Mainstreaming is an inclusive form of education in which students are taughtin a comprehensive school system. Special education is available for studentswith special needs, but the goal is for the majority of students and those with special needs to learn in the same classroom whenever possible.

From the 1920s until the 1970s, the trend in Western countries was to set upspecial schools to educate students with special needs. With the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1973, schools tried to bring all students under the same roof and provide services as needed. In 1975, PL 94-142 (Education for All Handicapped Children Act) was passed, giving every child the right to educationin the least restrictive environment. In effect, all schoolchildren were given the right to a free public education.

Students with medical and physical disabilities are protected by Section 504and may still receive special accommodations at school, such as adaptive equipment, but they do not receive special education unless they show educationalneed.

With the advent of IDEA in the 1970s, educators and advocates for students with disabilities began pushing for all students to be taught among their peersin regular neighborhood schools. Mildly and moderately handicapped studentsbegan to be placed in regular classes, at least part time. Students with moreprofound handicaps began attending regular schools. Even when students had handicaps severe enough to prevent placement in regular classes, the reasoningwas that all students would benefit from interacting in the hallway, homeroom, bus, and playground. The goal was to provide common meeting places so students could form friendships and share a feeling of community in their neighborhood school.

By the late 1980s, after additional observation and research, many educatorsand parents favored the merging of special and regular education into a comprehensive school system. Advocates pointed out that a dual system did not meetstudents' needs, was inefficient to administer, and promoted inappropriate attitudes toward students with disabilities.

Advocates were more interested in increasing the ability of mainstream education to meet the needs of all students, rather than spending time classifyingstudents to see who should be in the mainstream. A federal system of definitions was already in place, though it was not used consistently. School districts found themselves on shifting ground. They had to understand and accommodate students with special needs, without creating a counterproductive separate-but-equal atmosphere.

In a 1991 modification to IDEA, the federal government defined 13 categoriesof disability: autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, hearing impairment, mental retardation, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, serious emotional disturbance, special learning disability, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairment. States andschool districts were free, however, to use their own definitions, and thereis wide variety in classification.

National statistics show that enrollment in special education is highest in the elementary school years. By high school, typically 4 to 5 percent of special education students are returned to general education classrooms.

Until the 1990s, boys were referred for special education more frequently than girls, but some 1996 statistics show boys and girls being referred in equalnumbers. Research in the 1960s suggested a pattern of minority children being placed in special education in disproportionate numbers, spurring federal lawsuits. Some 1990s findings, however, suggest that overrepresentation of minorities is decreasing. Statistics on incidence of disability among African American, Native American, Hispanic, and other racial groups now show a closermatch with population figures. Analysts point out, however, that it is very difficult to measure the individual effects of socioeconomic status, poverty,race, and ethnicity.

An overview of the guidelines shows that for a student to be eligible for special education, he or she must have a disability that can only be helped by special education. Special education can be used only when education in a regular classroom does not work. For example, a school district would need to make other arrangements if a special needs student was disruptive and preventedthe students in a standard classroom from learning, or if the standard classroom wasn't providing a sufficient education for a student with special needs.

The trend is for school districts to appoint support facilitators who help regular teachers with resources and equipment. Ideally, support facilitators work in the classroom with all students who need help, rather than focusing exclusively on the special needs student and drawing undue attention to him or her.

Parents of disabled students brought a series of lawsuits in the late 1990s and forced educators to reexamine the practice of mainstreaming to see whetherit could be improved. In response to the lawsuits, educators recommended that schools spend more time determining the least restrictive environment available for each special education student. To this aim, a series of questions should be applied to each special education student's individualized educational plan (IEP). Would it be possible for the student to learn in a regular classroom if supplementary aids and services were provided? What steps have beentaken to accommodate the student in a regular classroom? Can the student with a disability benefit from being in a regular classroom? What is the effectof the disabled student on classmates? Is the student likely to monopolize the time of the teacher or aides? Is the student likely to be disruptive and tointerfere with the ability of other students to learn? Educators stress theimportance of a team approach to exploring these questions, with the regularclassroom teacher and special education teacher working together.

