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Inclusive Reform as a Response to High-Stakes Pressure? Leading Toward Inclusion in the Age of Accountability

by George Theoharis, Julie Causton & Chelsea P. Tracy-Bronson - 2016

Students identified with disabilities are increasingly being educated with the assistance of support services within heterogeneous (i.e., general education) classrooms (United States Department of Education, 2011). Yet, in this era of high stakes accountability, students are labeled, sorted, and differentially treated according to their academic achievement as reflected on standardized tests. We engaged in a project to better understand how educators grapple with these externally imposed pressures as they work to change the organizational structure of their schools to be able to implement greater inclusion of their students served by special education. We spent four years in two elementary schools engaged in inclusive school reform (shifting from exclusionary model to an inclusive one) specifically as a response to the pressures of test-based accountability mandates. Our work was guided by the following questions. In this era of high-stakes testing accountability:
  • What does school-wide inclusive reform for students with disabilities involve?
  • What kinds of changes can result from inclusive reform?
  • What role does leadership play in inclusive reform?
The article focuses on what inclusive reform involved, the resulting changes, and the role distributed leadership played in moving toward more inclusive service in the age of high-stakes accountability.

Charles had been placed in a special education self-contained classroom since second grade. During the spring of sixth grade, while the staff was finalizing its inclusive service delivery plans, Charles was sent to the office almost daily for behavioral issues. We witnessed Charles wandering the hallways while his self-contained class was integrated for special area classes (e.g., art, music, physical education), and he was shuffled around from one special area class to another. One day Charles and three of his self-contained classmates who were supposed to go to art class headed there. The art teacher stopped Charles and said, You have already done this project, you should go to another class today. Charles turned, said nothing, and went toward music class. The music teacher said to Charles, Hey what are you doing here? What class are you supposed to be in? He looked down at the floor. The music teacher said, You skip this class to go to another class and then skip another class to come here? Charles still looked at the floor and said nothing, before walking back to the self-contained special education classroom where another student said, We are supposed to go swimming today in gym.

When they arrived in gym class, a general educator was telling the physical education teacher that she was having students who did not bring their swimsuits get something to read. The gym teacher, who looked surprised to see the students coming, said, You dont need to bring anything. You will be walking while the others are swimming. Since the students from self-contained special education did not know it was a swim day in gym, they each went without suits. These students looked visibly sad, and Charles, who had now been to three separate special area classes and not allowed into any of them, was still looking at the floor. Charles then got sent out of gym class 12 minutes into the period for an altercation with a student and then not listening to the teacher. Charless frustration about being bounced around and chastised set him up for failure.

When Charles reached seventh grade, his teachers, in the process of implementing a more inclusive educational experience for students with disabilities, initiated a writing unit about career aspirations. Charles, still labeled as a special education student, was included in this activity and all activities with his general education peers. During planning one teacher questioned Charless participation: He wont get anything out of this. He doesnt write well enough to participate, and hell feel bad with no ideas to contribute. The team planned and differentiated the instruction. Upon completion, students had a peer read their piece aloud. When one student read Charless piece about dreaming of attending college to become an architect, three teachers had tears in their eyes. The teacher, who had said that Charles had no ideas, commented afterwards, I would have never believed Charles could have done that. If we had not planned our unit to include him, we would never have seen what is possible. It is evident that Charles experienced differences between the self-contained placement and being meaningfully included and engaged in academic learning experiences that were differentiated to meet his needs. This happened because Charless school team committed to, planned, and enacted inclusive school reform.   

Across town from Charles is a younger boy named Kenny. Kenny poignantly reminds us of the importance of inclusive educational practices and positioning students at the center, especially in the era of educational accountability. During the first year of implementation of inclusive reform, Kenny was a third-grade student. Before the inclusive reform Kenny was in a self-contained special education room from kindergarten through second grade, specifically for students with significant disabilities. His IEP said, Kennys disability is such that he will not benefit from placement in the general education classroom. This was the justification for his exclusionary educational placement, where he spent the first three years segregated from his peers and from the general education curriculum and instruction.

After the inclusive reform planning process, with the beginning of the new school year all students with disabilities were placed in general education classrooms. Self-contained special education rooms were eliminated and there were no more pullout programs. This meant that Kenny was in a regular general education third-grade classroom with special education services and supports provided there. General and special educators worked together to provide for each child.   

The first day of school came and Kenny was in his third-grade class. Students were getting ready to go home at the end of the day, collecting their backpacks and jackets, and lining up at the door to go home. Kenny was still sitting at his desk. The teacher came over to Kenny and said, Kenny, come on, its time to get ready to go home. Lets get your backpack. Kenny looked at her and said, I think the school has made a mistake. Ive never been in a room like this. I think the school made a mistake. He paused and asked, Do I get to come back here tomorrowhere to this room?  Ive never been in a room like this. The teacher replied, Oh honey, you get to come back here every day. This is your classroom. That 9-year-old boy was convinced the adults in his elementary school made a mistake. He felt it could not be right that he was supposed to be in such a placewith all of these other students, since that had never been the case before. He was afraid that if he went home, the school would figure out the mistake and return him to the segregated placement.

Kenny was in the right room because his school committed to providing all special education services to children in the regular, general education classrooms. In fact, at his special education annual review later that spring, Kenny was exited from special education. He was still the same child, but he no longer qualified for special education services. This is the same boy who had spent three years in a separate, self-contained, special education classroom. As is the case with most students in self-contained special education classes without a school-wide transformation he would have, in all likelihood, remained there for the rest of his education. Once this third grader was part of the general education classroomwith friends and access to general education curriculum and instructionhe performed so well behaviorally and academically that he no longer qualified for special education. Kennys third-grade teacher commented at the end of the year,

If I am proud of anything this year it is the transformation of a new future for Kenny. . . . [This] happened because we committed to [inclusive reform]. . . . I remember Kenny on the first day of school asking if the school had made a mistake. The scary thing . . . to me . . . is that we had. For years we had left Kenny and the other students in the self-contained roomthat was the mistake. A big one. He was right, the school had made a mistake . . . and, one we cannot afford to make again.

