Academic engagement of high school students with significant disabilities: A competence-oriented interpretation

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Douglas P. Biklen


Academic engagement, High school students, Disabilities, Inclusion

Subject Categories

Education | Special Education and Teaching | Teacher Education and Professional Development


This is a study of five high school students with significant disabilities and their observed participation and engagement in the academic curriculum in general and special education classes. The students had labels of mental retardation and either could not speak or could not speak fluently. The study looked not only at their engagement, but how their educators perceived and interpreted their participation in terms of engagement. Inclusion literature has focused largely on elementary and middle school students until recently. Most of this literature has focused on the benefits of inclusion for the development of social skills and the furthering of therapeutic goals and goals of daily living, and on the benefits of inclusion for the nondisabled peers. Only recently has research attention turned to the inclusion of high school students with intellectual disability labels. But this work has not addressed academic instruction. This study focuses on the details of class participation in light of what the students do in class and the meaning professional educators make of their presence, their disabilities, and their participation.

I conducted a qualitative study of five students in the tradition of symbolic interactionism and from the perspective of disability as a sociology that describes disability as constructed by the meanings people make of it. Following the five students in three separate high schools and with daily schedules ranging from full inclusion to almost full segregation, I set aside assumptions of their intellectual incompetence and sought to get to know their perspectives and strategies for participation and nonparticipation.

Analysis of patterns of educators' perceptions and expectations of the students, the students' patterns of participation, and the educators' patterns of assessment revealed a chaotic set of competing representations and images of the students and their abilities. These images often obscured their identities as purposeful, thinking human beings with actual and potential interest in the academic curriculum. The analysis also identifies classroom opportunity structures and assessment strategies that enhanced and obscured students' actual engagement and potential as students.


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