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Special Education

Current Trends, Preparation Of Teachers, International ContextHISTORY OF

Devery R. Mock
Jennifer J. Jakubecy
James M. Kauffman

Jennifer J. Jakubecy
Devery R. Mock
James M. Kauffman

Paul T. Sindelar
Mary T. Brownell


Paul Ackerman
Robert Jaeger
Anne Smith


Special education, as its name suggests, is a specialized branch of education. Claiming lineage to such persons as Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard (1775–1838), the physician who "tamed" the "wild boy of Aveyron," and Anne Sullivan Macy (1866–1936), the teacher who "worked miracles" with Helen Keller, special educators teach those students who have physical, cognitive, language, learning, sensory, and/or emotional abilities that deviate from those of the general population. Special educators provide instruction specifically tailored to meet individualized needs, making education available to students who otherwise would have limited access to education. In 2001, special education in the United States was serving over five million students.

Although federally mandated special education is relatively new in the United States, students with disabilities have been present in every era and in every society. Historical records have consistently documented the most severe disabilities–those that transcend task and setting. Itard's description of the wild boy of Aveyron documents a variety of behaviors consistent with both mental retardation and behavioral disorders. Nineteenth-century reports of deviant behavior describe conditions that could easily be interpreted as severe mental retardation, autism, or schizophrenia. Milder forms of disability became apparent only after the advent of universal public education. When literacy became a goal for all children, teachers began observing disabilities specific to task and setting–that is, less severe disabilities. After decades of research and legislation, special education now provides services to students with varying degrees and forms of disabilities, including mental retardation, emotional disturbance, learning disabilities, speech-language (communication) disabilities, impaired hearing and deafness, low vision and blindness, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, and severe and multiple disabilities.

Development of the Field of Special Education

At its inception in the early nineteenth century, leaders of social change set out to cure many ills of society. Physicians and clergy, including Itard, Edouard O. Seguin (1812–1880), Samuel Gridley Howe (1801–1876), and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787–1851), wanted to ameliorate the neglectful, often abusive treatment of individuals with disabilities. A rich literature describes the treatment provided to individuals with disabilities in the 1800s: They were often confined in jails and almshouses without decent food, clothing, personal hygiene, and exercise. During much of the nineteenth century, and early in the twentieth, professionals believed individuals with disabilities were best treated in residential facilities in rural environments. Advocates of these institutions argued that environmental conditions such as urban poverty and vices induced behavioral problems. Reformers such as Dorothea Dix (1802–1887) prevailed upon state governments to provide funds for bigger and more specialized institutions. These facilities focused more on a particular disability, such as mental retardation, then known as "feeble-mindedness" or "idiocy"; mental illness, then labeled "insanity" or "madness"; sensory impairment such as deafness or blindness; and behavioral disorders such as criminality and juvenile delinquency. Children who were judged to be delinquent or aggressive, but not insane, were sent to houses ofrefuge or reform schools, whereas children and adults judged to be "mad" were admitted to psychiatric hospitals. Dix and her followers believed that institutionalization of individuals with disabilities would end their abuse (confinement without treatment in jails and poorhouses) and provide effective treatment. Moral treatment was the dominant approach of the early nineteenth century in psychiatric hospitals, the aim being cure. Moral treatment employed methods analogous to today's occupational therapy, systematic instruction, and positive reinforcement. Evidence suggests this approach was humane and effective in some cases, but the treatment was generally abandoned by the late nineteenth century, due largely to the failure of moral therapists to train others in their techniques and the rise of the belief that mental illness was always a result of brain disease.

By the end of the nineteenth century, pessimism about cure and emphasis on physiological causes led to a change in orientation that would later bring about the "warehouse-like" institutions that have become a symbol for abuse and neglect of society's most vulnerable citizens. The practice of moral treatment was replaced by the belief that most disabilities were incurable. This led to keeping individuals with disabilities ininstitutions both for their own protection and for the betterment of society. Although the transformation took many years, by the end of the nineteenth century the size of institutions had increased so dramatically that the goal of rehabilitation was no longer possible. Institutions became instruments for permanent segregation. Many special education professionals became critics of institutions. Howe, one of the first to argue for in stitutions for people with disabilities, began advocating placing out residents into families. Unfortunately this practice became a logistical and pragmatic problem before it could become a viable alternative to institutionalization.

