The structure of education at the secondary level differs considerably from structure of education in elementary school. The secondary school day is fragmented, generally into six or seven "periods" for each student. Many students have some choice in the kinds of courses they take (e.g., academic courses, vocational courses). No student takes all of the courses possible. Unlike elementary school, there is not a typical classroom or even a single track into which students with disabilities can be included. The issue for a student with a disability, as for all students, is which set of courses best meet his or her needs? Furthermore, high school coursework emphasizes content and presumes the mastery of basic skills (Lieberman, 1992). This can be problematic for many students with disabilities, who often are substantially behind their peers in both basic and higher-order skills by the time they reach secondary school (Schumaker and Deshler, 1988).
Regular education is not one setting but many different settings that vary considerably from one classroom to the next. MacMillan and Hendrick (1993) point out that "the issue of setting assumes that where the child is taught is more important than what is done with the child once he or she is placed. Further, it assumes homogeneity of treatments (i.e., the same thing goes on in all special classes)..." (pp. 33-34). The lack of homogeneity also holds for advanced academic classes or vocational classes. Not all special education settings are either good or poor places to educate students with disabilities; neither are all regular education settings. A good education is defined by what goes on in the setting, not just who else is in it or what it is called. The study could not measure the interactions inside classrooms that may be so important for student achievement.
Results of the high school experience include the attainment of many different goals including academic, functional, and personal or social goals. For students with disabilities, the academic and personal/social domains may sometimes conflict. A setting or course that promotes one may negatively affect the other. A student may experience academic success in a special education class but receive behavioral benefits from friendships with students in regular classes. The course content in the regular class may be at a higher level, and the student's difficulty in mastering the content may lower self-esteem. There may be no one best setting to achieve all types of results.
What could happen for students with disabilities in regular classrooms is not necessarily what has happened or is happening. As Kauffman (1993) notes "we understand relatively little about how students' placement determines what is possible and what is probable as far as instruction and its results are concerned" (p. 8). NLTS data is for students who were in secondary school between 1985 and 1990. The relationships of their regular education placements to results reflect the nature of regular education provided at that time to students with disabilities. They do not reflect the nature of regular education being provided now, or of regular education that could be provided to students with disabilities in an environment of appropriate reform or adequate resources. What was the case in the late 1980s should not limit our expectations for what might be the case for students with disabilities in regular classes in the future. Survey research, such as that conducted as part of the NLTS, is inherently conservative in that it can report only what existed during a particular time frame. Different types of studies are required to examine the impact of pushing the limits of what can happen.
Students are not assigned at random to certain classes or even schools. Their course-taking is tied to the knowledge and skills they have acquired previously. The NLTS went to great analytic lengths to examine the effects of regular education and other school program features on results, independent of student and other characteristics. However, the possibility still remains that what appears to be an effect for factors such as regular education or advanced coursework is actually a reflection of the higher competencies of students placed in those classes. Other data from the NLTS show that frequently students with less significant disabilities spend more time in regular education. The same set of students would be expected to have better results as young adults. Although analytic techniques have been used to try to understand some of the complexities of the antecedents and consequences of secondary education programs, our understanding is limited to the variables measured in the study. To the extent that important contributing variables were not measured, program characteristics such as time in regular education may be a consequence of rather than a contributing factor to student competencies.