Special Education: The Myth of Least Restrictive Environment
By Steven W. Simpson, Ph.D.

The idea of every student being served in the same classroom is very popular these days. It is the "least restrictive environment" special education theory that results in students with "accommodations" being tossed into the same boiling environment as kids who don't need them. I like the idea and hate the reality.

Sure, every student can learn. The best argument for this I have seen is Mel Levine's A Mind at a Time. Dr. Levine explains that different minds learn differently. He encourages us to figure out how each person learns and use that information to help students succeed.

This is a great idea. Unfortunately, Dr. Levine enjoys a luxury classroom general education teachers do not enjoy. Dr. Levine figures out one mind at a time while working with one kid at a time. Given a classroom filled with 30 kids, four or five of whom are special education students, four or five of whom are talented and gifted students, and 20 others somewhere in between, even Dr. Levine would be frustrated.

I have seen great teachers killing themselves trying to serve special education students in a general education classroom. They do everything they can. They study the learning issues of their special education students. They provide the accommodations. They provide individualized instruction. They work as hard as human beings can work and they fail. Over and over again, they fail.

I have seen this in several schools. Good teachers try to teach special education students in a general education environment and fifty or sixty percent of the school's special education students fail their general education classes. These are good teachers doing everything the law and their special education colleagues ask them to do. Why do they fail? Because they have too many kids in the classroom.

I support the idea of mainstreaming special education students in general education classrooms. In fact, I think the idea of "special education" is itself a mistaken concept. All education is special education. And all teachers are special education teachers if you give them the chance. The problem, of course, is money. Reduce class size to 15, give every teacher a paraprofessional, and every teacher will provide individualized education to every student.

Unfortunately, general education teachers do not get reduced class sizes and support staff. But we keep asking them to teach multiple curriculums to different learning levels of huge numbers of students. It simply does not work. There are not enough minutes in a period, not enough adults in a room, to allow a general education teacher to spend the ten or fifteen minutes each class period needed to help some students learn. So the teachers do the best they can to serve the most students they can. And we continue to lose not one mind at a time, but hundreds of thousand of minds at a time.

In the special education department, we run the grade reports, add up the D and F grades our IEP students are getting from the general education teachers, and try to find a solution. We talk about modified curriculum and modified grades, but what we know is that the only thing that will really work is what Dr. Levine suggests. We need the time and money to work with one student at a time, long enough to make a difference.

Congress can pass all the laws it wants to pass. Education philosophers can preach the virtues of least restrictive environment and mainstream benefits. But when you are in those classrooms watching good teachers killing themselves trying to serve thirty students with learning abilities and styles all over the spectrum, you see futility. You see loss of human potential. You see failure.

I believe that every teacher, given a small class, will provide every student with individualized instruction and "accommodations." I believe that if education was more important than say war, every student would be able to succeed. But until that day arrives, I also believe that the idea of dropping special education students into large general education classes is wrong. Until we fund small classes for all teachers, special education students will continue to be sacrificed in the name of an ideal, in the name of a good idea and a bad reality.

So, I go to work every day. My colleagues go to work every day. We try to use a bad system, an over-crowded system, to serve one mind at a time. And as we watch our kids failing class after class, we dream Dr. Levine's dream.

Used with permission: Copyright October 31, 2005, Dr. Steven W. Simpson, Simpson Communications.
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