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Continuity and Change: Special Education Policy Development in Toronto Public Schools, 1945 to the Present

by Jason Ellis & Paul Axelrod - 2016

Background/Context: It is frequently assumed that changes in special education policies since 1945 have come mostly from “landmark research” or actions of a few “pioneers.” We argue in this article that there have been many different sources of change, including legislation, court rulings, activism, and even shifts in socially and historically constructed categories of ability. In contrast to the contention that there has been “a gradual but steady progression towards the present inclusive education,” we argue that remarkable continuity has characterized certain elements of policy as well. The article identifies general trends in special education policy development historically that can help to inform the most current thinking about policy change in special and inclusive education.

Purpose: How has special education policy developed historically? What factors have been involved? How can historical research help education researchers, policy makers, school personnel, and others to deepen their understanding of the development of policy? The Toronto public school system is examined. The developmental trajectory of special education policy in Canada’s largest urban school board generally resembles the development of policy in other large American and Canadian cities. The period from 1945 to the present was selected because the shifting character of special education policy across this broad sweep of time is not well understood.

Research Design: This qualitative study employs historical analysis. It draws on archival documents, school board and provincial government records, and pertinent secondary sources.

Conclusions/Recommendations: There are a few identifiable general trends in special education policy development historically. Prior to 1970, local school officials were empowered to make many changes in special education policy; since 1970, this ability has been eroded in favor of centralized policy making, with parents and others possessing some ability to influence policy change. Today policy makers must balance different contextual factors and stakeholder interests that have developed over time, not least of all the interests of teachers who have been important partners to policy implementation. The degree of “policy talk” about inclusion, and about a social model of disability, has exceeded the degree to which either has actually been implemented. Rather, a continuum of services model that hybridizes segregated and inclusive settings continues today to characterize special education policies, as it has since the 1970s. Money matters in special education policy, especially when it is tied to specific policy options and can therefore influence local policy decisions, but also depending on whether the power to raise and disburse funds is held locally or centrally.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 2, 2016, p. 1-42
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18228, Date Accessed: 9/24/2021 8:30:00 PM

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About the Author
  • Jason Ellis
    University of British Columbia
    E-mail Author
    JASON ELLIS is an Assistant professor of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia. An historian of education, his research interests include school reform, disability, special education, and educational policy change. Two of his recent articles examine the emergence of special classes for children with disabilities and learning difficulties as a contested early-twentieth-century school reform: "'Inequalities of children in original endowment’: How Intelligence Testing Transformed Early Special Education in a North American City School System,” History of Education Quarterly 53(4), 401–429; “‘All Methods–and wedded to none’: The deaf education methods debate and progressive educational reform in Toronto, Canada, 1922-1945,” Paedagogica Historica 50(3) 371–389.
  • Paul Axelrod
    York University
    E-mail Author
    PAUL AXELROD is an emeritus professor and former dean in the Faculty of Education at York University, Toronto, Canada. He has written widely on the history and politics of schooling and higher education. His publications include The Promise of Schooling: Education in Canada, 1800-1914; Making a Middle Class: Student Life in English Canada during the 1930s; and (co-editor), Making Policy in Turbulent Times: Challenges and Prospects for Higher Education.
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