Saturday, February 28, 2009

Special Education: A Delicate Balance Between Inclusion and Differentiation

For my final "Portfolio" class, I have to include an article articulating a personal philosophy of special education. It has taken me a while to figure out how I might write an honest article while not risking a good grade by being a contrarian. Below is my best attempt.

Special Education: A Delicate Balance Between Inclusion and Differentiation

Special education in the public school setting presently exists in a state of tension: the tension between the ideas of inclusion and differentiation. While inclusion refers to the act of including all students in the general education setting with the general education curriculum, the idea of differentiation is about keeping mindful of differences in faculties, abilities, and proclivities. Where the former idea strives towards some sense of universalization, the latter idea aims to recognize and accommodate plurality. Special education’s challenge, then, is to educate students with disabilities in a way that includes, giving the students some degree of “sameness,” while differentiating and recognizing sometimes intractable differences.

This job of the special educator is complicated when one realizes that, as these goals are in tension, any emphasis on the one results in de-emphasis of the other. If we decide, for instance, to place a student into a more inclusive setting, then we are tacitly suggesting that the student will experience less differentiation. Conversely, the more we want to differentiate for a student, the less included that student will be in the general curriculum of her “general education” peers.

Commenting on this delicate balance, Kauffman, McGee, and Brigham (2004) write of the ever-present danger within special education of “losing its way in the single-minded pursuit of full inclusion” at the expense of recognizing student differences. They go on to suggest that once this overemphasis on inclusion occurs, the pressure on special educators becomes more on the “appearance of normalization without the expectation of competence.” (original italics) An overemphasis on inclusion has led to the unintended negative consequence that “general education is now seen by many as the only place where fair and equitable treatment is possible and where the opportunity to learn is extended to all equally.”

As I see it, the bigger problem is the difficulty in maintaining balance between this idea of inclusion, where all students are to access the same general education curriculum, and the need for differentiation of the curriculum based on student abilities. While students with “milder” learning disabilities may be able to function in an inclusion setting with minimal supports of a kind fully implementable in an inclusion environment, students with more severe learning disabilities, who are also being pushed into an inclusion setting, may often require extensive modifications and differentiation of a kind that conflicts with the idea of inclusion. (To put it more directly, some students may require enough modifications and adaptations to the curriculum that their “inclusion” means little more than them doing different work than their peers while existing in the same room with them.)

By way of example, the following is a practical question that often plagues general and special educators in the inclusion setting: how can we modify the content enough to accommodate a particular student while maintaining the standards of which the general education curriculum demands mastery? This question gets to the heart of the tension between inclusion and differentiation. Include too much and one runs the risk of ignoring students’ needs for differentiation. Differentiate too much and a student’s education becomes so different that “inclusion” becomes so in name only.

Another problem created by the tension of the inclusion setting is one of difficulty in implementation. Differentiating in a self-contained classroom, where class sizes are generally smaller, is an unproblematic affair. Differentiating in an inclusion class, where class sizes tend to be larger, can be more difficult. When the student/teacher ratio is 6-10:1, it is much more workable for the teacher to spend individual time with each student, so as to differentiate her approach. When the ratio is 15-30:1, this type of individual differentiation becomes much more difficult. In some sense, students who are in an inclusion setting will be expected to “fend for themselves” more than students in a self-contained “special education” environment.

While certain accommodations – extended time, use of a calculator, student being provided with notes/organizers, etc – are easily and unobtrusively implementable in an inclusion setting, others are less so. Some accommodations, like verbatim reading of tests and quizzes, are intrusive to the general education environment (i.e., cannot easily be done in the classroom). Others, such as reducing the reading or work-load requirements placed on a particular student, are difficult to practice in an inclusion setting while maintaining equity (“Why does she only have to do 5 problems while I must do 10 to get the same grade?”) Others, like requiring the teacher to place the student in an area with reduced distractions, become down right impossible in many inclusion classrooms. In a variety of ways, differentiation can become all the more difficult in larger, inclusion classes than smaller, self-contained ones.

Why should the fact that these ideas of inclusion and differentiation are in tension matter to the practice of special education? In figuring out placement and service options for students, the special educator must stay mindful that more emphasis on the one requires diminution of the other. The more differentiation one demands for a student, the less inclusion that student will experience, and vice versa. Further, special educators must stay mindful that the goal for all students – to be as included as possible within the limits of each student’s ability – means that the goal should be to foster as much self-sufficiency in disabled students as possible. (As inclusion necessitates a certain level of self-sufficiency, differentiation should be used only when it is necessary, and only with the objective of teaching the student to differentiate for herself.)

Unfortunately, if often happens that differentiation is employed as much to hide of skirt student difficulties as to teach students how to overcome difficulties. It often happens that students are placed in inclusion classes before they have mastered the basic skills required in those classes, and differentiation is employed so as to render those basic skills superfluous – to allow the student to “get by” without having to demonstrate skills expected of other non-disabled students. As Kaufman, McGee and Brigham point out (2004), it happens quite often that “attempts to accommodate students with disabilities can undermine achievement.”

As mentioned above, there are several reasons that the inclusion setting limits the amount of differentiation that can or should be done. If inclusion is to be truly inclusive, students who require extensive differentiation may be best served in a “self-contained” special education environment. Conversely, when placing students in an inclusion setting, educators should very honestly ask if the student is truly ready to access the general education curriculum with as few differentiations as possible.

None of this is to assail the goals of inclusion and differentiation. Both are worthy goals for special educators to pursue. My argument is simply that special educators should always be mindful that too much differentiation takes away the “inclusive” aspects of inclusion, and pushing for full inclusion necessitates keeping differentiation to a minimum. In placement decisions, annual IEP reviews, and discussions about how to deliver IEP services to students, recognition of the tension between inclusion and differentiation may force us to be more realistic in how we deal with students. The answer we come to about how much inclusion and how much differentiation is needed will doubtless differ from student to student, but the special educator must be careful to avoid overreliance on either differentiation or inclusion and recognize the delicacy of striking a healthy balance between these contrasting concepts.

Works cited:

Kauffman, J.M., McGee, K, & Brigham, M. (2004). Enabling or disabling? Observations on changes in special education. Phi Delta Kappan, April 2004. 613-620



  2. True inclusivity in mainstream education involves making your resources and teaching practice accessible to all; reducing the need for further differentiation. For example, assignment briefs can be made more accessible through the use of clear language, highlighting key words and giving their definitions, using visuals and colour. All students benefit from clear, attractive resources; not just students with learning difficulties, and I think that is the true vision of inclusive teaching - everybody benefits!