Teachers' Attitudes toward Their Included Students with Disabilities

Article excerpt

The inclusion of students with disabilities into general education classrooms is one of the most contentious policy reforms in contemporary education (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1994), with direct implications for the educational opportunities and quality of life for students with and without disabilities. Despite a lack of unequivocal empirical support, the prevalence of inclusion "has increased consistently and substantially" in recent years (McLeskey, Henry, & Hodges, 1998, p. 9). In their recent analysis of Annual Reports to Congress, McCleskey et al. indicated that inclusive placements increased 60% from 1988-89 to 1994-95, at which time well over 2 million students with disabilities in the United States were included (more than 79% of their school day spent in a general education class). Quality of inclusive education is, then, a primary determinant of educational outcomes for a large and rapidly growing group of students with disabilities.

Scruggs and Mastropieri (1996) noted that, "[i]n order for mainstreaming/inclusion to be effective, it is generally agreed that the school personnel who will be most directly responsible for its success--general educators--be receptive to the principles ... of mainstreaming/inclusion" (Garvar-Pinhas & Schmelkin, 1989) (p. 59). Because of the perceived importance of teachers' attitudes, teacher attitudinal studies represent one of the largest bodies of research investigating the critical area of inclusion. The literature on teachers' attitudes appears to yield some optimistic findings, in that teachers have typically exhibited positive attitudes toward the general concept of inclusion (see Scruggs & Mastropieri). Moreover, whereas the bulk of the teacher attitudinal literature on inclusion has focused on students with mild disabilities, Villa, Thousand, Meyers, and Nevin (1996) reported that teachers also expressed positive attitudes toward the inclusion of students with moderate and severe disabilities.

Anecdotal success stories (e.g., Strully & Strully, 1985, 1996) and a limited number of empirical research investigations (Evans, Salisbury, Palombaro, Berryman, & Hollowood, 1992; Hall, 1994) have suggested that inclusion is indeed producing positive outcomes in regard to peer acceptance of students with severe disabilities. However, extant research indicates that inclusion has not consistently resulted in positive outcomes, as we might expect if teachers' attitudes toward the concept of inclusion directly predicted quality of inclusive education. In fact, many inclusive placements have not been associated with improved academic or social outcomes for students with mild disabilities (see Baker & Zigmond, 1995; Klingner, Vaughn, Hughes, Schumm, & Elbaum, 1998; Ochoa & Olivarez, 1995; Zigmond et al., 1995), who comprise the vast majority of students with disabilities and who are most often included. One explanation of the apparent paradox of inclusion being infrequently associated with desired outcomes despite findings of positive teacher attitudes toward the concept of inclusion is that supportive teacher attitudes constitute less than a sufficient condition for success. Indeed, it has not been empirically demonstrated that positive teacher attitudes toward the general concept of inclusion result in improved teacher efficacy or improved outcomes for included students (Yanito, Quintero, Killoran, & Striefel, 1987). As Villa et al. (1996) acknowledged, existing literature on teachers' attitudes toward inclusion begs a critical question: "To what extent do beliefs lead to changes in education practice?" (p. 42).

We propose that teachers' attitudes toward their actual included students, rather than their opinions regarding the abstract concept of inclusion, represent a more potent and parsimonious predictor of quality of education for included students with disabilities. In fact, it has been repeatedly documented that student-teacher interactions and related educational opportunities are directly impacted by teachers' attitudes toward actual students. …