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Sherman Dorn: What We Can Learn From a Half-Century of Federal Special Education Reform (Part 2)

(See part 1 here)

In part 1, I looked back at 50 years of education reform focused on students with disabilities and explained two of the five factors that shaped the last half-century of this history: political efforts to secure the educational rights of individuals with disabilities; and efforts to plan or design either education policy or educational techniques that could be used to help individuals, classes, or systems. These two factors lean heavily towards deliberative action, and I hinted that intentional action was not all that shaped the history of education for individuals with disabilities. Now it’s time to explore that other side.

First, a confession: in describing political advocacy on behalf of individuals with disabilities for part 1, I simplified the story. I mentioned opponents of disability activists only implicitly, when describing those first two consent decrees in federal courts in 1972 — in those cases, the state of Pennsylvania and the schools of Washington, D.C., were on the other side in an obvious way. And in the following 50 years school districts and states have often been on the other side of lawsuits regarding the educational rights of students with disabilities. The fight for the Americans with Disabilities Act was another key point of conflict, one that shaped education beyond K-12 schools. But political conflict can arise in other ways as well, including within coalitions, where advocates for the rights of students with disabilities have generally leveraged collective action. In sketching the factors that shaped the last 50 years, I think the political factor is the easiest to see, and so I am spending more space and effort on the others.

And now, on to prior history, emergent responses, and policy feedback. These factors are not about coordinated intentional effort; they are instead about structural and ideological legacies, the way that individual decisions under pressure become larger patterns, and how experiences reset expectations about the future. In short, the last fifty years of the education of individuals with disabilities is a story of how straightforward intentional efforts have interacted with factors that are far more chaotic than linear.

Prior history

In trying to guarantee a “free appropriate public education” to all students regardless of the existence, degree, or nature of disability, new federal mandates descended on an educational landscape built from decades of education practices and local and state policies. That history shaped special education services and practices in several ways. First, if one were inclined to be optimistic about implementation, there were places with experience in serving a broad range of students, and that experience meant there were parents, teachers, and administrators who had some skills to build up what the new law required. This prior experience was inconsistent — the places that did not have that experience were why the new law existed, after all — but it meant that in some districts and states, the new law provided additional resources and legitimacy for the efforts parents, activists, and some educators had made for years.

Second, the vast majority of school systems did not have that type of experience, and brought a range of exclusionary practices to the new policy. In many school districts, children had been excluded by rule for various reasons either entirely or from specific types of educational experiences. In these districts, no teachers or other educators had any experience thinking about or teaching students with disabilities. And the types of exclusionary practices affected not only children with disabilities but exclusion or segregation by race and gender. Federal special education mandates thus also came in the middle of other major efforts to change public education, to desegregate schools by race in the decades after the 1954 Brown decision by the Supreme Court, and then to equalize schools by sex, after the 1972 Title IX amendments that affected every education program receiving federal funds. Desegregation in the South intensified in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and one of the consequences of having white teachers inexperienced in classrooms with Black students is that they began referring their Black students for testing in hopes of removing them from classrooms. This happened more to boys than girls, and as some Nashville special education teachers from that time told me in interviews, they knew it happened both because of explicit racial prejudice and also because a number of white teachers did not have the skills to set reasonable expectations while building up good relationships in the classroom. These institutionalized practices of exclusion are hard to root out.

Third, the eugenics movements in the United States, and the related machinery of forced institutionalization and sterilization of individuals labeled with mental retardation had been discredited only thirty years before by the shame of association with the Nazis, and a substantial minority of adults in the United States at the time still thought and wrote and said that individuals with disabilities were incapable of being educated or living a full life.1 This substantial minority included many teachers and administrators, and thus the federal mandates to educate all children had to contend with educators who did not agree with the purpose of the new law. The ideological legacy of eugenics and the larger intellectual history of hostility towards individuals with disabilities bolstered institutional patterns that tended to segregate and exclude and restrict resources.