At the close of the nineteenth century, state governments established juvenile courts and social welfare programs, including foster homes, for children and adolescents. The child study movement became prominent in the early twentieth century. Using the approach pioneered by G. Stanley Hall (1844–1924; considered the founder of child psychology), researchers attempted to study child development scientifically in relation to education and in so doing established a place for psychology within public schools. In 1931, the Bradley Home, the first psychiatric hospital for children in the United States, was established in East Providence, Rhode Island. The treatment offered in this hospital, as well as most of the other hospitals of the early twentieth century, was psychodynamic. Psychodynamic ideas fanned interest in the diagnosis and classification of disabili ties. In 1951 the first institution for research on exceptional children opened at the University of Illinois and began what was to become the newest focus of the field of special education: the slow learner and, eventually, what we know today as learning disability.

The Development of Special Education in Institutions and Schools

Although Itard failed to normalize Victor, the wild boy of Averyon, he did produce dramatic changes in Victor's behavior through education. Modern special education practices can be traced to Itard, and his work marks the beginning of widespread attempts to instruct students with disabilities. In 1817 the first special education school in the United States, the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (now called the American School for the Deaf), was established in Hartford, Connecticut, by Gallaudet. By the middle of the nineteenth century, special educational programs were being provided in many asylums. Education was a prominent part of moral therapy. By the close of the nineteenth century, special classes within regular public schools had been launched in major cities. These special classes were initially established for immigrant students who were not proficient in English and students who had mild mental retardation or behavioral disorders. Descriptions of these children included terms such as steamer children, backward, truant, and incorrigible. Procedures for identifying "defectives" were included in the World's Fair of 1904. By the 1920s special classes for students judged unsuitable for regular classes had become common in major cities.

In 1840 Rhode Island passed a law mandating compulsory education for children, but not all states had compulsory education until 1918. With compulsory schooling and the swelling tide of anti-institution sentiment in the twentieth century, many children with disabilities were moved out of institutional settings and into public schools. However, by the mid-twentieth century children with disabilities were still often excluded from public schools and kept at home if not institutionalized. In order to respond to the new population of students with special needs entering schools, school officials created still more special classes in public schools.

The number of special classes and complementary support services (assistance given to teachers in managing behavior and learning problems) increased dramatically after World War II. During the early 1900s there was also an increased attention to mental health and a consequent interest in establishing child guidance clinics. By 1930 child guidance clinics and counseling services were relatively common features of major cities, and by 1950 special education had become an identifiable part of urban public education in nearly every school district. By 1960 special educators were instructing their students in a continuum of settings that included hospital schools for those with the most severe disabilities, specialized day schools for students with severe disabilities who were able to live at home, and special classes in regular public schools for students whose disabilities could be managed in small groups. During this period special educators also began to take on the role of consultant, assisting other teachers in instructing students with disabilities. Thus, by 1970 the field of special education was offering a variety of educational placements to students with varying disabilities and needs; however, public schools were not yet required to educate all students regardless of their disabilities.

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, instruction of children with disabilities often was based on process training–which involves attempts to improve children's academic performance by teaching them cognitive or motor processes, such as perceptualmotor skills, visual memory, auditory memory, or auditory-vocal processing. These are ancient ideas that found twentieth-century proponents. Process training enthusiasts taught children various perceptual skills (e.g., identifying different sounds or objects by touch) or perceptual motor skills (e.g., balancing) with the notion that fluency in these skills would generalize to reading, writing, arithmetic, and other basic academic tasks. After many years of research, however, such training was shown not to be effective in improving academic skills. Many of these same ideas were recycled in the late twentieth century as learning styles, multiple intelligences, and other notions that the underlying process of learning varies with gender, ethnicity, or other physiological differences. None of these theories has found much support in reliable research, although direct instruction, mnemonic (memory) devices, and a few other instructional strategies have been supported reliably by research.

