In their study, "Thinking of Inclusion for All Special Needs Students: Better Think Again," Rasch and his colleagues (1994) report that, "The political argument in favor of inclusion is based on the assumption that the civil rights of students, as outlined in the 1954 decision handed down in Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down the concept of 'separate but equal,' can also be construed as applying to special education" (p. 36). According to Mcgregor and Salisbury (2002), since then, the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, P.L. 105-17, 1997), and the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as the "Improving America's Schools Act"; ESEA, P.L. 103-382, 1994), mandate the inclusion of supplementary services and instructional supports in the general education classrooms to provide all students with access to challenging and stimulating learning environments (Mcgregor & Salibury, 2002). In addition, both of these federal laws require the active participation of students served within these programs in all the large-scale assessment activities (Mcgregor & Salibury, 2002).
As a result, one of the greatest anticipated benefits of inclusive educational accountability systems is that administrators and policymakers will have improved access to more comprehensive information so they can form a more accurate picture of how inclusive practices affect student performance (Mcgregor & Salibury, 2002). In this regard, Thurlow, Elliott and Ysseldyke (1998), suggest that improved access to this type of information will also provide educators with opportunities to determine whether the programs already in place are actually helping those special needs students acquire the academic background and life skills they will need to succeed, as well as what impact such inclusive practices have on the other students.
In spite of the increasingly diverse nature of the nation's multicultural schools, the challenge of meeting the needs of diverse groups of students in public schools is not new, but it has come at a time when the public schools are already experiencing a wide range of other severe problems. For example, it has been widely reported for more than three decades now that the quality of public schools in the United States has been on the decline (Klick, 2000). Unfortunately, no matter whether this lack of academic success is measured against the educational systems of other nations or by employers who believe today's graduates do not possess the skills required for even entry-level work, it has become painfully obvious that something is wrong with the current public school system in the United States (Klick, 2000). In response, educators and policymakers at all levels have argued that the problem is largely one of a lack of resources, while a number of taxpayer advocates suggest that simply throwing more money at the problem is not the answer, either.
According to Hilliard and Ortiz (2004), two of the major objectives of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 were to raise standards in U.S. schools and to decrease the achievement gap between those students who traditionally perform well in school and those who traditionally have been considered underachieving; this latter group is generally comprised of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, students from low-income families, urban students, rural students, and students with disabilities (Hilliard & Ortiz, 2004). In response, the trend towards inclusion has been inexorable and the practice has become the norm rather than the exception in many of the nation's schools, but not everyone is in agreement about just what it means and whether it is even a good approach or not. According to one authority, "Inclusion is coming. More districts around the country are supporting the movement to bring physically challenged students into regular education settings -- but those involved in making inclusion work have their doubts" (the 'inclusion' challenge, 1994, p. 33). Likewise, Heumann (1999) emphasizes that, "All teachers are -- or soon will be -- teaching in classrooms that include students with disabilities. Thus it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to limit the number of teachers in a school who have the skills to teach disabled students to only a few special education teachers" (p. 5). Today, middle school and high school teachers must understand how to best teach all such students how to read, write, communicate, and achieve to the highest educational standards (Heumann, 1999).
Clearly, just as the term "mainstreaming" has largely been replaced by "inclusion," as the practice becomes more accepted and commonplace, there will soon be no need to distinguish the practice from "regular classrooms" since the practice will be virtually ubiquitous: "As inclusion gains greater prominence in education, we will get beyond the necessity of referring to 'inclusive' classrooms as if they were different from 'ordinary' classrooms. In the near future, all classrooms should be inclusive, and we will no longer need the term" (Heumann, 1999, p. 5). Whether the term "mainstreaming" continues to be used by educators and/or policymakers, though, is irrelevant if the current fundamental problems facing middle school and high school teachers in increasingly inclusive settings are not resolved - and soon. Therefore, for the purposes of this discussion on inclusion, all of these disadvantaged or otherwise marginalized students will be considered as special needs students and the problems typically encountered in their introduction into the regular classroom are discussed further below.
Specific Problems Related to Inclusion of Special Needs Students in Regular Education Classrooms.
While every situation is unique, it is reasonable to assert that in almost every case, special education today is more costly than its regular classroom counterpart and in some cases, these special education settings remain ineffective in equipping special needs students with the knowledge and tools they will need to succeed academically and professionally. According to Horn and Tynan (2001), "The elaborate eligibility and classification systems set up in response to well-meaning federal legislation have not translated into improved results for students with special needs. Moreover, by focusing on weaknesses and accommodations, we have given these children unreasonable expectations of how the larger community will respond to their academic weaknesses" (p. 36). The result of the efforts to date have caused many special needs students to fail to attain the skills and knowledge they will need when entering the job market or attending college (Horn & Tynan, 2001).
To overcome these constraints, educators must ensure that their special education initiatives are geared to the original goal of offering an appropriate education for all children, while including as many special needs students into the regular classroom setting as possible to help their transition into the mainstream of American life (Horn & Tynan, 2001). Rather than attempting to develop a one-size-fits-all approach, a better method would be to provide these services to special needs students across the continuum of disabilities that might be adversely affecting a given student's ability to learn in a regular classroom setting. In this regard, Horn and Tynan (2001) recommend that educators take into account the fact that special education in the U.S., as currently constructed, really serves three distinct groups of students as described further below.
Dimensions of Special Needs.
Those with significant physical, cognitive, and sensory handicaps. This group was targeted by the original federal law concerning special needs, and consists of children born with birth defects, serious sensory or physical disabilities, and significant cognitive delays; the vast majority of these children are identified as disabled during infancy and the preschool years, frequently by health-care professionals or early-childhood education specialists, and begin receiving intervention services before they enter elementary school. The authors suggest that these students do not require any further identification process within the schools because their special needs are well documented and to a large extent, their medical, rehabilitation, and educational needs are being addressed. The authors note that this group accounts for less than 10% of all special needs students and less than one percent of all children in public schools and recommend additional funding to ensure appropriate accommodations (e.g., interpreters for the deaf, curb cuts for those in wheelchairs, books written in Braille for the blind, etc.), while including them to the extent possible in regular classroom settings: "To a large extent, this is what special education currently provides these students. Their right to have access to a free and appropriate education must be maintained under any change in the structure of special education" (p. 36).
Those with milder forms of neurological dysfunction such as SLD and ADD. This group comprises the vast majority of special needs students in the nation's high schools; these are students with mild forms of neurological dysfunction, such as mild mental retardation, learning disabilities, and ADD. The authors suggest that there is in fact nothing particularly "special" about the special education most of these students are receiving except their classification as special needs students.…