In this era of high-stakes accountability, while some schools are still separating students with disabilities from their peers in an attempt to raise achievement, other schools have pursued a more inclusive route. In this article, we present what we have learned from in-depth case studies of two schools that engaged in inclusive school reform specifically as a response to the pressures of accountability measures.



Charless and Kennys stories demonstrate the power of both exclusion and inclusion. As one reads about their experiences as they moved from a more restrictive environment (being segregated from the rest of the school population) to an inclusive environment (becoming an integral part of the school classroom and community), one sees a significant shift in educators perceptions of them and their perceptions of themselves. This brings to life where the field of education has been and where the field is or should be going.  

Before 1975, students with disabilities did not have the legal right to attend public schools. As a result, many students were educated in separate schools funded by their parents, or were not educated at all. In 1975, Congress passed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142), which has been reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).  This law was a major step forward for students with disabilities in the march toward inclusion.  Within IDEA is the provision of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). This term stipulates that all students with disabilities have the legal right to be placed in a setting, to the maximum extent appropriate, with students who do not also have disabilities (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, 20 U.S.C. "1412 (5) (B) et seq.).   

However, many schools continue to segregate students and serve students with disabilities in traditional special education systems based on pullout models (Fierros & Conroy, 2002). Further, we know that these traditional systems are not only legally problematic, but they also lead to other significant issues of disproportionality. For example, we know that compared to their White peers, Black students with disabilities are placed in separate and segregated special education classrooms at higher rates (Artiles, Harris-Murri, & Rostenberg, 2006; Connor, 2010; Waitoller & Artiles, 2013), graduate and achieve at lower rates, and receive disparate (i.e., more negative and/or severe) disciplinary consequences (Gartner & Lipsky, 2004). In addition, researchers have found that the quality of the instruction in these separate special education placements is not particularly special or superior to that which could be found in general education settings (Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2003; Vaughn, Moody, & Schumm, 1998). And lastly, it is important to remember that Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ruled that equal education in a location that is physically separate is inherently unequal.  

Students identified with disabilities are increasingly being educated with the assistance of support services within heterogeneous (i.e., general education) classrooms (United States Department of Education, 2011). This is partly prompted by federal legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2001) that required all students (including special education students) to be held to the same high standards. These ideas are furthered with the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004continuing the call for high standards and high academic progress for all students and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) (Rosenberg, Sindelar, & Hardman, 2004; United States Department of Education, 2007). For over a decade now, the call for high academic achievement for all students (regardless of disability, race, and SES) has compelled educators to search for ways to better serve and improve the academic achievement of all their students, but especially their special education populations.

Inclusion as a Response

Implementing inclusive practices focused on special education students has become an increasingly popular approach to meet these federally mandated demands. Scholars have defined inclusion as the collective principles and practices of considering the general education classroom as the initial placement choice for all students, with the use of necessary supplemental aids and services (Artiles & Kozleski, 2007; Villa & Thousand, 2003). At a very basic level inclusion is placing students with and without disabilities together in general education classes and educating everyone by implementing differentiated and universally designed instruction. It means delivering special education and related services to students with disabilities in general education classrooms, as opposed to placing students in separate rooms and/or rearranging our adult support services so that special education students can be educated together. Artiles et al. (2006) explain that inclusive education is a global movement that

Emerged as a response to the exclusion of students who were viewed as different (e.g., students with disabilities, students of color, students from lower caste backgrounds, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds) by educational systems; these constructions of difference are highly consequential for they have mediated over time student access and participation in education. (p. 3)

A social justice foundation connected to inclusion is apparent in the definition used by Udvari-Solner (1997):

Inclusive schooling propels a critique of contemporary school culture and thus, encourages practitioners to reinvent what can be and should be to realize more humane, just and democratic learning communities. Inequities in treatment and educational opportunity are brought to the forefront, thereby fostering attention to human rights, respect for difference and value of diversity. (p. 142)

Inclusive education debunks historical notions that special education is a place in a school building (DiPaola, Tschannen-Moran, & Walther-Thomas, 2004), and instead sees it as a set of services that provide academic, behavioral, and social supports within the general education setting.


K12 school leaders have turned to inclusive reform and transforming service delivery models in order to adhere to IDEAs LRE principle by merging special education and general education to create integrated comprehensive services that serve all students (Causton-Theoharis & Theoharis, 2008; Frattura & Capper, 2007; McLeskey & Waldron, 2006; Theoharis & Causton-Theoharis, 2014). Research suggests that a strong positive relationship exists between the time spent in general education and the resulting achievement in math and reading for students across the range of disabilities (Cosier, Causton-Theoharis, & Theoharis, 2013). Scholars documented that students with significant disabilities attain increased academic outcomes and lower behavior challenges when educated within general education settings as compared to special education settings (Dawson et al., 1999). In a review of 50 studies comparing the academic performance of students with mild disabilities who were included and those who are educated in segregated settings, the mean academic growth of the integrated group was in the 80th percentile, while the segregated students was in the 50th percentile (Weiner, 1985, as cited in TASH, 2009). Additionally, students with disabilities who are educated in inclusive settings obtain higher grades and earn higher scores on standardized test measurements than students with disabilities placed in separate, special classrooms (Rea, McLaughlin, & Walther-Thomas, 2002).  

Numerous studies have documented that students with and without disabilities benefit academically and socially from inclusion (Baker, Wang, & Walberg, 1994; Cole, Waldron, & Majd, 2004; Fisher & Meyer, 2002; Fisher, Pumpian, & Sax, 1998; Freeman & Alkin, 2000; Fryxell & Kennedy, 1995; Hunt & Goetz, 1997; Kennedy, Shulka, & Fryxell, 1997; McDonnell, Mathot-Bucker, Thorson, & Fister, 2001; Petterson & Hittie, 2003; Sharpe, York, & Knight, 1994). Additional scholarship has demonstrated that students without disabilities have increased academic performance when placed in an inclusive education classroom (TASH, 2009), and academic performance at the elementary and secondary level is equal to or better in inclusive settings for general education students (Salend & Duhaney, 1999). Perhaps key to this is that research has found that the mere placement of students with disabilities in the inclusive classroom had no effect on the time allotted to instruction or frequency of interruptions (Staub & Peck, 1995). In an era of heavily increased academic accountability, this finding seems especially important given all the concerns of time devoted to tests and test preparation. From these data it seems that including special education students in general education classrooms does not negatively impact the distribution of instructional time.

