Special education as a concept is historically shrouded in controversy. (Seligmann, 2001, p. 1) Additionally the demand for special education funding and implementation has only increased as the number of students recognized as needing special services has continued to grow exponentially within the past forty years. (Macht, 1998, p. 1) The cultural awareness of the challenges and concerns of developmentally delayed students has also increased exponentially since the time when such people were secluded from society at home or institutionalized in inappropriately severe and clinical settings. Questions wavering between the mainstreaming of special needs students and insolating them in systems designed specifically to meet their needs seem to be eternal. The fundamental answers to these quests, as with most things must lie in the middle ground, where partial inclusion offers both challenged and less challenged learners the opportunities of social and educational interaction in a balanced and positive formulation.
The right answers, and the most effective education plans for such students are still being sought by both educators and families of developmentally challenged children. The concept of inclusion or mainstreaming has become the most influential of all special education styles. The concept of including even the most severely challenged children within the same classrooms and schools as the mainstream students has had a growing influence over the education system. "The hottest issue in special education during the 1980s and 1990s was where, not how, students with disabilities should be taught -- the schools and classrooms they should attend, not the instruction they should receive." (Crockett & Kauffman, 1999, p. 1)
The challenges of such inclusion are both obvious and subtle. Often times the prejudices of mainstream educators, parents and even administrators play a role in the degree to which inclusion is embraced in any given school district.
It has long been recognized (Sarason, 1982) that a major factor in the success or failure of a policy such as mainstreaming is the attitudes of the general education teacher (Hannah & Pliner, 1983; Horne, 1985). Early on, general education teachers expressed some negative attitudes, especially feelings of inadequacy in dealing with students with disabilities, although they remained generally positive about the concept of integration (Ringlaben & Price, 1981; Stephens & Braun, 1980). (Kavale & Forness, 2000, p. 279)
The challenge for parents and educators alike is to develop a curriculum that provides the best balance of support for all students and all educators. The most realistic view of mainstreaming and inclusion requires the educator to adopt the idea of partial inclusion balanced with a separate special needs program that is well funded and well developed to meet the needs of the special needs students.
The concept of inclusion or mainstreaming of developmentally delayed students was born in a time when education for these students was inadequate and parents and educators rallied together to attempt to offer a solution. In the 1960s and 70s it was not unheard of for special needs students to be offered a very limited opportunity for education and were sometimes offered nothing at all from the public education system. "The development of segregated special education programs might be considered a step toward educational inclusion because students with significant learning needs were totally excluded from schools prior to the development of special education." (Sobsey, 1993, pg. 1) Strained by lack of awareness but mostly limited funding schools either offered no place for students with disabilities or they offered a limited curriculum that did not include enough interaction or services to help challenged students begin the process of assimilation into normal learning and social models.
Beginning with L.M. Dunn (1968) analysis and formalized in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, mainstreaming became the norm. The press for integration continued with the Regular Education Initiative and more recently Full Inclusion. It is evident that integration became the norm, but the nature of the debate became centered on the question where special education students should be educated. (Kavale, 2000, p. 303)
Trends in special education have historically revolved between isolated education for special needs children and full inclusion within the mainstream classroom but the most popular and long lasting style for the education of special needs children has become the resource model.
By the late 1970s, integration and the concept of mainstreaming came to be defined primarily by the resource model of service delivery (e.g, Deno, 1973; Hammill & Weiderholt, 1972; Reger, 1973). A resource program represents a structure where a teacher has responsibility for providing supportive educationally related service to special education students during specified time periods. (Kavale, 2000, p. 304)
The resource model has continued to be thought of as the best educational balance for children with special needs and also for the school as a whole. Most educators agree that the best possible solution should always be tailored to the needs of each individual student and to a large degree the resource model is though of as the best balance for students. The model includes what most would consider the best of both styles of special education, inclusion and separation. (Gersten, Schiller & Vaughn, 2000, p.6) Though there are many opponents of the resource model it has continued to remain as the main tradition in public schools. (Kauffman, 1999, p. 61) With the general restructuring trend in education many researchers and practitioners alike feel that special education is once again being ignored or at least avoided as a topic of consideration
The ideas behind inclusion seem to fit well with some concepts of school restructuring, such as detracking (Cohen, 1994-1995; DuFour, 1995; Savitch & Serling, 1994-1995), community schools (Rameriz-Smith, 1995), multicultural education (O'Neil, 1994-1995), and integrated curriculum (Sheppo, Hartsfield, Ruff, Jones, & Holinga, 1994-1995). Most school reform efforts, however, have not considered special education issues. Yell (1992) and Kauffman (1987) have pointed out that the aims of Goals 2000 (P.L. 103-227), as well as many of the current school reforms, ignore the needs and capacities of students with mild disabilities. (Mamlin, 1999, p. 36)
Since the seventies incredible strides have been made in the field of special education and the intellectual tools to offer adequate education for special needs students are available outside of a fully mainstreamed system. "Opponents point to research showing negative effects of inclusion, often citing low self-esteem of students with disabilities in the general education setting and poor academic grades." (Hines) Mainstreaming has now been embraced as the norm and the frustration for alternatives is compounded by the fact that funding for alternative programs has to a large degree decreased. It has once again become thought of as secondary to the success of the general population of students.
Public schools in nearly every state have been put under budget restrictions that demand solutions like the abolition of alternative education for disabled students. So, mainstreaming borne of good intentions has now become not a way for disabled students to achieve success but another way for them to continue to be denied it.
The major concern is that these teachers are not trained with a four-year degree in dealing with disabilities like special education teachers are...Students with more severe problems may only become more frustrated and/or isolated if put in a classroom where they can't keep up. The inclusion ideal is not always reality. (York, 2003, p. 1)
The difficulty then is finding a solution that both meets the needs of the special need children and is functional within an education system that has to a large degree fully embraced the concept of inclusion. There are more proponents and few opponents to mainstreaming.
The positive effects of inclusion seem to be well documented by the special education population. The positives include a greater awareness of needs and challenges for special needs students based on a comparative model. Additionally it has been at least limitedly shown that the special needs student shows a better overall result academically through full inclusion. Another positive outcome is associated with the idea that in general the whole student population has a great understanding and knowledge of special. needs students as people rather than just separatist individuals who do not interact with the main stream student population.
One reason why the inclusion vs. segregation question has come to the forefront of the special education issue has to do with the language and determination of the new federal regulations associated with special education services. (Kavale & Forness, 2000, p. 279)
The catch phrase "least restrictive environment" has become a point of confusion for educators and administrators, often leaving them wondering what exactly works best for the most students.
In the flux of restructuring schools toward greater excellence as well as equity, the challenge is tremendous for educational decision makers to provide, with confidence and integrity, an appropriate education for their students with disabilities in the LRE as required by law. There is deep confusion over what is meant by the term least restrictive environment in the federal regulations. (Crockett & Kauffman, 1999, p. 4)