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Lessons Learned on the Way Toward Inclusion

By Jennifer York-Barr and Terri Vandercook

It seems hard to believe that we are nearing 20 years since the concept of “inclusion” began to take hold as a way of thinking about, designing, and putting into practice an individualized set of services and supports required by some students in order to learn alongside nondisabled peers and siblings. Specifically, a paradigm shift from largely separate to largely integrated educational experiences was occurring. Particularly emphasized at that time was the inclusion of students with severe disabilities, as they had been the most removed from mainstreamed education. What have we learned in the past two decades of this ambitious undertaking?

In this article, we describe some of the lessons learned on the way to becoming more inclusive, a journey that is far from over. We have chosen to focus on lessons learned about working toward inclusivity within the complex system of education. These lessons may seem a bit removed from students and from daily curricular, instructional, and assessment practices. Why are we emphasizing the systems level? There is no doubt about the significant increase in inclusive practices and the success thereby realized for many students. A key learning has been, however, that without a supportive system, inclusion cannot take hold. It matters not how many techniques and strategies and practices are known to be effective (and there are many). It matters greatly how individuals are able to join together in creating and sustaining the conditions that support implementation of such practices in order to create an inclusive system of education.

Lesson 1: Inclusivity is Counter-Cultural

Despite persistent, courageous, and bold efforts throughout our country’s history, inclusivity remains an espoused but unrealized value in our culture. Beyond disability, inclusivity is a human value and desire held in common by many individuals, especially those for whom equity has always been a struggle. When we ask, “Why is it so hard to create an inclusive school?” the answer comes from understanding that our schools reflect the broader society in which they are embedded. Examples of truly inclusive communities are difficult to find. In schools, then, we are trying to create a new culture, one that directly counters our existing culture and one with which we have little experience.

Lesson 2: The Big Picture is Really Big and Really Complex

The magnitude and complexity of change required to create a truly inclusive system of education has been grossly underestimated. An inclusive system strikes at the fundamental values, practices, structures, and funding mechanisms of our enduring standardized system of education. Our traditions of student groupings, curricular and instructional designs, and assessment practices are not well suited for a more inclusive and personalized approach to public education. Touching one part of the system (e.g., student groupings) affects others parts of the system (e.g., funding mechanisms, curricular expectations). All the parts are connected and influence each other. It is difficult to change one part of a system without simultaneously addressing many other parts. This is complicated work.

Lesson 3: Islands in the Mainstream Cannot Survive

Early inclusion efforts frequently resulted in isolated demonstrations, sometimes involving only a few children. As the children moved on, so did “inclusion.” Without intentional systemic development beyond isolated pilot projects, there is no maintenance or generalization of effort. Further, without an understanding of how “inclusive practices” can benefit more than just “inclusion kids,” the great potential of differentiated instructional practices and collaborative work between general education, special education, and other categorical program personnel is not realized.

Lesson 4: Fragmentation Thwarts Even Promising Initiatives

In this age of rapid change and accountability, the list of initiatives and mandates directed at schools seems endless. Nothing changes for students, however, until practice changes at the classroom level. This means teachers are the key. They must make sense of what is being posed and how it could be implemented before they can move forward with changes in practice. Too frequently, multiple initiatives are imposed top-down without sufficient attention to how such initiatives can be integrated and implemented at the classroom level. Coherence greatly increases the likelihood of successful implementation. Inclusive education aligns well with and can even support many other current initiatives. Ask, “How does inclusion relate to other interests and initiatives in this school?” and “How can we work together to accomplish these important works?”

Lesson 5: It’s All About the Kids, But It’s Not About the Kids

While the primary reason for school improvement initiatives (such as inclusion) is to increase student learning, to a large extent the challenge of such work is not about the kids. It’s the grown-ups who have difficulty with change, partly due to inadequate ongoing professional development and an organizational context that does not support taking risks. Taking risks is inherent to the process of new learning and change.

