A Brief Overview of Special Education

The relationship of special education to general education is perhaps the most significant and pervasive issue in special education, as well as in my own educational journey.

History has shown that the two have never had an easy, clear-cut relationship. When it comes to educational policy, educational practices, and services of education and special education, there has been a lot of giving and taking, or perhaps I should say pulling and pushing by the human educators who deliver those services on both sides of the isle.

So, what exactly is special education?

And what makes it so unique, yet so complex and contentious at times?

As the name implies, special education is a specialized branch of education. It traces its ancestry to Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard (1775-1838), the physician who “tamed” Aveyron’s “wild boy,” and Anne Sullivan Macy (1866-1936), the teacher who “worked miracles” with Helen Keller.

Students with physical, cognitive, language, learning, sensory, and/or emotional abilities that differ from the general population are taught by special educators. Special educators provide instruction that is specifically tailored to meet the needs of each individual. These teachers essentially make education more available and accessible to students who would otherwise have limited access to education due to their disability.

However, it is not only teachers who have contributed to the history of special education in this country. Physicians and clergy, such as Itard, Edouard O. Seguin (1812-1880), Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876), and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851), wanted to improve the neglectful, often abusive treatment of people with disabilities. Unfortunately, education in this country was frequently neglectful and abusive when dealing with students who were different in some way.

Our country even has a rich literature that describes the treatment given to people with disabilities in the 1800s and early 1900s. Unfortunately, in these stories, as well as in the real world, people with disabilities were frequently confined in jails and almshouses without adequate food, clothing, personal hygiene, or exercise.

Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a perfect example of this different treatment in our literature (1843). Furthermore, people with disabilities were frequently portrayed as villains, such as Captain Hook in J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” in 1911.

The authors of this time period held that one should submit to misfortunes as a form of obedience to God’s will, as well as because these apparent misfortunes are ultimately intended for one’s own good. With this way of thinking pervading our society, literature, and thought, progress for our people with disabilities was difficult to come by at the time.

So, what was society to do about these unfortunate individuals? Professionals believed that individuals with disabilities were best treated in rural residential facilities for much of the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century. If you will, it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the size of these institutions had grown so dramatically that the goal of rehabilitation for people with disabilities simply wasn’t working. Institutions were used to enforce permanent segregation.

I’ve had some experience with educational segregation policies. Some of it is excellent, while others are less so. I’ve been a self-contained teacher on and off over the years in a variety of settings, including public high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. I’ve also taught in a number of special education behavioral self-contained schools that completely separated these troubled students with disabilities in managing their behavior from their mainstream peers by putting them in completely different buildings, sometimes even in different towns, from their homes, friends, and peers.

Many special education professionals have become critics of the institutions mentioned above, which separated and segregated our children with disabilities from their peers over the years. Irvine Howe was among the first to advocate for removing our children from these massive institutions and placing them in families. Unfortunately, this practice became a logistical and pragmatic problem, and it took a long time before it could be considered a viable alternative to institutionalization for our disabled students.

On the bright side, you might be interested to know that Gallaudet founded the first special education school in the United States, the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (now known as the American School for the Deaf), in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. That school is still in operation today and is regarded as one of the best in the country for students with auditory disabilities. A genuine success story!

However, as you might expect, the American School for the Deaf’s long-term success was the exception rather than the rule during this time period. To make matters worse, in the late nineteenth century, social Darwinism supplanted environmentalism as the primary explanation for individuals with disabilities who deviated from the general population.

Unfortunately, Darwinism paved the way for the early twentieth-century eugenics movement. This resulted in even more segregation and even sterilization of people with disabilities like mental retardation. What Hitler was doing in Germany appears to be being done right here in our own country, to our own people, by our own people. Don’t you think it’s terrifying and inhumane?

This type of treatment is obviously unacceptable today. And it was also unacceptable to some adults, particularly the parents of these disabled children, in the early twentieth century. As a result, concerned and angry parents formed advocacy groups to help bring the educational needs of disabled children into the public eye. If this eugenics and sterilization movement was ever to be stopped, the public needed to see firsthand how wrong it was for our students who were different.

Slowly, grassroots organizations made progress, leading to the creation of laws to protect citizens with disabilities in some states. For example, in Peoria, Illinois, the first white cane ordinance granted blind people the right-of-way when crossing the street in 1930. This was just the beginning, and other states eventually followed suit. This grassroots movement at the local and state levels eventually led to enough pressure on our elected officials for something to be done on a national level for our people with disabilities.

President John F. Kennedy established the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation in 1961. In addition, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, which provided funding for primary education and is viewed by advocacy groups as expanding access to public education for children with disabilities.

When one considers Kennedy and Johnson’s civil rights records, it’s not surprising that these two presidents also spearheaded this national movement for our people with disabilities.

This federal movement resulted in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This ensures civil rights for the disabled in federally funded institutions or any program or activity receiving federal funding. As an educator, I personally deal with 504 cases every day, even after all these years.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), enacted by Congress in 1975, establishes a right to public education for all children, regardless of disability. Another advantage was that prior to federal legislation, parents had to either educate their children at home or pay for expensive private education.

The movement grew in size. The United States Supreme Court clarified the level of services to be provided to students with special needs in the 1982 case of the Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley. The Court ruled that special education services must only provide students with some “educational benefit.” Students with disabilities were not required to make the most of their educational opportunities in public schools.