We know that a shift toward more inclusive service delivery models presents some serious challenges. Over 30 years of empirical research reveals the benefits of providing fully inclusive educational experiences for students with disabilities, and these outweigh challenges.  In the following section we demonstrate that this shift to inclusion for students with disabilities is not just possible, it is imperative.



In this era of high-stakes accountability, students are labeled, sorted, and differentially treated according to their academic achievement as reflected on standardized tests. This is especially the case with special education populations, who, along with their teachers, are under enormous pressure to perform on these tests. Given this state of affairs, it seems even more imperative that educational leaders and teachers work hard against this tide of labeling and ranking. Inclusion seems an ideal place to start.

We engaged in a project to better understand how educators grapple with these externally imposed pressures as they work to change the organizational structure of their schools to be able to implement greater inclusion of their students served by special education. We spent four years in two elementary schools engaged in inclusive school reform (shifting from an exclusionary model to an inclusive one) specifically as a response to the pressures of test-based accountability mandates. Our work was guided by the following questions. In this era of high-stakes testing accountability:


What does school-wide inclusive reform for students with disabilities involve?  


What kinds of changes can result from inclusive reform?  


What role does leadership play in inclusive reform?

Each school needed to meet the following criteria: (a) it was a public elementary school; (b) at the time of selection the school used resource room placements and self-contained placements for students with significant disabilities; (c) 80% of the school staff had bought in to the process of changing their service delivery model to become more inclusive; and (d) the principal demonstrated an authentic commitment to moving toward inclusive special education services.

We presented the idea to the superintendent and director of special education at a midsized urban district, and they invited us to present to a meeting of the elementary school principals. Seven sites showed initial interest. We visited each of these and discussed the project as well as completed a faculty and staff survey. Two schools and their leaders met all of the criteria stated above. The others that did not meet criteria failed to do so for not having an 80% or higher teacher and staff interest in changing the service delivery model toward inclusion. We completed two in-depth case studies and a cross-case analysisone of Sedgwick Elementary School and one of Rathmore K8 School.1



Both Sedgwick Elementary and Rathmore K8 schools engaged in inclusive school reform and provide an important vantage point for understanding the promise and complexities in creating schools that seek to serve all students in inclusive ways, and in doing so, improve student outcomes. There were important similarities between the two schools as well as compelling differences. Both schools are located in the same urban district (City School District) that serves approximately 20,000 K12 students. Sedgwick Elementary is a K6 school with 470 students. Rathmore K8 is located in the same midsized urban area as Sedgwick and there are about 620 students. See Table 1 for demographic information from the schools and the larger district.

Table 1. Select District and School Demographic Information



City District %

Sedgwick %

Rathmore %








   Black or African American








   Native American








Receiving Free/Reduced Lunch




English Language Learners




Students with Disabilities




Both schools restructured their service delivery to rearrange how they utilized adults to insure all labeled students were receiving special education services within the context of the general education classroom. Both schools had students with the range of disabilities, from mild to significant, including: autism, emotional disabilities, speech and language impairments, significant intellectual disabilities, orthopedic impairments, learning disabilities, etc.

Our findings are organized by three guiding questions: What does inclusive reform for students with disabilities involve?  What kinds of changes can result from inclusive reform?  What role does leadership play in inclusive reform?


We spent four years in our schools observing classrooms, interviewing teachers and principals, and working with teachers and helping to strategize their efforts. From this wealth of data we identified eight key components of change. All of these were important features of what we observed as endemic to the successful transformation from exclusivity to inclusion. The eight components that were present at both schools were: a partnership, a team approach, goals, data, service delivery maps, new service delivery maps, professional development, and resistance. These components emerged as the most salient and integral features of both schools reform efforts.

A Partnership

The reform effort in both schools began with a partnership between a major research university and each school. According to the superintendent, this involved a multiyear commitment by university faculty to work with targeted elementary schools that have elected to re-examine their current school practices, restructure their service delivery model, and become more inclusive in all areas of school practice. To begin, two university professors met with the superintendent of the urban school district, the assistant superintendent, the director of special education, and the head of the teachers union to propose the partnership. This led to the selection of the two schools that participated.

A Team Approach

The university faculty worked among an inclusive reform leadership team within both schools for the duration of the partnership. Each school made sure the team was representative of all grade levels and interest groups at the school (i.e., the team included special education teachers, classroom teachers, special area teachers, paraprofessionals, as well as the principal, vice principal, and literacy coach). One principal shared that While we have official representatives, it [the team meetings] was also open to all who wanted to attend. In both contexts, this team grew in size over the first year, but shrunk down to a small core by the third year.

The Goals

Each team began by setting goals around three areas. The goals included the areas of school structure [the way staff are used and students are arranged], meeting the needs of all students in general education, and school climate. One of the vice principals described that I always brought the goals to every meeting and we referred back to them and used them as a guide for the remainder of the process.

The Data

After setting goals, the teams examined where we are now, explicitly acknowledging the current status of the school in terms of serving students with disabilities. A group of teachers took responsibility for presenting to the team achievement data comparing students with disabilities to the rest of the students. The data revealed that students with disabilities had gaps in achievement. Special education teachers on the team collected and provided data about the number of students who were in the different types of special education programs and where they were receiving services. One special education teacher commented, Many of our students lacked inclusive opportunities to be with non-disabled peers as well as opportunities to engage in the general curriculum. One team member from each school took that data and disaggregated the special education programs by race. Both school reported in the minutes that there were racial disparities. According to one principal, We have more students of color in more restrictive/self-contained special education placements compared to the demographics of our school. These data helped each schools leadership team to understand the nature and extent of issues related to their special education students experiences.

