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Premium Member Book (Feb 2005)

Creating an Inclusive School, 2nd Edition

Edited by Richard A. Villa and Jacqueline S. Thousand

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. What Is an Inclusive School?

by Mary A. Falvey and Christine C. Givner

There is only one child in the world and that child's name is ALL children.
—Carl Sandburg

An Inclusive Classroom in Action

What does an inclusive school look and sound like? The following scenario describes a typical day in freshman language arts class for 32 students attending an ordinary, yet extraordinary, high school in a large urban school district.

The students in Mr. Rice's third period have just finished “reading” the final chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960). Some students have listened to the book on tape because of their literacy levels, while other students were given (or created for themselves) graphic organizers to help them organize key ideas. The students have been working on 9th grade California literacy standards while reading the book. Although these students are diverse in their learning styles and abilities, all are challenged in meaningful ways that relate to the 9th grade standards. Mr. Rice has just assigned a culminating task that asks the students to creatively depict how the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird demonstrated courage and conviction. He also has distributed a rubric describing how the assignments will be evaluated.

Several students in Mr. Rice's class qualify for special education; five qualify for gifted and talented services. In collaboration with Mr. Rice, the coordinator of the gifted and talented support services, Ms. Stremel, has contracted with each of those five students about how they will not only meet but also exceed the assignment rubric. Mr. Rice and Ms. Stremel are available at any time to assist and guide the five students as they complete their modified assignments and to help other students with their assignments. Ms. Mikel, Mr. Rice's special education support teacher, is also in the classroom and is available to help students eligible for special education and anyone else who seeks assistance.

Jesús, one of Mr. Rice's third period students, qualifies for special education services because of a learning disability. He reads well below grade level but has excellent verbal and visual/spatial skills. For the assignment, Jesús is partnered with Emily, who has high reading and writing skills but struggles with verbal skills. The two students use their complementary strengths to put together a joint presentation on how the To Kill a Mockingbird characters demonstrated courage and conviction.

George, a student with autism, and Quon receive guidance in designing their presentation. George will show pictures of the characters with brief written descriptions that he and Quon have composed. Lonny, a socially talented senior, is completing his community service requirements by supporting George and the other students in this third period class.

Casandra, who has multiple disabilities, uses an electric wheel-chair to get around and an electronic communication aid to convey her thoughts and responses. Casandra's partner is Jimmy, a classmate who qualifies for gifted and talented services. Jimmy surfs the Web for information related to the topic and then decides with Casandra what to include in their presentation. Casandra and Jimmy enter their content into Casandra's electronic communication device, which has a voice output that will be activated to deliver their presentation in class.

Two students are English-language learners. One student speaks Cantonese, and the other speaks Spanish. Each is partnered with a bilingual classmate. The two pairs of students prepare bilingual presentations in their languages: one pair in Cantonese and English and the other pair in Spanish and English. All visual aids are also presented in both languages.

The composition of Mr. Rice's class reflects the diversity in most classrooms in the United States. At one time, many students in such a class would have been labeled and forced into separate classes, thereby limiting their exposure to one another, the essential curriculum, and varied instructional procedures and personnel. Some students would have been moved to a gifted and talented program. Jesús, Casandra, and George would have been classified as disabled and placed in a segregated special education program. The students speaking languages other than English would have been placed in a separate bilingual or English-as-a-second-language program, where they would have limited exposure to English-speaking peers.

Some people argue that the social justice occurring in Mr. Rice's class—inclusive education—is not the responsibility of schools. However, if inclusive education is not the schools' responsibility, then whose is it? Our country's systems and institutions teach by example what a country, state, or community values: either inclusion, or segregation and exclusion. Inclusive education demands that schools create and provide whatever is necessary to ensure that all students have access to meaningful learning. It does not require students to possess any particular set of skills or abilities as a prerequisite to belonging.

Inclusive Education: Legal Definition

The legal mandate driving inclusive education in the United States is Public Law (P.L.) 94-142, now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Although the specific terms inclusion and inclusive education cannot be found in P.L. 94-142, the definition of least restrictive environment (LRE) is a key element of the law. It provided the initial legal impetus for creating inclusive education. The law states that

to the maximum extent appropriate, handicapped children, including those children in public and private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not handicapped, and that special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of handicapped children from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the handicap is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily. (P.L. 94-142, § 1412 [5] [B])

The critical language used in the law is “with the use of supplementary aids and services.” In 1975, when P.L. 94-142 was passed, the professional education literature was devoid of any information on and strategies for using supplementary aids and services to effectively include students with disabilities. However, since that time, the use of such aids and services to include all students has been frequently identified and described in the literature. (Some recent examples include Falvey, 1996; Fisher, Sax, & Pumpian, 1999; Janney & Snell, 2000; Kennedy & Fisher, 2001; Thousand, Villa, & Nevin, 2002; Villa & Thousand, 2000.) As a result, the LRE mandate has been a leading force in the design and implementation of inclusive education.

