Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Becoming a Special Educator: Specialized Professional Training for Teachers of Children with Disabilities in Boston, 1870-1930

by Robert L. Osgood - 1999

This article examines the origins of the development of a separate professional identity as special educators for teachers of children with disabilities in the United States, focusing particularly on the Boston, Massachusetts public schools from 1870 to 1930. The article first traces emergent professionalization among teachers in institutions for individuals with disabilities, identifying specific training programs as well as the growth of professional knowledge and professional associations. It then discusses efforts by the Boston public schools to provide specialized training for teachers recruited to work in four special education programs: the Horace Mann School for the Deaf, conservation of eyesight classes for children with vision impairments, speech improvement classes for students with identified speech disorders, and special classes for children considered mentally retarded. Each program is examined in terms of desired teacher characteristics, requirements for hiring or certification, in-service programs to enhance professional knowledge, and other professional opportunities such as associations, publications, and mentoring. The article concludes with a brief discussion of how teacher training has contributed to the separation between general and special educators and how it might be redesigned to facilitate a reintegration of these separate professional worlds.

This article examines the origins of the development of a separate professional identity as special educators for teachers of children with disabilities in the United States, focusing particularly on the Boston, Massachusetts, public schools from 1870 to 1930. The article first traces emergent professionalization among teachers in institutions for individuals with disabilities, identifying specific training programs as well as the growth of professional knowledge and professional associations. It then discusses efforts by the Boston public schools to provide specialized training for teachers recruited to work in four special education programs: the Horace Mann School for the Deaf, conservation of eyesight classes for children with vision impairments, speech improvement classes for students with identified speech disorders, and special classes for children considered mentally retarded. Each program is examined in terms of desired teacher characteristics, requirements for hiring or certification, in-service programs to enhance professional knowledge, and other professional opportunities such as associations, publications, and mentoring. The article concludes with a brief discussion of how teacher training has contributed to the separation between general and special educators and how it might be redesigned to facilitate a reintegration of these separate professional worlds.


The emergence of special education as a firmly entrenched arm of public schooling has constituted a remarkable story in the history of twentieth-century American education. There now exists an extensive body of professional literature as well as a number of professional associations devoted solely to the education of children with disabilities. In addition, substantial numbers of individuals hold full-time assignments to schools, agencies, and universities as special education teachers, specialists, administrators, consultants, and researchers. Thus in many ways the education of children with disabilities has become its own powerful and influential world, one exhibiting a unique professional identity and status.

These developments are reflected in the dramatic growth over the past two decades of professional preparation programs dedicated exclusively to creating special educators who possess a wide range of specialist knowledge, a process Dianne Ferguson refers to as “unremitting specialization.” Ferguson argues that

the established separateness of special education from regular education is powerfully reinforced by the processes of professionalization and specialization that have occurred within the field. . . . From the beginning, special education responded to its charge to deal with regular education’s rejected students by finding professional status in the stigma. Following the paths laid by other occupational groups seeking to transform work into profession, special educators developed a unique technical expertise, licensing procedures, professional organizations, and a separate lexicon with which to baffle consumers and nonspecial colleagues alike.1

Understanding how and why special education evolved to this point represents an exciting and important challenge for historians of education in the United States, especially in light of current calls to break down traditional barriers between special education and general education. The inclusion model for educating students with disabilities has gained tremendous momentum in recent years, fueled by federal and state legislation, the efforts of advocacy groups, and scholarly research. A fundamental tenet of inclusion is that boundaries between special education and regular education teachers and practices should be significantly de-emphasized, if not dissolved altogether. We should move, in other words, “beyond separate education” to fully inclusive and equitable learning environments for all students. However, the compartmentalization of special and general educators complicates such efforts by reinforcing beliefs that the two camps do indeed constitute separate worlds that cannot or should not be merged. The opportunity clearly exists for historians of education to identify and understand the origins of and rationale behind this separation: when it began, what promoted its development, and why it has become so entrenched. Such investigations can provide important information and guidance for those who seek to transcend or overcome these barriers, perhaps leading to the formulation of effective strategies to integrate special education and general education more completely and authentically.2

One potentially instructive approach to examining this history is to consider the ways in which special educators have been recruited and trained to teach in the public schools. This line of inquiry assumes, as Ferguson claims, that the ways in which individuals have been prepared for work in special education have helped define the nature and legitimacy of that work as well as its relations with other components of public schooling. This article examines these issues in detail by focusing on the Boston, Massachusetts, public schools from about 1870 through the 1920s. During this sixty-year period the Boston public school system established a series of special classes, schools, and programs designed to accommodate children with a variety of formally identified exceptionalities: deafness, delinquency, mental disability, chronic illness, giftedness, vision impairment, and speech disorders. To staff these programs the Boston School Committee authorized the recruitment and preparation of selected teachers and teacher candidates for specific assignments as instructors of children with disabilities. Over several decades such training became more extensive and specialized; by the 1920s several hundred teachers in the system had been prepared to work exclusively with exceptional children and had developed a strong sense of professional identity with their specialized work.

The Boston example is used in this article to examine the origins of the separation of special education and general education, with a focus on the role of teacher training. Specifically the article looks at how training practices varied from program to program and at how they evolved over time, discussing information such as minimum qualifications for applicants, course work and field experience requirements, expectations for personal and professional character and behavior, and special opportunities for preservice and in-service training and professional collaboration. Through this focus on specific programs, however, the article also raises a more generalized concern: the extent to which these specialized training programs created a legacy of separation between general and special education by demanding, manifesting, and validating a sense of separateness and uniqueness among special educators as they struggled for recognition and acceptance in the world of public education.


