Sunday, September 25, 2005

Window dressing

This week's chapter in my Educational Psychology reading deals with exceptional learners (children who are gifted as well as children with disabilities).

Inclusion, as teachers and some parents know, is the modern way to approach learners with disabilities. That is, their instruction takes place as much as possible in the regular classroom. Schools must provide the least restrictive environment --- that is, one that is as similar as possible to the mainstream classroom.

Now, I was a special ed teacher's aide for a while, but I am far from an expert on the development of children with disabilities (yes, that's a very PC and awkward term, and believe me, the text wraps itself in knots in some passages trying to avoid using efficient, non-judgemental terms like "normal" or "disabled," but when in Rome, do the PC thing). So I'll try not to pontificate on this much. But I do want to state for the record that as of this point in my training, I am against inclusion. No, I have no choice in the matter. But I'm against it. What good does it do the children?

While my mind is probably above average and my education certainly superior, I was born with a birth defect that limited my growth. Should I, under the principle of inclusion, have demanded to be placed on the football team? "But don't tackle me, 'cause I can't take it! I just want to suit up and wear a helmet, and gosh darn it, be a player on this crazy old team! What do you say, fellows?" Or the basketball team? "Don't expect me to make any shots or block anyone. Oh, you're all too tall for me to have any effect on you at all! But I'm here on the court! Cheer me on!" Why is sports the last bastion of true fairness in our schools?

Isn't that a similar analogy to the classroom? "Here's a kid with Down syndrome for your mainstream third-grade class! Don't expect him to answer questions or follow what you're saying, though, 'cause he can't! He's just here to feel included! What? Sure, he'd probably be better off in a place suited for his needs, with a teacher who'll speak slowly and help him with concrete, one-on-one instruction, but gosh darn it, that would make him feel so out of place! Oh, and you other kids, would you mind not answering questions so fast? That makes him feel bad!"

I am not --- not, not, not --- trying to mock kids with Down syndrome or any other learning disability. God love them, I want them all to have high self-esteem and be instructed in the manner best for them and for them to get the best possible care and education and life they can handle. I do think that inclusion is not going to do that. It's a pat-yourself-on-the-back, feel-good approach that seems to ensure "the appearance of normalization without the expectation of competence" (James Kauffman).

Support is what children with disabilities need. Competent, caring, developmentally-appropriate teaching is what they need. (Why is developmentally-appropriate learning such a sacred cow when we're talking about ethnicity, but when we're talking about quantifiable levels of learning skill, suddenly it's not so important?) I love kids. All kids. Kids with disabilities. I want them to have the best we can offer. Pretending that everyone is equal is not the best we can offer.

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