How Mainstreaming Can Hurt Disabled And Regular Students: Part 3 in an ongoing excerpt series on education from the Frontier Centre

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra


Walk into almost any public school in North America and you will find classrooms where some students work well above their grade level while others, who have learning disabilities or social and behavioral disorders that affect their school progress, work below their grade level. In addition, you will see students with such severe physical, sensory, or behavioral disabilities that they require full-time teacher assistants even when they are not participating in any of the classroom activities. Somehow, teachers are supposed to design and implement programs that meet the needs of all these students.
This is the world of “mainstreaming” or “inclusion,” a policy of student placement where virtually all students are assigned to regular classrooms even when some of them have disabilities so severe that they cannot participate in what is considered routine or normal activities. It is the norm, rather than the exception, for teachers to have students in their classrooms whose differences in ability and proficiency are considerable. For example, a Grade 6 teacher may have some students working at the Grade 4 level and a few who are working well beyond the Grade 6 level.
In the past, the situation was quite different. Specifically, severely disabled students were often educated in separate classrooms or in separate schools or hospitals. Even for students who were considered to be in the normal range of ability, grouping or “streaming” on the basis of their ability and performances was common. Students were grouped into classrooms with other students at similar levels, and consequently all students could generally understand what was being taught the first time, and the teacher did not need to prepare separate lessons for students at various levels. Even today school clubs, such as badminton, chess, and debating, are usually organized so that students compete against others who have similar proficiencies.
However, streaming or separating children into classroom groups of similar performance levels, has become an anathema for many romantic progressives; it runs counter to the prevailing philosophy of inclusion. Those who advocate inclusion generally support keeping academically weak and severely disabled students in regular classrooms, arguing that all students benefit from having disabled students in regular classrooms because the diversity promotes tolerance, acceptance, and understanding. They believe that greater classroom diversity and the promotion of tolerance constitute worthy educational outcomes. In short, keeping students of varying ability levels together—heterogeneous grouping—is considered to be a better approach than grouping students homogeneously on the basis of similar abilities and/or performances.
In the current educational climate, we think that the most serious risk to equal opportunity for disabled students lies in the overly enthusiastic support for the principle of inclusivity, either by a school system, by parents, or both. As a prescriptive norm for the placement of all school-aged children, inclusion may fail to recognize that some students may be excluded from the type of instruction and care that will help them most.
In fact, severely disabled students are being placed in regular classrooms where they are integrated only in their physical presence and not in their participation in the classroom learning, where disruption is often evident, and where isolation from other students is not uncommon. Are schools doing this because of an uncritical application of the reigning ideology—the inclusion of all children in mainstream classrooms, irrespective of their specific abilities and needs? Cannot common sense be used in placement decisions regarding severely disabled students?
Obviously, many academically weak students recognize their own difficulties when they are in classrooms where most of the other students are ahead of them. And strong students are sometimes prevented from progressing at a pace that challenges them because their right to an appropriate education is considered, even by some educators, to be less important because they are gifted and it is assumed that they can cope on their own. Moreover, excellent teachers experience considerable frustration and despair with the wide variability of knowledge, skills, and proficiencies of the students in their classrooms.
It is obviously time to ask: What implications for teaching, learning, and school administration flow from policies of mainstreaming and appropriate education? How do we ensure that inclusion does not mean exclusion or the creation of disadvantage for some students, including those who are most able?