Years of Special Education at Teachers College: Where Have We
Been, Where Are We Going?
Pola Rosen, Ed.D.
Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), an organization devoted
to the advocacy, research, advancement and support for exceptional
children, teachers, administrators and parents, was founded 80
years ago at Teachers College (TC), Columbia University. In honor
of this historic event, CEC officers and a group of TC alumni
and professors gathered to celebrate, discuss and renew old bonds
at their alma mater, Teachers College.
Among panel members were Frances Connor, former Chair of the Special
Education Department at TC, Professor Emeritus Margaret Jo Shepherd,
Professor Emeritus Leonard Blackman, and Fred Weintraub and Alan
Abeson, former governmental relations heads at CEC. Professor
Jed Luchow of the College of Staten Island and Professor Linda
Hickson of TC, helped coordinate the festive reunion and serious
The critical dilemma noted by the panel was that while PL 94-142,
passed in 1975, mandated the education of all children, regular
education today does not want to include special education children.
Professor Shepherd underscored the difficulty to forge a collaborative
relationship between classroom teachers whose focus is on teaching
classes, versus special education teachers who focus on teaching
individual children. Her dream is still to strive for a collaborative
Delving into the history of special education, the panel spoke
of William Thorndike, a professor at TC, who introduced the education
of special students into his course in 1899. The subsequent interest
in exceptional children led to an increased demand for professionally
prepared personnel. With the ensuing Eugenics Movement came a
rise in the building of institutions until Professor Burton Black
of Syracuse University led a vociferous cry against them and led
the march to the disbanding of the infamous Willowbrook in Staten
Island, New York. [Ironically, the site currently houses the College
of Staten Island, CUNY on a bucolic campus. Ed.] The egalitarian
movement started with Brown versus the Board of Education which
led to eliminating discrimination against disabled individuals.
Professor Frances Connor, Chair Emeritus of the Special Education
Department at Teachers College and a President of CEC in 1964
cited several revolutions which still resonate today. She called
for increasing the quantity and
quality of special education teachers, for the inclusion of new
knowledge, for special education’s efforts to be based on hope,
not preconceived limits, for educating children in a cooperative
way, not as a power struggle. And finally, the status quo which
is to be evaluated, not treasured.
Weintraub summed up the sentiments of the panel in saying ‘we
must stop thinking of a dual system [inclusion v. separation].
We have a multiple system. We have to learn to work together.”
Perhaps the most dramatic transformation underscored by the panel
in special education over the past two decades is that it has
become a support system to general education instead of a primary
deliverer of education. What worries Weintraub the most is that
“special education is a train trying to take all students to one
designated point regardless of their individual needs or capacities.”
The principle of “equal access to differing resources for differing
outcomes” seems to have been lost. “Not everyone will go to Columbia.
Nor should they, but everyone can be successful at something.”
The consensus of opinion was that funding and policy makers are
driving education, while little time is spent on curriculum and
Weintraub’s powerful words ended the panel: “The Teachers College
tradition has served us well. I treasure it.” And indeed, the
lump in his throat brought tears to this alumna’s eyes as I looked
at the great thinkers and shapers on the panel with whom I had
studied so many years ago. #
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