In the 1970s, intense pressure was brought to bear on public schools to include all students in the regular classroom. Mainstreaming changed everything. Today, American schools favor what is called accessibility and inclusion. The current order of things is taken for granted. We are living in the unfortunate, extended afterlife of a dystopian experiment that has deskilled the American classroom. While well-intentioned, mainstreaming students lowered standards for everyone. It has been a change on a tremendous scale. Education is no longer special when these students are put in the regular classroom. It is time to abandon this project.
What is a special education student? It has really come to be an indeterminate term. They are a heterogeneous bunch. We talk about them as though they are one entity, but they come in so many flavors: the dull, the disruptive, and the dumb. What no one wants to acknowledge about them is their abnormality. Perhaps this point is so obvious as to be banal, but genuinely special ed students are ghastly. Sometimes their ghastliness lies in their work; other times, it lies in their personalities.
A very basic yet simple question needs to be asked: what is so special about special education students? The answer: Nothing. Nothing special is either visible or hidden in these students. They are abnormal, irregular misfits. Only the special can be called special. We have become careless about this word, making it interchangeable with the abnormal. We have turned this word into just another well-meaning attempt at democratization. Furthermore, we no longer interrogate the criteria by which we call someone special. When even the ghastly are special, we have become dishonest.
I absolutely know that these students are not special. I learn firsthand about these students every year in the regular classroom. My heart races with distress in late August when I look at my roster and see all the abnormal students shoved in my room. The difficulties with putting them there should be obvious. With their outbursts and temper tantrums, their violations of social norms, they spark crises. Sometimes it is hard to believe that these monsters are the creation of a beautiful God. They are not able to conform socially. They cast a shadow on the ability of everyone else to learn. Their IQs tilt to the below average and they find it challenging to communicate and interact with others. They need constant repetition; you can never give directions to them too many times. I feel just a little bit glum when I look at their IEPs (individualized education plans) that lists all the ways the teacher must go out of his way to accommodate them. When nearly half of a class gets extended time, preferential seating and their own study guides, the burden is not bearable.
Because mainstreaming is taken as a given, the misfits, instead of congregated in one place, are now dispersed throughout the school. They feed into the classroom at unacceptably high rates. Their numbers have way passed educationally possible levels, to the point where the classroom has become incoherent. I have had classes where forty percent of the students have been labeled special ed. Sometimes I linger in the hall after the bell has rung, so much do I dread going in and dealing with the misfits.
Yet the school administration takes an unprecedented interest in these students, devoting faculty meetings and workshops to their needs. State legislators also take a keen interest in them. The normal student or the gifted student is no longer the driving force of the school. He or she has become a distraction.
To be against mainstreaming is to go against the status quo; however, all of us have a duty not to look away from the uncomfortable: the abnormal have no place in a normal class. Mainstreaming causes harm.
Putting these different kinds of misfits in the regular classroom has been an awful mistake. The most important lesson to be drawn is that abnormal have gained more from all of this at the expense of the normal. The casualty of mainstreaming is the normal student who now has to engage with the abnormal. Their right to a normal education has been sucked away from them. They have been abandoned by the schools that they attend. Mixing the abnormal with the normal has proven destructive to the latter’s learning. We act as if there is very little we can do about it, yet there is a lot we can do to save the normal.
As mainstreaming has tapped into a huge parental population thirsting for services, parents have seized the government’s purse, putting their greedy hands in an expensive grab bag of accommodations. Their kids get social workers, an IEP, a legal document which must be followed to the letter, a support class taught by a special ed teacher and a paraprofessional, and at least one meeting with administrators, social workers, speech therapists, and teachers a year. It is easy to understand the allure of having your child labeled ‘special.’ When a child is labeled ‘special’, their services are endless. When I first began teaching, many years ago, a severely handicapped boy was a student in my class. Wheelchair bound, his senses, cognition, and obviously, motor-skills were severely impaired. It was as though his mind was not plugged into his body. Sometimes his arms jerked about. He could not speak, read or write, yet he was taking algebra and biology. He had his own bus bring him to school; his own aid do everything for him, from getting out his materials to taking him to the bathroom. His parents, who lived in a home that at the time was valued at $700,000, sued the state for a $10,000 computer so that he could communicate. The student was so cognitively impaired that the computer was useless.
People who cannot learn biology or algebra should not be in a biology or algebra class. More important, they should not be allowed singlehandedly to derail a class with their flailing and moans.
Another year, I had a student with Turrets Syndrome in my class. Not a day went by when he did not call out, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.” I ask you, is this desirable? (I don’t know why these people cannot call out “I love you”, but that is another topic.) His antics tore up the classroom. The normal, talented students in my class were sabotaged by him.
Mainstreaming has achieved nothing except to remake the classroom, subjecting the class to the rule of the abnormal. The normal can no more make normal progress. The constant, uninterrupted disturbance of my classes, of teaching and learning, has to end.
Fortunately, there is a way out of this. We can say no to this exasperating project and put the abnormal back in their own rooms where they belong. When states across this country find themselves in financial straits, it is incumbent upon legislators to say no to the special education lobby and cut mandates that are unworkable. If we stopped funding this waste with our taxpayer dollars, it would collapse. The highest priority of a school should be education, not inclusion. We should grant the gifted and talented the same seriousness we do the misfits, but their programs are the first to be cut.
It is to be expected that some will complain that removing the abnormal from the regular classroom is akin to a Nazi killing program. To be clear, no one is arguing that the abnormal are unworthy of life. They are just unworthy of life in a regular classroom. We are not trying to determine who will live and who will die. We are trying to create a high-functioning classroom. After all, the misfits could be working twelve hours a day, six days a week for two dollars an hours at a factory in Chengdu. They are not.
It is time to move past mainstreaming. We don’t have to shove abnormal students out of sight while keeping them out of a normal classroom. Abnormal students have no place in the regular classroom. They can be educated to the best of their abilities in their own rooms. A regular classroom cannot be maintained with irregular people in it. An alternative to mainstreaming has to be developed and that can only mean a separate classroom in some other wing of the building where abnormal people cannot infect the normal with their abnormalities.