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Mainstreaming. Works. For. No. One.

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

Recently, a friend of mine tagged me in a Facebook post from a perturbed parent and supporter of inclusion who shared a Psychology Today article titled “Mainstreaming Doesn’t Work for Everybody.” Amy S.F. Lutz, the author, critiques a 2015 blog post I wrote for Noodle called “Let’s Get Rid of Special Education” while I was still a classroom teacher.

Lutz’s main argument is that while educators like myself advocate for inclusive education for all students, for people like her son (whose behavior was so disruptive and aggressive) a district recommended private placement was appropriate for him. What may surprise Lutz is that I don’t dispute that this may have been the best decision for their family. I certainly wasn’t part of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team. Any earnest inclusion advocate knows the “I” in the IEP stands for “individualized” supports and not a one-size-fits-all education. It is challenging to serve a student in an inclusive environment that doesn’t exist in their school or district, but it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t exist.

The problem with Lutz’s assertion is that the hazy picture she paints of mainstreaming (an outdated term that was replaced by “inclusion” in the case of Oberti v. Clementon) is at best a misunderstanding of what inclusion is or, at worst, a straw man argument meant to distort an inclusionist philosophy. Lutz never defines her terms other than implying that if you advocate for inclusion, it must mean you want students with disabilities in classrooms without any planning or thoughtful supports. Inclusive education is not simply about physical proximity; it is about intentionally planning for the success of all students.

Of my 13 years as a classroom teacher, I spent all of them in segregated disability-specific classrooms while also advocating for my students to be included with their general education peers. For the first four years of my career, I taught in a classroom for students on the autism spectrum who had complex behavioral and communication needs (or as Lutz puts it, “severe autism”).

One of my favorite stories is about a student I met early in my career: Nathan.

Nathan was a 5th-grade student who had limited verbal abilities and engaged in self-injurious behavior. His verbal stimming was disruptive, and when he got angry, he would often hit or kick anyone or anything next to him. At the time, I was an inclusion skeptic. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that Nathan would be successful in a setting with typically developing peers.

I was wrong.

At the behest of my professor at California State University Fullerton, where I was completing my teaching credential, I had to create an inclusion plan for one of my students. The plan included examining the student’s interests, communication skills, and adaptive strengths (essentially to find out who Nathan was).

Next, the plan included planning a lesson with a general education teacher to consider Nathan’s strengths. Regardless of all of Nathan’s communication and sensory issues, he was a wizard with scissors. If he wasn’t cutting strips of paper or cardboard, he was shredding paper with his hands. Picking up leaves outside and crumpling them in front of his eyes so he could see the minute pieces fall to the ground was one of his favorite things to do.

The activity Nathan would participate in for 5th-grade science class would involve cutting to create a topography map out of cardboard.

Luckily for Nathan, there was a slew of cardboard to be cut for this activity. Nathan sat at his desk in a classroom with 35 of his peers; I was astounded at how calm and focused he was cutting to his heart’s content.

His task was meaningful, age-appropriate, and for 45 minutes in that science class, he belonged.

Did that one activity set Nathan on a path of full inclusion? No. But what it did do was convince me that any student could be successful when certain conditions were present.

Lutz says my vision doesn’t include “any reckoning with how a 16- or 18-year-old with severe autism and intellectual disability like [her son] could possibly function in a typical high school class.” While I do not know Ms. Lutz or her son, I have known students with similar learning and support profiles from her description. And the great news for families who have children with complex support needs is that advocates like me have included students with significant disabilities in general education classrooms for over 30 years. There are even organizations devoted to providing support to educators to teach and assist students like Lutz’s son in having access to the curriculum and learning side by side with general education peers.

The trouble is that most school districts, especially in the United States, have atrocious inclusion percentages (only 64% of students with disabilities spend 80% or more of their day in general education classrooms). According to the latest available data from the US Department of Education, Hawaii, New Jersey, New Mexico, Montana, and Illinois are among the states with the highest rates of placing students in separate classes. A silver lining with all this data is that some states like Washington and California are committing to changing their educational systems by focusing on promoting inclusive education and even proposing new laws, consequently increasing their rate of educating students with disabilities in general education settings.

An assumption that is common with people who push back on inclusive education is that inclusion can be achieved without changing the system that perpetuates segregation by disability in the first place. Saying that inclusion doesn’t work without the proper support for educators and students is like being upset that a broken arm didn’t heal correctly despite a cast never being put on it.

Even with Lutz’s hesitance to embrace inclusive education and downplay the decades of research that show better outcomes for people with disabilities, authentic inclusion is happening in schools and districts around the country and the world (some nearing 90% inclusion rates or above for many years). This progress did not just happen but is the result of careful planning led by educational visionaries and the implementation of strategies that promote effective inclusive education: Universal Design for Learning, Co-Teaching, Cooperative Learning, Differentiated Instruction, Data-Based Instructional Decisions, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, Peer Assisted Learning, Culturally Responsive Teaching, and Multi-Tiered System of Supports.

Pardon me if believing that special education (as it currently stands in most school districts in the United States) isn’t working. If that makes me a rabid inclusionist, so be it.

Mainstreaming. Works. For. No. One.

Inclusive education is for everyone.


Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications for MCIE, Editor-in-Chief of Think Inclusive, and the host of the Think Inclusive Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealTimVegas.

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