The Service Delivery Maps

Each leadership team created a service delivery map and examined how services were being provided to students with disabilities. One university facilitator shared, The goal of creating special education service delivery maps is to create a visual so all staff could see the birds-eye view of how human resources were being utilized to serve students with disabilities, the ways the school is providing special education services, and which students are removed from general education. This involved creating a visual representation of the special education teachers and who worked with which general education teachers and which students, who pulled students from which classrooms, who worked in self-contained spaces, and which paraprofessionals were used where. A general education teacher shared, This process involved the creation of a complete picture documenting how and where all staff at the school worked and how we were using our staff.  It showed all of us where students were included and where they were excluded. This process gave the staff a complete picture of the school and helped shift teachers perspectives beyond their classrooms so they could see the school-wide impact.

New Service Delivery Maps

Next, teams of teachers took the service delivery maps and created new drafts to create a more inclusive school. One administrator commented,

We have set a goal of creating balanced classrooms where all students are members, so we have to redeploy our special education teachers to create teams with classroom teachers instead of pulling students out or educating special education students down the hall.

This entailed looking at how to rearrange staff, creating new teaching teams, and rethinking student placement in order to enhance inclusive education. These drafts were shared with the leadership team and the team then worked to create a final plan to develop an inclusive service delivery model that would provide inclusion for students with special education needs. At Sedgwick, everyone on the leadership team decided to schedule an extra meeting to create the new service delivery map together so they could present it to the entire staff. A special education teacher commented, Once we saw the power of the visual service maps, everyone wanted to be part of creating a new plan.

Professional Development

A literacy coach shared, this [university] partnership has brought such rich and different kinds of professional developmentfrom how to run more effective meetings, to leadership skills around service delivery, to a process we can use, to classroom strategies. The leadership team and university facilitators conveyed that the professional development across both schools involved: (1) gaining an authentic understanding of the system and use of resources and creating plans to use human resources to match the goals of inclusion and belonging for all; (2) offering university graduate courses onsite for graduate students and practicing teachers; (3) embedding professional development initiatives within goals of inclusion and belonging (e.g., differentiation, working with students with challenging behavior, collaboration, science lesson study, writing projects); (4) developing authentic collaborative instructional teams; (5) problem solving and mentoring with administrators and instructional teams; and (6) leading whole staff conversations. A special education teacher commented, The professional development [the university team provided] was a main reason for our success with our new inclusive model. We got new ideas and had a place to keep thinking about how to make all students belong. We could not have done this without the professional development and support.

The Resistance

While there was much agreement among the leadership team to move forward with the change from an exclusionary model to an inclusive one, there were also bumps of resistance. For example, there were often disagreements at the meetings as options were discussed. According to one literacy coach,

We disagreed about who would work with whom on new teams, we disagreed about how to create service maps, we argued about individual schedules for specific teacherswhen she would be in one room and when she would be in anotherwe argued about why are we trying to keep all kids in a general education roommany tears were shed.  

There was a vocal minority that was intent on adhering to the status quo. One teacher, representative of this minority, maintained, We are a good school; we have always cared about students with disabilities, and we dont need to change. While this vocal minority shrunk over time, they continued to voice opposition to including all students.

 When it came time to create new teams, one special education teacher captured the overall feelings at the school:

The staff is excited about this if it means we get to work in the same ways we had in the past. Now that people are starting to realize we have to change who we work with and how we teach, many people are getting anxious and small groups are trying to get out of changing.

Rathmore spent a year planning, but at implementation time it was clear at Rathmore that a sizable part of the staff was nervous about changes for the upcoming year. Many were enthusiastic, some were scared, and some wanted to keep things as they had been. This resistance came from different sources at the schoola few general education teachers, a speech and language pathologist, and a couple of special education teachers. In a display of real candor, one teacher resisting embracing the inclusive reform, stating, I understand why this is better for the students, but it will be a lot more work for me. While many people had put in a lot of work into the inclusive reform process, the feeling at the school was one of uncertainty as to whether they were adopting their plan or not.

At a staff meeting in May of the planning year, the university faculty went over the process of the inclusive reform to date, a group of teachers introduced the new service plan, and the principal concluded the meeting by saying clearly to the entire staff,

This is the direction we are going. We are going to make this school the model of inclusion. If you feel like you cannot travel this path with us, I will help you find another place to work, but you cannot stay here and jeopardize this work. We are moving in this direction and I hope you come with us.

The administration felt strongly that the staff had voted the year before to do this work and a lot of work had been done, so they were not going to back out. The school administration took the service plan, fit staff members into it for the following fall, and implementation of the inclusive service delivery started. They created the teams of teachers at each grade that would work together to provide inclusive services for all students.


In addressing the second question, we begin with separate sections for each school. Following a parallel structure, we describe the special education service prior to and after the implementation of inclusive school reform. We conclude this section by presenting data about changes in student achievement.

SedgwickInclusive Reform

Special education services prior to reform. Prior to the inclusive reform, Sedgwick had three general education classrooms for each grade kindergarten through sixth grade. At each grade level, one classroom was labeled as the co-taught room. This room had from 18 to 25 students without disabilities and from six to nine students with disabilities. There were three adults working full time in this room, one general education teacher, one special education teacher, and one paraprofessional. This is a typical model across many schoolsto overload one classroom with students and staff and call it inclusive. While the idea is well intentioned, the model overloads needs into one room (creating the potential for tracking), designates certain spaces for students with and certain spaces as not for them, necessitates that all students who are to be included be in the same class, and does not adhere to the idea of natural proportion.

Prior to inclusive reform, one and a half resource special education teachers provided pullout services for students with mild disabilities across the school. The full-time teacher pulled students from six different classrooms from grades 16, and pushed them into one third-grade classroom. The half-time resource teacher pulled students from four different classrooms, first through fourth grade. The resource teachers were working on academic IEP goals in these pullout sessions but were disconnected from the classroom content.

