By the year 2016, the enrollment in America's public schools is anticipated to be 53.3 million (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2008a). Along with increases in public school enrollment, there are concurrent projections for an increasingly diverse student population (Fuller, 1992). However, there is a striking discontinuity between the nation's diverse student population and the teaching force, which is described as being relatively homogenous (Grant & Secada, 1990). Additionally, prospective teachers, who have a "narrow framework of experience" (Paine, 1989) and an "unrealistic optimism" (Weinstein, 1989), have generally been characterized as "culturally insular" (Feiman-Nemser & Remillard, 1996). Teacher education candidates in the United States are predominantly women who are of Euro-American descent, from the middle class, and from rural or suburban communities (Brookhart & Freeman, 1992; Feiman-Nemser & Remillard, 1995, 1996; Fuller; Howey & Zimpher, 1996; McCall, 1995; NCES, 2008b; Zimpher, 1989). Teacher education candidates, according to the data from the Research About Teacher Education (RATE) studies, have consistently indicated that they "...preferred to teach in traditional classroom settings, with middle income children, of average (not gifted or handicapped) ability" (Zimpher, 1989, p. 30). While prospective teachers may prefer to teach students of average ability, the reality is that there has been an increase in the number of students with special needs who are being educated in the nation's general/regular education classrooms (U.S. Department of Education, 1999).
In 1994, approximately five million students with disabilities received special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (Horne, 1996) and this number increased by almost one million during the 1996-1997 academic year (NCES, 2000c) and appears to be continuing to increase as evidenced by more recent data from the NCES (2008c). The percentage of children with disabilities being served has increased to approximately 14 percent of the public school student population (NCES, 2000a, 2008c). Moreover, the percentage of students with special needs being served in regular classrooms increased substantially from the 1985-1986 school year to the 1995-1996 school year, with an increase of approximately 20 percent (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). Less than a decade later, in the 2004-2005 school year, over 5.9 million students had Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) which constitutes almost 14 percent of the public school population (NCES, 2008c). Furthermore, almost half of the students who have disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their day in general education classroom settings (Arends, 2008). As a result of the increase in enrollment of students with special needs in the general education classroom setting, there has been a decrease in numbers of students served in resource rooms, self-contained classrooms, and residential facilities (U.S. Department of Education). Clearly, inclusion is becoming more prevalent in our nation's schools.
The topic of inclusion is both multifaceted and controversial (Stainback, Stainback & Jackson, 1992). Inclusion has brought about spirited opinions in support and in opposition to it (Brinker, 1995; Thousand et al., 1997). Inclusion and other special education related issues merit consideration on the part of prospective teachers and teacher educators. Part of this consideration ought to include efforts to learn more about special education understandings and beliefs of prospective teachers who will have the privilege and responsibility of educating increased numbers of students with special needs in the context of their general/regular education classrooms.