During the 1800s substantial efforts were initiated to improve the professional training and quality of teachers in the United States. The number of teachers grew dramatically throughout the century as a growing population, the impact of the common school movement, and the advent of compulsory education all demanded more and more teachers for more and more schools. Consequently, the professionalization and sophistication of teacher training developed steadily, especially during the latter half of the century: after the founding of the first normal school in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1839, the number of institutions involved in formal teacher training increased to about 300 by 1900. School districts and states established and continually strengthened certification requirements for teachers. In addition, professional associations devoted to improving communication among teachers as well as the quality of teaching itself flourished. The movement toward higher standards for all levels of teacher training in the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was unmistakable.3

Within this context special education began to emerge as a recognized subfield of education and teaching with distinguishing characteristics and interests. For most of the nineteenth century the formal instruction of individuals with disabilities took place almost exclusively outside the bounds of public schools, either at home or in private or state-sponsored institutions. Nevertheless the idea that individuals with disabilities—even severe ones— could be educated as well as “treated” or cared for gained greater currency. Individuals such as Samuel Gridley Howe, Edouard Seguin, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Edward Miner Gallaudet, Hervey Wilbur, J. B. Richards, and Isaac Kerlin initiated general campaigns as well as specific programs to advance the education of individuals with disabilities, especially those with blindness, deafness, and mental retardation. Numerous state and private institutions serving various exceptional populations were founded during the 1800s and were geared by and large toward the education, not the warehousing, of their attendees. The Connecticut Asylum for the Education of Deaf and Dumb Persons at Hartford (1817, later the American School for the Deaf), the Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind (1832, later the Perkins Institute for the Blind), Wilbur’s private facility for mentally retarded children at Barre, Massachusetts (1848), the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth (1851, later the Walter E. Fernald State School), and the Pennsylvania Training School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth (1852, later the Elwyn Institute) all gained international renown as leaders in the development of education programs for individuals with disabilities during the nineteenth century. Scores of other similar institutions were created throughout the United States during the same period.4

The individuals and institutions noted above not only supplied crucial leadership in legitimizing the work of those who taught disabled persons; they also developed specialized training for the teachers who worked in those institutions as well as for others. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet provided formal training on an apprenticeship model at the Hartford school soon after its founding and argued forcefully in favor of formal teacher training for all teachers in public and private schools. Later in the century the Clarke Institute in Northampton, Massachusetts, initiated extensive and influential training in the oral method of instruction for deaf individuals. Samuel Gridley Howe offered in-service training at the Perkins Institute as early as the 1850s. In The History of Special Education: From Isolation to Integration, Margret Winzer asserts that through the late 1800s and into the twentieth century three models of teacher training for special educators were used: an internship approach at an institution for the disabled; a combination of normal school instruction plus in-house or apprenticeship training at a school or institution for the disabled; and, eventually, the development of special education programs and majors at colleges and universities. This last model commenced for teachers of deaf students at the National Deaf-Mute College (later Gallaudet University) in 1864 and for teachers of blind students at Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1884. The University of Pennsylvania and the New Jersey Training School for Feeble-Minded Boys and Girls at Vineland assumed leadership roles in establishing formal teacher training programs for teachers of children with mental retardation. By 1930 programs for training special educators in several areas of disability had become widespread.5

Closely associated with developments in teacher training was the remarkable growth of professional organizations and associations dedicated exclusively to advancing awareness, understanding, and pedagogy related to the needs of individuals with disabilities. “A bewildering array of organizations” promoting the instruction and the lives of deaf Americans were organized starting in the mid-1800s, including the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf and Dumb in 1850 and the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf in 1890. The first organized meeting of instructors of blind individuals occurred in 1853, and in 1871 the American Association of Instructors of the Blind was formally organized. The Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiots and Feeble-Minded Persons was founded in 1876.6

These independent associations were followed by the creation of the Department for the Education of the Deaf, Blind, and Feeble-Minded within the National Education Association in 1897. A primary purpose of this department was to “emphasize the importance of special training as a sine qua non to employment” as a teacher of “deaf children, blind children, and feeble -minded children, all of which classes require trained specialists for their instruction.” The Department was designed to complement, not “interfere in any way” with, other professional associations. In the words of a founding member of the department and its first president, Joseph C. Gordon, it aimed to “unify” existing organizations, “to harmonize their interests, and to bring their membership in closer touch with the leaders of educational thought and action in the National Education Association.” Additionally, journals and other publications such as those focusing on the education of the deaf (American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb, 1847) and the mentally retarded (Journal of Psycho-Asthenics, 1896) arose from the determination of teachers and other professionals to disseminate beyond their annual meetings information about advancements in “special education”—a term discussed in some detail by Alexander Graham Bell at the NEA meeting in Milwaukee in 1897 and firmly established with the renamed Department of Special Education of the NEA in 1902.7

Such activities clearly had an impact outside of their specialized circles, for special education had grown well beyond its roots in private or institutional settings by the turn of the century. As of 1900 the public school systems of at least eight major American cities had established at least one class, program, or school designed to accommodate children with formally identified disabilities. The notion of a highly trained public school special education teacher had entered professional discourse as well. A representative example is found in a paper presented to the NEA in 1910 by Charles A.A.J. Miller, an assistant superintendent with the Baltimore public schools. Miller’s paper outlined ideal qualifications for his special education teachers. These included training in a “good normal school,” basic coursework in a variety of liberal arts and education subjects, “five years of approved experience in the grades,” and above all superlative “spiritual equipment.” As mentioned earlier, a number of institutions (most notably the Vineland School) had begun offering programs specifically designed for training in-service public school teachers in the area of mental retardation by the early 1900s. Similar programs at other institutions soon followed.8

The eventual merger of special education with public schooling constituted a most instructive confluence of reform movements in urbanization, psychology, social work, pedagogy, and educational administration. And the experience of one of these school systems—that of Boston—offers an instructive case study of how special educators moved their drive for recognition into public education, laying an early foundation for the growth and entrenchment of a distinct and separate special education structure and identity within the public schools of the United States by the late 1920s.