Prior to the inclusive reform, there were two self-contained special education classrooms, one for students 6 to 8 years of age; the other 8 to 10 years of age. Each had up to 12 students with significant disabilities, oftentimes with concomitant behavioral issues. One teacher who worked in this type of classroom described, These students with disabilities spent the entire day together, separate from [general education] peers, and had little connection to the general education curriculum.

The service delivery prior to inclusive reform involved 55 students with disabilities being overloaded into general education rooms called co-taught classrooms, and served by seven special education teachers. Twenty students with disabilities were self-contained in entirely special education classrooms, and served by two special education teachers, and 30 students were pulled out of their classrooms for resource support from 1.5 teachers. This meant Sedgwick had a total of 10.5 special education teachers serving 105 students with disabilities, with the majority of these students being removed from the general education classroom for significant portions of the day.

This service delivery plan prior to reform concentrated (or overloaded) needs into certain classrooms while other classrooms lacked both students with disabilities and support. This model left some students with no or fragmented connection to the general education curriculum, instruction, and social interaction. Students who were pulled out of their classrooms to receive resource teacher support were considered to be in the least restrictive placement, while the placement of students who were overloaded into co-taught classrooms was considered more restrictive, followed by the most restrictive self-contained placement.

After the reform. The implementation of a restructured service delivery was a major change at Sedgwick. This restructuring eliminated co-taught, resource, or self-contained spaces, students, or teachers. All special education teachers were paired with two general education teachers and a teaching assistant to co-plan and co-deliver instruction to a range of learners placed heterogeneously in two classrooms. All learners were placed into general education classrooms first, and the team of educators provided a range of services to meet students needs. In rethinking the use of special education resources and creating a service model that placed all students in general education, each special education teacher was responsible for about 10 students with disabilities with ranging from mild to significant, including students that were formerly seen as co-taught, resource, or self-contained students. Regarding this initiative, one special education teacher commented,

[The inclusive reform] makes us think of all kids as our kids; we are forced to try to get beyond the idea that some students are inclusive kids, some are resource kids, and some are self-contained kids. This has made us try to see whoever is in our classrooms as our student.

RathmoreInclusive Reform

Special education services prior to reform. Prior to the inclusive reform, Rathmore had three general education classrooms for each grade, kindergarten through sixth. At each grade level, one classroom was labeled as the co-taught room. These rooms had from 18 to 25 students without disabilities and from six to nine students with disabilities. There were at least three adults working full time in this room, one general education teacher, one special education teacher, one paraprofessional, and additional 1:1 paraprofessionals for particular students.

At the seventh and eighth grade, the co-taught program looked slightly different as the students moved from teacher to teacher for each subject. At the seventh grade a group of 11 students with disabilities moved from subject to subject with the same 13 general education peers, meaning that these 24 studentsalmost half of whom had disabilitieswere together for all subjects. This group was together for the majority of the day, supported by a special education teacher that went from class to class with them. The eighth grade inclusive model involved 10 students with disabilities traveling from general education subject to subject together. This was different from the seventh grade model in that the general education peers changedmeaning the students with disabilities were always together but the rest of each class was different each period. The seventh grade co-teaching special education teacher traveled with this group and provided special education support in each room.

Prior to inclusive reform, two resource teachers provided pullout services for students with mild disabilities across the school. One teacher pulled students from 11 different classrooms from grades 15. The other resource teacher pulled students from the middle school grades pushed into sixth grade for literacy and math support, and pulled students from seventh and eighth grades. The resource teachers were working on academic IEP goals in these pullout sessions.

Prior to the inclusive reform, there were two self-contained special education classrooms, one for students 8 to 10 years of age; the other 11 to 13 years of age. Each had up to 12 students with significant disabilities, oftentimes with behavioral issueslike the self-contained classrooms at Sedgwick.

In sum, the service delivery prior to inclusive reform involved 86 students with disabilities being overloaded into rooms called co-taught classrooms, and served by nine special education teachers; 21 students with disabilities self-contained in entirely special education classrooms, served by two special education teachers; and 49 students pulled out of their classrooms for resource support from two teachers. This meant Rathmore had a total of 13 special education teachers serving 156 students with disabilities, many of these students being removed from the general education classroom for significant portions of the day.

Like Sedgwick, this service delivery plan (prior to reform) concentrated or overloaded special education needs into certain classrooms. A fifth-grade teacher shared,

By the time students get into the intermediate grade, parents of students without disabilities are advocating for their children not to be in the room we call co-taught because of the overload of needs . . . many parents [of students without disabilities] are supportive of the idea of inclusion, but see the overload of students with disabilities in one classroom as a problem.  

Oftentimes the other classrooms lacked both students with disabilities and support. The assistant principal commented about this service model,

It is clear that many students have no or at best a marginal connection to the general education curriculum and instruction. These students also have behavior challenges that are exacerbated by being kept from their peers or having lots of transitions in and out of the classroom.

After the reform. As Rathmore initiated its inclusive service delivery model, some staff felt like it was a major change, whereas for others it felt like no big deal. One teacher commented,

We are working with kids. They have a range of needs; this is nothing new. I know some of my colleagues are freaking out. But come on . . . while there are some students who used to be self-contained that are in our classrooms, in many ways our jobs are the sameto teach the children in front of us. And to be honest, the range of student needs is not much different.

This new service delivery eliminated co-taught, resource, or self-contained spaces, students, or teachers. All 13 special education teachers were paired with general education teachers and a teaching assistant to co-plan and co-deliver instruction to a range of learners placed heterogeneously. In grades K5, this meant special education teachers working with and across two or three general education classrooms. A paraprofessional was assigned to each special education teacher, and when the special education teacher was co-delivering instruction in one room, most of the time the paraprofessional was providing support in the other. In grades 68, the special education teachers were paired with subject areas to collaborate and co-deliver specific content areas. All learners were placed into general education classrooms first, and the team of educators provided a range of services to meet students needs.

