How to educate children with disabilities is one of the most difficult conversations in education.

Federal law requires that school districts provide the least restrictive environment with nondisabled peers, to the maximum extent appropriate, but there is a difference of opinion in the disability world about what that means for students with severe disabilities.  Are self-contained classes better? Should they be in regular classrooms with supports? How do you decide which students should be in which environment?

In this post, the mother and father of a child with autism write about why they want her in a regular classroom and believe that self-contained special education classrooms can be damaging.  This was written by Vikram Jaswal, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, and Tauna Szymanski, an attorney and volunteer chair of the Arlington Inclusion Task Force.

By Vikram K. Jaswal and Tauna M. Szymanski

Like most children across the country, our 7-year-old should be returning to school this fall. She is a happy kid with a thirst for knowledge. The second-grade curriculum in our public school involves experimenting with magnets, writing stories, analyzing graphs, and learning about Susan B. Anthony’s legacy. It looks perfect for her.

But our daughter has a disability, and we learned a few weeks ago that she was not going to be allowed to be educated with the other second-graders. Instead, for the third year in a row and like 1 million other children[1] with disabilities in the United States, she would have to spend at least half of each day in a segregated, “self-contained” classroom with other children with disabilities — an educational practice we have come to learn is questionable at best.

When our daughter started school, we embraced this model of special education. We thought that she would be better off in a smaller class with fewer distractions, where the instruction could be tailored to her specific needs. We knew that she would be isolated from her peers, but we thought that it would be worth it in the long run. We were wrong.

Over 30 years of research has shown that students with disabilities learn more and better when they are given the supports they need in regular classrooms, alongside peers who do not have disabilities.

For example, in a recent series of studies[2], Jennifer Kurth and Ann Mastergeorge compared autistic middle schoolers who had been educated since kindergarten in either regular or self-contained classrooms. This placement in kindergarten was determined by Zip code, not ability: Those in the regular classrooms lived in a district that did not have self-contained classrooms; all children were educated together. Students in the two groups had similar IQ scores (none above 70), but those educated in regular classrooms scored five to nine times higher than those educated in self-contained classrooms on every measure of reading, writing, and math achievement given.

This is a dramatic difference, but the explanation is simple: opportunity and access. The autistic students in the regular classrooms had more opportunities to learn. They spent almost 90 percent of their time engaged in instructional activities; those in the self-contained classrooms did so just 60 percent of the time. Most of the rest of their time was spent taking breaks.

Autistic students in the regular classrooms also had more exposure to grade-level material: The curriculum they used was aligned with the one used by the students without disabilities almost 90 percent of the time. In contrast, the curriculum used in the self-contained classrooms was aligned just 0.1 percent of the time. Over one-third of the instruction involved no curriculum at all.

The research on the benefits of educating disabled children in regular classrooms could not be clearer. No study conducted since the late 1970s has shown an academic advantage for students educated in separate settings, but plenty have shown the reverse. The research on the social benefits of including disabled children is similarly impressive: Studies show that disabled children make more friends and feel more connected to the school community when they are educated alongside nondisabled children. There are benefits for the nondisabled peers too: Studies show they exhibit more positive attitudes about diversity and even experience increased academic engagement themselves.

In the face of all this evidence, why are so many students with disabilities like our daughter — almost 1 in 5 according to the U.S. Department of Education — still educated in separate classrooms for most or all of the school day? Why does this discriminatory and harmful practice still exist?

One reason is that educational institutions change at a glacial pace. Schools are driven more by historical conventions rather than the needs of students and new developments in our understanding of how best to educate them. But it doesn’t have to be this way: If hospitals treated patients today the same way they did 30 years ago despite the development of new procedures with better outcomes, they would not be allowed to operate.

A second reason is fear: Parents worry that their disabled children will not receive the kind or level of support they need in a regular classroom. We share this concern, but given the overwhelmingly negative outcomes associated with self-contained classrooms, we do not see it as a reason to perpetuate them. On the contrary, we see it as an opportunity for schools to innovate: Why not take advantage of the experiences and expertise of the schools and districts across the country that are successfully supporting disabled students with significant support needs in regular classrooms (e.g., here and here)? How do they do it, and how can we do it better? The special educators we know are dedicated, caring and creative professionals who should be allowed to put their considerable talents to work in this way.

