Happy Birthday, IDEA!
By George Sugai
Professor Emeritus, Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut
The 45th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is particularly meaningful to me and to students with disabilities for four main reasons.
First, my career as a special educator began in Aurora, Colorado in the Fall of 1974. Although we were definitely “attempting to figure things out,” we developed the district’s first IDEA-shaped resource rooms for elementary, middle, and high school students with emotional and behavioral disorders; we wrote many of the first IEPs; and we created and implemented some of the first behavior intervention plans. IDEA gave us the vision, expectation, accountability, and responsibility to greatly enhance our special education efforts. For the first time, the education of students with disabilities and their families became a protected right and a reality rather than an informal afterthought. In addition, special education became an integral component and priority in general education.
Second, IDEA gave me and others the focus and opportunities to shape our own knowledge and skills, to conduct research to improve our practice, and to prepare future special education teachers and leaders. After being an on-the-ground special educator and learning directly from my students, IDEA also gave me the research and leadership training opportunity to return to graduate school. I learned how to use scientifically based research methodologies to study everyday classroom challenges and questions, and I developed an appreciation of the importance of preparing highly skilled special educators. Teaching students with disabilities required the heart; however, knowledge, skills, and expertise were required to harness and focus that passion. Now, 45 years later, we do better special education because of the research, demonstration, and preparation of personnel opportunities and priorities emphasized and enabled in IDEA.
Third, over the last 45 years, we have learned that individual student benefit is integrally intertwined with how all students are academically, socially, and behaviorally supported. This resulted in implementation efforts that focus on formal systems and practices of multi-tiered support, team-driven leadership and implementation, data-based decision making related to student progress and implementation fidelity, prioritization of best-fit empirically supported practices, and overt consideration of equity, justice, diversity, and individual differences. The multi-tiered framework, and in particular, the logic of responsiveness-to-intervention have refined whole school and classroom implementation of best practices so that all students benefit as specific and individualized supports are provided to students with disabilities and/or risk for academic, social, and behavioral failure.
Finally, like the beginning of my career in special education and the initiation of IDEA, my retirement in May 2019 aligns with the 45th anniversary of IDEA. In my case, I retired hopeful and confident that current and future special educators will have the opportunity to celebrate the 50th, 75th, and 100th anniversary of IDEA. More importantly, I retire with great satisfaction that the education of students with disabilities has been and will continue to be supported and prioritized by highly competent generations of young researchers, teachers, and leaders today and in coming decades. In my 45 years as a special educator, I am gratified by what has been accomplished in our public schools; however, my hope is that research, demonstrations, and personnel preparation will continue to advance successful learning opportunities for students with disabilities.
In sum, as we celebrate and applaud our past and present accomplishments, I encourage us to give even greater consideration for what we want to be proud of and recognize one, five, ten, 25, 50…years from now. The coronavirus pandemic, scientific and medical advancements, social and political unrest, technological innovations, environmental challenges, cultural refinements, and continual shaping of the family and community represent examples of what students, educators, and families will experience in the future. We can use our successes and accomplishments from the last 45 years of IDEA to improve further our funding, implementation, advocacy, and priority for students with disabilities and individuals who experience restricted and marginalized educational opportunities.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, IDEA. I am proud, privileged, and enthusiastic about where we together have been and what lays ahead.
George Sugai is a Professor Emeritus Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut.
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