Inclusion or exclusion? It all depends.

"One Size Fits Most." So said the label on a Christmas gift I recently picked up for my wife. Truth in advertising had finally come to the hosiery aisle.

Would that the same could be said for our thinking about primary and secondary education in this country. There, I'm afraid, "One Size Fits All" still rules. Let me explain.

Over the past several decades, many educators, parents, and theorists have come to favor "inclusion" as an educational ideal. Separate classes for children with special needs have often been replaced by inclusion classes - where all students learn together and benefit from their mutual interactions.

At the same time, gifted education has seen a trend away from a separate classroom setting. Teachers of gifted students collaborate with regular classroom instructors.

All students learn together. One size fits all.

I think the idea behind this movement is the notion, popular in the realm of politics, that fairness means equality. Exclusion of any kind somehow means we value certain students more or less than others. Since that position is intolerable, we put them all together to show that every child is of equal moral worth.

But equal moral worth should not be confused with identical classroom experience.

In special education, placement in an inclusion setting is sometimes not in a child's best interest. A particular individual might be better off receiving speech or physical therapy outside the classroom setting - which goes against those who insist on inclusion.

Also, some children's needs are better served in a non-inclusion classroom. This was brought out vividly in a recent documentary, which followed a parent's move away from inclusion, based on the fact that her child could not learn in a class filled with her chronological peers. Her argument was perfectly cogent: My child needs a setting that provides optimal learning for her. And at this time, that is a nontraditional classroom.

On the gifted front, the issue is whether talented students should be pulled out of the regular classroom or should stay and help "enrich" it.

Another hopelessly vague question. "Students?" Which students? Which teacher? What subject? For how long? Inclusion in gifted education can be effective, but so can instruction in a separate room.

A nine-year-old Long Island girl gets near-perfect scores on New York's ninth-grade math Regents exam and reads college physics books for pleasure. As important as it is for her to socialize with her fourth-grade classmates in gym, art, and music, she would learn nothing new in fourth-grade math and science.

So, at significant expense, East Northport school offered her individual tutorials at her level of ability. (These have now been discontinued due to budgetary constraints.) For Alia Sabur, inclusion and exclusion was the answer.

Let me just say that inclusion has sometimes led to dramatic improvements. For instance, many children who 20 years ago would have been cordoned off in "special ed" classes are now benefiting from academic and social interactions in the regular classroom.

The biggest mistake is made by those who adopt inclusion as an exceptionless principle - and who thus ignore cases where exclusion is clearly preferable. That is as unwise as adopting exclusion across the board.

Students differ dramatically in their abilities and needs. Sometimes the only way to give them equal opportunity is to treat them differently. A system that ignored their special gifts and needs would be as unfair as one that denied them deserved opportunities because of their differences.

Inclusion? Sure. Sometimes. Exclusion? Of course. Sometimes. It all depends.

*Glenn Hartz is an associate professor of philosophy at Ohio State University, in Mansfield.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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