What’s the best thing that happened to you today? Victor Perton, the “Optimism Guy” asks us.

For me, it’s that I’m here in Australia (by ZOOM) at the Diversity and Inclusion Forum on February 3, 2021 (actually it’s February 4 already, in Australia) with Victor and another presenter. I was invited by my friend, Ivan Kaye, and am very grateful for that.

What an incredible world we’re in these days. Business and education leaders can “meet” half way across the world and discuss important issues from their diverse perspectives. Victor’s positive message is infectious. Check him out at the “centre for optimism” in Australia. The Centre for Optimism — Home.

Looking back now, a few weeks later, it was indeed a fun and rich Forum!

So, here’s what I said…..

As a public-school attorney half way around the world from Australia, I have the opportunity to share ideas with you, business & education leaders — with optimism, an open heart, and ZOOM!

First, let’s ask WHY. WHY do you have a business? What is your purpose? I’ll let you answer that.

WHY do we have public schools? WHY do you send your kids there? What is the purpose? Alas, we have many different purposes, different values, that compete sometimes…. My answer (which may differ from yours) is that the purpose of public schools is to educate all children — average students, students with disabilities, advanced students, & everyone else — in academics — skills and knowledge — as well as social, emotional, & behavioral skills — in appropriately diverse and inclusive settings — so they can become competent adults & citizens! Competence is the goal in all of the above. With my definition for education, I would rename the conference, the “Diversity, Inclusion, and Competence Forum.”

I’m all for inclusive practices that align with excellent teaching and learning in our diverse schools. Unfortunately, they don’t always align. We often lack appropriate balance among competing values, which detracts from reaching that competence goal.

Today, I’ll focus on US schools and students with disabilities — 14% of our students. We expect that percentage to grow because of the learning gaps and lost opportunities created by the COVID pandemic’s school closures.

What do you do in business if it fails? Hopefully, you pivot.

In our COVID and post-COVID era, what should we do in public schools with poor outcomes for many students, including students with disabilities — as we have in the US & I’m reading, even in Australia. We should pivot!

But do we have the political will to do so? Are we able to harness diverse values for a common goal? Will we be able to steer diversity and inclusion to also focus on competence for all students? Those are big questions, going forward.

Disappointing student outcomes? For example, the 2019 TIMMS (Trends in International Math and Science Study) show that gaps in US schools are widening — even before COVID. Education Week, February 3, 2021.

Of course, there are many reasons for disappointing student results. They may relate to multiple in-school practices and failures, as well as in-community realities of poverty, family breakdown and dislocation, non-English immigrant experience, and many others. All are worthy of focus.

But, for today, let’s focus on how inclusion as practiced in the US may lead to disappointing student outcomes.

First, what is inclusion? Did you know that inclusion in schools has different meanings in different countries? And that it’s controversial — “contentious” as a 2013 Australia report calls it? And that the definition is evolving? And that we have no unified definition?

For example, inclusion may mean that all students have the right to be included in public education — whether in mainstream schools, special programs, or special schools. See, for example, Singapore’s practice that defines inclusion as providing education for all students, as well as Australia’s earlier practice which, is undergoing changes. Or, for a different perspective, see Finland’s example, where students are not labeled with a disability for special services. All students who need them can receive interventions. One statistic that stands out for me is that by the age of 16, 60% of students have received “special education.” Essentially, inclusion is a non-issue. Education is personal and special for everyone.

So, what are we talking about in schools? It’s rather impossible to clarify the term, inclusion, as it means different things to different people in different countries at different times. A moveable concept.

In the US, inclusion grows out of the 1975 special education law’s “least restrictive environment” requirement. It has come to presume that students with disabilities are educated together with their peers who are not disabled in the same general education classroom according to their age, unless they can’t make it in that setting, even with aides & services, and need a more restrictive setting — which often turns out to be a drawn-out, litigious process. To make inclusion work, schools try many approaches, such as providing 1:1 aides and paraprofessionals, curriculum adaptations, accommodations, modifications, differentiated instruction, technology, multi-tiered systems of support, and other approaches.

Helpful as these are for some students, as I see it, the US definition distracts us from our schools’ primary purpose — which is education, ensuring that students graduate as competent adults. In spite of good intentions and massive efforts by devoted and often excellent professionals, inclusion often does not enhance learning for all, especially students with disabilities. As well, we lack objective fact-based data to really know what works and what doesn’t. Much of our current “research” is advocacy-driven. Reports are often shrouded in incomplete or misinformation — raising the term, the “honesty gap”.

Sadly, many of the practices used to make inclusion work kill trust — which is vital. Schools often overpromise, but under deliver. This is especially so, as the focus of inclusion is on the students who need additional support to meet grade-level standards — not on all students, including those who are at or above grade level already. What about those students and their parents? Where is the “all” in all students?

Yet the beat goes on. Many educators and administrators pride themselves in having “inclusive” schools. But again, as I see it, they often fail to focus on the primary purpose of schooling for all students — to graduate competent young people.

Here’s a story about how far this imbalance is going, taken from my book, Special Education 2.0.

I recently spoke with an elementary school principal about this. He was a kind, soft spoken man, proud to share that he has an “inclusive school.” I asked if he knew of any research about inclusion from the perspective of general education students. He did not. What he has are anecdotal stories — many of which touch the heart.

When asked if general education teachers or parents of general education students complain that inclusion is not working for them, he said they do. But, and this shocked me, he tells parents who don’t like it that they can pull their kids out and send them to private school!

I asked one of many obvious follow-up questions — is he putting the interests of students with disabilities ahead of others? He acknowledged that he is, saying we have to educate all students!

I was speechless. I felt that he did not appreciate the irony of what he had said. Which students are “all” students?

There you have it. Inclusion at work in one elementary school. I was left to wonder how common this principal’s attitude is.

What to do instead? I believe we must focus on all students, on proven approaches that balance learning and inclusion. As one of many examples, check out Competency-Based Education (CBE). There, all students are taught and flexibly grouped by current needs in multi-age settings, and by age or interest in some content areas. “Services before labels,” is the motto in Westminster Colorado, a CBE school district. All students receive personalized interventions. The schools focus on competence for all students — with inclusion taking a supporting role. CBS / Homepage (westminsterpublicschools.org)

See also the work of the Aurora Institute, a national organization for CBE. Aurora Institute — A New Dawn for Every Learner (aurora-institute.org)

For other promising approaches, see Nate Levenson’s advice to the new Biden administration, Advice to the Biden administration on improving special education. More money isn’t enough — or most important. | The Thomas B. Fordham Institute

In closing, let’s go back to WHY — schools should help students become competent young adults, with strengths, ready to flourish in their worlds. For that, make learning, not just inclusion, work by aligning academic learning and inclusion far better than we now do. This will also rebuild trust in our schools.

Westminster, CO (near Denver, in our beautiful Rocky Mountains) is a CBE — Competency-Based Education school district. Pamela Swanson, its superintendent, says that the most important day for students is the DAY AFTER GRADUATION! I love that! Graduates are ready to meet their lives! It’s purpose-driven! Congratulations Westminster!

Today, let’s be optimistic. I believe that an open discussion of these concerns will help us to build better schools & maybe even better businesses!

This was originally posted on Medium