Reversing Reverse Mainstreaming.

AuthorCovo, Yaron
PositionIntegration in disability education

Table of Contents Introduction I. The Statutory Framework for Integration in Disability Education II. Introducing Reverse Mainstreaming A. Definition and Typology B. A Historical Account 1. The early years 2. The rise of modern reverse mainstreaming 3. The second wave 4. Contemporary programs III. Reverse Mainstreaming in Courts A. Due Process Complaints and Hearing Officer Decisions B. The Data C. Methodology D. Reverse Mainstreaming in Legal Decisions: An Overview E. Legal Decisionmakers' Reaction to Reverse Mainstreaming 1. Federal courts 2. State hearing officers IV. Evaluating Reverse Mainstreaming A. Educational Benefits B. Noneducational Benefits C. Race and Class Equity D. Educators' and School Administrators' Bias V. Identifying Avenues for Reform Conclusion Appendix A: Data Collection, Selection Criteria, and Limitations Appendix B: Quantitative Findings Introduction

For almost Fifty years, school districts in the United States have been required to "mainstream" (1) disabled students (2) into general education classrooms. (3) Many educators, however, have done the opposite: They have included nondisabled (4) students in "special education" settings. (5) In some cases, most notably in the preschool setting, nondisabled children have been enrolled full time in special education programs. (6) In other instances, general education students have been sent periodically to special education classrooms for select activities. (7) This practice, now known as "reverse mainstreaming," (8) has historical roots in nineteenth-century educational programs and is still used across the country. (9)

As this Article details, judges and educators have long assumed that reverse mainstreaming fulfills certain legal requirements and benefits both disabled and nondisabled children. On the legal side, decisionmakers have held that this practice satisfies, (10) under certain circumstances, the "integration presumption" of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). (11) Under that rule, to the maximum extent "appropriate," disabled children must be educated alongside nondisabled peers. (12) On the pedagogical level, reverse mainstreaming has been lauded for promoting ostensibly valuable interactions between disabled and nondisabled students. The theory is that disabled students will benefit from imitating their nondisabled peers and that nondisabled children's attitudes toward disability will shift. (13)

In this Article, however, I show that this theory has a fundamental flaw. Reverse mainstreaming is largely built on an ideology that assumes and reinforces the inferiority of disabled children and prioritizes mainstream norms over disability culture. (14) In other words, when disabled and nondisabled students begin to interact, they are often already assigned--explicitly or implicitly--stereotypical roles. Whereas nondisabled students are perceived as kind, helpful, and obedient, their disabled peers are frequently viewed as incompetent, dependent, and potentially disruptive. (15) Rather than reducing prejudice, such interactions perpetuate the very stigma and misconceptions they aim to eradicate.

This Article describes how face-to-face interactions, one of the most important debiasing tools in the antidiscrimination toolbox, have been used to serve purposes that are fundamentally not egalitarian. (16) For some school administrators, reverse mainstreaming programs have been a means to save public money--at the expense of disabled children's needs. (17) Others have used this practice to provide nondisabled students with access to scarce educational resources otherwise available only to students with impairments. (18) These examples illustrate that, in addition to fueling disability stigma, the interactions facilitated by reverse mainstreaming have distributional consequences. And yet, reverse mainstreaming has largely evaded scholarly and public scrutiny. (19)

In investigating reverse mainstreaming, this Article relies on special education law's own normative criteria to offer an immanent critique of this practice, (20) applying four principles that are commonly used by courts and scholars to justify disability integration. (21) In addition to this normative framework, my methodology also draws upon two descriptive accounts. First, using a novel historical analysis of reverse mainstreaming, this Article documents the circumstances that gave rise to this practice, some of which involved goals other than integration. (22) Second, this Article uses an original dataset of administrative hearing officer decisions (23) to identify patterns in the way reverse mainstreaming has been used and adjudicated. (24) These empirical data show that legal decisionmakers have largely upheld reverse mainstreaming as a way to meet the IDEA'S integration presumption, without inquiring into the detrimental consequences of this practice. (25)

