– by guest blogger Kalman R. Hettleman, former member of the Baltimore school board, former state human resources secretary, and tireless advocate for children with disabilities.
We encourage you to download Students with Disabilities Can Succeed! How Baltimore City Public Schools Is Transforming Special Education and the companion article by Mr. Hettleman published in The Abell Report. We include a portion of Mr. Hettleman’s article in this post.
To borrow from Mark Twain’s quip about the weather, everyone complains that special education focuses too much on procedural compliance and too little on academic achievement, but no one does much about it.
The One Year Plus policy of Baltimore City Public Schools described in the Abell Report and this Special Report has the potential to breathe new life into “special education” for students with disabilities. In recent decades, waves of K-12 education reform— including the No Child Left Behind Act, charter schools, alternative teacher recruitment paths, tougher teacher evaluations, better data to drive instruction, and a stronger research base for “reading by nine”— have produced trickle-down gains for students with disabilities. But special education, despite its lofty ideals, remains not nearly special enough.
Raising the Bar for Academic Progress
That situation could change as a result of One Year Plus, Baltimore’s transformative initiative, implemented systemwide in 2012-2013. One Year Plus raises the bar dramatically for the academic progress that students with disabilities are expected to achieve. Under the policy, students who are not severely cognitively disabled have a right to special education services that will enable them to meet state academic standards.
In this article, Mr. Hettleman describes how One Year Plus works and the foundations on which the policy is built. First … most students with disabilities have the cognitive ability to achieve state academic standards. Second … these students are legally entitled to specially designed instruction and other supportive services that will enable them to actually achieve the standards. These foundations are misunderstood or ignored by policymakers, parents, advocates, and even the most dedicated educators.
Low Expectations and Self-fulfilling Prophecies of Low Academic Achievement
Special education policy is ambitious and daunting, and there are many reasons why it falls far short of its lofty aims. But one reason towers above the others: low expectations. By and large, educators fail to understand and take appropriate action to recognize the wide range of legally recognized disabilities under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In particular, educators [do not] distinguish between students with severe cognitive disabilities, who in general are not able to meet the same academic standards as nondisabled peers, and students who are not severely cognitively disabled and are able to meet the standards with the right supports.
The line between them is not easy to draw and generates controversy. What is clear, though, is that the public prominence of the most severe disabilities—like intellectual impairment, severe autism, and multiple disabilities—masks a big surprise: Students with the most severe disabilities comprise only about 20 percent of all students with disabilities. The National Center on Educational Outcomes, the leading research organization on accountability for the achievement of students with disabilities, concludes, “The vast majority of special education students (80-85 percent) can meet the same achievement standards as other students if they are given specially designed instruction, appropriate access, supports, and accommodations, as required by IDEA.” (italics added) But they don’t receive what they are entitled to, and therefore perform far below their cognitive potential.
Most students with disabilities have the cognitive ability to meet state standards
Who are the 80 to 85 percent of students with disabilities who have the cognitive ability to achieve state academic standards if they receive appropriate instruction and other supports?
They are generally students with the following disabilities or a combination of them: Specific Learning Disability, ADHD, Speech/Language Impairment, and Emotional Disturbance.
Yet, most of these students fail to come close to meeting grade-level standards. Nationally, the number of all students with disabilities scoring at proficiency on state tests is 30 to 40 percent lower than their nondisabled peers.
Most revealing, students in the largest category of disabilities— those identified as having a Specific Learning Disability (LD) such as dyslexia—have cognitive abilities that range from low average to above average. Yet, national data show that in high school, at least one-fifth of them are reading at five or more grade levels below their enrolled grade level, and close to half are three or more grades below. Students with an LD are on average 3.4 years behind their enrolled grade level in reading and 3.2 years behind in math.
In addition, students with disabilities drop out at about twice the rate of their non-disabled peers.