The history of the Boston Public Schools dates officially to the passage of an Education Act by the town of Boston in 1789. This Act formalized a publicly supported system of reading and writing schools, provided guidelines for student eligibility, and established the Boston School Committee to oversee curriculum, budget, and general operations. Over the next several decades the system grew steadily in size and complexity, paralleling and reflecting the growth of the city itself. From a town of 18,320 in 1790 Boston developed into one of the great urban centers in the United States, boasting a population of almost 363,000 by 1880 and more than 781,000 by 1930. In 1790 about 600 children attended the town’s few public schools; by 1880 the system enrolled almost 54,000, and by 1930 about 129,000 students attended. This dramatic increase in school attendance reflected not only Boston’s burgeoning population but also more extensive and more strictly enforced compulsory education laws which the state of Massachusetts initiated in 1852 and strengthened repeatedly into the 1920s. Throughout this period the school system itself became a far more complex and influential public bureaucracy.9

The system’s policies and practices also responded directly to another fundamental characteristic of this period: the dramatic diversification of the city’s population. Through the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, immigration into the city transformed a mostly Anglo population into one that manifested the migration of people from all over the world to the United States. The first sizable wave of immigration occurred between 1840 and 1860 and consisted primarily of people from Ireland. A second wave began around 1880 and included immigrants from all parts of Europe, especially its southern and eastern regions. As of 1920 almost half a million of the city’s 670,000 residents were first or second generation immigrants. Boston had thus become a vibrant city of tremendous ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity by the 1920s, a fact that directly influenced the development of its massive system of public education in basic ways.10

As heterogeneity came to characterize Boston’s public school population in increasingly dramatic fashion, the Boston School Committee (BSC) began approving the establishment of instructional settings that segregated certain groups of students from traditional schools and classrooms. Recognizing the challenges—and in many cases manifesting the fears—that student diversity generated, the BSC between 1838 and 1915 authorized a number of specialized instructional settings: evening schools, vacation schools, manual training programs, prevocational and vocational centers, classes for non–English speaking children, and eventually entire tracks of industrial training and other curricular tracks at the upper elementary and secondary levels.11

Among these differentiated settings were several designed to accommodate children whose academic performance, physical condition, or personal behavior was deemed sufficient to preclude their participation in the regular classroom. Compulsory education and the social, cultural, and linguistic differences among the student population contributed to ever-rising numbers of school children who, in the eyes of teachers and administrators, fit that category—especially as the process of schooling became more standardized and less flexible. In 1838 the City Council of Boston had authorized intermediate schools to provide older, mostly immigrant pupils with a primary education in segregated settings. The first formal setting established specifically to serve a definitively labeled group—children with severe hearing impairments—opened in 1869 as the School for Deaf-Mutes. As formal recognition of disabling conditions and beliefs espousing the educability of even children with severe disabilities filtered into the public schools, and as the public schools accepted more and more such children, Boston established additional specialized instructional programs. A parental school for “incorrigible” students who had violated truancy or other laws started in 1895; classes for children identified as mentally retarded began in 1899. Open-air classes for chronically ill children (1908), rapid advancement classes for gifted children (1912), speech improvement classes and centers (1912), and conservation of eyesight classes for children with significant vision impairments (1913) followed. By 1920 Boston thus had a noteworthy assortment of programs geared toward students with formally identified exceptionalities.12


The expanding conceptions of who belonged in and could benefit from public schooling, the more sophisticated labels applied to different groups of children, and a growing belief in the educability of most individuals with disabilities proceeded concurrently throughout the nation while finding a center of activity and acceptance in the Boston area. The region had not only provided the birthplace of formal teacher training; it also served as the home of a number of institutions dedicated to educating individuals with disabilities and generating greater understanding of disabilities themselves. In addition, the Boston area contributed significant leadership in the development of compulsory education and of more efficient and professional school administration. The region’s traditional extensive influence in these movements naturally enhanced the Boston School Committee’s uneven but ultimately substantial efforts to establish special education programs and staff them with competent, specially trained teachers. Boston thus proved to be fertile ground for the emergence of special education as its own separate professional world.


The initial de facto settings for students with physical, mental, or behavioral disabilities in the Boston public schools were the “intermediate schools,” also known as “schools for special instruction.” These were founded in 1838 and reorganized as “ungraded classes” in 1879. Intermediate schools enrolled at times over 10 percent of the public school population during the 1840s and 1850s, while ungraded classes housed from less than 3 percent to over 6 percent of the elementary school population during their prime years between 1880 and 1900. Throughout their history these settings officially provided primary instruction to children over eight years old who lacked basic literacy skills. However, they also served as a placement option of last resort for students whose academic performance, classroom behavior, lack of English skills, or other condition allegedly proscribed their attendance in a regular classroom. Over the years these students were saddled with a wide variety of labels attempting to define their character or condition. Documents described intermediate school pupils as “slovenly urchins,” “semi-barbarians,” “backward and ill-favored,” “naturally dull and slow,” “giving . . . more than the ordinary trouble,” and “not favored by an ordinary share of intellectual endowments.” Reports depicted ungraded class children in a similar vein: “backward and peculiar,” “morally as well as intellectually weak,” “troublesome,” “obnoxious,” or “feeble-minded.” Such labels and impressions effectively stigmatized the settings: each was referred to as the “Botany Bays” of the public school system, while Superintendent Franklin Dyer in 1914 aptly tagged the ungraded classes “omnium gatherum.” Whatever their characterization, intermediate schools and ungraded classes were consistently considered difficult and undesirable places to teach and learn.13

The evocative appellations noted above strongly suggest that these settings indeed included children with disabilities (however vaguely described or defined those disabilities were). Yet their omnium gatherum character interacted with an obviously inadequate understanding of the various disabling conditions to prohibit any sort of specialized work using specialized knowledge or training on the part of the teachers involved. Despite repeated calls for caring, competent instructors and a slowly emerging recognition that many ungraded class students could benefit from specialized instruction, only a few of the teachers in these settings had even the briefest and most limited sort of formal training. The Boston School Committee ordered a three-day training program for new ungraded class teachers in 1910, but there is no record of such a program being held more than once. In 1910 and 1911 some ungraded class instructors participated in visits to each others’ classrooms and in other meetings, but these too were apparently short-lived. In any event, ungraded class teachers never managed to escape the stigma attached to their students and their work.14


During the latter half of the nineteenth century the Boston School Committee worked to gain greater control over the education of another group of suspect and disreputable children: those convicted of minor criminal offenses, especially truancy. After several years of negotiations with the Boston City Council the School Committee finally was able to arrange the establishment of the Boston Parental School for Boys in 1895. The Parental School admitted boys who had been convicted of a minor crime; the goal was to keep them from the danger and stigma of the House of Reformation on Deer Island in Massachusetts Bay while providing direct school instruction. But the BSC also expressed strong concern over chronic misbehavers in the regular classroom, so in 1906 they introduced a short-lived experiment with disciplinary day classes for “violent and unruly” students referred by teachers and principals. During the 1910s both the Parental School and the disciplinary day classes were discontinued. However, in 1914 the State authorized the School Committee to establish a Boston Disciplinary Day School (BDDS) to keep both categories of “delinquent” children within the purview of the public schools. This school opened in January 1915.15

This brief and highly simplified overview calls attention to the School Committee’s attempts to address the presence of those school-age children deemed “incorrigible” or “delinquent”—two labels in wide use during the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (These labels had emerged from the murkier constructs of moral derangement, moral insanity, moral idiocy, and moral imbecility, each of which in turn attempted to describe the origins and nature of immoral or antisocial behavior throughout the 1800s.) As such they provided more definitive classification of certain children than did most of those used for pupils in the intermediate schools and ungraded classes. Yet these settings offered little in the way of specialized curriculum, merely an increased emphasis on stern disciplinary techniques coupled with significantly less time devoted to academic subjects in favor of manual and vocational training (an approach sanctioned by then-current theory regarding the education of “incorrigibles”). The Parental School never had more than 250 boys enrolled simultaneously, and many of those had been released on probation. The number of attendees in the disciplinary day classes never surpassed twenty-seven, while the BDDS at any given time typically had daily attendance rates ranging from fourteen in 1917 to the low fifties during the 1920s. Thus for each of these settings enrollment was relatively minute in a school system that by the early 1900s contained almost 100,000 students. As a result, only a handful of teachers were involved in the settings at a particular time.16

Given the extensive use of the standard curriculum and the limited number of teachers, no specialized training for instructors was required or even expected, and their status within the system was uncertain at best. Parental School teachers were not technically considered public school teachers and thus could not be considered for promotion within the system, and a recommendation that they receive extra pay as incentive was never acted upon. Disciplinary day class teachers received an eight dollar a month increase in their pay, but BDDS teachers received no special compensation. One school official did proclaim that instructing delinquents and incorrigibles required teachers of “superior moral force and mental power,” yet Parental School observers and officials openly complained about the quality of teaching there. Instructional quality was almost never mentioned, let alone substantively discussed, in documents concerning the disciplinary day classes or the BDDS. Over the years the few teachers working with “misfits,” “habitual truants,” and “incorrigibles” thus not only found themselves teaching without any specialized training, they also confronted historical distrust of the children under their charge, apparent indifference about the quality of their instruction, and notable uncertainty about the best way to structure and reward their efforts.17


Concurrent with its efforts to manage “troublesome” children whose troubles were at best vaguely described and poorly understood, the Boston public school system developed a highly specialized program designed to provide instruction to students with a clearly defined disability: deafness. From its founding in 1869 the Horace Mann School for the Deaf (the name selected in 1877 to replace the original “School for Deaf-Mutes”) epitomized the transplantation of special education knowledge and practice from isolated institutions to public schools. Established primarily as a means to provide more economical and convenient education for Boston’s population of school-age deaf children, the Horace Mann School (HMSD) paid close attention to the development and implementation of the latest theories, approaches, and techniques available for teaching deaf individuals. Even though the HMSD curriculum relied considerably on the standard curriculum used in the Boston public schools, the former in fact contained substantial departures from and additions to the latter, requiring that teachers in the School be carefully trained and frequently updated on new developments in curriculum and instruction for the deaf. The result was Boston’s groundbreaking effort to develop trained special educators with a strong sense of identity with and pride in their specialized work.

