At its best, education must be inclusive, and focus on helping everyone grow their abilities.
In the campus bookstore I came across a wonderful book titled "The Power of Neurodiversity," by Thomas Armstrong. In one part Armstrong describes a unique school called William W. Henderson Inclusion Elementary School in Dorchester Massachusetts. In this school, he writes, special education students (about a third of the student population) are included in classes full-time with other students. He quotes former principal William Henderson (now retired):
We challenge students with Down syndrome as well as our most academically advanced students to read as much as they can. We challenge our students with cerebral palsy as well as our fastest runners to exercise as much as they can. We challenge our nonverbal students as well as our most polished speakers to communiate as effectively as they can. We challenge our students with autism as well as our "social butterflies" to interact as positively as they can. The goal for every child at our school is to "get smarter, feel smarter, and act smarter"Armstrong writes that instead of putting everyone on exactly the same page, this school accepts the diversity of abilities and inclinations and encourages each student individually in academic and non-academic subjects. At the same time, he points out that this approach is much more than having a special ed teacher working with some students at the back of the room while the regular teacher instructs the rest of the kids.
It is clear that such an inclusive classroom experience benefits all students. As a society, we will all benefit from breaking down boundaries that separate people with different abilities.
The above youtube video shows a celebration event at this school.
The founder has written a book titled "The Blind Advantage: How Going Blind Made Me a Stronger Principal and How Including Children with Disabilities Made Our School Better for Everyone," with proceeds going to the school. I have not read it yet, but it's high on my list.
*** update ***
After I wrote the above, a reader posted a comment recommending that I present some evidence or citations to support the claim that inclusion is beneficial.
First of all, let me say that the idea of inclusion as an educational principle draws its primary support from its appeal to our "better nature", our sense of compassion, our desire to live in a society that draws fewer boundaries between its citizens. The more inclusive a classroom, the more aligned it is with these inherently desirable goals.
Second, I am not sure how much weight I would place on scientific studies about inclusive classrooms. Like many social problems, there are simply too many variables to control for and it is hard to quantify benefits. No two school classes, in terms of the background, composition, and dynamics between the children and the adults around them, are the same. Inclusion is unlikely to be implemented in a uniform manner, due to varying levels of understanding and support for it. And the long-term benefits in terms of fostering a more open outlook among the children, and improvements in self-esteem are not amenable to ready evaluation.
Having said these, I give below pointers to a few articles discussing research on inclusion in the classroom.
Rebecca Hines authored this 2001 article titled "Inclusion in Middle Schools". It points at research, particularly, as described in the following book:
Kochhar, C. A., West, L. L., & Taymans, J. M. (2000). SUCCESSFUL INCLUSION: PRACTICAL STRATEGIES FOR A SHARED RESPONSIBILITY. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.