By Kalman Hettleman
There are many reasons for the huge academic gap between students with disabilities and other students. The least understood but most important reason, however, is the low level of goals and services established in most Individual Education Programs (IEP). All too often they are vague and ill-defined, leaving them open to interpretation, which usually translates into expectations for academic progress that are far below students’ abilities.
Take John, for example. He’s a fifth-grade student with dyslexia (who has probably been retained once). He has an IEP goal to raise his reading from the current second-grade level to the third-grade level. But because services are inadequate, John—and the overwhelming majority of such students—will fail to make one year’s progress. Many do not even come close. And even if John gains twelve months, he will not close the gap between his performance level and his grade level—he will still be three years behind.
One Year Plus
In the Baltimore City public school system, where I work pro bono for students with disabilities, there is an unprecedented, exciting effort underway to address this issue and raise the academic achievement of students with LD and other disabilities.
The starting point for reform in Baltimore, under the leadership of the system’s CEO Andres Alonso, is to direct that students receive goals that entitle them not only to twelve months’ progress but to reasonable additional progress that closes the gap between their performance level and their grade level. The directive is called “One Year Plus.”
Of course, just setting the goal doesn’t guarantee progress. But if implemented as intended, the school system will be forced to provide more and better instructional and support services so that students attain progress of one year plus. In short, raising the bar on goals raises the bar for the quality of services.
Back to John. At best he has been making six months’ progress in reading each year (for the two or three years that he has been receiving special education), which accounts for why he is so far behind. So if he is going to make one year plus progress—say two years’ progress in one year—the services he receives will have to be substantially increased and improved. It will almost surely require many additional hours of instruction in a small group of no more than four students, using research-based reading intervention taught by a well-trained teacher.
This is a steep incline for special education systems that are short of resources. For one thing, money to pay for teacher training and expensive small group instruction is scarce. But even more important, educators have not been trained to recognize or apply research on the most effective instructional programs for students with disabilities.
The academic potential of most special education students is underestimated: low expectations underlie low goals.
Retraining staff to replace old misconceptions with research-based IEPs will be slow and arduous. And a fresh supply of trained reading teachers must be found to deliver the services. Nothing less than a transformation of the system is necessary, but the payoffs could be enormous. Most students with LD could be lifted to new heights of academic achievement and post-school success.
I believe that Baltimore is on the cutting edge of this transformation, and hopefully it will become a model for the nation. I welcome feedback from others. Does the need for something like One Year Plus make sense to you? Could it be advocated for and undertaken in your school district?
Kalman Hettleman is a public-interest attorney who has played an important role in educational research and policy, in addition to serving as a Baltimore school board member and deputy mayor for education, and as the Maryland cabinet secretary for social welfare programs. He is the author most recently of “It’s the Classroom, Stupid: A Plan to Save America’s Schoolchildren.”