Reverse mainstreaming is a phenomenon worth exploring in its own right, but it also contributes to our understanding of why intergroup interactions in schools have so far failed to promote disability inclusion and social acceptance. (26) In recent years, scholars have attempted to answer that question by pointing to a number of factors, including nondisabled students' parents (who are presumed to transmit negative attitudes to their children (27)), insufficient or improper use of services, (28) the limited social or behavioral skills of disabled students, (29) nondisabled people's jealousy of the accommodations provided to disabled students, (30) and the "aesthetics of disability"--the recent proposition that interpersonal interactions with disabled individuals are mediated by the presence of "sensory and behavioral markers" that trigger negative affective responses. (31)

This Article offers another explanation (32): Structured intergroup interactions in disability education do not work, I argue, because such interventions are based on an ableist (33) philosophy that assumes one group is superior to the other. In effect, the supposed solution is part of the problem. Similar situations, where even well-intended interactions between members of different social groups may exacerbate social inequality, have been studied by social psychologists. (34) Utilizing insights from that literature and from disability studies, (35) this Article identifies the conditions under which reverse mainstreaming leads to harmful consequences. It then proposes a reform agenda designed to promote more egalitarian forms of intergroup contact in educational settings and, thus, redeem reverse mainstreaming and other forms of integration. (36)

The lessons from this analysis extend beyond the disability arena. For example, my findings are useful in understanding the limits and consequences of the recent trend toward "school gentrification," (37) where white students from middle-class families enroll in urban, predominantly low-income schools. (38) This new form of integration is increasingly drawing the attention of researchers. (39) By telling the story of reverse mainstreaming in the disability context, I hope to contribute to our broader understanding of how to integrate schools and classrooms. (40)

The Article proceeds in five parts. Part I outlines the statutory framework that governs integration in disability education. Part II introduces reverse mainstreaming and delves into the history of this practice. Part III systematically analyzes administrative and judicial decisions to understand the ways reverse mainstreaming interacts with the IDEA. In doing so, it identifies the type of interactions that reverse mainstreaming practices promote and the most frequent scenarios that give rise to legal disputes. It also documents the reaction of legal decisionmakers to this practice.

Relying on these descriptive accounts, Part IV evaluates reverse mainstreaming from an egalitarian perspective. It identifies four principles that are often invoked to justify the IDEA's integration presumption and uses these principles as a normative framework to evaluate reverse mainstreaming. It then shows why, even though reverse mainstreaming holds a special allure for educators and legal decisionmakers, its consequences fail to meet the egalitarian principles that justify integration. Lastly, Part V presents the implications of this analysis for intergroup contact in special and general education classrooms. In doing so, it identifies insights from reverse mainstreaming that may be useful for future research on "school gentrification" in the race and class contexts.

  1. The Statutory Framework for Integration in Disability Education

    Any attempt to critically analyze reverse mainstreaming must begin with the relevant statutory framework that governs traditional integration in disability education, namely the IDEA.

    Historically, the majority of disabled children in the United States were denied educational opportunities; even if they did receive education, most disabled students were taught in disability-only settings. (41) Things started to change in the late 1960s as a result of the work of educators, parents, and activists who advocated for moving disabled children out of institutions and into mainstream classrooms. (42) This advocacy laid the groundwork for Congress to adopt the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975, (43) the statute now known as IDEA. (44) For the first time, all disabled children were entitled to a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) under federal law. (45) The Supreme Court has interpreted the FAPE mandate to require school districts to offer instruction and services that are "individually designed to provide educational benefit" to a disabled child. (46) Applying this somewhat vague standard, the Court has recently held that schools must offer a program that allows a disabled child to make progress appropriate in light of their circumstances. (47) To facilitate the provision of...

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