City's special ed efforts get low marks in study

EDUCATION BEAT

`Maze': A new report says that in complying with court orders, the city is wasting millions of dollars a year that could be spent on improving instruction.

February 20, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IN THE CITY'S zeal to comply with court orders in the 18-year-old Baltimore special education lawsuit, it is wasting at least $14 million a year -- money that could be spent on improving instruction for handicapped and disabled children.

That's one of the charges lodged by Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman, a self-described "education analyst and advocate," in a report published this week by the Abell Foundation.

Hettleman spent 10 months looking at the city's Byzantine special education program. He interviewed 75 people (most of whom are anonymous) and reviewed thousands of pages of documents. His findings, in a nutshell:

The program continues to focus on "excessive paperwork and other bureaucratic procedures that do very little to improve instruction."

The obsession with what Hettleman calls the "compliance maze" obscures the underfunding of instruction.

The "ugly secret" of special education is that the "individual education plans" required by federal law for all kids in the program are "woefully inadequate," often tailored to fit budget limits, not instructional needs.

The program is conducted in unwarranted secrecy, forcing reporters and researchers to use the Maryland Public Information Act to obtain what ought to be public data.

Officials have been slow to recognize the critical link between early reading proficiency and the persistently poor academic performance of special education children.

"Problems in reading are the root cause of the eligibility of about half of all students receiving .... services," Hettleman writes. "Most of these students have relatively mild learning problems that could be overcome through earlier and better instruction."

The city, says Hettleman, follows what reading authority G. Reid Lyon of the National Institutes of Health has called the "wait-to-fail" model: "We wait until they fail. And the lost ground is almost never recovered."

The Sun has repeatedly come to a similar conclusion in its "Reading by 9" reports, dating to its first such series in the fall of 1997.

And the wait-to-fail problem persists. In Maryland School Performance Assessment Program testing last year, only 1 percent of the city's eighth-grade special education students received satisfactory scores in reading.

Hettleman makes several recommendations. He calls for "aggressive, immediate steps" to extricate the program from the compliance maze. He says most of the 350 procedural dictates followed by the vast special education apparatus aren't required by law or court decree.

The special education office needs to be brought under the chief academic officer, says Hettleman, so that compliance and educational policy are considered as one. And the city needs to accelerate efforts to get out from under the nearly-two-decades-old lawsuit known as Vaughn G.

City school officials have read Hettleman's report, which was financed in part -- but not sponsored by -- Abell. Carmen V. Russo, the schools' chief executive officer, wrote Hettleman saying the city has "made progress in the compliance of state and federal regulations for special education" as judged by Westat, an independent research firm.

I couldn't reach Russo yesterday, but Gayle Amos, the special education director whom Hettleman describes as "autocratic" in his report, did return my call. She said the city has been making progress, and now that "we're seeing light at the end of the [litigation] tunnel, we can turn more of our attention to important issues, such as discipline and the quality of education.

"I don't disagree with a lot of what Buzzy said," said Amos, "but this isn't a fact-filled report. It's based on anonymous charges from people he knows."

Amos reminded me that Baltimore is an urban system with urban problems. For example, she said, 43 percent of city children in special education are still off by themselves in self-contained classrooms, instead of mainstreamed in regular classes. "It should be closer to 20 percent," she said.

Teacher vacancies continue to be a problem, she said, adding, "We need to attract good teachers here and then figure out ways to keep them here."

Hettleman's report can be read at www.abell.org.

Superintendent flap has echoes in past

Deja vu all over again.

"The chief trouble with Maryland public schools is politics," The Sun editorialized Feb. 8, 1916, shortly after a scathing report on the state of the state's education system from New York authority Abraham Flexner. "Maryland spends more than $5 million annually on her public schools, some $1.7 million being paid by the State itself and the balance by the localities. Naturally the politicians make every effort to get a hand in the spending of this large sum and in controlling the appointment of those who draw salaries out of it."

Namely, superintendents. That's why, 86 years later, only the state superintendent of schools is permitted to fire a local school chief.

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