The History of Legislation in Special Education

Although many contend that special education was born with the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975, it is clear that special educators were beginning to respond to the needs of children with disabilities in public schools nearly a century earlier. It is also clear that EAHCA did not spring from a vacuum. This landmark law naturally evolved from events in both special education and the larger society and came about in large part due to the work of grass roots organizations composed of both parents and professionals. These groups dated back to the 1870s, when the American Association of Instructors of the Blind and the American Association on Mental Deficiency (the latter is now the American Association on Mental Retardation) were formed. In 1922 the Council for Exceptional Children, now the major professional organization of special educators, was organized. In the 1930s and 1940s parent groups began to band together on a national level. These groups worked to make changes in their own communities and, consequently, set the stage for changes on a national level. Two of the most influential parent advocacy groups were the National Association for Retarded Citizens (now ARC/USA), organized in 1950, and the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, organized in 1963.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, advocacy groups were securing local ordinances that would protect and serve individuals with disabilities in their communities. For example, in 1930, in Peoria, Illinois, the first white cane ordinance gave individuals with blindness the right-of-way when crossing the street. By mid-century all states had legislation providing for education of students with disabilities. However, legislation was still noncompulsory. In the late 1950s federal money was allocated for educating children with disabilities and for the training of special educators. Thus the federal government became formally involved in research and in training special education professionals, but limited its involvement to these functions until the 1970s. In 1971, this support was reinforced and extended to the state level when the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) filed a class action suit against their Commonwealth. This suit, resolved by consent agreement, specified that all children age six through twenty-one were to be provided free public education in the least restrictive alternative (LRA, which would later become the least restrictive environment [LRE] clause in EAHCA). In 1973 the Rehabilitation Act prohibited discriminatory practices in programs receiving federal financial assistance but imposed no affirmative obligations with respect to special education.

In 1975 the legal action begun under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations resulted in EAHCA, which was signed into law by President Gerald Ford. EAHCA reached full implementation in 1977 and required school districts to provide free and appropriate education to all of their students with disabilities. In return for federal funding, each state was to ensure that students with disabilities received non-discriminatory testing, evaluation, and placement; the right to due process; education in the least restrictive environment; and a free and appropriate education. The centerpiece of this public law (known since 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) was, and is, a free appropriate public education (FAPE). To ensure FAPE, the law mandated that each student receiving special education receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Under EAHCA, students with identified disabilities were to receive FAPE and an IEP that included relevant instructional goals and objectives, specifications as to length of school year, determination of the most appropriate educational placement, and descriptions of criteria to be used in evaluation and measurement. The IEP was designed to ensure that all students with disabilities received educational programs specific to their "unique" needs. Thus, the education of students with disabilities became federally controlled. In the 1982 case of Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the level of services to be afforded students with special needs and ruled that special education services need only provide some "educational benefit" to students–public schools were not required to maximize the educational progress of students with disabilities. In so doing the Supreme Court further defined what was meant by a free and appropriate education. In 1990 EAHCA was amended to include a change to person-first language, replacing the term handicapped student with student with disabilities. The 1990 amendments also added new classification categories for students with autism and traumatic brain injury and transition plans within IEPs for students age fourteen or older. In 1997, IDEA was reauthorized under President Clinton and amended to require the inclusion of students with disabilities in statewide and districtwide assessments, measurable IEP goals and objectives, and functional behavioral assessment and behavior intervention plans for students with emotional or behavioral needs. Because IDEA is amended and reauthorized every few years, it is impossible to predict the future of this law. It is possible that it will be repealed or altered dramatically by a future Congress. The special education story, both past and future, can be written in many different ways.

Trends in Special Education

Researchers have conceptualized the history of special education in stages that highlight the various trends that the field has experienced. Although some of these conceptualizations focus on changes involving instructional interventions for students with disabilities, others focus on the place of interventions. The focus on placement reflects the controversy in which the field of special education has found itself throughout history. Samuel G. Howe was one of the first to assert–in the nineteenth century–that instructional settings had inherent qualities that alone insured effective interventions. Belief in the essential curative powers of place spurred the late nineteenth century crusade for bigger and better institutions, as well as the mid-twentieth-century movement for deinstitutionalization. Exclusive focus on the importance of place distracted many professionals and prevented them from recognizing that dramatic changes in philosophy were accompanying the movement for deinstitutionalization. In the late nineteenth century, social Darwinism replaced environmentalism as the primary causal explanation for those individuals with abilities who deviated from those of the general population, opening the door to the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century, and leading to the segregation and sterilization of individuals with mental retardation. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the debate had suddenly shifted from whether the disadvantaged should be helped to where these individuals should be served. As the institutionalization versus deinstitutionalization debate raged, many individuals were given custodial treatment, which is contrary to the mission of special education.

Almost a century after the placement debate began, special educators still focused on the importance of place. Many were calling upon the field to create not one perfect setting for the delivery of services, but a continuum of placement options that would address the needs of all students with disabilities. The civil rights movement had reconceptualized special education as a case of access of minorities to the educational privileges of the majority, and the least restrictive environment clause of EAHCA/IDEA prompted advocates for people with disabilities to call for mainstreaming–the return of students with disabilities to the regular classroom whenever and wherever possible. In the 1980s the Regular Education Initiative (REI) was an attempt to return responsibility for the education of students with disabilities to neighborhood schools and regular classroom teachers. In the 1990s the full inclusion movement called for educating all students with disabilities in the regular classroom with a single, unified and responsive education system. Advocates for full inclusion, following in the footsteps of Howe, argued for appropriate instruction in a single, ubiquitous place, contrary to the mandate of IDEA.

