Students with Mental Retardation Make Gains in the general classroom, University of Florida study finds
By Tim Lockette
Reprinted from the University of Florida News
GAINESVILLE, Fla. Students with mental retardation are far more
likely to be educated alongside typical students than they were
20 years ago, a University of Florida study has found.
However, the trend once known as "mainstreaming" widely
considered the best option for such students appears to have
stalled in some parts of the country, the study's authors report.
And a student's geographic location, rather than the severity of
his disability, often determines how he will spend his school
days, the researchers say.
"We've known for a long time that students with MR (mental
retardation) are better off educationally if they can spend at
least part of the day in a typical classroom," said James
McLeskey, chair of special education in UF's College of Education
and an author of the study. "We've found that there are still lot
of students who could be included in the general classroom but
Before the mid-1970s, most children with mental retardation were
completely segregated from other children in the school system,
if they were formally educated at all. Society widely viewed
these children as uneducable, and those who did attend school
were sent to institutions solely for children with mental
Both children and their parents often viewed these institutions
as dehumanizing and ineffective and by the late 1960s,
educators had assembled a large body of research to show that
children with mental retardation did indeed perform much better
when schooled, at least part-time, among the general student
population. That research led Congress to pass a 1975 law
requiring a more inclusive environment for students with mental
Surveys in the 1980s and early 1990s showed that schools had made
little progress toward implementing that mandate. In an article
published in the spring 2006 issue of the journal Exceptional
Children, UF researchers including doctoral candidates Pam
Williamson, David Hoppey and Tarcha Rentz revisited the
question, taking a comprehensive look at placement rates for
students with mental retardation in all 50 states and the
District of Columbia during the 1990s. They found some very good
"Inclusion seems to have genuinely caught on in the 1990s," said
Williamson, the lead author of the study. "By the end of the
decade, a student with MR was almost twice as likely to be
educated in the general classroom as a similar student the
beginning of the decade."
In 1990, almost three-fourths of students with MR were educated
separately from their typical peers, learning in separate
classrooms or entire schools dedicated to children with mental
retardation. By 2000, only slightly more than half of students
with MR were educated separately.
Still, a handful of states Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, New
Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota and Vermont
accounted for much of the gain seen nationwide, with many other
states marking little or no progress.
A simple move across state lines, the researchers say, can have a
major impact on a child's educational career. Various states have
widely different policies on who can be identified with mental
retardation, and how they are educated. Some states identify
mental retardation in as few as three out of every 1,000
students; others identify as many as 30 students per 1,000.
Demographically similar states such as Alabama and Mississippi
differ widely in their reported rates of mental retardation
suggesting the differences are due to policy, not environmental
"For a student with mental retardation, geographic location is
possibly the strongest predictor of the student's future
educational setting," Williamson said.
Many of these students can have functional work lives in
adulthood, Williamson said. However, if they aren't exposed to
their peers in the general classroom, students with MR may not
pick up the social and academic skills they need to do so.
Inclusion can also have a beneficial effect for students already
in the general classroom. When typical students attend school
with classmates who have MR, the researchers say, they learn
leadership skills and become more tolerant. They even score
higher, as a group, on standardized tests.
"The inclusive classroom environment seems to work better for
students who are struggling, academically, but not identified as
having MR," McLeskey said. "That tends to bring up averages on
test scores for typical students in the entire class."
In the current era of high-stakes testing, that effect could work
to the benefit of students with MR. Under past school
accountability rules, many states did not count the scores of
students in MR-only classes when conducting statewide achievement
tests an incentive to administrators to keep students with
mental retardation out of the general classroom.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, however, schools must report
test scores of all students, including those in separate special
"All these students count now, and schools have an incentive to
improve their scores," McLeskey said. "Inclusion seems to be the
best way to do that."