Elizabeth Farrell: The Teacher Who Made Education Special

Book reviewed:  Kode, Kimberly.  Elizabeth Farrell and the History of Special Education.  (Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children, 2002).

“It is the boast of Americans that every child has the opportunity of school education, but it is true that many children—through no fault of their own—get nothing from education.  Not education, but the right education should be our boast.”  A young lady, born and raised in a small town in upstate New York knew she had a mission in life.  She was fortunate to have grown up in a stable family as a daughter of hard-working Irish immigrants and to have had a fine college education.  Elizabeth Farrell had gifts; she decided she needed to share them with children who were less fortunate than she had been.


Early Lessons
     The children Farrell spoke of were not only impoverished; they also had cognitive and physical disabilities.  At the time, most educators and policymakers felt that these children could not be educated or, at best, taught only the most rudimentary skills.  Farrell’s statement is remarkable in three ways: that the children of the very poor deserved the same quality education as their richer peers, children with intellectual disabilities should benefit from a rich educational experience by knowledgeable and dedicated teachers, and these children and young adults should be with their regular peers to the greatest extent possible.

To be sure, certain events influenced Farrell.  She admired her own teachers from the Utica Catholic Academy, the Sisters of Charity, for their work with the sick and needy.  After she graduated the academy, she enrolled at the Oswego Normal & Training School, whose curriculum was based on the pedagogy of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, the Swiss educator who worked with the children of the very poor.  This young lady took these lessons and set out to teach in New York City’s Lower East Side, one of the toughest neighborhoods in America in 1899.  And one of the toughest schools was Public School Number One, the Henry Street School.   It was there Elizabeth Farrell met Lillian Wald, the person who founded the adjacent Henry Street settlement, a boarding house that cared for and taught the children of the very poor.

Elizabeth Arrives at Henry Street
     Many of the students at Henry Street were deemed “incorrigible” or “uneducable.”  The rote teaching of dry facts was difficult for most children, but for Elizabeth Farrell’s population, it posed an insurmountable obstacle.  Farrell set out to find “the right education—the kind of teaching… [the special student] needs, therefore which he accepts.”   Under the watchful but supportive eyes of her principal and senior administrators, Farrell set out to create her special-education curriculum, one adapted to the diverse needs of her pupils.  Farrell had the students engaged in meaningful manual tasks that would instill a love of work.  Like Jane Addams, Elizabeth Farrell expressed a strong disdain for a criminal justice system that entrapped so many children in a sordid world of adult crime.  “The school, now more than ever, must compete with its only real competition, the street,” she said.

Separate Is Not Equal
     With the backing of the New York City School board, Elizabeth Farrell traveled to England to study similar schools there.  Although she admired the dedication of many of the teachers, she was disturbed by how “defective children” were placed not only in separate classes, but in separate schools entirely.  Back in New York, Elizabeth Farrell was inspired to embrace a more inclusive setting—her students with special needs would be included within existing schools, though her classes would be “ungraded.”  A classroom would comprise students of multiple ages and levels of cognitive development, and pupils would be taught according to their abilities rather than merely their chronological age.  Farrell also recognized that children unable to do mathematics may excel in another area, such as reading.  Moreover, Farrell declared that gifted children should observe the ungraded classes to see first-hand “that to each has been given a talent, and that this group of ‘different’ children have contributions to make to life a t the school were no less valuable because they are unalike.”  Her philosophies that children have diverse talents and abilities and that they have much to offer one another would form the foundation of inclusion under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, where all students had the right to a full public education.

On the New York City School Board
     Elizabeth Farrell went on to serve in various administrative capacities with the New York City School Board, where her greatest challenge was finding and recruiting new special-education teachers.  However, a shortage of qualified teachers did not stop Farrell from maintaining very high standards; she instituted comprehensive written, oral, and practical examinations for applicants and only those who already had at least three years of teaching experiences.  In return, Farrell advocated for salary increases for teachers of ungraded classes.

Elizabeth’s Accomplishments Beyond Teaching
     After her tenure with New York City School Board, Farrell and colleagues joined the American Psychological Association, with the aim of aim of drafting an objective guide principals could use in classifying children for ungraded classes.  Memories of her confrontation with H.H. Goddard years earlier were still fresh; she was alarmed at Dr. Goddard’s philosophies of the genetic origin of “feeblemindedness,” especially as applied to certain ethic groups (at a time when the eugenics movement was gaining ground).  She also decried Dr. Goddard’s exclusive use of IQ tests for evaluating students, a practice in recent years condemned as racist and declared illegal.  Farrell was also one of the founding members of the National Education Association (NEA) and one of its earliest presidents.  After her attempts to establish a division within the NEA devoted to special education failed, she was undeterred.  In 1922, she created the Council for the Education of Exceptional Children, known today as the Council for Exceptional Children.  It is the foremost professional and advocacy organizations devoted to teaching the atypical child.

The biography of Elizabeth Farrell would certainly be worthy of a full-length book.  However, if a quick yet comprehensive introduction to this remarkable lady is what you seek, this short book does an admirable job.  Everyone working with children with special needs should know about Elizabeth Farrell and her timeless legacy.

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3 thoughts on “Elizabeth Farrell: The Teacher Who Made Education Special

  1. Pingback: National Disability Employment Awareness Month – For the Good of Individuals, Society, and the Country | Celebrating Individual Abilities

  2. Pingback: IDEA at 40 – Progress and Challenges | Celebrating Individual Abilities

  3. Pingback: #InclusionWorks: Participation and Employment Are at the Heart of Disability Awareness – Celebrating Individual Abilities

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