Dr. James J. Gallagher: In Memoriam of an Education Icon

Image Courtesy of the NY Times

On January 17, 2014, the University of North Carolina and the world lost a great innovator in both the special education and gifted and talented education sectors. According to The New York Times, 87-year-old Dr. James J. Gallagher passed away in his home after a lifetime of advocating for those who needed support the most. At the time of his death, he was still active as a senior scientist emeritus at Chapel Hill’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

Gallagher was born in 1926 to a mother who was a special education teacher. As a young man during World War II, Gallagher enlisted in the U.S. Navy, earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Pittsburgh, and earned both master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology at Pennsylvania State College. Early in his career, he worked at the Dayton (Ohio) Hospital for Disturbed Children as a chief psychologist. He was also a psychology professor at Michigan State University and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Prioritizing Children With Special Needs

When Dr. Gallagher entered the education field in the 1950s, it was common to educate all children at the same level. Therefore, children with special needs and gifted children were not having their needs met. Gallagher saw this as more than an education issue. He viewed it as a civil rights issue. Iheoma U. Iruka, associate director of research at the Frank Porter Child Development Institute, said, “A lot of education was really for average children. He was instrumental in placing a keen and sharp focus on gifted children and children with disabilities.”

Dr. Gallagher was one of the driving forces behind, and the chief architect for, Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), which were first implemented nationally in the 1970s. Prior to the creation of IEPs, many schools tended not to focus on the needs of the unique child with special needs but took more exclusionary practices. According to Mary Ruth Coleman, senior scientist emerita at the Frank Porter Child Development Institute, “When Dr. Gallagher began working on behalf of children with disabilities, these children were excluded from school. Due in large part to his efforts, public laws were passed to ensure that children with disabilities would receive a free and appropriate public education.”

In addition to his push for IEPs and gifted and talented education, Gallagher was able to push legislation to ensure the rights of the most vulnerable students. He was the associate commissioner for education (1967–1970) and then became the first chief of the Bureau for the Education of the Handicapped with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He was instrumental in the passage of the 1975 Education of All Handicapped Children Act, now the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This 1975 law ensured that all children received a free education, regardless of disabilities. This law also ensured that all students enrolled in special education received IEPs. According to Dr. Coleman, “He was one of the major advocates who saw to it that this law was written and passed. He knew that children with disabilities would have unique learning needs that required specific educational support.”

Appropriate Education for All

Gallagher recognized that few schools were meeting the educational needs of their brightest students. In 1972, he collaborated on the Marland Report, which was sent to Congress and helped establish gifted and talented programs across the United States. He also helped to start the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, one of the first high schools created specifically for gifted students.

In 1970, Gallagher started as the Graham Institute director and as a professor in education at the University of North Carolina. He also wrote two landmark textbooks that are still in use today, Teaching the Gifted Child and Educating Exceptional Children. He is survived by his wife, daughter, three sons, grandchildren and legions of indebted students, families and educators.