Finally, American education is a decentralized system, and the loosely-coupled nature of that system meant that the highly-specific mandates of the federal disability law could be and were interpreted in some very different ways across the country. Different states used varying terms and definitions for deciding students were eligible for special education services. Adjoining school districts could have very different practices in terms of where students could receive those services, from mostly or entirely in general education classrooms to separate schools where only students with disabilities attended.

Emergent responses

As new mandates rolled out, to provide access to schools and special education services, educators and school systems responded in different ways, in part because of the decentralization of American schools. But local school districts and leaders also faced (and historically have consistently wrestled with) conflicting ideas about the purposes of schooling and cross-cutting pressures to meet different expectations. The early implementation of Massachusett’s state special education law became the genesis of a term education researchers now use to explain how schools respond to those competing pressures: local school leaders are street-level bureaucrats whose decisions on a day-to-day level attempt to meet those pressures. In the theory of street-level bureaucracy, principals are middle managers who seek to satisfice the broad set of expectations we hold for schools rather than to meet every demand. While state law required the maximization of opportunity for students with disabilities, Massachusetts schools did not have infinite resources, and parents of other students had their own expectations for schools. The result was a mix of results in Massachusetts, and across the country.

There are limits to this claim of satisficing: over the years, federal courts and administrative law hearings set boundaries on efforts of many school districts to fudge certain aspects of the law. The procedural expectations for meetings to plan individual education programs for students became clearer over time, though attempts to do the same with school suspensions for students with disabilities created its own machinery of determining whether troubling behavior is the manifestation of a student’s disability. But the broader pattern that emerged over time was the result of tens of thousands of decisions by educators and parents every year, an emergence of a repertoire of educational practices. A fourth-grade teacher I met in a Nashville elementary school in the mid-1990s was livid over some of what she saw in her new school, because she had experienced a completely different set of practices in her prior school in Virginia, and what she had experienced as far more supportive — all of which had emerged from the same federal law, in schools that shared a common grammar of schooling with bell schedules and textbooks and spring state testing. The breadth of that repertoire in special education services includes highly effective teaching and also neglectful abandonment of the educational needs of students.

Policy feedback

That elementary school teacher’s set of expectations contained one last factor that is important in this history: the way that experience feeds back into popular understandings and evaluations of education policy. In 1975, a small group of families and educators had experience with the type of education services that federal law soon required, and a high proportion of teachers were skeptical of the new mandates. But teachers in the 1970s became retirees, and children who began to experience education that was more inclusive graduated from high school and then college, and then became teachers themselves. That fourth-grade teacher in the 1990s was part of that generation that had grown up with the federal mandates, and she saw it as normal and appropriate for schools to identify and serve students in ways she thought was professionally and morally required.

Policy feedback is complicated, especially where the quality of experiences is less common. What David Tyack and Larry Cuban described as the grammar of schooling is the structure of education that people perceive as the underlying definition of schooling. That’s about the assignment of letter grades to students, how the curriculum is divided into subjects, bell schedules, and so forth. But in many areas of education, there is not the commonality that provides that clear definition of what a “real school” is.2 There is also the generational lag time involved in resetting expectations, tied to what Dan Lortie termed the “apprenticeship of observation” when an entire population experiences an institution like schooling. As I implied at the beginning of this post, policy feedback undercuts the implied rationality of political wins and deliberative planning and design.

In this part, I have added some factors that made the last half-century of education reform for individuals with disabilities less predictable and more contingent than if one only considered the political wins of advocates and the plans for policy and instructional techniques. How did that shape what happened? Stay tuned for part 3.



  1. Not only do eugenics-like attitudes still exist, but practices such as coercive sterilization persisted as a mass practice for decades after World War II, with reports continuing today.
  2. Sociologist Mary Metz described the implicit script of “real school” in the early 1990s, in ways similar to Tyack and Cuban’s argument. Their term stuck.

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Sherman Dorn

Sherman Dorn is the Director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at the Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and ...