To the editors:

Thanks to Robert McClory for his thorough article on inclusion (“Out of Exile and Into Oblivion?,” July 16). As someone who has been in special & regular education for over 20 years, I can cite additional information which is of note:

McClory cites “a 1992 study by the National Association of State Boards of Education that only 5 percent of all students labeled for special-education services ever leave the system.” While perhaps factual (& one tends to doubt the validity/interpretation of educational research–in most cases, anyone can find any such research to back up any argument), in all likelihood, it does not take into consideration the following:

The age/grade at which individuals began service. The earlier the child’s particular problem is identified, the sooner remediation can begin. In the case of specific learning disabilities, for example, early identification needs to occur before remediation can begin. This can be compared to a medical diagnosis, for example: if you have been experiencing recurring illness, you would want to go to your doctor for a diagnosis. If you have a disease such as cancer, you would certainly want to know what is wrong with you, so that you could begin treatment as soon as possible. An educational diagnosis is not so different (although the general population, it would seem, continues to believe that educators are not professionals & therefore could not possibly make valid diagnoses), yet children experiencing a variety of learning difficulties have often gone without help until the late intermediate grades or middle school–sometimes, perhaps, not at all. Yes, children who receive help late in the game most often do not make it out of special education.

In many of the aforementioned cases, parental involvement is next to nothing or nonexistent. As with the general population, parental uninvolvement appears to be at an all-time high. In cases where parents are very involved in their child’s education, special-ed children do, wherever possible, go on. I cite the case of Joe X. Joe X had early intervention because his parents took him to Early Childhood screening. The parents worked very closely with the school, and Joe received every conceivable service during his preschool & early primary years–social work, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech. As Joe progressed through what we call “the continuum of services,” he needed less and less. By middle school, Joe was in what is called a cross-cat class, with mainstreaming in first two, then three, classes. In the seventh grade he was placed out, with only resource service. In eighth grade he was put on consultation only and did so well that he was entirely dropped from special ed. Joe’s test scores rose three years & he was accepted to an outstanding and difficult parochial high school, where he continues to maintain honor roll grades. What, perhaps, is more important is that Joe got through school with his self-esteem intact–he is an Eagle Scout, and he received the Outstanding Citizen Award from the Education Association upon graduation from eighth grade. In the case of Joe, as in every case, it is also pertinent to note that, in my 20 years of experience with special-education professionals, I have never known one not to want a student to move on. No one I know has ever tried to hold a child back, has ever recommended anything less than the least restrictive environment, or has discouraged, rather than encouraged, parental involvement in every level. People involved in special education have tended to be some of the most compassionate, caring persons I have ever known. Further, the implication, in some circles, is that special educators keep kids in special ed to insure their jobs. In fact, the majority of special-ed teachers I know (if not all) are multiply certified, usually dually certified in elementary or secondary ed, or another area. Actually, if total inclusion did become the mandate, these people would most likely be the first personnel to be utilized as regular classroom teachers, as they have had the experience with both ends of the spectrum.

Unfortunately, Joe X is the exception rather than the rule. Part of the reason for this is a situation that, perhaps, we educators have created and perpetrated upon parents and laypeople the myth that we are unfairly “labeling” children. As one mother–a PTA president from a well-heeled north-suburban school district, no less, put it–“Tell me what you want about “labeling’–if my child needs help, he needs help, and I don’t care WHAT you call it, just GIVE him help!” Again, this statement upholds my earlier comparison to the medical diagnosis.

On April 15, 1993, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) was to have voted on adoption of total inclusion for Illinois schools. A perturbed ISBE member tipped off the Illinois Special Education Coalition (which, by the way, lists the Illinois ARC as a member. Illinois ARC, it appears, does not join the national ARC in naming Illinois to the inclusion “Hall of Shame”). ISELA, as the coalition is known, began an enormous petition drive, urging ISBE to hold more public hearings before voting on the issue.

Further, the committee for the Regular Education Initiative (REI), a group of professionals who have been assigned the task of modifying special ed, drafted a letter which expressed the same sentiments as the ISELA petitions. Bev Johns, a member of the REI Task Force, and legislative chairperson of the Illinois Council for Exceptional Children (ICEC), part of the national CEC, the largest advocacy group of its kind, returned from the national CEC convention to find “pounds and pounds of signed petitions.” Needless to say, the vote has not yet taken place.