A third reason is that many people find it hard to imagine including children who have significant support needs in a regular classroom. How could a nonspeaking autistic student, for example, or someone who has an intellectual disability be expected to “keep up” with the other students?

This objection reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what we and many other advocates for inclusive education are advocating for. We recognize that there are differences in ability; these are evident even in regular classrooms among children who do not have documented disabilities. Successful teachers in these classrooms already differentiate their instruction, make use of Universal Design for Learning principles, and work in teams so that they can reach and challenge students in their classroom regardless of initial ability.

Teachers in school districts across the country are already modifying and adapting the curriculum so that all students — English language learners, gifted students, culturally diverse students, students with physical, developmental or intellectual disabilities — can learn and be challenged together, even if they learn at different levels and master the curriculum to different degrees. In the Kurth and Mastergeorge studies described earlier, the autistic middle schoolers educated in regular classrooms did not score at the same level as most of their typically developing peers on achievement tests. But on every measure of reading, writing and arithmetic — skills that all students should develop to the greatest extent possible — they did much better than the autistic students who had been educated in self-contained classrooms. (Note that students in both groups had IQ scores at or below 70, which is one of the criteria for intellectual disability.)

The modern paradigm of inclusive education is one that is based in equity — one that espouses a philosophy that schools should welcome all students and that all students belong. In this model, students with disabilities continue to receive the specialized instruction and other supports they need, but these services are delivered in the classroom they would attend if they did not have a disability. Students who spend their first two decades in a segregated setting are not going to be prepared for a life in a world that is not segregated. As the disability rights advocate Norman Kunc says, “There is a simple rule when it comes to segregation: No matter how good the swimming instructor is, you cannot teach someone to swim in the parking lot of the swimming pool.”

Self-contained classrooms are sometimes described as steppingstones to regular classrooms, helping children learn the skills they need to be included. The data do not back this up. In a 2007 study by Susan Williams White and colleagues, for example, 81 percent of autistic children who attended a self-contained classroom in first grade were still in a self-contained classroom in eighth grade. Clearly, most disabled students in self-contained classrooms are not learning whatever they need to make the transition to a regular classroom, and in the meantime, they are falling further and further behind their peers. We know high school students with disabilities in our district who continue to be taught kindergarten-level concepts even though they have asked for more challenging material.

Some parents we know believe a self-contained classroom is the best place for their child’s particular needs, and we respect that. But in light of the well-documented benefits of inclusive education, parents who would like their children supported in regular classrooms should have that option.

Over the past two years, we have worked with many other parents to advocate for this kind of reform, sharing the research with our school district, attending hundreds of meetings, serving on district committees, and founding a grass-roots task force. We have couched our appeals in terms of social justice and civil rights: “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” We have pleaded for empathy: “Imagine how our daughter feels when she cannot find her yearbook picture next to the other children in her grade.” We have cited the law: “She is supposed to be educated in the least restrictive environment.” We have even pointed out that inclusive education can save the district money. We believe in the public school system, and our advocacy efforts will continue.

But when we learned that despite our best efforts, our daughter — who recently told us that her motto is “never underestimate me” — would once again have to spend most of her day in a segregated classroom, we decided that we could not send her back to school. Like all children, her future depends on her education, and we cannot afford to let her fall even further behind. This year, she will learn about magnets, Susan B. Anthony, and other second grade things elsewhere in our community. We look forward to her return to our neighborhood school when all students are welcomed and supported in regular classrooms and can enjoy the same educational access and opportunities.

[1] U.S. Department of Education Annual Report to Congress 2015, pages 34 (showing 5.7 million students with disabilities in the United States) & 45 (showing 18.7 percent of students with disabilities are educated outside of regular class for at least 60 percent of the day):

[2] Academic and Cognitive Profiles of Students with Autism: Implications for Classroom Practice and Placement, International Journal of Special Education, Vol. 25, No. 2 (2010); Individual Education Plan Goals and Services for Adolescents With Autism: Impact of Age and Educational Setting, The Journal of Special Education, Vol. 44, No. 3, pp. 146-160 (2010); Impact of Setting and Instructional Context for Adolescents with Autism, The Journal of Special Education, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 36-48 (2012).