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Special Education: a Look at the History Essay

Abstract The purpose of this paper is to address the historical landmarks and legislation that have formed and created our current special education system. We will take a journey from the start of public education and its exclusion of special needs students to the current push for inclusion of all students learning within a general education classroom. The author will also share some of the pros and cons of current educational legislation with regard to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and how it will effect special education in the future.

The past and present attitudes of the public, with regard to special education, will also be taken up and public opinions and thoughts will be shared. An objective conclusion will be made regarding advancements in education and they role they play in the lifelong quality of life of special education students. Special Education: A Look at the History In the beginning education for children in the United States was limited to those with means.

As our country changed the importance of educating men, then women was important; but minorities and those with intellectual or physical impairments were not included in the educational process. After many years of parents struggling, fighting and advocating for their children, we have recognized and established an educational system that acknowledges the importance of providing all children with a free public education. But how did we get here, how long did it take, and what legal and legislative actions helped to create our current views on educational availability?

The fight for educating students with disabilities is closely related to our fight for civil rights. As we recognized civil rights the rights of the disabled also came to light. There have been lawsuits filed as far back as 1919, where parents fought to get educations for their children. During these early years these students were taught in substandard classrooms hidden from the view of teachers, students and administrators who saw them as distractions to the educational system.

In the 1919 case the local school stated that the physically deformed student “produces a depressing and a nauseating effect upon the teachers and school children” (J. D. Smith, 2004, p. 4). Education for disabled children was exclusionary instead of inclusionary, disabled children were denied access to the educational process. So what did it take to change the minds of the masses? Let’s take a look at the legislation that helped to change the educational futures of this countries disablied children.

The big battle for change started in 1954, with Brown v.Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas) which established the right for all children to have an equal education. Between 1954 and 1983 there were several lawsuits against school districts and states to establish rights for all students including those with disabilities: from students with language acquisition issues and mental retardation to program development and placement. Special education was changing but it was a slow process. The biggest changes came with Public Law 94-142 otherwise known as the Education for All Handicapped Children.

This legislation changed how special education would be handled and would be has been revised five times to what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Public Law 94-142 provided for free and appropriate educations for all children with disabilities, provided parents and educations with the tools necessary for meeting the needs of students and provided states with the ideas on how to establish early intervention services for infants and toddlers in addition to school age children.

The six principles of IDEA established the first major guidelines for special education – these principles included: educating all children with disabilities; providing identification and evaluation methods that were not discriminatory; encouraged inclusion; allowed for parent advocacy; required collaboration between school and parents; most importantly established the Individualized education program (IEP) that required schools, educators and parents to prepare specific guidelines for special needs students.

In 2001, the Legislature passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that established the requirement for all schools to use highly qualified teachers and appropriate curriculum that would allow for all students to be competent in all subject areas. This legislation also establishes requirements for schools and states that if schools cannot meet minimum educational progress then they will be subject to restructuring. Educational opportunities for special education students have improved greatly over the past fifty years, and should continue to grow in the years to come.

The individual lawsuits filed established precedence for the rights of students with disabilities and federal legislation established specific guidelines and educational opportunities that were not available before. IDEA let parents participate in the direction of their children’s educations by allowing them to be included in all meetings and allowing them to request services and testing. One of the biggest changes in the educational process of special education is the aspect of inclusion.

Previously special education students were placed in self-contained classes away from the general population of students. Now students are included in general education classes as often as possible, because the benefit of their participation in these classrooms improves their qualities of life both short-term and long-term. An example of this success can be measured by one of the students I have worked with. This boy, had been in self-contained classrooms from kindergarten through fifth grade. He was placed in a general education classroom in sixth grade.

His major issues previously were behavior related. The longer he remained in the general education classrooms the more his behavior improved. By the time he reached high school he was able to participate fully in high school and enjoyed being part of the choir, steel drum band and even held a part-time job. Amazing progress considering the mother was told when he was seven that he should be institutionalized because he would never be able to function in society. The mom attributes her son’s progress and success to the inclusion process.

Looking into the future, special education will continue to have ups and down, successes and failures, but more successes than failures. IDEA has created a way for parents to participate in their children’s educational process and encourages schools and educators to work with families to extend the learning process from school to home. NCLB has positive and negative connotations on the educational process. Although it provides requirements for educational growth and requires teachers to be highly; it also focuses on standardized testing which can’t always be a true indication of student progress.

When we look at the progress made within special education, from students not being allowed to be in the schools to being fully included in the general educational classrooms we know that legislation has changed the total picture of education. Laws and regulations can only go so far, as future educators we must work to include all students within our classes and our lessons. We need to follow the regulations set for us, but more importantly we need to focus on the needs and successes of our students.

As future educators we should want to contribute to the historical future of special education in positive ways whether we are general or special education teachers. We can do this by accepting all students in our classrooms and doing our best to contribute to their educational success. When we do this, those researching the history of education fifty years from now will be able to see the changes we have made and know that we were victorious References Smith, J. D. , (2004), In Heward, W. , Exceptional Children: An Introduction to Special Education, pg. 16. , 9th Ed. , Pearson: Columbus, Ohio.


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