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Journal Issue: Special Education for Students with Disabilities Volume 6 Number 1 Spring 1996

Effectiveness of Special Education: Is Placement the Critical Factor?
Anne M. Hocutt

Current Placement and Constituent Groups

To understand the relationship between special education and general education, one must know the definitions of key terms, be aware of where special education students currently spend the school day, and understand the positions taken by various constituencies (including teachers, school boards, parents, and advocacy groups for the disabled) on the question of how placement should be determined for students with disabilities.

Definitions: "Mainstreaming" and "Inclusion"

Both mainstreaming and inclusion are concepts and movements, rather than precisely defined programs. Within this article, mainstreaming and inclusion will be defined as described below.

"Mainstreaming" is the integration of children with disabilities with their peers in general education based on individual assessment. The term is associated with the least restrictive environment (LRE) mandate in the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and with the "full continuum of services" 4 (see Box 1). That is, mainstreaming occurs when an interdisciplinary team (including parents) determines that, given all available placement options, a specific child should participate in general education for some part of the school day.

"Inclusion" goes beyond mainstreaming in that it implies that most children with disabilities will be educated in the general education classroom for most, if not all, of the school day. "Full inclusion" means that all children with disabilities, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability, will be educated in general education: in a full inclusion system, separate special education placements would no longer exist. Both inclusion and full inclusion imply that other placement options would be severely curtailed or abolished.

Current Placement Patterns

Data from the most recent annual report to Congress5 of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) show that a variety of placements are used (see Figure 1). The percentage of students with disabilities served in the various placements has changed very little over the past decade.6 Approximately one-third of special education students spend 80% or more of their school day in the general education classroom. Another one-third spend 40% to 79% of their day in general education. Approximately one-quarter spend 0% to 39% of their time in general education, but their special education classrooms share a building with the general education classes. The remaining 5% to 6% of special education students are served in separate schools, residential programs, hospitals, or their own homes.

Positions on Inclusion

Many constituencies, representing people with widely differing disabilities, as well as professional organizations of teachers, school administrators, and professionals who work with students with disabilities, have issued position statements on inclusion through their professional or advocacy organizations. These positions have been categorized as follows:7


  • unqualified enthusiasm for full inclusion and elimination of the continuum of special education services;8
  • enthusiasm for the philosophy of inclusion but support for the continuum of services and individual decision making;9,10
  • reduction of the special education system in size;11
  • support for "appropriate" (individually determined) inclusion, including a full continuum of placement options and services;12
  • concern that inclusion does not provide appropriate services for students with learning disabilities, vision impairment/blindness, or hard-of-hearing/deafness;13-18 and
  • concern about responsibilities of general education teachers and effects of inclusion on all students,19 with recognition that diversity of placement options and teaching approaches is a strength of the current system.20