I could go on forever about inclusion, what it means, how it is applied and practiced. We can all google it and find enough to read and consider on the matter to keep us busy for years. The debates are frequent, semantics are split, beliefs and philosophies get personal. The perspectives and understandings of inclusion are as varied as the people thinking about it. There are books, blogs, courses, staff development seminars, articles, tweets and twitters about inclusion in education. There are whole conferences and organizations dedicated to inclusion.
I have read much about inclusive practice in all the above mentioned places. Most of it is good stuff, really good and useful information.
Then I go to schools, talk with school peeps, observe what is going on. For the most part, it isn’t. For the most part, it looks the same no matter the teacher, the student, the school, the classroom, the content, the disability and the kind of ‘support’.
Here is why. Because schools are still mostly about teachers teaching curriculum. Because schools still put a higher value on the classroom teacher’s knowledge and skill set than that of special education teachers. Because we continue to think in can’ts instead of presuming competence. Because on a certain level, we believe the verbal ability of one indicates intellectual ability. Because teaching and learning still look like they did decades ago. Bell schedules still run the day. High school course offerings are hierarchical. The smartest, most focused, most competitive, most driven get the most variety in course options, AP classes are the golden ticket. Most commonly sold as THE golden ticket to a successful adult life.
Full inclusion is not the same as full continuum of services and it certainly is not the least restrictive placement for many students. And full inclusion, the way I all to often observe it, is nothing more than a special education teacher relegated to the backseat of the classroom in charge of keeping kids on task, focused, and compliant. And most often we define these things in the general education teacher’s terms.
I was recently at a school where the teachers were told in July that they were now a full inclusion school district. Make it work. You all know what to do. Well, that became a nightmare for everyone involved. Students, teachers, paraprofessionals and building administrators are all significantly affected. Chaos is boss. Everyone is frazzled. Kids are miserable. Teachers are at odds with each other. IEPs had to be rewritten and placements changed. And none of it was child-centered. None of it.
I have also wandered into classrooms where inclusion is working incredibly well. Teams of teachers are teaching heterogenous groups of kids. And they are amazing. Highly effective. The environment and class culture is inclusive. And every student is engaged in the lesson at whatever level they are able. The teachers are equals, they are having a blast team teaching, they are seeing the fruits of their labor. This is a rarity.
You might think I am against inclusive practice, inclusive schools. I am not. I don’t think it has to be an either or discussion and I certainly don’t believe the majority of us is doing inclusion right.
They way we are doing it is madness and doesn’t reflect well on those of us in education. We jumped in head first without considering the depth and breadth of inclusion and effective inclusive practice. We didn’t prepare.
Our biggest error is that we did not stop to make the school environment inclusive first. We did not consider that all teachers, lunch ladies, custodians, administrators, students, coaches, paraprofessionals, parents and community members are part of making the whole school environment inclusive. We forgot to consider how students interact with each other and that just having kids with special needs in the same room with the general population is not inclusion. We forgot to help our students interact with each other in healthy ways. More abled students taking pity on kids less able and talking down to them and mother henning them is not inclusion. We forgot to model inclusive practices. We forgot to make sure our school adults were diverse in ability. We never considered that a lunch table of kids with special needs is not inclusive even though they are in the cafeteria with the general population.
We forgot that we do not live in a very inclusive world and that we all need to learn how to do it right. Inclusion is an ideal we should strive for tirelessly. Inclusion done effectively in and out of school looks like everyone belongs, everyone is presumed competent, everyone is equal and has equal access. Everyone contributes.
And while schools are a reasonable place to start this movement, if it is not organically part of the community at large inclusion will just be another thing we do in school and not in ‘real life’.
I just don’t think we are brave enough to step as far out of the frame as we need to. We are a compliant lot and this change is going to require rebellion, a revolution.
Oh, and as I have said before, it will take more critical thinking, compassion and common sense.