Inclusive Elementary Programs: Must They Cure Students with Learning Disabilities to Be Effective?

Article excerpt

Mr. McLeskey and Ms. Waldron take exception to the conclusions reached by Naomi Zigmond and her coauthors in a March 1995 Kappan article on the effectiveness of model elementary school programs for the inclusion of students with learning disabilities.

Recently the Kappan published an article titled "Special Education in Restructured Schools," by Naomi Zigmond, Joseph Jenkins, Lynn Fuchs, Stanley Deno, Douglas Fuchs, Janice Baker, Linda Jenkins, and Martha Couthino. The authors addressed the effectiveness of model inclusive elementary school programs for students with learning disabilities. They reported the results of three major, federally funded research and development projects, from which they concluded that restructured, inclusive elementary schools produce unacceptable and undesirable achievement outcomes "for a significant proportion of students with learning disabilities."(1) We take exception to their conclusion, as well as to the general tenets that guided them as they judged the effectiveness of inclusive school programs for students with learning disabilities.

Are Inclusive Programs Effective?

The fundamental guiding question for Zigmond and her colleagues was, Are inclusive programs for students with learning disabilities effective? To investigate the effectiveness of such programs across three sites, the authors administered a standardized reading test, the Basic Academic Skills Samples (BASS),(2) at the beginning and end of the 1990-91 school year to students with learning disabilities, as well as to their nonclassified classmates. BASS scores were then analyzed, using multiple methods to evaluate the students' reading progress. The authors concluded that 54% of the students with learning disabilities made "real growth," which was characterized as gains over the course of a school year that exceeded the standard error of measurement of the BASS. The authors also used an analysis of test score gains to determine if students with learning disabilities improved their test standing relative to their peers without disabilities in the inclusive classrooms. Results revealed that 61% of the students with learning disabilities gained ground on their peers without disabilities over the course of the school year. Zigmond and her colleagues called these results "unacceptable" and "disappointing."

In sharp contrast, we find the reported outcomes very encouraging and strongly supportive of the effectiveness of inclusive programs for students with learning disabilities. We are perplexed that anyone could think otherwise. Let us explain.

The authors offered the conclusion that students with learning disabilities made unacceptable gains, even though they did not compare these students with other students with learning disabilities who were educated in separate, special class settings. Such a comparison is the most basic requirement for sound experimental research.(3) Certainly a comparison group is a necessity if the authors are to draw any conclusions regarding the effectiveness of inclusive programs for students with learning disabilities relative to other possible program options. Indeed, Zigmond and her colleagues admit that "these models did not answer the question of how best to provide services for students with serious learning problems."(4) This admission and the shortcomings of their research, however, do not prevent them from speculating about the acceptability of the gains made by students with learning disabilities or from making assertions that go well beyond their data concerning the purported need to provide alternative programs for some of these students in settings outside of the general education classroom.

While restructured inclusive elementary programs are recent phenomena, and research exploring the efficacy of these programs has only begun to appear, early investigations have revealed that students with learning disabilities who have been educated in inclusive settings have made gains at least as great as, if not significantly greater than, those made by students with learning disabilities who have been educated in separate classes. …