Across the school, while creating class lists, the administration and teachers at Rathmore worked to create balanced, heterogeneous classrooms that exhibited a range of student needs; they took care not to overload students with disabilities into one room, but spread them out across two to three classrooms at each level, keeping in mind the natural proportion of students with disabilities at their school (25%). Also, it was important not to create tracks of classrooms grouped by ability, but instead heterogeneous mixes of students.

In rethinking the use of special education resources and creating a service model that placed all students in general education, each special education teacher was responsible for about 12 students with disabilities ranging from mild to significant, including students that were formerly seen as co-taught, resource, or self-contained students. A vice principal commented, This shift is making us all take new responsibility for students we felt someone else should take responsibility for. It is important to note that as Rathmore moved into its inclusive service delivery, the principal expected, and in the words of the teachers mandated, that all related service providers (e.g., speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists) would provide their services inclusively. In a moment of frustration the principal said to a speech therapist, who was resisting bringing her services into general education, Put away those dusty games you play in your special room and lets get in the classrooms and teach. While this might not have been the most tactful approach, it sent a message that the entire Rathmore school, each professional, and the services he or she delivers was going to be conducted in an inclusive-oriented manner.

The expectation was that the special education teachers were to co-plan and co-deliver instruction in each room where they worked. In kindergarten through fifth grades, this meant that special education teachers team planned and team taught with two to three general education teachers. The reality was that in some classrooms these teams planned well together and employed multiple adults in a variety of ways using co-teaching strategies (Friend & Bursuck, 2012). In some rooms, the collaboration was less sophisticated; this resulted in less meaningful differentiation, accommodations, and modifications. A number of teams did not know how to use multiple adults in effective ways and oftentimes everyone in the special education staff looked more like teaching assistants. The middle school level (sixth through eighth grades) saw a similar range of skilled and less skilled co-planning and use of co-teaching strategies.

It is important to note that at the request of the Rathmore administration and teachers, a similar approach to ongoing professional development was taken at Rathmore as at Sedgwick. This lasted for two to three years, and there is still communication between the university and Rathmore, as Rathmore has become significantly independent in regard to keeping the inclusive service delivery alive.

Changes in Patterns of Student Achievement

Reviewing and monitoring data on student outcomes has been an ongoing process for each school. Although both schools witnessed basically no change in achievement after the first year of implementation, both saw improvements in subsequent years. Tables 2 and 3 present data on the percentages of students at or above grade level on statewide standardized tests before and after inclusive reform. Importantly, these data reflect patterns emanating from student performance on statewide tests used for accountability purposes.

Table 2. Sedgwick Literacy Achievement Cohort Data: Percentages of Students at or Above Grade Level Before and After Inclusive Reform

Current Grade Level


2 years later

Sedgwick 4th gradeall students



Sedgwick 4th gradestudents with disabilities



Sedgwick 5th gradeall students



Sedgwick 5th gradestudents with disabilities



Sedgwick 6th gradeall students



Sedgwick 6th gradestudents with disabilities



Table 3. Rathmore Math Achievement Cohort Data: Percentages of Students at or Above Grade Level Before and After Inclusive Reform



2 years later

Rathmore 5th gradeall students



Rathmore 5th gradestudents with disabilities



Rathmore 6th gradeall students



Rathmore 6th gradestudents with disabilities



Rathmore 7th gradeall students



Rathmore 7th gradestudents with disabilities



Rathmore 8th gradeall students



Rathmore 8th gradestudents with disabilities



Note. The data reported in Tables 2 and 3 follow the same student cohort over time. For example, in the row that reads Rathmore 5th gradeall students the before column refers to the percentage of students that were at or above grade level in third grade (and prior to inclusive reform changes), and the 2 years later column refers to the percentage of students that were at or above grade level two years later in fifth grade.  

These data are promising during this time of high-stakes accountability. As discussed earlier, high-stakes testing accountability often has a side effect of undermining achievement for students with disabilities. Here, we see evidence that inclusive reform may offset the burdens and pressures associated with high-stakes tests. Still, it is important to note some qualifications to these conclusions. For example, both Sedgwick and Rathmore serve a population of students that is less economically disadvantaged, and less diverse than most other schools in the district (see Table 1). We attempted to untangle some of this by comparing student trends at Rathmore and Sedgwick on the literacy and math assessment to all of their peers across the district.  

Prior to engaging in inclusive reform, approximately 10% more of Rathmore and Sedgwick students passed the literacy and math assessments compared to their peers across the district. At the end of two years of inclusive school reform, approximately 15% more students at the two schools passed the literacy assessment than did their district peers. After four years, 18% more students at Rathmore and Sedgwick passed the literacy assessment and 20% more students passed the math assessment compared to their peers in the district. So, while an increasing percentage of students at Sedgwick and Rathmore outperformed their district peers before inclusive reform, the gap widened each year after reform implementation. We cannot claim that these changes in achievement are caused by the inclusive reform alone; however, the pattern of results suggests efforts of inclusion had some positive impact.


Across both schools, leadership was a key aspect of moving into and maintaining an inclusive direction. We found that strong leadership from three different perspectives was critical to the efforts. These included the role of the principal, the teachers, and the university team.  

Principal Leadership

At Sedgwick, the principal was a vocal and strong advocate of adopting an inclusive model of delivery. Yet she adopted a more collegial and collaborative approach toward the planning and implementation of the initiative. The principal believed that it was imperative that all staff members take responsibility together for all students. She commented,

We have too many people who want someone else to work with or teach the students that challenge us. Our old way of doing special education reinforced that egregious belief and left certain students, and too often Black students, to be seen as someone elses problem. These are kids, little kidsnot problems. They belong to all of us, and together we have to do it afraid. We might be scared, we have to rely on each other, but we can do this. My motto for the year is Do it afraid.

The principal did not want this to be her initiative, but instead believed inclusive reform should be primarily led and administered by school staff and faculty.

