Thursday, September 17, 2015

The root of special education

Special education began in response to the great crowds of children brought to our cities by the industrial revolution. One of the forerunners in the field, Elizabeth Farrell, began an Ungraded School in New York City City in 1908, and the first special education journal, Ungraded, published from 1915-1926. 

It is possible that this seminal era of special education -- spurred by mutual responsibility and compassion rather than mere litigation -- could provide clues to the heart of our field. The excerpt below from an essay Farrell published in the first issue of Ungraded, provides three such clues. First the excerpt, then the clues.

There is the problem of the laggard. In its superficial aspects we have recognized it, but its ultimate solution is far below. The work of the school is one of unprecedented intricacy. It is inextricably bound up with all sociological problems of our time; its relation to crime, poverty, to health, to vice, is dimly perceived. The price that we now know we pay when a home is needlessly broken up is not greater than that we pay for repeaters made such by the poverty which drives the mother out early in the morning, but it is the same kind of coin.
To look back upon your own childhood you will agree that the orderly, busy breakfast time; the mother and the younger children standing at the door to wave good-by as you started for school was a time of character growth. Habits of industry, mutual helpfulness, straight-forwardness were there made into flesh and bone. Its value, who can estimate? Or that time after supper with father and mother, their day's work done, industrious with many things; that time which the poet calls the Children’s Hour. Who can count its value as evening succeeded evening all through that formative period? Would you have been the same man had you, like hundreds of children in the big cities of this land, been left asleep each morning while your mother went out into the world busy with the things of life which would not be put by, grasping from the fray food, clothing and shelter, but unable to give that nourishment to the divine spark within, the full flame of which gives meaning and value to life. The house now is the home of the body, but it must again become the home of the souls of children. The children must be taken back from the street and the factory and restored to the home. The mother must be freed from lesser things in order to develop the greater unity, character and strength in her children.

First, education is a response to everyone's problems. "It is inextricably bound up with all the sociological problems of (its) time." Foremost in the 1910s was the industrial revolution's impact on homes. Today's homes are still feeling this impact, along with myriad other detrimental influences that are beyond this post's scope to list, most of which are seen in teacher and student alike. To teach is not to solve our problems, but to address them as we can in our time. To teach with wisdom, then, is to work doggedly for improved outcomes, but to ever bear in mind the limits inherent in our work.

Next, Farrell understands education as a thing of "unprecedented intricacy." This contrasts with the spirit of "evidence based practices" which  are now required by federal law, and presume that if we simply find the programs that work, and implement them correctly, we will gain our desired results (leaving no child behind, closing achievement gaps, etc.). Teachers know that good programs and practices are valuable tools, but we also know how many teacher, classroom, and student factors must be accounted for and managed in order for any program to be worth the box it came in. My bias is that special educators are prone to a closer knowledge of this intricacy than other teachers thanks to a more intimate knowledge of fewer students.

Finally, she understand that schools don't have any influence on children, laggard or otherwise, the way families do. In today's schools, we are trying to address the character of children in the face of disintegrated families, for whom no semblance of a "Children's Hour" exists. What is the ideal cure for the "laggard?" An intensive small group therapy? A behavioral plan that perfectly meets the needs he is communicating with his problem behaviors? An evidence-based practice implemented with fidelity? Not according to Farrell. She prescribes"...a mother...freed from lesser things in order to develop the greater unity, character and strength in her children."

No comments: