The History of Special Education Through a Policy Lens

Blog 14

 In my Connecticut Aspiring Leadership Academy for Special Education, I have begun working on Tier Two of our learning, which consists of the special education laws. Our presenter this week was a very impressive woman named Dr. Deborah Ziegler.

Dr. Ziegler has worked as a special education teacher and administrator. She has worked at the university level. And she is currently the Director for Policy and Advocacy and Professional Standards at the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), one of the world’s premier education organizations. Dr. Ziegler also works with the White House, Congress, and the U.S. Department of Education. And several international disability organizations whose focus is the implementation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This week, Dr. Ziegler exposed me to a lot of history, research, policy, and some practice in the education field through a policy lens. And I must admit, I know a few things about education history and policy from being a special education teacher, a history teacher, a teacher union officer, and a local politician. However, even with my background, I felt Dr. Ziegler was so far ahead of me that she was sometimes almost talking Greek. I often found myself flatfooted, being unable to answer her questions.

So, let’s start with a historical perspective. We learned about some of the significant educational researchers of the 1800s and early 1900s. These include, but are not limited to, Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, who I mentioned earlier in my writings. He stressed learning comes from the environment, such as in the case of the wild boy who he attempted to educate. Next came Edouard Seguin, who emphasized identifying students’ strengths and weaknesses when considering learning interventions. Then came Edouard Seguin, who said it was all biological and we shouldn’t pay too much attention to a student’s experiences. Others like John Watson, Edward Thorndike, B. F. Skinner, Clark Hull, and Kenneth Spence were behaviorists, and they believed that experience and environment played roles in development.

Advancing to the period between 1930-1970, we come to the researchers Harold Skeels and H.B. Dyes, who thought environmental changes affected cognitive development. Next, Samuel Kirk thought preschool had an impact on I.Q. Benjamin Bloom, J. McVicker Hunt, and Rene Spitz followed with preaching that stimulating the environment helped a child develop. Then Jean Piaget, who most of us still remember from our graduate school studies, said biological and experiential influences made the difference. Finally, Arnold Sameroff and Michael Chandler noted the impact of an adult was a significant factor in a child’s development.

More recently, in the late 1900s, Bengt Nirje talked about the normalization principle, and Urie Bronfenbrenner spent time on the ecological model of child development. Finally, Michael Guralnick changed the educational question and thus scholarly discussion to what works, for which children, and under what conditions. Our presenter, Dr. Ziegler, found Guralnick’s question helpful in her practice. It sounds like something my special education peers and I should be asking ourselves regularly, too.

I graduated from The University of Hartford with a master’s in Special Education in 1995. Since then, I have done many different things that have required me to learn much. Now, here I am in the year 2022 as a special education teacher working in an alternative high school, teaching all the history classes there, and doing the special education work. And Dr. Ziegler stumped me today, multiple times, with questions I was unable to answer.

For example, she asked me which modern-day special education researchers I have been studying, like, and am applying their research to my practices as an educator. I had nothing to say because I haven’t been studying and using any research from modern-day special education researchers.

I now know that I have to do better. I have to find time somehow to squeeze more self-education or self-assigned homework of reading the modern-day special education researchers so that I can be the special education expert people come to for help. Maybe I can find an excellent special education blog to listen to when driving to work or going on a walk.

As a history teacher, I am familiar with President Johnson, his War on Poverty, and his involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. President Johnson thought the U.S. was wealthy enough to spend money on butter and bullets. But, in the end, he was wrong, and much of the U.S. resources went to the Vietnam War.

With this said, I was happy to be reminded by Dr. Ziegler of President Johnson’s involvement in education and special education with some of the laws he helped pass through Congress, his old stomping grounds, and a place where he still had considerable influence. He just may have had more impact on Congress than any other President in the history of the U.S., and that’s a good thing, too, because he was able to get Congress to pass some significant laws that changed our country.

In 1964 President Johnson helped Congress pass the Economic Opportunity Act, which included the Head Start Program. In 1965, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In the ESEA, the federal government gave money to the states’ governments to help educate disabled children from birth through age 20.

In 1968 Congress passed the Handicapped Children’s Early Education Program (HCEEP), the first federal program focused on educating young children with disabilities. It also pushed for more research in special education and gave seed money to help create innovative programs that would scale up. Special education teachers and policymakers consider HCEEP one of the golden legislations.

In 1970, Congress passed the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA). States were provided with grants to help identify and service their disabled students. In 1973, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 passed. This law made it illegal to discriminate against people because of their disability. At this time, most educators didn’t realize that Section 504 could also apply to schools.

In 1975, Congress passed P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. I remember talking a lot about this in 1995 when I was in graduate school. It established a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). It said we should educate kids in the least restrictive environment (LRE). And every special education student should have a written individualized education plan (IEP).

While I was in college in the 1990s, the EHA was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). And it changed the terminology from ‘handicapped’ to ‘disability.’ Congress also passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It banned discrimination in public accommodations. And it adopted the Section 504 regulations, which evolved into the 504 Plans in public schools that my fellow public school educators and I work with daily in 2022.

In 2022, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) seeks to amend Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It was last amended 49 years ago! The OCR is also looking for public input on how to amend it. This gives the people in my cohort a unique opportunity to help create some special education policy history.

It’s normal for laws to be reassessed and reauthorized. It’s almost like we have taken education laws for test drives for about 6-10 years. During that time, we find out what works and what doesn’t with the law. And once better informed, the policymakers and legislatures reauthorize a law, hopefully with a better version and sometimes a different name.

In the mid-1990s, HCEEP was reauthorized and renamed the Early Education Program for Children with Disabilities (EEPCD). In 1997, IDEA was reauthorized. And in 2001, Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). They renamed it No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was later reauthorized in 2015 by President Obama as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The ESSA gave more control to states and locals and replaced NCLB’s controversial and underfunded mandate of adequate yearly progress with a more palatable state-designated accountability.

According to the educational policy historical patterns, IDEA was due to be reauthorized in 2010 with a better and more relevant, and practical model. It didn’t happen, though. The original IDEA from 1975 was reauthorized and updated to a better, more suitable model in 1997 and then again in 2004. But not since then.

IDEA should be reauthorized with a newer, better, and more relevant model for the needs of today’s special education students. I guess not having it renewed yet might be an opportunity for all of us out there to make a push and to have some input on reauthorizing a better version of it that meets our modern-day needs.

In 2007, I chaired a professional development for Sacred Heart University. While chairing this event, I also ran multiple seminars. And one of the seminars I taught was the basics of Special Education Law, meaning IDEA. I remember painstakingly reading the entire law, which was over 100 pages, and coming up with a power-point presentation on it. If anyone is brave enough or curious enough to give it a go, here is the IDEA Law: http://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?path=/prelim@title20/chapter33&edition=prelim.

I will probably not reread the law, but I will look into it, so perhaps I can have my two cents worth of what might go into the next long overdue reauthorization of the IDEA special education law.