Access to General Education and Outcomes for Students with Disabilities

I started teaching at segregated schools, moved to segregated classrooms at integrated schools, and wound up as an inclusion teacher. I believe that my students were well taught and well served in all three settings. Yet, having taught in each environment I have also seen first hand how much it matters for students to have a general education home. I believe in inclusion. This post though is not on my beliefs-- it’s on what the research says about inclusion and time in general education settings.

Research to Practice: Evidence on Inclusion

What do we mean by inclusion?

IDEA is pretty clear on what inclusion is. Students are included if they spend 80% or more of their time in general education settings. Wham, bam, done. Inclusive education, however, means something more. It means a sense of belonging– not just physical access. I found this definition of inclusive education powerful and so wanted to share it: “Inclusive education is about embracing everyone and making a commitment to provide each student in the community, each citizen in a democracy, with the inalienable right to belong. Inclusion assumes that living and learning together benefits everyone, not just children who are labeled as having a difference (e.g., those who are gifted, are non–English proficient, or have a disability). In summary, inclusion is a belief system, not just a set of strategies” (Falvey & Givner, 2005, p.5). 


The studies I include here focus on the legal definition of inclusion– but my own definition is much closer to the second one. To me, inclusion means that every student, regardless of disability, has a general education classroom home, a place where they are a part of the community and the fabric of the classroom. I don’t have a problem with pull out services– but I want them to be pull out with all that implies about where a student belongs. 

Why do inclusion?

Because it is the law. I mean, the law and blanket statements don’t really go together,, but the law states that students have to be in general education environments to the maximum extent possible– and the law trends that way more with each reauthorization. Between the strong moral argument and the strong legal argument for inclusion, researchers haven’t wasted much time on why include. Instead they have focused on whether it helps students and how to make it work so I will switch to those!

What benefits and harms do we see from inclusion?

Students with disabilities who spend more time in general education do better than their segregated peers. They do better in reading and mathematics, with scores that are quite significantly higher than their peers with similar disabilities (Cosier et al., 2013).  In an analysis of 24 studies on academic placement, Oh-Young and Filler (2015) found that students in more inclusive settings outperformed their segregated peers on both academic and social measures. They looked at whether the differences were due to severity of disability and found they were not. They found instead that students in the self-contained settings had the same abilities to perform tasks as those in the inclusive settings but they were lacking in the skills. Furthermore, students who are more included are up to five times more likely than their peers with similar disabilities to graduate from high school (Hehir et al., 2012).


Furthermore, these benefits to students with special needs occur without harm to students without disabilities. One of folks’ big worries about inclusion is whether the learning of other students is harmed. In 2007, Kalambouka and colleagues went through over 20 studies on the impact of students with disabilities on the learning of their peers and concluded that  there was “no adverse effects on pupils without SEN of including pupils with special needs in mainstream schools, with 81% of the outcomes reporting positive or neutral effects (58% þ 23%)” (p.376). What they found was that not only were there few documented cases of negative impacts from the inclusion of students with disabilities, most studies found a positive effect academically on the other students. So there. 

How do you make inclusion work?

There is no simple answer. In their book, Villa and Thousand (2005) emphasize, among other things, giving students the supports they need in the general education setting. Many students who are included need those accommodations and supports that you wrote into the IEP, whether that is access to a text-to-speech program or push-in services to provide a bonus reteach on content. Inclusion doesn’t mean that special education stops– just that it changes in shape. Students are mostly in general education with the support they need– and they are pulled out for services that can’t be delivered in general education (like a reading intervention the other students don’t need). So step 1 is just to do the stuff that’s written on the IEP. That’s never as easy as it sounds– but it is the foundation for the rest.


Step 2 is often seen as coteaching or other push in models. I have other posts on what it takes to make coteaching work because it isn’t easy and, done poorly, doesn’t actually help the included students (Cook et al., 2017). Basically, if you have a second body in the classroom and nothing else changes, nothing else changes for the students in the room either. Sad, but also feels right- I have been in some rooms where my only job was to give out pencils. How is that helping students?


Step 3 then is to look at the instruction in the general education settings. Check out the blog posts on differentiation and Universal Design for Learning for ideas on that!


In case you can’t tell, there is no one answer to how to make inclusion work. If I had a simple answer for this, I would be a gazillionaire or secretary of education. I am not and I don’t– but check out the research to practice blogs on coteaching, differentiation, and UDL. All of those are part of making inclusion work– and check out the articles on accommodations and modifications because they are a huge component of making inclusion work! And also they give you leverage. I can have needed that leverage more than once to bludgeon colleagues into following the law, so like really, they help.


  • Cook, S. C., Mcduffie-Landrum, K. A., Oshita, L., & Cook, B. G. (2017). Co-teaching for students with disabilities: A critical and updated analysis of the empirical literature. In Handbook of special education (pp. 233-248). Routledge.
  • Cosier, M., Causton-Theoharis, J., & Theoharis, G., (2013). Does access matter? Time in general education and achievement for students with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 34(6), 323-332. 
  • Falvey & Givner (2005). In R. Villa & J. Thousand (Eds). Creating an inclusive school, 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 
  • Hehir, T., Grindal, T., & Eidelman, H. (2012, April). Review of Special education in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Report commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Boston, MA: Thomas Hehir and Associates. Retrieved from
  • Kalambouka, A., Farrell, P., Dyson, A., & Kaplan, I. (2007). The impact of placing pupils with special educational needs in mainstream schools on the achievement of their peers. Educational Research, 49(4), 365-382. 
  • Oh-Young, C. & Filler, J. (2015). A meta-analysis of the effects of placement on academic and social skill outcome measures of students with disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 47(1), 80-92.