The School’s first principal, Sarah Fuller, sought early on to base the School’s curriculum on the “oral” or “articulation” method, an approach not widely used in the sheltered institutions for the deaf but seen as much more appropriate for a day school in a system of public education. As a strong proponent of Alexander Melville Bell’s approach to oral instruction of the deaf known as Visible Speech, Fuller convinced the Boston School Committee to appropriate $500 to have Bell’s son, Alexander Graham Bell, train her teaching staff in the principles and methods of Visible Speech and to teach students at the School. Bell, who during the early 1870s taught at several institutions, including the American School, the Clarke School, and Boston University, spent April and May of 1871 at the school; he was impressed with the students’ lip-reading abilities, and Fuller and her staff were in turn impressed with Visible Speech. Fuller adopted it, and the Horace Mann School for the Deaf soon found itself at the forefront of oral education of the deaf in the United States. Oral instruction continued to serve as the cornerstone of the HMSD curriculum into the 1930s, and teachers would continue to receive intensive training in it.18

Visible Speech was a complicated and demanding instructional method. Its use in combination with the regular public school curriculum required a great deal of stamina, dedication, and patience on the part of the teachers. Boston school authorities publicly agreed that successful members of the HMSD faculty needed special qualities and training over and above those of typical public school teachers. In 1891 the Board of Supervisors for the Boston Public Schools explained that the Horace Mann teachers were “carefully selected from the best teachers in the other public schools. They must be gentle, sympathetic, patient, firm, self-sacrificing, and devoted to their work; they must possess good sense, tact, and skill; they must know the principles of education and the best methods of teaching.” Once selected, a new Horace Mann teacher became a pupil under the tutelage of Sarah Fuller, who would train the new teacher “in the special act of teaching the deaf. After years of experience, they become expert in this art; and were they to resign their places, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to fill the vacancies.” In 1890 a speaker at the dedication of the new Horace Mann School building on Newbury Street proclaimed that “the progress made in this institution . . . is due to the patient and persevering toil of a band of teachers, who merit our warmest commendation. . . .”19

The Boston School Committee discussed at length the problems teachers faced in the school, noting that Visible Speech demanded much more of a teacher’s energy than did the signing method. They had to “give close and constant attention” to mistakes of students and work very hard to form their own sounds perfectly. They needed to show “great patience and enthusiasm” in often repetitious work as well as a thorough knowledge of “Vocal Physiology.” Teaching the deaf, according to the Committee, also demanded an “accurate ear” and “tact . . . to keep up the interest of the children in what to them is too often mere drudgery.” As principal, Sarah Fuller kept the school at the center of professional activity related to education of the deaf. In addition to effective leadership within the Horace Mann School, Fuller participated in the formation of the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf and the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf. Fuller also proved instrumental in the education of Helen Keller.20

Fuller’s active professional participation from the local to the national level certainly enhanced the sense of unique professional identity and pride that became a hallmark of the Horace Mann School culture. The School’s teaching staff was the first organized group of teachers in the Boston public schools to receive highly specialized training in a specific pedagogy. Expectations regarding their superior teaching skills and personal character were set high from the beginning, and the School consistently employed a challenging curriculum whose successful execution demanded much of teachers as well as students. Given the nature of the School’s charge and position, though, such developments were not surprising. The region’s long history of interest in deaf education and the relatively advanced state of knowledge concerning hearing impairments and pedagogy designed for deaf students certainly worked to the School’s advantage and facilitated the city’s efforts to provide relatively effective, up-to-date instruction for this small yet in many ways much better understood group of special students.


Between 1908 and 1913 the Boston School Committee authorized a series of other specialized instructional settings designed to serve students with a variety of formally identified exceptionalities. Open-air classes for chronically ill children (particularly those with tuberculosis) commenced in 1908, but since the standard curriculum was used—only at a slower pace—little if any effort was made to provide extensive specialized training to teachers working in these settings. This held true for the rapid advancement classes organized for students who were thought capable of mastering the standard curriculum more quickly: no special training was deemed necessary. Two other programs for students with clearly defined physiological disabilities, however—conservation of eyesight classes for children with vision impairments and speech improvement classes and centers for children with formally diagnosed speech disorders—did offer specialized training and support for their particular programs.

Conservation of eyesight classes began as classes for the “semi-blind” in 1913. While the number of students enrolled in this program stayed quite low—never reaching more than 167—a rigorous approach to training its teachers was adopted early on. The first two teachers for these classes were hired on the recommendation of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, but school officials gradually drew more instructors from the ranks of the city’s regular teacher corps. By 1927 all the classes’ teachers had regular classroom experience. To keep themselves abreast of developments in the treatment of partially blind children the conservation of eyesight instructors took outside courses, read professional literature (some published by members of their own ranks), and joined the Massachusetts Conservation of Eyesight Society. Assistant Superintendent Augustine L. Rafter claimed that this organization worked to promote “a fine, professional, co-operative spirit among the teachers.” Moreover, by 1917 the teachers had begun “a series of meetings designed to place at the disposal of all what each individual may have learned. . . . Comparison of methods, admissions of full or partial failures . . . expositions of trials that point to probable successes . . . all of these and more have been discussed and the teachers have ‘got together.’” Conservation of eyesight instructors took pride in the uniqueness of their work, delivered a complex curriculum specially tailored to their students’ condition, and strove for cooperation and mutual support.21

The speech improvement program, at first consisting of individual classes but later including entire centers, grew rapidly and was serving over 2,000 students each year by the late 1920s. Speech improvement work addressed not only the physiological and mechanical problems associated with speech pathology but also the psychological and behavioral difficulties that teachers believed accompanied speech problems. “Modern medicine claims to have demonstrated that defective speech is at bottom a pathological condition,” declared Augustine Rafter. “The pupils are oversensitive and so constricted in their speech cramps and spasms that liberation must be secured. They must be made to feel at home and at their ease. The very first and an indispensable element in any course that looks to the remedy of speech defects is the establishment of confidence between teacher and pupils.” The supervisor of the speech classes, Theresa Dacey, agreed, saying in 1924 that speech teachers “must deal with grave causes, deep-rooted and far-reaching. . . .” Superintendent Jeremiah Burke advocated an all-encompassing curriculum and pedagogy that would free these children “from the bugbear of isolation, ridicule, and retardation.”22

