To be included
A call for pragmatism
The inclusion lobby are once again gathering their forces as Australia’s long-running Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability slowly grinds back into first gear.
Who are the inclusion lobby? They tend to be academics and activists who view the inclusion of disabled children in mainstream schools as an issue of human rights and who are less concerned about the practical details.
For instance, in this article in The Conversation, lecturer Catherine Smith ostensibly makes an evidence-based argument that disabled children ‘do better’ in mainstream schools than in special schools, but the piece is threaded with arguments about human rights.
Internationally, it is recognised that every child has the right to education. The Convention of the Rights of People with Disability, to which Australia was one of the first signatories, says children with disabilities should not be excluded from free and compulsory education on the basis of disability…
…Disability and education advocates argue special schools are a form of segregation and go against students’ human rights.
Note the use of the term ‘segregation’. I believe this is a deliberate choice of language that is intended to invoke segregation in schools in America’s Deep South prior to the civil rights era and hence identify the closure of special schools as a civil rights cause for our time.
Worryingly, the Royal Commission has also adopted this pejorative term, casting doubt on the objectivity of its eventual findings. I can only imagine how this feels from the perspective of a hard-working and compassionate special school teacher.
Returning to Smith’s article, the central claim that children with disabilities ‘do better’ in mainstream is supported by a link to this meta-analysis — although Smith seems to prefer a single case study that she links to twice. I don’t find the meta-analysis to be particularly strong evidence, given that few of the studies it summarises involve random assignment. There could be systematic differences between disabled children assigned to special schools versus those in mainstream. For instance, children assigned to special schools may tend to be those with greater levels of disability and this could account for any difference in outcomes.
In contrast to these findings, in 2004/5, Texas introduced a policy to reduce special education enrolment and a recent analysis suggests this was associated with a decline in academic outcomes. Does this definitely prove that special education is effective? No. What it should do is provoke a little humility. Academics are supposed to weigh all the evidence and make qualified claims. Unfortunately, academics involved in the inclusion lobby have no qualms about overselling their position. They’ve read Freire and they’ve found an oppressed group to advocate for.
Because inclusion is unfalsifiable. When it does not work it is because teachers are not doing it properly.
What does doing it properly look like? Ever more adjustments and ever more documentation of those adjustments. The industry of specialists behind the inclusion agenda see the issue individualistically. They propose in-class adjustments for individual students, some of which are based on sound evidence and some of which are not. Effective whole-class strategies, such as the use of routines, are not viewed as individual adjustments and so they don’t count. The teacher is left spinning plates, while simultaneously attempting to teach English or geography or music.
Could this be contributing to the teacher shortage? I suspect so.
To test the logic of the inclusion agenda to its limit, let’s consider a new study that seemingly shows adults with ADHD learn best in the evening and adults without ADHD learn best during the morning. If this finding extends to teenagers — a reasonable assumption — then how can we best meet the needs of teenagers with and without ADHD in the same classroom at the same time? What comes first, having all the students together or optimally meeting all of their needs? The real-world involves trade-offs that the inclusion lobby does not want to discuss.
If 10% of Australian students have disabilities, as Smith claims, then I suspect that to an extent, we have mislabeled a proportion of normal human variation as a disability. My hunch is that the majority of these students will benefit from being in a mainstream setting but that there is also a population of students who will benefit most from special education. The evidence is simply not strong enough to prove or disprove my hunch, so it think we need to listen carefully to all those involved — children, parents and teachers.
Have disabled children suffered abuse and mistreatment in the education system? Yes. Have parents often struggled to find appropriate provision? Yes. But let’s remember that some parents seek special education and their voices should not be ignored.
I am not sure what the Royal Commission will eventually find on education, although there are worrying signs. Inclusion activists need to reflect on the possibility that in their earnest wish to make the world a better place for disabled children, they don’t make it worse.