Next step for special ed

After the lawsuit, Baltimore must continue to aggressively address low performance

March 14, 2010|By Kalman R. Hettleman

The recently announced settlement agreement in the 26-year lawsuit over special education for Baltimore City students is welcome news. It's been overdue for at least a decade and is a mark of the formidable leadership of schools CEO Andrés Alonso. But there is less to the hoopla than meets the eye.

For one thing, it ain't over 'til it's over. The agreement still requires, until at least July 1, 2012, all manner of bureaucratic paperwork, expense and potential for further litigation.

More important, for a long time the lawsuit, known as the Vaughn G. case, has had little impact on raising the academic achievement of students with disabilities. It has focused almost exclusively on paperwork compliance with the complex procedural safeguards in federal law.

In fact, many of its byzantine requirements have diverted attention and resources away from improvements in classroom instruction. And the city school system, until the advent of Mr. Alonso, used it as an excuse for the appallingly low academic performance of the great majority of students with disabilities (like those with dyslexia) who are capable of much higher levels of academic success.

Even with steady growth in test scores, the percentage of city students with disabilities who score proficient on standardized reading and math tests is about 20 percent lower than other students. Among eighth-graders, only 32 percent are proficient in reading and 19 percent in math.

But there is other good news about special education under Mr. Alonso, and, unlike the Vaughn G. case, it's been below the public radar. Mr. Alonso is in the process of putting in place a system -- called "One Year Plus" -- that could drastically boost the academic achievement of students with disabilities. Such a system is unprecedented nationwide.

In essence, the first step in One Year Plus would raise the bar for how much progress students with disabilities are expected to achieve. Baltimore, like virtually all U.S. school systems, has historically set the bar well under the capabilities of most special education students and well short of what federal law promises. Typically, school systems think they have satisfied the law if students achieve far less than 12 months' progress in a school year. As a result, almost all special education students fall further behind each year. But Mr. Alonso -- virtually alone in my experience as an advocate for children with disabilities and as a policy researcher and writer in the field -- looks at it differently, and audaciously.

His pending One Year Plus directive states that students with disabilities (who are not severely cognitively disabled) should be enabled to achieve 12 months' progress, plus a reasonable reduction in the gap between the student's current level of performance and the student's current grade. Students differ in their needs and abilities, but, for example, under One Year Plus, the goal for a student with dyslexia in the seventh grade, who is now reading at a third-grade level, might be 18 to 24 months' progress.

The transformational payoff from raising the goals is that schools must raise the quality and intensity of instruction and other services that will enable students to achieve them. Consider a fairly typical student with dyslexia who has been receiving a few hours weekly of extra instruction in a medium-size group of students from a teacher untrained in research-based programs. Under One Year Plus, the student might receive one hour daily of small-group (no more than three students) reading instruction from a well-trained teacher in addition to the regular reading period.

This is a steep incline for any school system that has few such well-trained teachers and is short of money. It will take time to transform the culture of low expectations and excuses. But this is Mr. Alonso's trademark, and in the area of special education, it is informed and inspired by his experience as a teacher of students with disabilities in Newark, N.J.

At long last, if One Year Plus is implemented well, special education could become truly special where it counts the most: in daily classroom instruction. And the city school system would be a model for the nation.

Kalman R. Hettleman, an advocate for children with disabilities and former member of the Baltimore school board, has assisted school officials in developing the "One Year Plus" program. He is author of the book "It's the Classroom, Stupid: A Plan to Save America's Schoolchildren." His e-mail is khettleman@comcast.net.

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