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A Class by Themselves? The Origins of Special Education in Toronto and Beyond


reviewed by Elizabeth A. Potts - October 15, 2019

coverTitle: A Class by Themselves? The Origins of Special Education in Toronto and Beyond
Author(s): Jason Ellis
Publisher: University of Toronto Press, Toronto
ISBN: 1442628715, Pages: 382, Year: 2019
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Jason Ellis’ A Class by Themselves: The Origins of Special Education in Toronto and Beyond is a timely look at how individuals with disabilities were viewed within education 100 years ago. At a time when the field is facing great change and there is much debate about where we should be going, this is a much-needed reminder of where we have been and how we got here. Ellis’ book is extraordinarily well-researched, with 80 pages of footnotes and a 30-page bibliography. At times quite dry, Ellis drops the names of people involved in every piece of the history, often never mentioning them again, which makes it harder to hone in on the names that are repeated and, presumably, more important. Regardless of the bulky nature of the writing, readers are sure to learn a lot about the history of special education classrooms and measurement in the early 20th century.


Ellis’ language is true to the time he writes about, meaning that he spends much of the introduction and first chapter providing definitions and rationale for his use of what we today consider outdated verbiage. The use of early 1900s terms helps keep the reader focused on the historical context of the facts. Though it is jarring to come across the repeated use of terms like “idiot” and “feebleminded,” it does serve as a continual reminder to the reader of the time period about which Ellis is writing, and may in fact prompt the reader to consider what, other than language, actually is different in today’s schools.


Besides setting the scene and introducing vocabulary, Chapter One outlines the educational experience of individuals who were different from the perceived norm in the 1910s. As the book title implies, this includes education of students with disabilities, but it expands to include a brief discussion of the education of children of immigrants. At the time, not speaking English was treated much like a disability, though these individuals received intensive English education and were moved into mainstreamed classes in an average of “three-and-a-half months” (pp. 38–39). Ellis makes no judgements about the facts he presents and draws no comparisons to today’s educational climate, but this leaves the reader with a lot to consider about implications for today.


In Chapter Two, Ellis describes the history of IQ as we know it today and the evolution of IQ tests in the early 1900s, including implications for IQ on classification and subsequent grouping and instruction of individuals with disabilities. Readers who have not previously studied the history of IQ will find the detail fascinating. Ellis emphasizes the importance psychologists placed on IQ tests for placement decisions, but the reader can infer that there were suspected flaws with the tests even then: “Their over-reliance on IQ scores at times even caused psychologists to change placement recommendations just because they had computed IQ incorrectly” (p. 70). Ellis captures the reader’s attention with stories of specific students and their experiences with IQ tests in this chapter, making it more relatable than the earlier chapter.


Ellis comes back to the analysis of groups of individuals who were served alongside those with disabilities in Chapter Three. He describes how vocational schools served both the children of laborers and individuals with disabilities, setting the tone for streaming students in later decades and for making assumptions about a learner’s potential based on their parent’s job. Ellis describes vocational education and includes programs that specifically and only served girls, with the implication that this programming was not intended to advance job readiness skills. Using a few specific student examples gleaned from records searches, Ellis captures the struggle of vocational schools to be relevant in a world where families often needed their teenagers to start earning money as soon as possible. However, most of the discussion of vocational schools is a history of education as a whole, as it is more general to students of varied disadvantaged backgrounds rather than specific to those with disabilities.


In contrast, Chapter Four focuses on specific classes and schools for those with hearing, vision, and physical disabilities. Likewise, Chapters Five and Six explore how assumptions about IQ and the educability of students with disabilities were challenged during the 1930s and 1940s. These chapters bring the focus back to learners with disabilities and provide insight into how special education evolved into the intervention models we have today. Ellis concludes by making connections to more recent times and the continued discussion around inclusion.


This is a dense text full of great detail. It pulls from a wide array of sources in defining and discussing the historical roots of special education in Toronto and beyond in the early part of the 20th century. Parts of the book, while interesting, seem not as well-connected to the text’s main purpose as others. This would be an appropriate supplemental text for a course in the history of special education.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 15, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23113, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 10:49:02 AM

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About the Author
  • Elizabeth Potts
    Western State University
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH A. POTTS, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of special education at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri. Dr. Potts' research interests revolve around practical work that can make the lives of K-12 special educators a little easier. Most recently, she co-authored the book Launching a career in special education: Your action plan for success. Currently she is working on an assessment tool specific to the skillset of special educators.
 
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