Commentary: Inadequate funding for inclusion programs hobbles achievement for all

By Ross Kochman
Special to the Reporter

 We have a strong special education law in Massachusetts, and a strong ethos of inclusion. As teachers, we believe strongly that all children must have an equal opportunity to learn, no matter their skills, abilities, or learning styles. No student should be left out of the school community. No student should be left behind in the quest for success.

But the status quo in Massachusetts puts compliance with the law in jeopardy. It also threatens our values as teachers. That’s because we have failed to adequately fund inclusion programs. Depriving these programs of needed resources harms students with disabilities and general education students. And it hobbles school achievement as a whole.

Our law requires that students with disabilities be taught in the least restrictive environment possible. As teachers, we agree wholeheartedly with this goal. More and more students with an increasingly complex array of learning, emotional, and physical disabilities learn alongside their peers in general education classrooms. We believe this is right and just.

Boston school teachers are doing their part to make meaningful inclusion a reality. But we need help to comply fully with the law. The dollars set aside for special education should follow students with disabilities into the general education classroom. But in most cases, this just isn’t the case.

Instead, one teacher, in a classroom of students with widely differing needs, struggles to do his or her best to help all students succeed. These teachers often have multiple certifications qualifying them to teach all these groups. But no one teacher can teach to all styles and abilities simultaneously.

We need adequate staffing – determined by individual student needs in addition to the needs of the entirety of the classroom – in order to properly serve all students. A two-teacher model, with one general education teacher and one special education teacher in the same classroom, is working well at Boston schools celebrated for successful inclusion.

My school, the Dr. William Henderson Inclusion Upper School, offers an excellent example of “inclusion done right.” At the Henderson, each classroom has teachers and support staff who work together to ensure that each student has the individualized support and attention he or she needs to participate, learn and succeed. For example, during a math class, one co-teacher oversees a lesson on fractions, another co-teacher re-teaches specific skills, and a paraprofessional helps one student with the basics of addition.

But this co-teacher approach is the exception, not the norm. Ideally, inclusion classrooms would have two certified teachers and a paraprofessional working with the students.The paraprofessional would be separate from any one-on-one aides assigned to specific children with more complex and significant disabilities.

As teachers, we are passionate about improving outcomes for each student and for the schools overall. Teachers and school administrators often bear the brunt of criticism for schools that are not performing well. But the truth is that budget cuts to special education significantly damage school outcomes.

 In Massachusetts, we pride ourselves on our progressive reputation. But when we fail to “put our money where our mouth is,” we merely pay lip service to the value of inclusion. We instead undermine equity among all children.

Inclusion done right means that mandated resources for students with disabilities are not diverted or cut. If we fund inclusion appropriately, we as a Commonwealth will benefit through better outcomes for students with individualized education plans and for their peers. Meaningful inclusion fosters a greater appreciation of diversity among general education students and positively impacts learning both inside and outside the classroom.

To do inclusion right, we must support teachers so that each student can learn. When we fail to commit adequate resources to inclusion programs, we fail to adhere to the spirit of our special education law. We also fail to lift up the promise of every child.

Ross Kochman is a teacher at the Dr. William Henderson Inclusion Upper School and a member of the Boston Teachers Union.