City spe­cial ed pol­icy pro­moted

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Kal­man R. Het­tle­man Kal­man R. Het­tle­man is a for­mer mem­ber of the Bal­ti­more school board and for­mer state hu­man re­sources sec­re­tary. His email is khet­tle­man@gmail.com.

Stop the presses and hold the tweets: The be­lea­guered Bal­ti­more city school sys­tem is an ac­claimed na­tional model in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion. The spot­light is shin­ing on its first-in-the-na­tion re­form pol­icy to ful­fill the aca­demic and civil rights of stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties.

The pol­icy, known as “One Year Plus,” is the model be­hind the “sig­nif­i­cant guid­ance doc­u­ment” is­sued by the U.S Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion in Novem­ber 2015 that sig­nif­i­cantly raises the bar for the progress that stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties are legally en­ti­tled to achieve. School sys­tems na­tion­wide should now look to city schools for how to el­e­vate ex­pec­ta­tions and out­comes for stu­dents in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion.

One Year Plus, ini­ti­ated about eight years ago by for­mer CEO An­drés Alonso with my as­sis­tance, seeks to as­sure that the great ma­jor­ity of stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties re­ceive spe­cial in­struc­tional and re­lated ser­vices that en­able them to meet the same aca­demic stan­dards as non-dis­abled peers. If they fall be­hind their grade level, they should re­ceive in­ten­sive ser­vices that “close the gap.”

Par­ents cheered, but many ed­u­ca­tors ex­pressed dis­be­lief. The pol­icy de­fied con­ven­tional wis­dom and prac­tice. It wasn’t re­al­is­tic, they said. Th­ese stu­dents are dis­abled, aren’t they?

Not as much as you would think. There is sound re­search be­hind the fed­eral man­date that most stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties should be able to meet high stan­dards. The Na­tional Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tional Out­comes, the pre­em­i­nent re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion on ac­count­abil­ity for the achieve­ment of stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties, finds that “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” the fed­eral In­di­vid­u­als with Dis­abil­i­ties Act

More­over, the 15 to 20 per­cent of stu­dents who have se­vere cog­ni­tive lim­i­ta­tions can also at­tain higher lev­els of per­for­mance if ex­pec­ta­tions and ser­vices are ap­pro­pri­ately el­e­vated.

Yet such re­sults al­most never oc­cur. Na­tion­ally, the num­ber of stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties scor­ing at pro­fi­ciency on state tests is 30 to 40 per­cent lower than non-dis­abled peers. Most re­veal­ing, stu­dents in the largest cat­e­gory of dis­abil­i­ties — those iden­ti­fied as hav­ing a “Spe­cific Learn­ing Dis­abil­ity” 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. In ad­di­tion, stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties drop out at about twice the rate of non-dis­abled peers.

No won­der na­tional ex­perts ac­claimed the One Year Plus pol­icy. For ex­am­ple, a for­mer head of the Na­tional Cen­ter for Spe­cial Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search wrote, “Bal­ti­more’s One Year Plus pol­icy is a step ahead of the na­tion.” And a renowned re­search sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota stated, “The One Year Plus pol­icy should be high­lighted na­tion­ally as a promis­ing path to rais­ing ex­pec­ta­tions and aca­demic achieve­ment for all stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties.”

Sev­eral years ago the new city schools CEO Sonja San­telises, then the chief aca­demic of­fi­cer, and I and another ad­vo­cate met with fed­eral of­fi­cials to urge na­tional dis­sem­i­na­tion. That meet­ing paved the way for the guid­ance doc­u­ment that fi­nally emerged last Novem­ber.

That’s the good news. Not good at all, how­ever, has been the un­mis­tak­able back­slid­ing in im­ple­men­ta­tion in city schools over the past two years. Ex­pec­ta­tions have been weak­ened; mean­ing­ful mon­i­tor­ing has been elim­i­nated; and vir­tu­ally noth­ing has been done to im­prove in­struc­tion. A high pri­or­ity for Ms. San­telises is to re­vive the mo­men­tum.

Another no­table dis­ap­point­ment is the fail­ure of the Mary­land State Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion to im­ple­ment statewide the fed­eral guid­ance and prin­ci­ples un­der­ly­ing One Year Plus. For at least two years, state of­fi­cials have claimed to be com­mit­ted to do­ing so, but lit­tle to no con­crete ac­tion has oc­curred. How­ever, here too, new lead­er­ship of­fers hope. New state Su­per­in­ten­dent Karen Salmon, a for­mer spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion teacher and ad­min­is­tra­tor, has promised prompt re­view.

Let’s hope the city model is widely adopted and im­proved. Un­til then, stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties will con­tinue to have their po­ten­tial for suc­cess un­der­es­ti­mated and their le­gal and moral right to an ad­e­quate ed­u­ca­tion un­ful­filled.

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