. . . and end calls for retesting in favor of fine-tuning reform

October 09, 1998|By Kalman Hettleman

THE SUN'S recent series on the failure of special education in city schools has provoked a long-overdue public debate. Unfortunately, some reactions are likely to make the situation worst.

The articles focused on data showing far more city students in special education than in other Maryland and major urban districts, with spending per special education student being roughly three times spending for regular education. This has triggered suggestions for wholesale retesting of special education students. Large numbers will be found ineligible, retesting proponents say, and lots of money can be redirected.

But indiscriminate reassessments beyond the current requirement for annual review of individual student plans won't work. They will be expensive, time-consuming and legally contested, without improving instruction. They won't solve the underlying difficulty in differentiating between low-achieving students who qualify and those who don't under the vague criteria for the large categories of "learning disabled" and "emotionally disturbed." This is a national problem, and many experts claim that such categories are almost impossible to define.

Toughest students

Whether technically eligible or not, current special education students represent the most difficult students to teach. If thousands were returned to overloaded classrooms and teachers, the promising regular education reform efforts under way under the new city-state partnership would be destroyed.

Here are more promising ways to boost the city's continuing special education reform efforts:

1. Stay the course of regular education reform. The only sure-fire way to reduce rolls and improve the performance of special education students is to improve instruction, especially in reading, for all students. Heed the call of schools chief Robert Booker to give the city's initiatives a chance to succeed.

Open-door policy

2. Let in more sunshine on special education policy-making. The mess reported by The Sun festered because nearly all decisions and information about special education have been shrouded in secrecy. Many policies -- including the scandal of giving such gifts as televisions and VCRs in lieu of compensatory instruction -- were approved behind closed doors as settlement agreements in the federal lawsuit that has controlled the city's special education system for more than a decade.

Some negotiations among the parties must be conducted privately, but agreements that affect special and regular education and become incorporated into court "consent decrees" should be publicly discussed and voted on by the city board.

The new board should not be coerced into unreasonable settlements and should appeal objectionable court orders. Fortunately, it and the chief executive officer, buttressed by an able special-ed management team, appear ready to change the past patterns of secrecy and submission.

3. Shift the special-ed reform emphasis from compliance to instruction. Measurable progress has been made in meeting federal requirements for timely procedural safeguards. Still, special-ed personnel must spend inordinate time trying to achieve near-perfect compliance with hundreds of pages of complex, draconian regulations. For example, technical violations which cause no harm to students trigger excessive audits and penalties.

4. Seek relief from judicial micromanagement. Extensive court involvement in special education, which spills over into regular education, is far removed from the original purpose of the lawsuit. Court orders exceed the requirements of federal and state laws and judicial oversight in other urban districts. Judicial supervision escalated at a time of lack of trust in the city's good faith efforts. The effort and progress under the city-state partnership have reversed that assumption.

Also, the refocus from compliance to instruction will further reduce any judge's ability to direct the details of reform. (The court master, who is to aid the judge in the city lawsuit by tending to details and mediating, has no prior special-ed background.) The time is ripe to employ one or more national experts to recommend guidelines for judicial disengagement, as has happened in other large cities.

Enlist state's aid

5. Push the state for more special-ed funding. While city spending has soared, state aid has remained nearly static. Maryland ranks near the bottom among the states in its share of special-ed funding. More money, if spent on research-based best instructional practices will lift the academic achievement of special (and regular) education students.

"Lost Learning" (the title of The Sun series) can be rediscovered if we have the patience to follow these basic directions. To be avoided are well-meaning but dead-end shortcuts and noninstructional roundabouts that are too frequently pursued.

Kalman R. Hettleman, an education consultant, writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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