The school administration at Rathmore took ownership of inclusive reform in different ways than at Sedgwick. While they attended the planning meetings, they were often quiet and did not voice an inclusive vision. They did advocate for each grade team to have a representative at the planning meetings. However, when moving from planning to implementation, the school administration moved into a central leadership role in the inclusive reform. This took a number of forms, including putting together instructional teams based on the new service delivery model of general educators and special educators in a decisive manner. They revisited this project with some feedback from staff each year, but felt that creating and revising teams was their responsibility in order to shape the instructional program. Also, the school administration clearly stated during the transition from planning to implementation that Rathmore was not going back to the old, and in their words ineffective and completely non-inclusive, ways to service students. This was evident as they moved through initial implementation up to present day.

Teacher Leadership

Significant teacher leadership emerged through the initial planning process and through the first couple of years of implementation at both schools. The special education teachers would get together with the literacy coach each year beginning in January to run a process of re-examining their service delivery, looking toward the next year. The literacy coach and special education teachers played a significant role in keeping the momentum going, problem solving with other teachers, and being central leaders around this work.

Many staff members were invested in the process and more and more came to the planning meetings, as it got closer to implementation. It was clear that more people became involved as the reality began to sink in that service delivery changes were likely to happen. A number of staff voiced ongoing commitment to inclusive reform and a number were resistant and skeptical, but there was no coalescing into a strong staff leadership in one direction or another. It is important to note that the momentum of the planning and implementation grew when the staff from Sedgwick came and shared their experiences about planning and implementation with the Rathmore staff. One Rathmore teacher commented, Hearing from [Sedgwick] made a lot of people feel like, Hey, we can do this. They said it was a lot of work, but it is clear they did it and have found that it is better for the kids. This relieved a lot of anxiety and shifted momentum toward inclusive reform implementation.

University Leadership

We need to note the leadership provided by the university team initiated the conversations with both schools and facilitated the reform process. In the initial stages many staff described the inclusive reform as the university facultys idea and project, not as something in which they were invested. University faculty led all the initial conversations, planning processes, and professional development. Without that leadership, it is very likely these changes would not have happened. However, over time the university team has gradually reduced the intensity of support and responsibility. There is still a relationship between the school and university team, but the school has taken over all responsibility.

At Rathmore, the university team initiated this process and facilitated the plan and professional development. Given that there was a change in school administration between when the school voted to engage in inclusive reform and when the planning process began, the university team kept the momentum going. The assistant principal commented, While we are fully behind this [inclusive reform], there is no way we would have changed our service delivery to include all students without the leadership and support of [the university team]. In some ways each school has taken ownership in different ways; at Rathmore there was no momentum within the school when the planning process began, so the university team acted as the catalyst to both get the inclusive reform going and to keep it moving toward implementation. Once Rathmore had implemented its inclusive service delivery, the university teams leadership moved to problem solving and professional development.


While we know that every school is different and change requires attention to specific local contexts, the cross case analysis focuses on what can be learned about the nature of school-wide transformation from exclusion to inclusion. Table 4 provides eight key similarities found between the inclusive school reform process undertaken at Sedgwick and Rathmore schools. We highlight the similarity, an illustrative example of the similarity in practice from the schools, and a key lesson.

Table 4. Similarities Between SchoolsKey Lessons for Inclusive Schools


Example from Practice

Key Lesson

Both teams conceptualized inclusive school reform as important to all students, regardless of perceived severity of disability or disability label.

As one special educator said, It doesnt matter if its a student who has autism, has challenging behavior, or is a little behind in reading . . . now, I am working with students who represent a range of disabilities from less severe to a student with probably the most significant disability in our school.

Inclusive school reform takes into account all students who have an IEP (including those with the most significant disabilities), rather than just those students previously educated through co-taught or resource programming.

Worked to disassemble distinct special education service delivery structures that were previously in place.

Each school had inclusive classrooms at each grade level, resource room pullout instructional delivery, and self-contained classrooms for students with significant disabilities.

Inclusive school reform ensures that all students are provided special education services within heterogeneous grade-level appropriate classroomsno more pullout or self-contained programs.

Redistributed the human resources they had to create inclusive services. No extra human resources (e.g., special educators, paraprofessionals, therapist providers) were used to implement inclusive reform.

We maintained the number of special educators and teaching aides employed, and the number of students with disabilities stayed relatively the same. (Rathmore principal)

Changing the method of service delivery for special education toward inclusive practices can be effectively implemented in schools, regardless of the number of students with disabilities or the number of special educators and teaching aides employed.

Implemented school-wide change swiftly, instead of changing the special education services and schooling for one class or specific students through incremental steps.

As one principal said, Instead of just changing what Kenny did during school, we changed the access to general education instruction, peer groups, and opportunities for every child with a disability in this school. This is what inclusive reform means.  

Inclusive reform was seen as an initiative to change the structure of the school, including the ways in which human resources were utilized. In other words, restructuring service delivery meant rearranging the ways adults were used.

Received professional development on collaboration and co-teaching from the university team.

We received a weekly evening class on collaboration for a semester. (Rathmore teacher)

Inclusive reform requires that teams of professionals work together to co-plan, co-service, and co-deliver in innovative ways, and purposeful professional development on collaborative skills is necessary.

Experienced inevitable dissent about the viability of the inclusive reform.

A group of staff voice opposition to school-wide restructuring. In one teachers words, they felt It is best and easier to serve some students outside the regular classroom.

Although resistance and opposition were present, changing the special education delivery system in both schools ensued successfully.

Needed principal and teacher leadership.

The school administration had to be a critical visionary beacon. Teacher leadership helped build buy-in of other educators and paraprofessionals. (Rathmore teacher)

Process and implementation required leadership, support, and engagement from school administration and teachers.

Relied on outside leadership from the university-based team to initiate and engage in the reform process.

Without the university team facilitating this change process and providing support, we couldnt have done it. (Rathmore reading specialist)

School administrators learned to enact dispositions that leaders committed to social justice and equity-based leadership have acquired through ongoing professional development that occurred through communication and problem solving with the university-based team.