Naturally school officials asserted that this important, unique work demanded highly skilled teachers. They looked for individuals who were thought to have the appropriate experience and temperament. Dacey’s ideal speech teacher possessed “geniality, sympathy, patience and ingenuity to deal with the sensitive, discouraged or fearful type. . . .” She argued that the successful teacher would employ “art and tact” in coping with the individual requirements of every child. Prospective teachers also needed to have “sufficient musical education to be enabled to play the piano and to discriminate the different voice defects of any candidate.” Experience supervising playgrounds, coursework in oral and dramatic expression, and a knowledge of literature constituted other desirable traits. Above all, instructors had to have sufficient energy to handle a demanding schedule as well as large numbers of children. In late 1914 four teachers worked with an average of seventy-one students each; ten years later speech teachers on the average provided weekly instruction in small groups to 134 children with a range of defects. Almost every teacher in the program came from the ranks of the Boston teacher corps.23

Once recruited, the novice instructor trained in the mechanics and treatment of speech disabilities at one of the centers, presumably from other teachers or the supervisor. After training the teacher benefitted from occasional in-service and mutual support programs. By 1917 instructors had organized a “round table . . . for the furtherance of speech correction.” Meetings took place monthly and included discussion of such items as the waiting list for classes, follow-up information on discharged students, transfers and adjustments of teaching positions, and “discussions on problems of common interest.” Courses were also offered to improve particular teaching skills, for example, in oral and dramatic art. An extended twenty-lesson course was offered on Friday afternoons in 1917 by the president of the College of the Spoken Word, Delbert Staley. Boston’s speech instructors also passed along some of their knowledge by giving “very freely of their time and experience to the teachers of suburban towns. . . .” One consequence of this training and support was, in the words of one observer, “a remarkable spirit and enthusiasm” among the corps. In 1924 Theresa Dacey confidently declared that “the excellency of our teacher corps” could claim direct responsibility for “the steady, progressive growth and marked success of the speech improvement classes. . . .”24


The spectrum of labeling practices applied to Boston’s schoolchildren thus ranged from the vaguest of ambiguities to the most specific of physiological conditions. Nationally, constructs of disability had shifted and evolved during the latter half of the nineteenth century as new knowledge and beliefs about the nature of various conditions and the educability of those identified as having them emerged. This was especially so in the area of mental retardation, which by the late 1800s had become a recognized category of disability (feeble-mindedness)—separate from mental illness or incorrigibility—with institutions, experts, and associations devoted exclusively to its study and treatment. As a construct mental retardation exhibited a mixture of social, cultural, psychological, and medical determinants whose relative importance and interrelations were reassessed constantly.

Between 1899 and 1930 the Boston public school system experienced remarkable development in its provisions for students identified as mentally retarded. Following the lead of other cities, most notably Providence, Rhode Island, Boston opened its first “special class,” enrolling fifteen children, in the South End’s Franklin School in January 1899. By early 1902 this first class had been joined by two others: one in Roxbury, the other in East Boston. During the first twelve years of their existence the number of special classes grew slowly, reaching just nine classes with 133 students as of 1911. Beginning in 1912, however, the Boston School Committee began a dramatic expansion in the number of these classes as well as in the amount of effort and support put into them. During that year about twenty classes for more than 200 students had either been authorized or were under way; by 1930, 135 classes accommodated just under 2,000 children. These included individual classes in regular schools as well as classes found in the six major special class centers located throughout the city. To oversee this growth a Supervisor of Special Classes was appointed in 1912. By 1930 a Department of Special Classes, with both a Director and Assistant Director, had become firmly entrenched. From their inception the special classes were identified as settings that demanded a corps of dedicated, capable, specially trained teachers exhibiting great personal strength and character. Consequently, special class teachers were subject to high expectations regarding personal and professional qualities while benefitting from unique training programs and support services that clearly distinguished the special class teacher from her regular classroom colleagues.25

As viewed by administrators and other observers, the requisite qualities of a special class teacher resembled those of teachers in the Horace Mann School. In terms of personality, observer David Lincoln argued, “it is held that good sense, sympathy, tact, motherliness and energy are of the first importance.” Ada Fitts, a special class teacher and first Supervisor of Special Classes, elaborated on these qualifications, saying that the instructor “must be one who is quick to perceive, able to adapt, whose sympathies are keen and whose outlook is broad, but who combines with these gifts, steadiness of purpose and the power to raise and hold her pupil to his best. A sense of humor will help out in many a situation.” Professionally, special class teachers needed to be “wise and accomplished,” with a sound knowledge of kindergarten teaching methods. They should know not only “how much freedom can safely be given the child,” but also his or her limitations. They should have training “along universal lines of pedagogy,” an awareness of “the heart of the child,” and the ability to act independently and use their best judgment consistently while demonstrating skill “in the recognition of remedial mental defect.” According to a special class curriculum manual, “the supreme need of one who would teach or train a little child is the power to put oneself in his place—to go as far as the actual point of meeting with his actual need . . . [to] link her strength to her pupil’s weakness, her knowledge to his ignorance, her skill to his lack of skill.”26