Although the idea of inclusion can be, in and of itself, positive, the possible horror stories (which are, indeed, already occurring in rural and in poorer school districts) will be too much for a generation of children who, on the whole, need more–not less–than in any other time in our society. The optimal setting for inclusion is supposed to be that an “educational specialist,” such as a Learning Disabilities Resource person or an individual with a background/degree in special education, would be working in the classroom in collaboration with the regular classroom teacher. After having attended a conference sponsored by the Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois, a colleague and I discovered this is not necessarily so. A program was presented whereby an administrator proudly discussed her district’s “inclusion.” The individual, when asked about collaboration, hemmed and hawed, and stated that there was not, in fact, a specialist in the room, or even an aide, for that matter. Yet, this program was “working.” How well it was working is anybody’s guess, and it was of further interest to us that none of the rest of the school staff had come to this Saturday conference to corroborate as to how well the program was working. In the past we have called this practice “dumping.” As quoted in your article, Charlotte Des Jardins restates this well with her example of the 140 Chicago “cross-categorical” classrooms. (Cross-cat is a fancy term for “dumping” & in doing this we have come full circle as to the history & beginnings of special ed & education in general: that is, children who very much need extra help and who don’t, in fact, receive any help at all.) As several colleagues in the Chicago public schools put it, “We don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing anymore.” Unfortunately, I have heard the same lament from suburban teachers as well.

No doubt, given optimal conditions (as in Wilmette District 39), this program may work well. Yet, again, many districts have been given an option to request “waivers” from the federal guidelines for special education. That is to say, in given circumstances, a district may not have to provide certain services when granted such a waiver. Although this is not to be done without input from parent groups, waivers are listed publicly as “District C” or “Co-Op A.” It has been difficult to access information as to just what districts &/or special-ed co-ops have been granted the waivers. Many poorer school districts request them as continual cuts in special-ed federal & state funding leave schools financially hurting.

It is first and foremost critical that parents be involved in programming for each child every step of the way. It should be common sense (however, read the last paragraph below) that dictates parents and professionals MUST work together. We must do as much as we can for each individual child and, if inclusion best serves an individual, that should be the program for that individual. However, to mandate total inclusion for every child would lead, again, to dumping and to very inappropriate service for many, especially for those whose parents choose not to participate in the educational process.

Let it be known that, like the Roger Miller song, “England Swings Like a Pendulum Do,” so, too, does education in America. The very people who demanded that their children be serviced (& rightly so) with the landmark 50s case PARC (Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens) v. Board of Education are now giving states failing report cards for not offering total inclusion (as mentioned in the article, but with the seeming exception of Illinois ARC).

Additionally, since the major class-action lawsuit in Chicago, whereby children were wrongfully classified as Educable Mentally Handicapped as a result of having been psychologically tested in English, rather than in their native language (would you not have tested so if in, for example, Urdu?), Chicago is overstepping its precautionary measures, as per your quotations from Charlene Green (who, remember, just came on board in January). Yes, inclusion seems to work well for Najla–as it undoubtedly would for a number of other children–but the point, here, is would it work well to foist it on EVERY child? Is it appropriate to not continue to offer, at least, the continuum of services? Because, you know, in two or three or more years (or maybe less), within the realm of “fad” education, people will be protesting–loud and clear–this doesn’t work. Remember the open-classroom movement of the 70s? Do many of those still exist? No, because the open classroom was started for everyone, whereas thought should have been given to what populations would best benefit from the open classroom, and what type of teachers would best be suited for open-classroom teachers. (Proper teacher training is yet another facet of total inclusion–if you want to change attitudes, start in teacher-training programs & have future teachers study & learn the nuances of teaching exceptional children within the realm of the regular classroom.)

Finally, when are we going to start looking at common sense rather than dollars and cents? Other states, particularly on the east coast, continue to test and to treat children at an optimal level. It would appear, to most of us, that this is nothing but a funding issue, akin to situations as described by Jonathan Kozol in his watershed book Savage Inequalities. Euphemistically, inclusion has been compared to “having children back in the one-room school, and isn’t that a wonderful idea?” I, and others who are extremely concerned about education and our civilization (or lack of it), say, “Yes, the one-room schoolhouse WAS great–back when parents sat down at the kitchen table and did homework with them.” Them days, sadly, are gone. And so, too, like those many illiterate young men who rot in our overcrowded prisons (& there is an estimate that approximately 15 percent of those have learning disabilities and have never received–or have received little–help). These are the people David Jackson was talking about in his Tribune articles. And it is for these future forgotten youngsters–those who are so lost in the system–that we must continue to provide choice.

Chaya Rubenstein