News Article States ‘Inclusion May Not Be Best After All’ – TASH Responds

TASH has submitted the following letter in response to a recent article in Disability Scoop, “Study: Inclusion May Not Be Best After All

On November 1, 2012, Disability Scoop published an article under the headline, “Study: Inclusion May Not Be Best After All,” which intended to bring to light findings from a study recently published to the journal Pediatrics (Foster & Pearson, 2012). TASH, a leading research and advocacy organization for individuals with significant disabilities, has deep concerns regarding the way this study was covered in Disability Scoop and the implications it may have across our community.

For the sake of context, we must first acknowledge that more than 30 years of research on inclusive education shows that it provides an array of benefits for students with and without disabilities (e.g., Buysse & Bailey, 1993; Cole, Waldron, & Majd, 2004; Freeman & Alkin, 2000; Ryndak, Morrison, & Sommerstien, 1999). The mere notion that “Inclusion May Not Be Best After All,” is, then, a bold, if not reckless, conclusion to arrive at from a single piece of evidence to the contrary. TASH sincerely requests that Disability Scoop, along with other media outlets who have covered this story, take steps to promote a respectful and positive dialogue on inclusive education that portrays accurate details about the impact it has on the lives of students across the country.

The basis of Disability Scoop’s coverage is a study that completed a secondary analysis of the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2); specifically, an investigation of 500 young adults with autism who received special education services in U.S. public schools. Unfortunately, the data used do not provide adequate information about the quality of inclusive services provided, a fact acknowledged by the authors, who note, “Inclusivity well implemented and supported might have substantial benefits.” Indeed it does! There are real and lasting benefits to inclusive education, backed by more than 30 years of research. For instance, we know that students are more likely to access general curricular content within general education settings (Soukup, Wehmeyer, Bashinski, & Bovaird, 2007).

It is also important to note the study used NLTS2 data from a school programs survey collected in 2003. What was known about inclusion in 2003 is remarkably limited compared with what we now know, particularly as it relates to technologies and interventions that can support student learning in the areas of academics, social skills and communication. We feel that omitting such an important detail paints an incomplete picture of inclusion in the classroom, and what is possible through recent technological advances.

Moreover, access to supports and technology, along with an improved understanding of how to teach students with disabilities, has resulted in increased expectations for student outcomes. And decades of educational research has demonstrated a strong correlation between expectations and outcomes (e.g., Brophy & Good, 1986). If we accept the notion that “Inclusion May Not Be Best After All,” we risk impeding the substantial progress that has been made in supporting students with autism to learn within general education environments.

The researchers in this study found no effect of inclusive education on three specific outcome variables – not dropping out of high school, some college attendance, and cognitive functioning. By “no effect,” it means there was no link observed between access to inclusive education and positive outcomes, but also, and importantly, there was no link observed between access to inclusive education and negative outcomes. Further, these are just some of numerous potential outcomes of schooling. Other variables that contribute to positive post-school outcomes include social networks, employment, self-determination, and overall quality of life. These were not the focus of this particular study, and ultimately we’re left with a very narrow view of potential outcomes for students.

While the researchers examined data from students with autism who spent 75 to 100 percent of their time in general education classrooms, this accounted for only 17 percent of the students in this study, amounting to 82 total participants. Whereas, 45 percent of the sample spent all of their day in segregated settings (n=215) and nearly 40 percent spent a significant portion of their day in segregated settings (n=185; 38 percent). The study’s authors point out that current research in this area is impeded by certain barriers (e.g., complexity of variables, difficulty obtaining a large sample size, methodology barriers). The fact that the authors point to their own methodology impediments – which may indicate they, too, are concerned the data may have skewed the results – only makes Disability Scoop’s headline and coverage more alarming.

TASH’s view of inclusion is based on an understanding that separate cannot be equal in education. If our goal is to have individuals who are socially capable and have options such as college enrollment and community employment, it is illogical to segregate them from the very environments that allow them to build friendships, experiences and knowledge needed to be career and college ready. We agree that more rigorous research needs to be conducted to understand the effects of inclusive education on post-school outcomes. But we firmly disagree that the conclusion that “Inclusion May Not Be Best After All” is anything but inappropriate, dangerous and misleading.

Barb Trader
Executive Director, TASH

The TASH Inclusive Education committee contributed to the content of this letter.