Teachers Balk at Full Inclusion of Disabled Students


A large majority of the American Federation of Teachers opposes the burgeoning trend of placing disabled students in regular classrooms, according to a new poll released Monday at the union’s national convention here.

In the first survey of its kind, more than 75% of the AFT members said they would not support a policy of “full inclusion” at their schools, and nearly 60% do not want their schools to increase the current level of mainstreaming of special education students.

Full inclusion--a growing national movement in which youngsters with learning disabilities, behavioral problems and severe physical disorders study alongside children who are not disabled rather than in segregated classrooms--has emerged as one of AFT’s top concerns over the past two years.


Union leaders say teachers are not trained to deal with disabled youngsters, that discipline is difficult in mainstreamed classes, and that full inclusion threatens the safety of students and staff.

These issues were highlighted this spring by an Orange County case in which the Ocean View School District struggled over the placement of a 6-year-old kindergartner with a communications disorder, ultimately going to court to try to oust the child.

Though a judge returned the boy, Jimmy Peters, to his mainstreamed classroom in Huntington Beach, the controversy continues because Jimmy’s father has refused to place his son in a special education class, but school officials and other parents say he is disruptive and violent when in the mainstream kindergarten.

“Everyone would agree that children who are violent and are dangerous should not be in the regular education classroom,” Marcia Reback, chairwoman of AFT’s task force on special education, said as she discussed the Peters case and the poll results. “Where the disagreement arises is over disruption: How much disruption should teachers and children have to tolerate?


“The lack of a hurricane in your environment is important when you’re trying to teach and trying to learn--unless you’re a meteorologist,” Reback said, adding “It’s wrong, it’s wrong . . . not all kids fit the same mold.”

There are about 5 million special education students nationwide. In 1990-91, the most recent year for which data is available, about a third of those students spent at least 80% of their time in regular classes, and 35% spent between 20% and 80% of their day there. In Orange County, 26% of the 36,000 special needs students are mainstreamed full time, and another 45% spend more than half their day in regular classes.


The AFT, which represents 852,000 people nationwide, has called for a moratorium on full inclusion policies. Union members are expected to pass a more detailed resolution opposing full inclusion today during the closing day of the AFT’s 73rd national convention.

“Both special education and regular education students appear to be the victims of lofty ideals and poor policy,” AFT President Albert Shanker said in a statement Monday. “It’s unfortunate that school systems are jumping on a bandwagon that is headed in the wrong direction and bound to impede student achievement.”

Conducted by an independent research firm, the telephone poll of 400 AFT members who work in schools with full inclusion programs was conducted June 28 through July 1. Most of those polled were ages 40 to 54 and had worked more than 15 years in the education field. About 46% of those polled said they work in urban school districts, and 31% work in the suburbs.

Teachers in the survey complained that they cannot devote enough time to all their students when a disabled youngster is in the classroom, that the mainstreamed children require special services they are neither trained nor equipped to provide, and that inclusion makes discipline more difficult.


“Teachers express a lot of support for the social benefits of inclusion but they have a lot of concerns about the educational effects,” said Geoffrey Ganh, president of the Washington-based firm that conducted the poll. “They have a lot of very practical concerns of how it’s operating in the real world and because of those concerns they don’t want to see it expanded.”

The poll showed that teachers have an average of 24.4 students, including 3.7 children with special needs, in their mainstreamed classes.


Only 22% of those surveyed said they received training to teach the disabled youngsters in their classes. Of those who did not, 50% said they should have received such training.

More than 60% of teachers said they are “unable to devote enough time to special education students,” and 47% said mainstreaming makes it “difficult to devote enough time and attention to other” children.

Regarding discipline, 46% said inclusion has made it tougher while 45% said they see no difference, and 37% said their school’s rules for disciplining special needs students “do not work that well.”

Still, most of those surveyed expressed some uncertainty. More than half said they “have mixed feelings” about their school’s inclusion policy, and 46% said they believe inclusion has had a “mixed impact” on meeting the needs of special education students and of other students.