How the 20th Century Introduced the Concept of Education for All Children

From its inception, America has focused on equity as related to citizens and their government. However, extending that idea that all individuals should have equal access and opportunity to other areas of life, like education, took a while.

The concept of equity in education was introduced in the first half of the 20th century. Issues of wealth, religion, race, sex, ethnic origins, and disabilities surfaced, and educators had to determine how best to provide education to diverse students. During the 1950s, the approach toward ensuring equity in education changed visible. The emphasis shifted from the theoretical and passive concepts of providing equal opportunity to taking affirmative action to ensure availability of education for all, irrespective of differences in sex, religion, ethnicity, or wealth. The impact of this shift was evident by the 1970s, when African Americans and other minorities first achieved significant, widespread gains in education.

The concept of equality embraced the idea that everyone, regardless of condition, should have access to education. Consequently, individuals with physical and mental disabilities were soon included in equal education discourses. In 1958, the federal government initiated measures to train teachers to teach children with intellectual disabilities. A million dollars in federal funds supported the effort. From that point forward, financial assistance in terms of federal aid for children with disabilities continued to rise.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 further supported initiatives to support equal education for children with disabilities, to include improved facilities and special programs. In 1990, the law was revised, and it was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This legislation underwent massive revisions in 1997 and again in 2004. The objectives of the latest revisions were to integrate students with disabilities into the mainstream of regular schools as far as was feasible.

Introducing special education as a division of the American school system opened up opportunities not just for prospective students, but also for the prospective teachers that were needed to serve them. Without 20th century legislation, entire sets of students and teachers and jobs and classrooms wouldn’t exist today.

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