Special Education Opinion

A Promising Academic Model for Students With Disabilities

By Candace Cortiella & Kalman R. Hettleman — November 12, 2013 4 min read
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There is general agreement—a rarity in the warring world of education reform—that the focus of special education reform must change from procedural compliance to academic outcomes. The U.S. Department of Education states on its website that it is “currently rethinking its accountability system in order to shift the balance from a system focused primarily on compliance to one that puts more emphasis ... on educational results and functional outcomes for children with disabilities.” This shift in focus, known as results-driven accountability, is long overdue. This move is good news. Even better, there is a model for how to do it.

During the 2011-12 academic year, the Baltimore city schools implemented a systemwide policy, One Year Plus, whose architect is one of us, Kalman R. Hettleman. The policy raises academic expectations for students with disabilities and holds schools accountable for helping children achieve significantly better outcomes. As far as we know, this is a first for any school system in the country.


One Year Plus is built on two foundations.

The first: Contrary to conventional perceptions, most students with disabilities have the cognitive ability to achieve the same academic standards as their nondisabled peers. As reported in 2011 by the National Center on Education Outcomes, a leading research organization on special education accountability, “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 [federal law].”

The second: Students with disabilities have a legal right to instruction that is specially designed for them and other supportive services that enable them to achieve standards—the common core or otherwise—notwithstanding their disabilities. This right is written into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, court decisions, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the provisions in many states that call for individualized education programs, or IEPs, that are standards-based.

To fulfill this right and enable students with disabilities to receive the appropriate educational benefit, Baltimore’s One Year Plus policy requires the following:

• IEPs for students with disabilities on a regular diploma track should have goals designed to provide a minimum of 12 months of academic progress over the course of the 12 months the IEP is supposed to cover. The exception would be for those students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

• When there is a large gap between the student’s enrolled grade level and the performance grade level, the IEP annual goals should provide both the expectation of 12 months’ progress and a reasonable reduction in the gap; for example, 15 to 18 months’ progress will be made in one year.

Contrary to conventional perceptions, most students with disabilities have the cognitive ability to achieve the same academic standards as their nondisabled peers."

• IEP services must be reasonably calculated to enable the student to achieve the goals, but IEPs are not a guarantee that the goals will be met. The services to be provided should reflect research. They should also include the professional judgment of the school’s IEP team that the goals can be reached as long as the IEP is implemented effectively. The exception would be if the student’s circumstances, including the nature of the disability and attendance, were to change significantly.

We know that a policy like One Year Plus cannot be implemented overnight. The prevailing culture of low expectations must be transformed. Services and professional development must be improved and increased. The resources at hand must be used more efficiently and augmented where necessary. Sound data that compare apples to apples must be used to determine present levels of performance. Reasonable IEP goals must be set in order to measure progress. And there must be monitoring to assure that IEps comply with the requirements of One Year Plus.

This school year, the policy went into effect districtwide in Baltimore. And while it is too soon for formal evaluation findings, there are encouraging signs of success. Early monitoring reports and anecdotal evidence indicate that students are meeting expectations.

In August, accompanied by the then-chief academic officer of the Baltimore schools, Sonja Brookins Santelises, we met with senior special education officials in the federal Education Department. We went to this meeting to plant our flag. Although it’s not the department’s job to dictate how results-driven accountability is accomplished, we felt it was important to share the success of One Year Plus. We were pleased that those in attendance could see its potential, particularly as a national model.

Given the history of special education, we believe the significance of this mission to balance the reform efforts between procedural compliance and academic outcomes is self-evident. Of critical importance is that while the Baltimore policy applies specifically to students with disabilities on a regular diploma track, it can provide a framework for raising expectations and academic- and functional-performance levels for all students with disabilities, including those with significant cognitive disabilities.

Uncertainties and resistance to the heightened accountability under One Year Plus are sure to arise. But the policy recognizes that students with disabilities have the legal as well as the moral right to services that enable them to reach higher levels of achievement. The issue for Baltimore and the nation is not if this goal can be reached, but when.

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2013 edition of Education Week as A Policy With Academic Promise for Students With Disabilities


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