The Boston School Committee and the various superintendents mandated a variety of teacher training programs designed to ensure a sufficient supply of competent special class teachers. During the first years of special classes “the best possible teachers were selected,” many of whom had participated in training exercises for teachers of the mentally retarded either at Hervey Wilbur’s private institution in Barre, Massachusetts, or at the Seguin School operated by Eduoard Seguin’s widow. In March 1902 the BSC approved a general leave of absence for a maximum of a year with pay and travel expenses to five grammar and primary school teachers for training in teaching “mentally defective, or backward children” at the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children. Two months later the Committee approved Superintendent Edwin Seaver’s visit to that same institution to evaluate the program and meet with its director, Dr. Martin Barr. Although Barr was at first “appalled” at Seaver’s request to send teachers to train, he accepted “on condition that I could have them under my absolute control and could have women of cultivation and refinement.” He then noted that Seaver “sent me most delightful women in every way, earnest, thoughtful, capable, hard workers.” Barr gave the teachers “clinics” and taught them sloyd (a form of manual training that emphasizes wood carving) as well as other kinds of manual training over a period of three months. Other teachers were sent to the Seguin School, the private institution at Barre, or the Massachusetts state school for the mentally retarded at Waverley. The Waverley institution not only provided training but also assisted in the development of the early special classes. The purpose of all these efforts, according to Seaver, was to guarantee the “steady success of the special classes” by offering intensive specialized training to “some of the ablest young teachers now in the city’s service” who would then be “promoted to the special classes” (emphasis in the original).27

An additional step in developing well-qualified special class teaches was the introduction of awarding special class certificates to qualified applicants. In 1904 the first four candidates applied for teacher certificates for “special classes for the feeble-minded.” Through the first decade of the twentieth century the use of such certificates grew slowly as the number of classes remained small. When that number began to jump the BSC authorized the temporary transfer of uncertified instructors to special classes while they worked to obtain special class certification. By 1913 school regulations specified certificate requirements as “one year’s successful experience in teaching a class of mentally defective children,” or a year’s experience assisting in a Boston special class, or two years’ experience teaching regular classes together with the “successful completion of a course for teachers of mentally defective children, approved by the board of superintendents.” Teachers at the special class centers needed “three years[’] successful experience in teaching and governing a class of mentally defective children.” Later requirements included possession of a high school diploma or its equivalent. Certification also required examinations in a variety of subjects including special class philosophy and methodology as well as knowledge of other elements of the special class curriculum. As the number of special classes grew so did the number of certificates awarded. These were valid for one to six years depending on the examinee’s performance.28

The Boston schools also implemented a number of in-service programs for its practicing special class teachers designed to enhance teacher skills as well as create forums for discussion and mutual support. In 1912 the BSC budgeted $200 for “a course of lectures to teachers of special classes on ‘The Teaching of Backward Children,’” leading to a series of six talks by Yale psychologist Arnold L. Gesell. Late in 1914 the BSC passed an order requesting “the Superintendent to prepare and submit a plan for the training of teachers for classes of mentally defective children.” The result was a course begun in January 1915 consisting of a clinic at the state institution in Waverley, lectures by Waverley superintendent and renowned expert Dr. Walter E. Fernald on the “psychology and pedagogy of the special child,” additional coursework in manual and household arts, and in-service practice and evaluation offered by “teachers of special ability” and the supervisor for the Department of Special Classes. The extensive course also included visits to the homes of special class students. An additional program, budgeted at $100 by the BSC in September 1916, offered short courses in “The Diagnosis and Treatment of Individual Differences” and “Problems of Individual Adjustments in Child Life” given by Drs. William Healy and Augusta Bronner. Special class teachers also were organized into three groups during 1916 to study various aspects of special class work. The superintendent lauded these programs as “highly beneficial.” It is important to note, however, that not until the early 1930s did the city’s teacher training institution, the Teachers College of the City of Boston, offer any coursework in special class instruction.29

In addition to providing courses and lectures the BSC encouraged special class teachers to participate in professional site visits, conferences, and associations at local, regional, and national levels. Teachers would on occasion visit each other’s classrooms to observe and advise. Certain Friday afternoons were set aside for not only lectures but also conferences and other group discussions. Usually led by the special class supervisor, these sessions covered a wide range of topics including career placement for special class children; academic versus manual work; home visits; after-school and follow-up care; physical, manual, and sense training; and reports on special class work in other cities and countries. Superintendent Franklin Dyer wrote that “for teachers engaged in what would otherwise seem to be discouraging work such conferences are of great value,” helping to give Boston’s special class teachers a “very high order of professional spirit.” One participant wrote that “the benefit derived by the teachers from these conferences is immeasurable and the reactions upon their pupils are equally important. As the reservoir of our inspiration, enthusiasm, and vitality becomes dry towards the end of the week, these Friday afternoon conferences fill up anew this reservoir with these qualities which our children require of us.”30

The Friday conferences proved quite popular in the mid-1910s, although it is not clear from the records how long they continued. Nevertheless, discussion among the city’s special class instructors remained vibrant, leading to the formation of a Special Class Teachers Club by the mid-1920s. In addition, the School Committee facilitated participation in professional conferences. It approved leaves of absence for several teachers to attend the 1911 National Conference of Charities and Correction, and it financed Ada Fitts’ presentation before that same organization in 1916. In the late 1920s Massachusetts began sponsoring regional conferences for all the state’s special class teachers. Programs included lectures by professionals, demonstrations by special class students, and reports from teachers. By the early 1930s attendance at these conferences, which Boston often hosted, numbered in the several hundreds.31