Data from these schools offer implications for policy and practice. While there are various implications of these lessons, we highlight four. We would be remiss if we did not point to the reality that in this era of high-stakes accountability, many schools and districts are moving in a more exclusionary direction where students are tracked and separated by ability or achievement level. The first implication for practice is that when inclusion is seen as a school-wide philosophy that drives inclusive service delivery, and this initiative is pursued in a well-planned and thoughtful manner, it can result in equity and social justice and improved achievement. Too often inclusion is positioned as equitable and well intentioned but in opposition to excellence. These schools demonstrate the reality that equity/inclusion as well as increased excellence can happen together.

Second, we found it important that both schools had distributed leadership to move inclusive services forward. Of course, a principal and other administrators were needed to support this initiative, but it is of particular note that both schools seemed to rely on outside (university) support to move the process along, as well as teacher leaders. Neither school mandated inclusive services from the top, but rather set a direction that was carried by the administration and university facilitators and planned for democratically by the staff.

Third, we want to highlight the key implication for preparation. Through this process these schools developed a critical mass of people who believed that inclusion was morally right and practically feasible. The teachers at these schools required the ability to work together in team to meet a wide range of students needs. Future and current teachers need the dispositions and skills not only to meet a range of students needs, but also to collaborate and work with multiple adults. Successful transitions from exclusionary to inclusive models require that leaders believe in the promise and moral imperative of inclusion. They require the ability to reimagine service delivery, as well as the ability to facilitate a process of redeploying staff to create a more inclusive school. To us, this suggests that teacher and leader development needs to include a rich understanding of both why inclusive services can be better and how to make them effectively happen.

Fourth, too often schools feel that special education regulations make it difficult to move in a more inclusive direction. While the letter of the IDEA law may not intend to have this effect, many practitioners report this. However, these schools used their human resources flexibly to build teams of educators who worked to meet the wide range of needs inclusively. Policy needs to support states, districts, and schools in moving in this inclusive direction. This means setting targets for including increasingly more students with disabilities and the ability to create and recreate an inclusive service delivery. We have come to understand that policy can act like the vision set by the leaders and facilitators at these schools, and staff need the flexibility to use their resources to meet that vision and the guidance to keep it focused on including all students.


We conclude this article back where we began, with Charles, Kenny, and their schools. It is tempting see these schools as anomaliesspecial places that are distinct from typical schools, somehow outside the pressures everyone else is facing in this era of accountability. Following the same temptation, it is convenient to see the stories of Kenny and Charles as outliers, exceptional examples so different from the typical students put in self-contained special education programs. We challenge both those temptations. In our experience with hundreds of schools across the United States, these schools are delightfully typicalvery similar to a great many schools with respect to challenges, assets, and accountability pressures.

Kenny and Charles, both Black boys, raise significant questions that should cause pause for serious reflection. Well-intentioned educators, following well-intentioned policy and led by well-intentioned administrators, put Kenny and Charles in self-contained programs instead of inclusive ones. Collectively, we in the field of education did that to Kenny and Charles. Those decisions are repeated again and again by teams of well-intentioned educators, and when we talk to leaders about those decisions, they are confident that their decisions are right and in the best interest of the student and his or her peers.

However, in the midst of increasing accountability pressures, we see that there is a point when the schools in this study decided not to follow that path and instead change to more inclusive special education services. For those boys, when their services changed, so did their outcomes and future possibilities. Their stories suggest that the initial decisions made about them were wrong. Our gut reaction to segregate students in order to raise achievement is fundamentally flawed. This raises a deep issue to tackle: Who else are we wrong about? What else are we wrong about? What will we do for the other students like Kenny and Charles?  

We hope this article provides examples of regular schools with typical staff,adhering to typical state and federal regulations in the midst of the standards and high-stakes accountability erathat decided to create a more equitable schooling environment by choosing to include all students and enacting inclusive special education service delivery. We know this takes leadership, and in these cases that leadership took a variety of forms. These schools provide a reminder that more equitable and inclusive schools are possible, and demonstrate how this can and must happen.


1. A case study (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007; Creswell, 2002; Yin, 2003) was utilized in order to provide an in-depth exploration of a bounded system (Creswell, 2002, p. 484). More specifically, a multicase (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007) or collective case-study approach was integral in the research design to provide insight into an issue (Creswell, 2002, p. 485). We see this as Stake (2005) described instrumental case study.[UNCLEAR] Analysis relied on the constant comparative method, using deductive and inductive coding (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Data was initially coded based on the research questions with a set of a-priori codes (process, prior service delivery, inclusive service delivery, student achievement and leadership). Subcodes were then constructed to fine-tune analysis. Multiple members of the team reviewed the transcript and notes from each meeting/interview in order to provide consistency of coding.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 14, 2016, p. 1-30
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21547, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 10:34:21 PM

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About the Author
  • George Theoharis
    Syracuse University
    E-mail Author
    GEORGE THEOHARIS is Professor and Department Chair at Syracuse University. He has extensive experience in public education as a principal and teacher. His research focuses on issues of leadership, equity, diversity, and inclusion. His books, titled The School Leaders Our Children Deserve, Leadership for Increasingly Diverse Schools, and The Principal’s Handbook for Leading Inclusive Schools, focus on the intersections of leadership and equity.
  • Julie Causton
    Syracuse University
    E-mail Author
    JULIE CAUSTON is Professor and Program Coordinator of the Inclusive and Special Education Program in the Department of Teaching and Leadership at Syracuse University. Her research and writing focus on the best practices in inclusive education that promote belonging in schools. Particular areas of expertise include school reform, inclusive teacher training, collaboration, humanistic behavioral supports, lesson planning, and providing invisible adult supports. Recent publications include The Educator’s Handbook for Inclusive School Practices, The Principal’s Handbook for Leading Inclusive Schools, and The Paraprofessional’s Handbook of Inclusive Education.
  • Chelsea Tracy-Bronson
    Stockton University
    E-mail Author
    CHELSEA P. TRACY-BRONSON is an Assistant Professor in the Special Education graduate program at Stockton University, where she teaches courses on inclusive special education. She works with districts and schools to redesign services to create inclusive special education and related service provision. Her published works include The Educator’s Handbook for Inclusive School Practices and an article in The International Journal of Whole Schooling.
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