Controversial Issues in Special Education

Special education has been the target of criticism throughout history. Some of the criticism has been justified, some unjustified. Some criticisms brought to light ineffective practices, such as the inefficacy and inhumanity of relegating all persons with disabilities to institutions. Other criticisms were distractions with disastrous repercussions, such as the singular focus on the importance of place while ignoring other inappropriate practices. The beginning of the twenty-first century found new criticisms being launched at special education. Some argue that the use of diagnostic labels is potentially stigmatizing to students, others that minority students are overrepresented in some disability categories, and still others that education of students with disabilities in special classes and schools, even pulling students out for instruction in resource classes, is akin to race-based segregation. Some of these criticisms may expose ineffective practices, others may only distract educators from the effort of finding and implementing effective instructional practices. Professionals must develop the ability to learn from history and differentiate between unimportant criticisms and those with merit.

One valid criticism repeatedly launched against special education involves the implementation of ineffective educational interventions. Although great concern about the where of instruction was expressed in the 1980s and 1990s, little attention was given to the what of instruction. Throughout the twentieth century the field of special education repeatedly adopted instructional strategies of questionable efficacy–interventions that have little to no empirical basis. Additionally, special educators have adopted, with "bandwagon" fervor, many practices that have been proven ineffective and have thereby repeated the mistakes of history. If special education is to progress, professionals will need to address and remedy the instructional practices used with students with disabilities.

Special education has also been validly criticized for the way in which students with disabilities are identified. In the early nineteenth century, physicians and educators had difficulty making reliable distinctions between different disability categories. In fact, the categories of mental retardation and behavioral disorders are inseparably intertwined. Many of the disability categories overlap to the extent that it is hard to differentiate one from the other. Additionally, some of the categories–learning disabilities and behavioral disorders, for example–are defined by the exclusion of other contributing disabilities. Thus, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, much work remains on the identification of students with disabilities.

Perhaps the largest, most pervasive issue in special education is its relationship to general education. The relationship of special to general education has been controversial since the beginning of universal public schooling. However, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the question of whether special education should retain a separate identity or be fused with general education such that it has no separate identity (e.g., budget, personnel) was made prominent by proponents of a radical restructuring of special education. Proponents of radical restructuring and fusion argue that such integration is necessary to provide appropriate education for all students regardless of their disabilities and without stigma or discrimination. In their view, special education suffers primarily from structural problems, and the integration of two separate systems will result in a flexible, supple, responsive single system that will meet the needs of all students without "separating out" any. All teachers, according to this line of thinking, should be prepared to teach all students, including those with special needs.

Opponents of radical restructuring argue that special education's problems are primarily the lack of implementation of best practices, not structural. Moreover, they suggest, special education will not survive to serve the special needs of exceptional students if it loses its identity, including special budget allocations and personnel preparation. It is not feasible nor is it desirable, they contend, to prepare all teachers to teach all children; special training is required to teach students who are educationally exceptional. Arguments about the structure of education (special and general), who (if anyone) should receive special treatment, how they should be taught, and where special services should be provided are perpetual issues in special education. These issues will likely continue to be debated throughout the twenty-first century.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, another issue became the basis for conceptual or theoretical bases for special education practices. Postmodern and antiscientific philosophies have been put forward in both general and special education. These ideas have been challenged by others who have noted the importance of the scientific method in discriminating among ideas and assertions. Likely, postmodern ideas and attempts to apply them to or refute them will be perpetual.

More than two hundred years after Itard began his work on the education of the wild boy of Aveyron, special educators are being asked to make decisions concerning such issues as placement and delivery of services. The inclusion debate, although important, has the potential to distract the field of special education away from issues of greater import–issues such as the efficacy of intervention and the accurate identification of students with disabilities. If special educators are to avoid the mistakes of the past, they will need to make future decisions based upon reliable data, evaluating the efficacy of differing options. Since the inception of what is now known as IDEA, significant progress has been made in applying scientific research to the problems of special education. In the twenty-first century, special education need not remain a field of good intentions, but can fully employ the scientific child-study techniques begun in the late eighteenth century to provide free and appropriate educations to all children with disabilities.


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