Baltimore leaves disabled kids behind

October 12, 2004|By Kalman R. Hettleman

ONLY A George Orwell could do justice to the abyss that exists between the lofty promise of special education for disabled students and the tragic reality.

Under the No Child Left Behind law, school systems nationwide have been forced to disclose the extremely low academic test scores of special education students. A survey by Education Week in January found a chasm between the performance of general and special education students in every state, with differences typically ranging from 30 percent to 40 percent.

The Baltimore public school system fits this national pattern. In 2003-2004, the percentages of city special education students who scored "proficient" or above on Maryland state tests in reading were 29 percent in third grade, 23 percent in fifth grade and 5 percent in eighth grade. In mathematics, the scores were even lower.

While there have been slight gains in recent years, these test scores are the lowest in Maryland. Moreover, the vast gap between general and special education students has widened. The longer students receive special education services, the steeper their academic decline.

None of this will be surprising amid the steady flood of news stories detailing the woes of the city school system. But the failure of special education is the worst news yet.

Aside from special education, despite the crises of the past year, the city schools have made enormous strides: big test score gains for regular education students in elementary school reading and math, lower dropout rates and the impressive seeds being sown for high school reform. School officials have generally recognized the shortcomings and have begun the process of transformation.

Not so in special education.

For years, the system has focused almost exclusively on bureaucratic paperwork while virtually ignoring the quality of instruction. City officials fault the 20-year-old lawsuit in the U.S. District Court, in which it was ordered that a judge oversee the city's special education system. A problem is that Judge Marvin J. Garbis has remained inordinately fixated on nonacademic issues. But city officials have only themselves to blame because they have not shifted the focus to instructional reforms.

Worst, the city's top administrators and the school board have refused to review the many ineffective and unlawful practices that cause and conceal the system's dysfunction. These are detailed in my recent report published by the Abell Foundation: "The Road to Nowhere: The Illusion and Broken Promises of Special Education in the Baltimore City and Other Public School Systems." It cites, for example:

Special educators ignore research showing which classroom methods of teaching work best for learning disabled students. If the teachers knew the research, they wouldn't have the low expectations of these students that often become toxic self-fulfilling prophecies.

The progress of students is exaggerated through inflated test scores and report card grades.

The lack of progress of students is not monitored, so students quickly fall behind and never catch up.

Instruction is denied or limited because of its cost.

Teachers and other special educators are intimidated from speaking out about improper practices.

Special education students range widely in their cognitive ability, but most have the potential to meet demanding academic standards or to achieve at much higher levels if they receive the research-based instruction required by federal laws.

It's true that reforming special education will cost more money. But many steps can be taken to improve the situation with current resources. First and foremost, city school officials must end the culture of denial of the underlying ineffective and unlawful practices that prevent improvement. They must conduct a thorough public investigation, shift their attention from routine record-keeping to quality of instruction, adopt research-supported classroom programs tailored to students with learning disabilities, and protect from retribution educators who tell the truth about the system's deficiencies.

The school system has shown the right reform stuff in many other areas. Now it must awaken from its deep slumber on the needs of disabled students and rescue thousands of them and their parents from a nightmare of failure and despair.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant, a former member of the Baltimore school board and a former state human resources secretary.

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