“Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible.”

Most parents of students with Down syndrome have heard a variation of the quote above, especially if you’ve tried fighting for inclusion. I assumed this statement was just hyperbole. I figured there was some truth in it, but that there was probably just as much research showing self-contained classes were more beneficial than inclusion. At least that’s what most school districts and even many parents would have you believe.

Imagine my surprise then, when I read the EXACT quote above in the introduction to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (read it for yourself right here). The actual law, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, states that a regular classroom with proper supports is best for ALL students with disabilities. I was a bit taken back, and wanted to know more about this research the law touted.

What I found was even more surprising. Did you know there’s not one quantitative research study, since research began on the topic, that shows an academic advantage for students with intellectual disabilities in separate settings? None! Zip! Nada! Here’s the research study citation to prove it: Falvey, Mary A. (Spring 2004) Toward realization of the least restrictive educational environments for severely handicapped students. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities. 29 (1), 9-10. 

Luckily, I’ve learned a lot more about the research that supports proper inclusion for students with even the most severe disabilities as part of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates Special Education Training. It’s a year-long course I’m taking to prepare for my own son’s entry into public education, as well as to fulfill my goal to help other families advocate for inclusion for their child. The information below is credited to the amazing Selene Almazan, special education lawyer who specializes in the least restrictive environment.

In the area of IEP quality, time of engagement, and individual supports:

1. In a 1992 quantitative study, Hunt and Farron-Davis found a significant increase in Individualized Education Plan (IEP) quality in measures of age appropriateness, functionality, and generalizations when students were moved from a self-contained classroom to a general education classroom. This was true even when the special educator stayed the same and moved with the child into the least restrictive environment. Experts interpret this to mean that there’s nothing going on within the four walls of a self-contained classroom that provides value and quality when stacked up against general education classroom settings.

  • Citation: Hunt, P., & Farron-Davis, F. (1992). A preliminary investigation of IEP quality and content associated with placement in general education versus special education. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicapps, 17 (4), 247-253.

2. Two years later, the same researchers looked at engagement of students with severe disabilities within general education. They found that there was an increase in the amount of instruction for functional activities for students with severe disabilities within general education compared to self-contained classrooms. Students in self-contained classrooms were less engaged and more isolated.

  • Citation: Hunt, P., Farron-Davis, F., Beckstead, S., Curtis, D., & Goetz, L. (1994). Evaluating the effects of placement of students with severe disabilities in general education versus special education. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 19 (3), 200-214.

3. Similar results were found in a study of a small group of students with severe disabilities. Some of the students were placed in general education and some were in a self-contained classroom. The study found the general education setting provided more instruction time, a comparable about of one-on-one time, addressed content curriculum more, and engaged in peer-modeling more.

  • Citation: Helmstetter, Curry, Brennan, & Sampson-Saul, (1998). Comparison of general and special education classrooms of students with severe disaitatebilities. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 33, 216-227.

In the area of non-academic time and individualizing supports:

4. A 2000 quantitative study found 58% of time spent in a self-contained classroom was classified as “non-instructional,” compared to 35% of the time in a general education classroom. The students with severe disabilities in general education classroom were also 13 times more likely than their typical peers to receive direct instruction during whole-class time, and 23 times more likely to receive one-on-one support. This challenges the common argument that students with disabilities cannot receive individualized instruction in a general education setting.

  • Citation: McDonnell, J., Thorson, N., & McQuivey, C. (2000). Comparison of teh instructional contexts of students with severe disabilities and their peers in general education classes. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 25, 54-58.

In the area of student outcomes and impact on typical peers: 

5. A 2001 study out of Indiana looked at academic progress for students with disabilities in general education and self-contained classrooms over two years. 47.1% of students with disabilities in general education made progress in math, compared to 34% in self-contained classes. Reading progress was comparable in both settings. Interestingly, the study found typical peers made higher gains in math when students with disability were present. Researchers hypothesized that extra help and supports in these classes created gains for all students.

  • Citation: Waldron, N., Cole, C., & Majd, M. (2001). The academic progress of students across inclusive and traditional settings: a two year study Indiana inclusion study. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Institute on Disability & Community

6. A study looking at the outcome of 11,000 students with all types of disabilities found that more time in a general education classroom correlated to less absences from school, fewer referrals for misbehavior, and more post-secondary education and employment options.

  • Citation: Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., and Levine, P. (2006). The Academic Achievement and Functional Performance of Youth with Disabilities: A Report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). (NCSER 2006-3000). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International

7. Many schools and parents make the argument that typical peers may be negatively impacted by the presence of students with disabilities. Especially those students with behavior problems. But a 1998 study out of Montana found that inclusion does NOT compromise a typical students academic or social outcome. The Indiana study above shows they actually make more progress because of inclusionary practices.

  • Citation: McGregor, G., & Vogelsberg, R.T. (1998). Inclusive schooling practices: Pedagogical and Research Foundations. A synthesis of the literature that informs best practices about inclusive schooling. University of Montana, Rural Institute on Disabilities.

This article was originally published at Inclusion Evolution.

Courtney Hansen

Courtney Hansen

Disability Advocate & Blogger

Proud military wife and mother of 3; one who happens to rock an extra chromosome. Disability advocate and blogger at