Lesson 6: No Personal Development Equals No Improvement

Organizational development can be thought of as collective personal development. Personal development begins with a meaningful connection to the new expectation. How does inclusion relate to the responsibilities and commitments and motivations of teachers? Further, personal development requires support for learning and growth. The opportunities to learn about, practice, reflect on, and refine inclusive ways of teaching have been woefully inadequate. In too many situations, the expectations for change have far exceeded the support for such change. Simply stated, change is about learning. Learning requires active engagement, opportunity, and support.

Lesson 7: If the Adults Are Separate, the Kids Are Separate

Relationships are the primary vehicle for change in organizations. People and how they interact create and re-create the organization and how it works. Connections among the grown-ups in schools create potential bridges for students to access the opportunities and resources available in the larger educational community. This is especially important for students who tend to be marginalized in schools, such as students with disabilities. If their teachers are separate from the mainstream of educational opportunity, they will be also. Creating inclusive learning environments cannot be done alone. A web of relationships spanning the school must be created and nurtured. Special education professionals must be weavers of relationship webs that will support students throughout their educational experiences.

Lesson 8: Collaboration is Unnatural

Within most schools, the dominant culture is one of isolation, professional autonomy, and privacy. Most teachers have not experienced a collaborative way of working. Further, the exposure involved in learning and working together can pose a perceived threat. Focused attention to developing collaborative work cultures and skills specifically focused on student learning is fundamental to establishing inclusive systems of education.

Lesson 9: There Are Many Meanings of “Inclusion”

Would the real inclusion please step forward? Since its inception, the language of inclusion has taken on many meanings, localized to particular districts, schools, classes, and even teachers. When claims of inclusion are made, there may be general understandings of meaning, but no particular meaning can be assumed. Inclusion can mean everything and nothing. Frequently, inclusion is defined structurally as a “program,” with specific programs varying enormously. Sometimes inclusion relates to only students with severe disabilities, sometimes only those with mild disabilities, sometimes only young children. Sometimes inclusion is viewed as happening for most of a school day, sometimes for only a short period. Efforts to define inclusion structurally or categorically can lose meaning when applied to individual students. Always, the meaning and practice of an inclusive education should be personalized based on the unique interests and abilities of individual students.

Lesson 10: Leadership is Influence, and Influence is Everywhere

Inclusion, like every other change in practice, does not occur in the absence of effective leadership. Leadership is about influencing others to reflect on current practice, to envision a more desirable future, and to inspire action that results in improvement. Influence happens everywhere – at every level and between all levels in a system. Families who desire a more inclusive education for their children influence educators and vice versa. Teachers who demonstrate collaborative ways of solving problems and supporting students influence other teachers in doing so. Principals who articulate a powerful vision for students learning together and who provide professional development opportunities for faculty to realize the vision influence the language, the culture, and the inclusive practices in schools. In social organizations, such as schools, each person influences others whether or not they are aware of it. Choices of attitude, language, behavior, and how to direct one’s energy contribute enormously to the culture and the conditions of teaching and learning in schools, for better or worse.

The Final Lesson: There is Reason to Be Hopeful

Perhaps the most important lesson learned on the way to inclusion has been renewed faith in the possibilities for creating a more inclusive and effective system of education for all students. Truly, there are ordinary teachers, kids, parents, and administrators who have created extraordinary educational experiences to the benefit of students, teachers, schools, and communities. They have made commitments to improvement and have learned along the way. They have persevered and are shining examples of the plentiful good there is in education. They serve as an inspiration for educators and others who support continuous improvement in our system of education, and who seek to realize the values of equity and opportunity that are the foundation of strong schools and strong communities.

Jennifer York-Barr is Associate Professor in the Educational Policy and Administration Department, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached at 612/625-6387 or Terri Vandercook is Associate Professor in the Special Education Department, University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis, Minnesota. She may be reached at 651/962-4389 or


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Vandercook, T., and York-Barr, J. (Eds.). (2003). Impact: Feature Issue on Revisiting Inclusive K-12 Education, 16(1) [online]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


The print design version (PDF, 580 K, 32 pp.) of this issue of Impact is also available for free, complete with the color layout and photographs. This version looks the most like the newsletter as it was printed.

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