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New York City
May 2002

80 Years of Special Education at Teachers College: Where Have We Been, Where Are We Going?
By Pola Rosen, Ed.D.

The 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 panel discussions.

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 relationship.

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 teaching.

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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