Since the promulgation of IDEA (P.L. 94-142) the federal court decisions have built on one another to clarify the following:

  • School districts must consider placement in general education for all students with disabilities, regardless of the degree of the disability.
  • Academic and social benefits of placement in general education must be taken into consideration.
  • Such consideration must be more than a token gesture.
  • Placement in the LRE is not “dumping” but rather placing students with disabilities in general education settings with the necessary supports, services, and supplementary aids.
The standard for denying inclusive education to a student with disabilities is very high.

Inclusive Education: Pragmatic Definition

What is inclusion, or inclusive education? To begin to answer that question, we asked thousands of children, adolescents, and adults to identify an event in their lives that caused them to feel included and one that caused them to feel excluded. We also asked the subjects to describe how they felt during and following the two experiences. Figure 1.1 provides a sampling of the feelings that people have reported experiencing when they felt included or excluded.

Figure 1.1. Responses to the questions, “How did you feel when you were ...”



  • angry
  • resentful
  • hurt
  • frustrated
  • lonely
  • different
  • confused
  • isolated
  • inferior
  • worthless
  • invisible
  • substandard
  • unwanted
  • untrusted
  • unaccepted
  • closed
  • ashamed

  • proud
  • secure
  • special
  • comfortable
  • recognized
  • confident
  • happy
  • excited
  • trusted
  • cared about
  • liked
  • accepted
  • appreciated
  • reinforced
  • loved
  • grateful
  • normal
  • open
  • positive
  • nurtured
  • important
  • responsible
  • grown up

Examining such reactions is a critical element in a book about educating all students. Figure 1.1 makes the powerful point that no one wants to be excluded. 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. Mr. Rice's language arts class is not just about accommodations and supports; it is about an attitude and a disposition that a school intentionally teaches by example. Once adopted by a school or school district, an inclusive vision drives all decisions and actions by those who subscribe to it. People no longer ask, “Why inclusion?” They ask, “How do we successfully include all students?”

Inclusive Education Implications

Inclusion, as Figure 1.1 illustrates, is the opposite of segregation and isolation. Segregated education creates a permanent underclass of students and conveys a strong message to those students that they do not measure up, fit in, or belong. Segregationist thinking assumes that the right to belong is an earned rather than an unconditional human right. Norman Kunc (2000) speaks of the casualties of exclusion, or “conditional acceptance.” He suggests that many of the current problems facing children and youth at risk (e.g., gangs, suicide, and dropping out of school) are the casualties of an inflexible, insensitive system of education that systematically (although perhaps unintentionally) destroys the self-esteem and self-worth of students who do not “fit the mold.” In a seminal work that describes the plight of youth at risk from a Native American perspective, Brendtro, Brokenleg, and Van Bockern (2002) describe belonging as one of the four central values that create a child's Circle of Courage. The right to belong is every person's birthright. Given the increasing numbers of at-risk students in U.S. schools and the centrality of the need to belong, schools must provide a way to reclaim youth labeled at risk, disabled, homeless, gay or lesbian, and so forth.

The growing diversity of the student population in U.S. schools is a topic of great debate and concern. Differences among students may include language, culture, religion, gender, varied abilities, sexual preference, socioeconomic status, and geographic setting. The differences are often spoken about as a problem rather than an opportunity for learning what rich variety exists in others' lives and how we can be included, valued, respected, and welcomed for who we are in a naturally diverse world. In 1992, Grant Wiggins wrote the following about the value of diversity:

We will not successfully restructure schools to be effective until we stop seeing diversity in students as a problem. Our challenge is not one of getting “special” students to better adjust to the usual schoolwork, the usual teacher pace, or the usual tests. The challenge of schooling remains what it has been since the modern era began two centuries ago: ensuring that all students receive their entitlement. They have the right to thought-provoking and enabling schoolwork, so that they might use their minds well and discover the joy therein to willingly push themselves farther. They have the right to instruction that obligates the teacher, like the doctor, to change tactics when progress fails to occur. They have the right to assessment that provides students and teachers with insight into real-world standards, useable feedback, the opportunity to self-assess, and the chance to have dialogue with, or even to challenge, the assessor—also a right in a democratic culture. Until such a time, we will have no insight into human potential. Until the challenge is met, schools will continue to reward the lucky or the already-equipped and weed out the poor performers. (pp. xv–xvi)

Inclusive Education: School Restructuring

The call for restructuring of American education to establish meaningful educational standards (i.e., student outcomes) and to hold schools accountable for accomplishing those outcomes with every student requires great individual and collective commitment and effort. All restructuring efforts in schools require, at the minimum, a belief that

  • Each student can and will learn and succeed.
  • Diversity enriches us all, and students at risk can overcome the risk for failure through involvement in a thoughtful and caring community of learners.
  • Each student has unique contributions to offer to other learners.
  • Each student has strengths and needs.
  • Services and supports should not be relegated to one setting (e.g., special classes or schools).
  • Effective learning results from the collaborative efforts of everyone working to ensure each student's success.