The unique work of special class teachers and the extent to which they identified with each other professionally in the context of that work is best exemplified by their collaboration on a special class curriculum manual, The Boston Way: Plans for the Development of the Individual Child. The genesis for this manual was a 79-page “Syllabus for Special Classes” first published as Boston School Document # 4 in 1914. That syllabus listed thirty different areas of special class work covering a wide range of topics, projects, materials, games, and assorted other activities. The teacher-authors disclosed that their work did not represent a single, unified curriculum: “While no single class attempted all the work outlined in this syllabus, in the aggregate it was covered by their combined work.” The fourth edition of The Boston Way, published by the Special Class Teachers of Boston in 1928, listed over forty subject headings from academics to manual training to recreation activities, all of which were discussed in great detail. Ada Fitts added that the syllabus was “an attempt to show the lines of work which may be followed rather than to lay down a course of study. Classes vary so widely in age, mentality, social conditions and nationality that the syllabus can only be suggestive. . . .” Still, The Boston Way represented “the fruit of actual teaching experience in trying to meet the child’s individual needs” while manifesting a strong concern on the part of Boston’s special class teachers to disseminate their work to a wider audience and solidify their emerging identity as special educators.32

Being a special class teacher in Boston clearly involved asserting a sense of unique professional identity as an instructor of the mentally retarded in the public schools. This identity seemed at least as strong as that among the regular teacher corps—perhaps even stronger given their own belief and the apparent belief of others that their work was particularly challenging and their students still disreputable. The energy and enthusiasm demonstrated by the initial preparation, frequent revision, and widespread dissemination of the special class syllabus, as well as by the extensive participation in clubs, conferences, and other organized activities, reflected that unique self definition that the city’s special class teachers came to possess as a group. Their sense of pride was perhaps best expressed in an article attributed to Ada Fitts but in fact put together by a group of special class teachers. Published in the Journal of Psycho-Asthenics, the article discussed with confidence the benefits that special class work was thought to be having on Boston’s students, schools, and community. Their exuberant self-assuredness is easily seen in the following: “The attitude of children entering the Special Classes is often sullen, resentful, and discouraged. These children gradually become happy, helpful units in humanity’s whole. No miracle has been performed! The very name Special Class explains the reason for this seemingly miraculous change.”33


By the mid-1920s the Boston public schools thus offered a number of programs designated specifically for students with a range of formally identified disabilities. Most of these programs required their instructors to undergo training above and beyond that asked of teachers in the standard classrooms—training that introduced them to specialized terminology, knowledge, and practice geared to a specific program and situation. For these teachers, such specialized training defined the parameters of their work and manifested the uniqueness of their particular pedagogical and intellectual concerns. Even so, their training and professional orientation united teachers in these disparate programs in one important way: it distanced them from their general education peers, setting them apart in terms of what they knew and how they saw themselves. The perception that knowledge and pedagogy related to the education of students with disabilities constitutes a unique body of information effectively “baffl[ing] consumers and nonspecial colleagues alike” thus became a fact of life in the Boston schools, one that is ubiquitous in the United States today and significantly interferes with large-scale efforts to move toward an authentic integration of special and general education.

Transcending this tradition of separation will be no easy task. It certainly should not be seen as a given, or even necessarily appropriate: professional identity of this sort has played a significant role in developing respect for the work of special educators and in strengthening knowledge, understanding, and method among them. The extent and value of assuring an appropriate and effective “special” education for children with disabilities thus must be recognized, accepted, and respected. Consequently, any planning toward greater integration and sense of mutual mission among special and general educators can and should emphasize the need for all educators to participate in the activities and discourse related to the effective education of exceptional children and to share more extensively in knowledge previously treated as privileged.

Following decades of development in special education, the need to legitimize the work has lessened, and any value in separating the two educational worlds has been reduced. Ultimately those qualities that helped fashion the early growth of special education—the demand for strong personal and professional skills as well as sound professional knowledge among teachers, the desire for extensive practical knowledge of the individual needs of children, and a sense of common purpose regarding work in the classroom—now can be generalized to the education of every child in school. Changing teacher training to model integration of special and general education clearly can play a significant role in all such efforts. By reducing formal differences between the two areas, by framing curriculum content as a shared body of theory and practice appropriate for almost every child (with certain adaptations), and by providing specific instruction in and opportunities for collaboration, teacher training can wield a powerful and positive impact on constructing a sense of common purpose and common effort among all educators.

Alexander Graham Bell and William Torrey Harris, two of the most notable and respected educators of the nineteenth century, spoke to this issue before the NEA in 1902. Bell called for closer “contact and affiliation” in order to “secure an interchange of ideas between those engaged in general and those engaged in special education.” Harris “enter[ed] heartily” into Bell’s vision, arguing that closer connections between teachers in regular and special education settings would be of “mutual benefit . . . to special and general teachers alike.” Similar constructive cooperation today could energize and facilitate the efforts of educators working toward the equitable education of every child while providing a rationale and an agenda for each and every educator to engage in the broadest possible training. In turn-of-the-century Boston, teachers preparing for work with children with disabilities shared a knowledge base with the regular teacher corps even while building a tradition of differentiated bodies of knowledge for their supposedly different work. A reconsideration of what a common knowledge base among all teachers should consist of—namely, one which includes rather than stops short of extensive engagement with information and skills previously limited to “special” education—can help bring all teachers together in a more authentically shared identity: that of a teacher of all children, each of whom has unique educational needs. By expanding the access to a previously cloistered professional world, traditions of separation and distance born in places such as Boston yet condemned by the likes of Bell, Harris, and contemporary critics can be more effectively transcended—to the potential benefit of all concerned.34

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 101 Number 1, 1999, p. 82-105
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10426, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 3:31:48 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Robert Osgood
    Indiana University
    E-mail Author
    Robert L. Osgood is an Assistant Professor of Education at the Indiana University School of Education, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. His research focuses on the history of special education in the United States. Portions of this article are adapted from his forthcoming book on the history of special education in Boston, to be published in the spring of 2000 by Gallaudet University Press.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue