”. And certainly, not an educator who traveled to other states to provide professional development for teachers and districts that were struggling with incorporating inclusion practices. Then again, truth does not always present itself at convenient times, but rather when it is most crucial for growth.

Brittany was a hard working, snub-nosed, no-nonsense eight year old with dyslexia who had no inclination to make things “nice” or to spare anyone’s feelings. She had complained about the noise in the classroom and asked me why she couldn’t just go to her reading group in the resource room, like she did the year before. I explained to her that we didn’t need to have a resource room anymore because we thought it was better for her to have her reading group in the classroom, with her classmates. She rolled her eyes and made her statement about the “dumb group”  and stomped off to her desk.  There are a lot of things to unpack from her statement, but for now I will focus on the fact that Stefanie, at the tender age of eight, had brought up a key failure, regarding the way that educators, particularly in the early 90’s, were thinking about inclusion. 

We seemed to believe that if we took away the “stigma” of the resource room, our problems would be solved. It was a little like immersion learning that is often reserved for learning a foreign language—if we put the kids with special needs in with “regular” kids (whatever that means) they will, by osmosis or some other passive process, be changed for the better.  Our school, for example, had decided that instead of having kids go to the resource room to receive specialized instruction, services would be delivered within the classroom – in an inclusive environment, as it were.  In addition, the regular classroom teacher would do the instructing for at least part of the time, while the special educator instructed the rest of the class.   I know now that no matter how you mask the differences, and whatever labels you avoid or use, kids know who knows how to read well and who doesn’t, who uses their fingers to count and who needs help with spelling. This misguided attempt to simply change the place where special services were delivered, without fundamentally changing the way that instruction was differentiated for all children, was doomed to fail. Stefanie knew it then, though it would take her teacher many more years to work out the purpose and the practice of inclusion.

Anne Clark, a teacher and administrator at Boston Arts Academy defines the purpose of inclusion as “increasing all students’ access to quality education.” The goal seems self-evident; who wouldn’t want to improve education for all students? The question that must be answered, however, is: How will we know if the inclusion of students with disabilities helps us to achieve that goal? The research regarding the effectiveness of inclusion is sparse, and professionals, on all sides of the issue, use data-driven arguments to support their conflicting views (Zigmund, Jenkins, Fuchs, Deno and Fuchs, 1995)Katie Schultz Stout, Director of Instruction and Professional Development for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, confirms this lack of available, reliable research when she states: 

There are no comparative data available on special education students’ academic gains, graduation rates, preparation for post-secondary schooling, work, or involvement in community living based on their placement in inclusive vs. non inclusive settings. Therefore, an accurate comparison between separate programming and inclusive programming cannot be done.”  (2007)


So then, on what do we base our decisions, if not on the research? One concept that teachers do seem to agree upon is that a major goal of education is to prepare students to live as productive citizens after they have left the public school. According to Mara Sapon-Shevin, Professor of Inclusive Education at Syracuse University and author of Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms, all children need to be educated within an inclusive system, because the world after high school is, in her opinion, an “inclusive community” (Sapon-Shevin, 2007). I must confess that the first time that I read this statement, I double-checked to be sure that this woman was an American. The United States is an “inclusive community”? Research clearly shows that minority status of any type diminishes the likelihood of equal access to jobs, healthcare and education (2006 Disability Status Report, Cornell University), however there is something that rings true in the idea that what we do in schools needs to connect to the world within which students will live in the future.

Toward this end, the vast majority of teachers do what they do, at least in part, in order to influence the world within which students, with and without disabilities, will live. As educators, we work to shape attitudes and to influence dispositions toward fairness, equity and a belief in individual, as well as community responsibility. It isn’t always written in the curriculum, but it is the bedrock upon which we build the integrity of the profession, and it remains one of the principal reasons that I have stayed in the classroom over the last twenty plus years. That is why, so many years after my experience as Stefanie’s teacher, I still believe in the concept of inclusion. Not because I want to prepare students for the world as it is, but because I want to influence the kind of world that it will be—for all of us. Inclusion is about honoring diversity, not ignoring it. It is about responding to the needs of individual children within the context of their families, their classrooms and their schools.

Because of this belief, what has changed over the course of my career, is how I determine what “success” looks like when thinking about inclusion. It no longer means all students in the classroom 100% of the time. In fact, sometimes, it may mean fighting for the right of a student to receive instruction in a highly specialized, intensive program that occurs outside of the regular classroom, or maybe even outside of the school. It might mean arguing for little Susie to spend more time in the regular classroom, although it is somewhat disruptive to the class for her to do so. It definitely means that in order to be an effective, truly inclusive school, we must work together and incorporate looking at the instruction of all students, not just those with a special education label and truly doing what is necessary to meet and to balance the needs of the individual student with the larger community. Systemically, it means refusing to let the notorious swinging pendulum of educational philosophy or political correctness get in the way of truly differentiated instruction, which may require differentiated settings. 

I had been teaching for three years when Brittany confronted me with her perspective on “the dumb group”.  Eighteen years later, I transitioned to the role of learning specialist (aka special educator) and  I still find myself asking some of those same global, philosophical questions.  Over time, and with a few compelling students as teachers, I have learned that utilizing the concept of inclusion as a “lens” rather than a prescribed setting is of greater benefit to the students I serve. 

Sometimes, really seeing where a student is “stuck” is the key to unleashing their innate desire to learn. For Michael, it was all about finding the right materials and an authentic context for learning.  In fifth grade, he was reading at a second grade level, and though he dutifully worked through the carefully sequenced lessons of a remedial reading program, his progress was stalled and he didn’t see the value in literacy. Why would he?  The “stories” he was reading were controlled and well, boring.  As it turned out, however, he was interested in hunting, so one day, I asked him if he was going to take the Hunter Safety course.  He said no, but I could see that he wished that he could and understood what the problem really was – he couldn’t read the text.  I picked up four copies of the Vermont Hunter Safety Manual to use as our text, invited a couple of other interested students to join us and though it was slow going, he worked hard and at the end of the course, he passed the test.   In between sessions with our group, Michael and I worked on the sequenced lessons and their application to the vocabulary in the manual—using words like “regulation” and “ammunition” to apply syllable types turned out to be a better way to spend our time. For Michael, “inclusion” meant being part of a group that was using literacy skills toward an end that wasn’t school-based, but life-based.

For students like Michael, the learning happens when it comes in a package they want to open, and the response can be dramatic and gratifying for both the student and the teacher. I didn’t have to bend my professional ethics in order for Michael to learn to read, I just needed to find the entry point, support him with solid integrated instruction and largely, he did the rest. 

For other students, the issue that the student identifies brings up philosophical demons.    Daniel, a fourth grade student with Down’s syndrome, was a virtual poster child for inclusion. His program was 100% integrated and by all accounts, his program was a true success story.    It came as a surprise to me when he shared that he didn’t have any “real friends” at our school.  I was sure this wasn’t true, but I decided to observe to find out where his misperceptions were so that I could correct them (yes, I know this was a pathetic premise, but it was the truth at the time). As I observed, I saw students, both older and younger have very positive, engaging interactions with Daniel. As the day went on, however, I realized that though the interactions were pleasant, there was a quality missing that I couldn’t quite place. A quality that has to do with a way of being that is spontaneous, unscripted and based on equality between peers and common interests.   

The focus for Daniel, as articulated by his IEP, was to have appropriate interactions with peers.  And his classmates, who had been with this student since preschool, knew what that was supposed to look like. In subtle and not so subtle ways, Daniel’s classmates kept the conversation controlled and the vocabulary limited—they even pretended to be interested in his ongoing, somewhat obsessive comments about movies he had recently seen.  In addition, they were self appointed behaviorists. “Don’t run in the hallway, Daniel, walk!” or “Thank you, Daniel, that was REALLY nice of you to get the book for me.” 

As I reflected about the concept of friendship and observed his relationships with his classmates, I realized that Daniel was right. Though he had many classmates who were supportive and would positively engage with him, they were not, in the truest sense, his friends.  When I spoke with his mother, she shared that he had never been invited to another child’s house after school. Oh. She decided that perhaps it was time to try some activities that might connect him with other students with Down’s syndrome. I remember that we talked about this in hushed tones, as though we were plotting a shameful scheme, rather than that we were simply responding to what Daniel was so clearly telling us he needed.

Years later, Daniel invited me to a Special Olympics event. I noticed him standing with a small group of friends and when I made my way over to the group, he happily introduced me to his friend, Charles. I can’t remember what began the argument, but I do remember that it resulted in Daniel telling Charles to shut up and Charles laughing and tossing Daniel into the snow bank.  Both boys laughed conspiratorially as they shared that they got into trouble with the coach recently because they refused to come into the Lodge when it was dark. The reason? They had to finish a snowball fight. I began my career thinking that anything that segregated people by any criteria, especially disability, was damaging and inherently degrading – but as I looked into those boys beaming faces, I decided my dogma wasn’t their problem, it was mine. Thankfully, Daniel’s destiny, was not to simply play a prescribed part in an inclusion dog and pony show. It was to be who he is, who we all are – complicated, messy human beings with an innate need for true friendship. I am thankful that I listened to him that day, and more so, I am thankful to Daniel for speaking the truth, even when it is hard to hear, as Stefanie did when she challenged me with the “dumb group” label.

I am hopeful that, eventually, the term inclusion will not simply imply a particular setting, but will instead describe a decision making process. This process will “include” the careful consideration of all factors involved, while simultaneously working toward a vision of the future that truly values both the individual and the community.


Clark, Anne.  “Inclusion Research at Work at Boston Arts Academy”.  Horace Vol. 21 No. 2, Winter 2005. 

Houtenville, Andrew J. ( 2008). "Disability Statistics in the United States." Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, Retrieved March 30, 2008, from 

Sapon-Shevin, Mara, Widening the Circle:  The Power of Inclusive Classrooms, Boston, Beacon Press, 2007.

Schultz-Stout, Katie.  “Special Education Inclusion”.  Wisconsin Education Association Council.  Retrieved April 1, 2008, from

Zigmund, N., Jenkins, J., Fuchs, D., Deno, S.,& Fuchs, L. (1995).  When students fail to achieve satisfactorily:  A reply to McLeskey and Waldron. Kappan, 77 (4), 303-306.

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