Guest Blog: Inclusive Education: Shifting The Narrative by Roilyn Graves

My career began volunteering at an elementary school in Washington, DC in 2001. As a staff member walked me to my assigned classroom, I noticed a room tucked away in the corner. There were only a few students in the space. Some students were wandering around, some were disengaged, some sleeping, and others were sitting at tables coloring or tracing the alphabet. There were multiple adults in the room, mostly talking and laughing but not really paying much attention to the students. Growing up, I attended the same school as my uncle, who had Down Syndrome. I recognized that room. I knew exactly who that room was for. It was the place where special education students were “contained”. That was the moment I decided to become a special education teacher. I’ve been committed to this work ever since. 

Admittedly, we’ve learned a lot since 2001. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)1 held all schools and/or districts accountable for ensuring that students with disabilities received a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Shortly thereafter, came the revival (originally introduced around 1994) of Inclusive Education. Educational researchers soon learned that students with disabilities had better academic outcomes in classrooms where they were included with non-disabled peers. The research also found that inclusion positively impacted all students in the classroom (National Center for Education Restructuring and Inclusion, 1995.) Based on this research and with the revision of IDEA 2004, schools began to adopt Inclusive Education as the pillar of serving all students in the educational environment. 

The world of special education shifted. Students with disabilities were no longer excluded from the general education classroom and everyone felt as though true progress had been made. We lived in this fantasy for a while. Students with disabilities were no longer being served under the “separate but equal” approach. Everyone began to settle into the idea that including all students in the same classroom had less of a negative impact than was previously thought. Students without disabilities were still thriving (relatively speaking) and students with disabilities (and their families) were happy. As time progressed, challenges began to arise. Schools began to experience significant rates of disproportionality among certain racial and ethnic groups entering into Special Education. These same students were often being disciplined and/or suspended at a higher rate, placed in more restrictive learning environments, and were not meeting academic expectations. Schools began to wonder if Inclusive Education was the answer to serving all students. This is where educators began to ask questions: 

  • What does an effective inclusive classroom look like? Are there models?

  • Were we ever fully prepared for this inclusive transition ? 

  • Do students with disabilities really have what they need? 

  • Are all educators trained appropriately? 

  • What about funding? Don’t we need more money? 

  • What efforts have been made to ensure that we are centering the needs of students with disabilities (and diverse learners in general) within an inclusive environment?

  • Why are they still being suspended at higher rates than their non-disabled peers

  • The research says this works so, why isn’t it working? 

Inclusive Education takes an immense amount of preparation and planning. It requires a team of educators who believe that all students can achieve, no excuses. It means that all systems are universally designed with the most vulnerable populations in mind. Inclusive Education means that everyone has the strategies, tools, and training necessary to deliver high quality instruction to all students. It means modeling structures during professional development, co-planning and co-teaching. It means using The UDL Guidelines to support curriculum design, unit, and lesson planning. Inclusive Education means every stakeholder has a voice that isn’t only heard but represented in the work. Most importantly, Inclusive Education means that all of our students are thriving and operating in their full genius. 

Take a look at the data. Literally, pause and google “How effective is Inclusive Education?” or whatever variation of the phrase you’d like. In 30 seconds, you’ll find that Inclusive Education does work. There are some good examples of this AND that students with disabilities aren’t doing much better now than they were in 1994, or 2001, or even in 2023. Some educators like to attribute this to the pandemic but let’s be honest, the same issues were present before. We can no longer continue to ignore the fact that our infrastructure, our systems, and even our preparation programs were not designed to support students with disabilities or diverse learners. I know everyone is busy, I know everyone is exhausted. I know funding is an issue. I know COVID threw us all for a loop. I also know that not all of our students have what they need to be successful. In full transparency, I know since the inception of Inclusive Education, things actually haven’t gotten all that better, and so do you. With that being said, let me ask you some questions: What can we do to shift the data? What can we do to change the narrative? How can we center students with disabilities and diverse learning styles in the planning process, in our classrooms, in our staff development, and in our schools? What actionable steps have we taken since 1994? 

No more excuses. Inclusive Education works when we work it. Even though our students are in Inclusive environments, the data says they are struggling academically, behaviorally, and emotionally. It’s time to shift.

Here is my CALL TO ACTION

  • Do Your Research. You don’t have to be a credentialed special education teacher to find strategies of support that work. You don’t have to know everything. We all have a responsibility to all students regardless of what we teach, where we work, or how much time we have. You can find trainings, read books, start conversations, visit schools who are successful, review the resources on the CAST website (lots of good stuff here), and/or reflect on your personal practices. 

  • Collaborate: Make space and time for all educators to inclusively plan together. We can learn a lot from collaboration. It is time for us to maximize our collective brilliance. In order to sustain ourselves in this work, we must not operate in silos. We need students, families, teachers, administrators, and district leaders to be in community with one another. There is an African proverb that says “ If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

  • Innovate: The reality is schools are overcrowded and under-resourced. We all know that educators are overworked and underpaid. There are a million reasons why we can’t invest more in inclusive practices. I’m asking you to focus, just for a moment on the millions of reasons why we can. What can be done differently? What can we shift? How can we redesign and/or restructure with the “Curb Cut Effect in mind? Be creative, think outside the box, color outside of the lines. 

Let’s reconnect, re-engage, re-introduce, re-commit, and re-establish ourselves, our systems and all stakeholders. Our students deserve better. We can do better. Let’s just start, no more excuses.

Roilyn Graves is Envision Education’s Director of Special Education.

Note: All resources and research are linked.

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