Education: The Myth of Least Restrictive Environment
Steven W. Simpson, Ph.D., November 1, 2005
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The idea of
every student being served in the same classroom is very popular
these days. It is the “least restrictive environment” special
education theory that results in students with “accommodations”
being tossed into the same boiling environment as kids who don’t
need them. I like the idea and hate the reality.
Sure, every student can learn. The best argument for this I have
seen is Mel Levine’s A Mind at a Time. Dr. Levine explains that
different minds learn differently. He encourages us to figure
out how each person learns and use that information to help
This is a great idea. Unfortunately, Dr. Levine enjoys a luxury
classroom general education teachers do not enjoy. Dr. Levine
figures out one mind at a time while working with one kid at a
time. Given a classroom filled with 30 kids, four or five of
whom are special education students, four or five of whom are
talented and gifted students, and 20 others somewhere in
between, even Dr. Levine would be frustrated.
I have seen great teachers killing themselves trying to serve
special education students in a general education classroom.
They do everything they can. They study the learning issues of
their special education students. They provide the
accommodations. They provide individualized instruction. They
work as hard as human beings can work and they fail. Over and
over again, they fail.
I have seen this in several schools. Good teachers try to teach
special education students in a general education environment
and fifty or sixty percent of the school’s special education
students fail their general education classes. These are good
teachers doing everything the law and their special education
colleagues ask them to do. Why do they fail? Because they have
too many kids in the classroom.
I support the idea of mainstreaming special education students
in general education classrooms. In fact, I think the idea of
“special education” is itself a mistaken concept. All education
is special education. And all teachers are special education
teachers if you give them the chance. The problem, of course, is
money. Reduce class size to 15, give every teacher a
paraprofessional, and every teacher will provide individualized
education to every student.
Unfortunately, general education teachers do not get reduced
class sizes and support staff. But we keep asking them to teach
multiple curriculums to different learning levels of huge
numbers of students. It simply does not work. There are not
enough minutes in a period, not enough adults in a room, to
allow a general education teacher to spend the ten or fifteen
minutes each class period needed to help some students learn. So
the teachers do the best they can to serve the most students
they can. And we continue to lose not one mind at a time, but
hundreds of thousand of minds at a time.
In the special education department, we run the grade reports,
add up the D and F grades our IEP students are getting from the
general education teachers, and try to find a solution. We talk
about modified curriculum and modified grades, but what we know
is that the only thing that will really work is what Dr. Levine
suggests. We need the time and money to work with one student at
a time, long enough to make a difference.
Congress can pass all the laws it wants to pass. Education
philosophers can preach the virtues of least restrictive
environment and mainstream benefits. But when you are in those
classrooms watching good teachers killing themselves trying to
serve thirty students with learning abilities and styles all
over the spectrum, you see futility. You see loss of human
potential. You see failure.
I believe that every teacher, given a small class, will provide
every student with individualized instruction and
“accommodations.” I believe that if education was more important
than say war, every student would be able to succeed. But until
that day arrives, I also believe that the idea of dropping
special education students into large general education classes
is wrong. Until we fund small classes for all teachers, special
education students will continue to be sacrificed in the name of
an ideal, in the name of a good idea and a bad reality.
So, I go to work every day. My colleagues go to work every day.
We try to use a bad system, an over-crowded system, to serve one
mind at a time. And as we watch our kids failing class after
class, we dream Dr. Levine’s dream.
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