Today, this ruling may not appear to be a victory, and in fact, the same question is being debated in our courts in 2017. However, given the circumstances, it was a victory because it stated that special education students could not pass through our school system without learning anything. They had no choice but to learn something. If one knows and understands how the laws in this country work, one will realize that the laws always progress in tiny little increments that add up to progress over time. This decision was a win for special education students because it added another rung to the crusade ladder.

The Regular Education Initiative (REI) was established in the 1980s. This was an attempt to reassert neighborhood schools’ and regular classroom teachers’ responsibility for the education of students with disabilities. I am very familiar with the Regular Education Initiative because I worked as a REI teacher for four years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At the time, I was certified as both a special education teacher and a regular education teacher, and I was working as a REI teacher in both capacities because that was what the position required.

Our special education students received a significant boost in the 1990s. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was enacted in 1990. (IDEA). This was and continues to be the foundation of the idea of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for all of our students. The law required that each student receiving special education services also receive an Individualized Education Program in order to ensure FAPE (IEP).

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 extended its reach beyond public schools. In addition, Title 3 of the IDEA prohibited disability-based discrimination in any public place. In public places, full and equal enjoyment of goods, services, facilities, or accommodations was expected. Of course, public accommodations included the majority of educational facilities.

In addition, the full inclusion movement gained traction in the 1990s. This mandated that all students with disabilities be educated in regular classrooms. I am also very familiar with this aspect of education because I have worked as an inclusion teacher on both sides of the isle as both a regular education teacher and a special education teacher.

Now to President Bush and his No Child Left Behind Act, which replaced President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The NCLB Act of 2001 stated that special education should continue to focus on producing results, and this came with a significant increase in educator accountability.

This NCLB Act was both good and bad. Of course, we all want to see results for all of our students, and it’s common sense that accountability facilitates this. Where this kind of went awry was when the NCLB demanded a slew of new things while providing no funds or support to achieve these new goals.

Furthermore, teachers began to feel increasingly squeezed and threatened as the new movement of big business and corporate education moved in and took over education. People with no educational background are now influencing education policy and gaining access to a large portion of educational funds.

This accountability craze, fueled by excessive standardized testing, spread quickly, with a slew of well-connected elite Trump-like figures telling their lower echelon educational counterparts, “You’re fired!” This environment of trying to stay under the radar in order to keep one’s job and beating our children over the head with testing strategies was not healthy for our educators. It was detrimental to our students. And it was especially bad for our most vulnerable special education students.

However, some good did come from this era. For example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was updated in 2004. Additionally, schools were required to provide individualized or special education to children with qualifying disabilities. States that accept public funds for education must provide special education to qualifying children with disabilities under the IDEA. As I previously stated, the law is a long, slow process of tiny little steps that add up to progress made over time.

Finally, President Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) took effect in 2015, replacing President Bush’s NCLB, which had replaced President Johnson’s ESEA. Under Obama’s new ESSA, schools were now permitted to reduce some of the testing. Hopefully, the craze for standardized testing has subsided. But only time will tell. ESSA also reintroduced more local control. You know, the kind of power our forefathers envisioned.

As you can see, the federal government has no authority over education under the United States Constitution. For good reason, education is not mentioned in the United States Constitution. The Founders desired that most aspects of life be managed by those closest to them, whether by state or local government or by families, businesses, and other civil society elements. They essentially saw no role for the federal government in education.

The Founders, you see, were concerned about the concentration of power. They believed that limiting and dividing power was the best way to protect individual liberty and civil society. However, this works both ways, because the states often find themselves asking the feds for more educational money. And the feds will only give additional funds to states if the states do what the feds want… Hmm… Checks and balances, as well as compromise, can be tricky, can’t they?

So the education battle continues, with all the pushing and pulling between the federal government, the states, and local governments, as well as special education and regular education. To make matters worse, in a recent ruling in a lawsuit filed against the state by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Judge Moukawsher, a state judge from Connecticut, included a message to lawmakers to reconsider the level of services students with significant disabilities are entitled to.

His ruling and statements appear to indicate that he believes we are overspending on special education students. And that it simply isn’t worth it for some of them because their disabilities are too severe. You can imagine how contentious this was and how offended some people were.

The outcome of the 2016 United States Presidential election surprised no one. Donald Trump, the real estate mogul and reality TV star, won the presidency and then appointed anti-public education Betsy Devos to lead this country’s Department of Education. Her mandate from Trump is to drastically cut the Department of Education and prioritize private charter schools over what they see as a failing public educational system.

Nobody knows how this will affect our students, particularly our most vulnerable special education students, at this time. But I can also tell you that there aren’t many people who are happy with it right now. Only time will tell where this all goes and how it affects our special education students…

As I previously stated, perhaps the most significant and pervasive issue in special education is its relationship to general education. Over the years, both my own and our country’s journeys through the vast realm of education have been interesting and, to put it mildly, fraught with controversy.

I recall beginning my career as a special education teacher in the mid-1990s. A friend’s father, who was a school principal at the time, advised me to leave special education because it wouldn’t last. I’ve been in and out of special education for over two decades, and sometimes I’m not sure if I’m a regular education teacher, a special education teacher, or both. And I have the impression that our country’s educational system is going through the same internal turmoil that I am. Regardless, special education is still around after all these years.

In conclusion, while Itard failed to normalize Victor, Averyon’s wild boy, he did produce dramatic changes in Victor’s behavior through education. Itard is credited with inventing modern special education practices. His work represents the beginning of widespread efforts to educate students with disabilities. Fast forward to 2017 to see what happens next in our country’s education and special education future… So, I guess it’s up to all of us…

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