Researchers studying special education issues point to the importance of considering a range of options for each special needs student. There are many gradations in between spending full time in a regular classroom or full time ina special education classroom. For example, some students might benefit fromlearning subjects such as music, art and physical education with their classin full, while they are pulled away for special education instruction in reading and math. Many schools have resource rooms where students can receive individual tutoring or small-group instruction.

Educators have developed many strategies for providing a mixture of regular education and special education. For students with mild to moderate learning disabilities or speech/language impairments, the "pullout" system is common used. The special education student spends most of the week in a regular classroom and is pulled out for individualized or small-group instruction three tofive hours a week. Educators have experimented with different systems of grouping special needs children by grade level or by degree of disability when they meet in a small-group setting in the resource room. Education Digest described one school system's experience in attempting to "push in" most special education students to a regular classroom. The school system learned that to function well, some special education students actually needed more pullout time, not less. There was another option in which a special education teacher would come to a regular classroom and "pull aside" special needs students at a separate table and assist them in doing the regular class work with some modifications.

Special education teachers and aides also assisted the special needs studentswith organizational tasks. Each morning, the teachers and aides would checkto be sure the special needs students had the books, supplies and homework they needed to begin the school day. At the end of the school day, the specialneeds students would receive similar support to make sure they took home theproper materials for their homework.

School systems that experimented with grouping severely disruptive special needs students in one small classroom found there were advantages as well as drawbacks. The disruptive students were not preventing other students from learning, and they had large blocks of time devoted to the intensive instructionand counseling they needed. However, the disruptive children had no positivepeer role models in the classroom.

In a retrospective study of school districts' experiences with mainstreaming,Education Digest reported that when a student is two years behind bythe time she reaches third grade, it is almost impossible to bring her up tograde level, regardless of the intensity of the remediation effort.

In a 1982 case brought in the early days of mainstreaming, the United StatesSupreme Court ruled that it was not a school district's responsibility to develop every disabled child to his or her maximum potential. Rather, the intentwas to provide every disabled child with equal access to public school education.

When inclusive education was first tried in the United States, with special needs students and regular students taught side by side, there were few attempts to back up the theory with research. Mainstreaming was seen as a moral imperative, almost a human rights effort on behalf of special needs children. Noone was studying the techniques, teaching methods, staffing and training needed for a comprehensive program of inclusion. This lack of preparation and research led to poor planning and poor implementation in many school districts.Since mainstreaming was more a campaign than a carefully thought out program, there were times when the needs of individual children were ignored. The needs of children who were medically fragile or severely emotionally disturbedcould not be met in a regular classroom and in some situations, the best option was for the school district to provide home tutoring. To add to the confusion, it was difficult to devise an orderly system of evaluation. For example,one deaf child might do very well in a regular classroom while a different child with the same degree of disability might need a customized mix of standard education, special education and one-on-one instruction.

The various trends in mainstreaming come to a head at the end of high school,when districts award diplomas differently. Some high schools grant diplomaswith the same set of standards, exams, and course work applied to all students. Other schools offer a different credential or certificate of completion for special education students. The diploma, therefore, may not always mean thesame thing. A 1990 congressional study showed about 30 percent of disabled students dropping out of school between grades 9 and 12.

To address some of these problems, Congress passed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act in 1994. The act calls for standards-based reform that would reorganize educational standards. The ultimate goal would be to devise a fair way of developing one system of accountability that applies to all students. Special education students would still have an individualized educational program(IEP) and achievable goals, and there would be more of an effort to tailor goals to every student's abilities and needs. Advocates would like to see school districts break away from evaluating students chiefly on norms that are based on peer performance. Ideally, all graduates would have a credential that accurately reflected their skills and achievements.

The Committee on Goals 2000 recognized that not enough is known about specialeducation and standards-based reform and recommended long-term research in search of new information. Education studies have either omitted special education students or have measured them inconsistently. There is very little dataon how special education students compare with general education students. There isn't enough information on funding special education and there is no information on how standards-based reform would be paid for. While educators acknowledge that schools classify disabled students in many different ways, there is little information on how these local decisions are actually made. In addition, families of disabled students are often overlooked and more models are needed for using families in educational planning.

Inclusive education is of great interest internationally, and as of 1997, some 24 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development were conducting studies on restructuring special education.

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