Educators debated Tuesday whether children with disabilities do better when they are mainstreamed into the general school population or placed in special classes with individual support.

Alexa Posny, Assistant U.S. Education Secretary, said while children who receive specialized instruction have made strides in recent decades, they continue to lag behind in graduation rates and in employment. She believes they would perform better when integrated into the general student population.

“Students with disabilities are truly a part of, not separate from, the diversity in American public schools,” Posny said.

Marilyn Friend, president of the Council for Exceptional Children, said integration is a laudable goal but risks losing the individual focus on the particular needs of special students.

“Special education…focuses on students with specific needs, so that what is good for the whole is not good for them,” she said.

She said teaching children with disabilities requires teachers with special skills.

“They need enough knowledge of general education, but they must acquire the specialized knowledge and skills to assist students that have specific needs of instruction,” said Friend.

Lon Jacobs, a media executive and father of a daughter with Down Syndrome, said that attitudes need to change before students with disabilities can be successfully integrated into regular classes.

“Our children are often considered not quite human,” says Jacobs, “that they’re not deserving of the attention they’re given, and that money should be given elsewhere.”

Jacobs said children with disabilities do better if they are placed in the same classroom with their peers at a young age.

“They grow up together and they learn to support each other,” Jacobs said. “They learn to accept differences in people.”

Jacobs doesn’t think integration can be successful if it begins at the high school level. He says disabled students are by then more aware of their special needs and feel on the fringe.

The discussion took place at the Brookings Institution.