How not to Mainstream

The experiment at a southern California public high school is not working as planned. In an attempt to mainstream nearly every student with learning disabilities, the school’s principal and assistant principal placed them in courses they were not prepared to take. In numerous cases, students with fourth or fifth grade skill levels in math and language arts were placed in honors courses.

To make matters more complicated the roles of the resource (RSP) teachers had been altered drastically. Collaboration times were removed and teaching assignments were, inexplicitly, realigned. It was not uncommon for a special education teacher to be teaching outside his or her area of expertise.

The regular Ed. Teachers had little or no help, as well. Many were unaware of the students’ needs or accommodations and were unable to assist them.

Predictably, mainstreaming at this school has become a disaster. The students involved are struggling while special ed. teachers meant to help them through the process have been compromised by the shoddy schedules. In short, nobody’s happy with the school’s attempt at mainstreaming.

So what went wrong? To understand this question, some issues need to be understood. The success or failure of mainstreaming is based on the type of programs offered, the students’ designations, and how school officials interpret the laws governing the rights and due process of the students with disabilities.

Also, there has to be several questions, teachers, parents, and administrators must ask if they are not sure if mainstreaming a student is appropriate or not.

What is mainstreaming?

Mainstreaming – the act of including or placing students with learning disabilities in a general education setting is a vital and well meaning tool. When used correctly it can offer opportunities for students to take and thrive in the same educational environment as their non-disabled peers.

However, this practice can have negative effects, too. Placing students without proper assessments or disregard for the provisions laid out in their individual education plan (IEP) or 504 plans can lead to utter failure for the students, teachers, and administrators involved in the process.

Laws such as Individual with Disability Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, established the rules governing mainstreaming. These laws state that students with disabilities (whether it’s learning, intellectual, or physical) are to receive equal access (to a reasonable degree) to educational opportunities as non-disabled students.

A key word in the definition is “equal access.” This term is often misinterpreted by school officials (especially at the school in question). Access doesn’t mean students with disabilities shall be automatically placed in a general education classroom. They need to be assessed. If these students are at the appropriate intellectual or academic skill levels they may be included in a particular class with accommodations. If not, they need to be placed in courses that will address their deficiencies or disabilities.

Different Designations of Students with Disabilities

In many cases, special education programs such as special day classes or placement on an RSP caseload are meant to help these students improve learning skills through accommodations or modifications.

For a sector of the special education population, there are students labeled as mild to moderate conditions. This may include ADD/ADHD, auditory or visual processing, speech and language disorder, hearing or visually impaired and high functioning autism.  The disorders are slight and may affect the students’ abilities to learn in one or two areas.

These students are often labeled RSP. They are often the first and foremost to be included in a regular education setting for most of the day. They may have to take a few special education courses to address certain deficiencies.  However, many are fully included and are only observed by a RSP teacher.

Often, they only need accommodations or “extra help” when placed in a general education settings. Accommodations are tools or practices meant to help the students obtain the lesson. This may be in the form of technology such as an audio-book, FM receivers, specialized keyboard, computers, one-on-one aides, preferential seating arrangement, or the use of repetition, and flexible time on assignments and tests. 

For them, mainstreaming often works. However, they may have lower skills or discrepancies in certain skills. Often, skills will be in reading, writing and math. In many cases, these students can be placed in a reading recovery or an extra math skills course (special or general ed.) during the day. 

Some students will be placed in special education courses for more than half of the day. These students’ conditions may affect several skill levels so drastically, that placement in a general education classroom is often tricky. Many of them will receive modifications to their lessons. They will have skill levels far below their grade level and will need more support than an RSP student will need.  Still, many of these students are considered to have mild to moderate conditions, and may improve their skills over time to the point they may be included in more general education courses.

There are other classifications: the moderate-to-severe classification often refers to students with emotional or severe intellectual disorders. The emotional disorder student (ED) will have behavioral or emotional issue which may prevent them from being placed in a regular education class. Some may be a danger to others as well as themselves (it should be noted however, that many ED students have been successfully mainstreamed. The definition of this term is broad. Their conditions may not be enough to render the student in the classification of moderate/severe).

Finally, there are the intellectually disabled students. Many of them simply do not have the intellectual capacity to be included in a general education classroom – at least not at the high school level (there have been cases where parents have petitioned to have their child included in a regular elementary or middle school classroom environment). 

Many of these students have basic needs and have modified lessons. They are often placed all day in a basic skills classroom and will have their own curriculum.

Questioning the Mainstreaming Process

Despite these variations, special education is still based on an individual student’s needs. Assessments, observations, and the availability of educational tools can help many students with disabilities make the transition to regular education.

Still, not all students with disabilities are equipped or ready for mainstreaming. This is something special educators, teachers, administrators, and parents need to keep in mind.

There are several questions that need to be answered when it comes to mainstreaming.

1. Are the students’ skill levels conducive to the level of curriculum being taught?
2. Are the classrooms and teachers appropriate for students with learning disabilities?
3. And are there enough support or collaboration time with the special educator offered?

Skill level is an obvious area that needs to be addressed. Luckily, students within the special education program are routinely assessed by teachers, psychologists, or other specialists. Data from these tests can be used to determine if a student can handle the rigors of general education.

However, an area sometimes overlooked is the learning environment of the general education classroom. It’s possible a classroom can lack the type of technology or accommodations needed for them to succeed. Also, the teacher may not be the right fit for the students. In some cases, the teachers were unwilling to work with an RSP student. The reasons were many including their dislike of accommodating students or their own bias toward them.

Finally, the need of support or collaboration time between the special educator and the student can be a factor. At the public high school in southern California, the removal of collaboration time has proven costly. The special educator has only his or her prep time to call students in and check on their progress. As a result, many of the mainstreamed students were failing their classes.

Simply put, if the questions can be answered with a definite yes, the situation is ripe for mainstreaming. If any of these criteria can’t be fulfilled, then there is the likelihood that this method will have problems being implemented.

These are questions, the administrators at the public high school failed to answer. And this is part of the reason, mainstreaming is failing there.