Mainstreaming Revisited: 20 Years Later

By Wilcox, Daryl J.; Wigle, Stanley E. | Education, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Mainstreaming Revisited: 20 Years Later


Wilcox, Daryl J., Wigle, Stanley E., Education


Prior to the decade of the 1970's, self-contained classrooms were the usual delivery for children even with mild disabilities. In the 1970's several court cases steered the direction of public education toward the placement of more students with disabilities into general education settings (Data Research, 1989; Vergason & Anderegg, 1992). One Pennsylvania case decreed that all children, no matter how retarded, were entitled to a free public education (Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children, 1972). As legal suits were brought against the educational system for fair and equal treatment, congress began to pass laws which gave children throughout the United States the rights that had been gained through these individual cases (Hart, 1981). Finally, P.L. 94-142 was passed (1975) which mandated that children with special education needs are to be educated in the least restrictive environment. This law, based on the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, maintains that the worth of the individual must be protected, regardless of the presence of a disability (Glover & Gary, 1976). Mainstreaming became the term used to describe the primary implication the law had for K-12 schools even though the word is not used in P.L. 94-142.

Definitions of mainstreaming varied according to the philosophy of the school system. In the preface to Mainstreaming: Educable Mentally Retarded Children in Regular Classes (Birch, 1974), Maynard C. Reynolds declared mainstreaming to be "based on the principle of educating most children in the same classrooms and providing special education on the basis of learning needs rather than categories of handicaps" (p. iii). Twenty years ago it was thought that not all exceptional students could be easily integrated with other students in the general education classroom. However, it was anticipated that mainstreaming would prove "to be a way of providing better education for most students through better use of the school facilities and personnel" (Birch, 1974, p. iv). Birch's classic study of mainstreaming for students with mild mental retardation was conducted in six exemplary school districts of various sizes located in different parts of the United States. It described the qualities of each program.

According to Birch, mainstreaming involved more than requiring students with mild mental handicaps to spend part of the school day in general classes such as physical education, art, music, or vocational classes. Rather, students were to be assigned to the general classroom teacher. The student would then go to the resource room only for essential instruction. General and special educators would share responsibility for instructing students and for the achievement of those students. Birch thought mainstreaming to be a carefully designed, balanced, and individualized teaching arrangement beneficial to students with a variety of learning needs.

Birch's study investigated mainstreaming for students with mild mental retardation. He saw mainstreaming as a valid alternative to self-contained special classes for appropriately selected students and teachers, but he also maintained that mainstreaming was not applicable to all exceptional students. Both mainstreaming and individualization were considered to be desirable concepts but not easily attainable for every student with disabilities. In his 1974 book Birch reported that the school systems he studied were proving that special education of excellent quality could be arranged for exceptional children in their neighborhood schools and in general class groups.

Purpose and Procedures

The purpose of the present study was to investigate the changes or lack of changes in mainstreaming practiced by the original six school districts reported in the 1974 study by Birch. A form was developed for each district. Specific items were not consistent among the districts because, as Birch reported, each district displayed unique attributes. …

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