Systems change initiatives in special education are paralleling systems change efforts in general education. Such initiatives for change are often referred to as school restructuring. Fundamental questions regarding the most effective strategies for teaching all students are being raised, and numerous innovative and highly effective strategies are being designed and implemented. School restructuring efforts are described in greater detail in Chapters 4–6 and are summarized below:

  • Heterogeneous and cooperative group arrangements of students are used because they are more effective for learning (Johnson & Johnson, 2002; Oakes, 1985; Oakes & Lipton, 2003; Sapon-Shevin, 1994).
  • Students are provided with individualized approaches to curriculum, assessment (e.g., nonbiased assessment procedures, multiple approaches to intelligence—see Carr & Harris, 2001; Hock, 2000), and instruction because of high expectations held for all students (Castellano, 2003).
  • Staff, students, parents, and community members collaborate in the design and delivery of effective education for all students (Thousand, Villa, & Nevin, 2002; Villa & Thousand, 2000).
  • Teachers and other professionals are giving students the opportunity to learn to think and be creative, and not just to repeat information that they have memorized (Kohn, 1999; Lenz & Schumaker, 1999; Schumm, 1999; Tomlinson, 1999).
  • School staff members are facilitating students' social skills as students interact, relate to one another, and develop relationships and friendships (Delpit, 1995; Noddings, 1992).

As the characteristics of the school restructuring movement take hold in more and more schools, inclusion of students with disabilities does not become a separate and distinct action; instead, it occurs simultaneously and naturally. The characteristics of both the school restructuring movement and the building of inclusive schools are the same: all students must experience quality education that meets their specific educational needs in the context of political and social justice.


We have offered a number of ways to define inclusive schools. We do not subscribe to any one definition. However, we believe that we must create, cherish, and nurture schools that include and effectively educate all students.

Inclusion benefits not only students with disabilities, but also all students, educators, parents, and community members. Experience tells us that as communities and schools embrace the true meaning of inclusion, they become better able to change a segregated special education system into an inclusive service delivery system and to change a society and world intolerant and fearful of difference into one that embraces and celebrates natural diversity with meaningful, student-centered learning.

Even after inclusion is operationally defined, it remains an elusive term. Part of the confusion arises from assumptions associated with inclusion—that it is a program or that it is a research-devised strategy. The underlying assumption, however, is that inclusion is a way of life—a way of living together—that is based on a belief that each individual is valued and belongs.

Brendtro, L. K., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. L. (2002). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future (Rev. ed.). Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

Carr, J. F., & Harris, D. E. (2001). Succeeding with standards: Linking curriculum, assessment, and action planning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Castellano, J. (2003). Special populations in gifted education: Working with diverse gifted learners. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Delpit, L. (1995). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.

Falvey, M. (Ed.).(1995). Inclusive and heterogeneous schooling: Assessment, curriculum, and instruction. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Fisher, D., Sax, C., & Pumpian, I. (Eds.). (1999). Inclusive high schools: Learning from contemporary classrooms. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Hock, M. (2000). Standards, assessment, and Individualized Education Programs. In R. A. Villa & J. S. Thousand (Eds.), Restructuring for caring and effective education: Piecing the puzzle together (2nd ed., pp. 208–241). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Amendments of 1997, P.L. 105-117, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq.

Janney, R., & Snell, M. E. (2000). Modifying schoolwork. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. (2002). Cooperative community, constructive conflict, and civic values. In J. S. Thousand, R. A. Villa, & A. I. Nevin (Eds.), Creativity and collaborative learning: The practical guide to empowering students, teachers, and families (2nd ed., pp. 181–196). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Kennedy, C. H., & Fisher, D. (2001). Inclusive middle schools. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Kohn, A. (1999). The schools our children deserve: Moving beyond traditional classrooms and “tougher standards.” Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kunc, N. (2000). Rediscovering the right to belong. In R. A. Villa & J. S. Thousand (Eds.), Restructuring for caring and effective education: Piecing the puzzle together (2nd ed. pp. 77–92). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Lee, H. (1960). To kill a mockingbird. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Oakes, J., & Lipton, M. (2003). Teaching to change the world (2nd ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Sapon-Shevin, M. (1994). Playing favorites: Gifted education and the disruption of community. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Schumaker, J. & Lenz, K., (1999). Adapting language arts, social studies, and science materials for the inclusive classroom. Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

Schumm, J. S. (1999). Adapting reading and math materials for the inclusive classroom. Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

Thousand, J. S., Villa, R. A., & Nevin, A. I. (Eds.). (2002). Creativity and collaborative learning: The practical guide to empowering students, teachers, and families (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Villa, R. A., & Thousand, J. S. (2000). Restructuring public school systems: Strategies for organizational change and progress. In R. A. Villa & J. S. Thousand (Eds.), Restructuring for caring and effective education: Piecing the puzzle together (2nd ed., pp. 7–37). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Wiggins, G. (1992). Foreward. In R. A. Villa, J. S. Thousand, W. Stainback, & S. Stainback (Eds.), Restructuring for caring and effective education: An administrative guide to creating heterogeneous schools (pp. xv–xvi). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.


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