Does inclusive education work? A report with a nuanced answer.

Before I start this blog post, I should tell you a little about myself for transparency. Before I started blogging and writing books, I was actively involved in several European projects on inclusive education. Historically, I can be called rather an advocate than a person against inclusive education.

This weekend Dirk Van Damme shared a striking link about a Campbell report on inclusive education that came out in December. The report is a high-quality meta-analysis examining inclusive education’s effects. These are not great for learning, as we have known for some time. This is not the first meta-analysis to appear on the subject. This was also what John Hattie once answered when asked whether he was for or against inclusive education. I think this: if it does not reduce learning, it’s not necessarily bad, especially since inclusive education is often introduced with goals other than learning math and language.

The merit of this meta-analysis is that they looked beyond just learning effects but also looked at, for example, the impact on children’s well-being and the psycho-social impact on children. And the results are anything but unequivocal:

Results of the meta-analyses do not suggest any consistent positive or negative effects of inclusion on children’s academic achievement as measured by language, literacy and math outcomes, or on the overall psychosocial adjustment of children. The studies in the analysis demonstrated a wide range of both large positive and large negative effect sizes; and although the average effect sizes did favor inclusion, they were small and none were statistically significant.

This quote from the summary is very accurate if you read the whole report. For some children, an inclusive approach turned out to work very well. For others, just not at all. The most unfortunate thing is that the researchers also found that, on the one hand, a lot of research is happening on the topic, but on the other hand, the quality of the research is often disappointing. Only 15 studies were retained for this meta-analysis. This generated quite a bit of criticism of the report, but I think it is something we as a society need to consider: better and more specific research is needed. I have nothing against qualitative research, case studies, etc. These are important and also provide crucial insights. But such studies are often over-represented and provide fewer answers to these questions. Dalgaard et al., the report’s authors, are very transparent in their selection, and you have to admit that this selection makes sense. That this left out studies with better inclusive education results is regrettable but not surprising. It is a phenomenon I see more often when looking deeper into meta-analyses: the quality of research is often inversely proportional to the positive effects. At the same time, the researchers indicate that RCTs in this one, for example, are very difficult to organize for ethical reasons.

And now? Good question. I think it is good that such research is happening. Above all, we know too little about when inclusive education “works” and when it doesn’t? For whom more, for whom less? What determines this in terms of students, but also in terms of approach? We also saw a positive meta-analysis on universal design for learning last month, which gives us some direction, although they only looked at learning effects here. Another question that is often under-researched is what the effect is on the other children, positively and negatively.

You have, on the one hand, inclusive education as a clear goal and global policy choice, see the United Nations. At the same time, these questions should be answered. Perhaps it is better for some children to separate inclusion as an end and a means. Inclusion as an end is clear, but perhaps for some children, inclusive education is not the best path, and for others, it is.

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