Special Education Commentary

Still Fighting the Last War

By Kalman R. Hettleman — April 17, 2002 8 min read
The battle to reform special education is being lost.

As chronicled in almost every recent issue of this newspaper, the war to improve special education is being lost on many fronts. The pending congressional reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—the basic legal framework for services to students with disabilities—is already bogged down in battles over such issues as funding, paperwork requirements, testing, inclusion, and discipline. Many state and local school systems, particularly large urban districts, have been mired for years in lawsuits alleging failure to comply with federal mandates.

Reform won’t be easy, or it would have happened by now. A telltale case study is that of the Baltimore public school system. Its special education struggles—including progress in some areas, but dismal failure in others—may be instructive to school districts elsewhere dealing with the same complex problems.

The Baltimore lessons are contained in a study I conducted last year, which was published in February 2002 as part of the Abell Foundation report “Still Getting It Wrong.” Baltimore has drawn national attention for its progress in general education over the past several years. Yet its special education program, despite massive efforts and prolonged U.S. District Court supervision since the mid-1980s, is still squandering too much time and money on paperwork and bureaucracy at the expense of better instruction.

All observers and parties to the court case agree that, in recent years, the school system has met or exceeded the mandates of the IDEA and court-imposed procedural dictates. For example, last school year, 96.9 percent of evaluations were completed on time, and 99.4 percent of individualized-education-plan services were implemented on time. Parents were notified of IEP meetings and their procedural rights in 100 percent of cases. Compliance across the board has steadily risen (even though compliance standards under court supervision are much higher than those imposed on other school systems across the country).

At the same time, however, the system’s special education students aren’t coming close to achieving their academic potential. Last year, for example, the percentages of special education students who scored satisfactory or better on the Maryland state performance tests in reading were a pitiful 9.6 percent in 3rd grade, 5.6 percent in 5th grade, and 1 percent in 8th grade. Worse, the huge gap in test scores between special education and general education students widened. For example, on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, the differences between the two groups in percentages of students with passing scores in reading were these: for 2nd grade, general education 44 percent to special education 24 percent; for 4th grade, 38 percent to 14 percent; and for 6th grade, 31 percent to 8 percent.

To be sure, Baltimore schools are not alone in having such woeful results. The academic gap is not closing across the country, and special education is under attack nationally for being too focused on procedural compliance. But the Baltimore schools, in view of more than 15 years of extensive effort and outside scrutiny, should be ahead of the pack in boosting student achievement. Like generals fighting the last war, however, top special education administrators (as well as the judge and the parties in the lawsuit) are stuck in an outdated compliance strategy. There has been virtually no leadership on the instructional-reform front.

Why has reform stalled in this way, despite the good intentions of all parties? First, lawyers, not educators, dominate the court proceedings that drive the city’s special education program. Lawyers know a lot about adversarial combat and procedural remedies, but nothing about how to educate children with learning problems. Their legal skills came in handy at the start of the lawsuit in 1984, when severely disabled children were being denied access to appropriate educational programs. Procedural safeguards were put in place, and over the years, the city school system has made outstanding progress in adhering to them.

The tide of reform must turn from guaranteeing procedural access to assuring quality instruction, especially in reading.

But the special needs of children have changed dramatically. Today, most children in special education programs have mild learning problems, not severe physical and mental disabilities. Nationally, about half of all students receiving special education services are found eligible because of what are termed “specific learning disabilities.”

And the burning issue no longer is access. It’s how to provide these students with high-quality extra instruction and other services they need to achieve academic success.

Still, the lawsuit drones on with virtually no letup in the focus on procedural rules and paperwork. My conservative estimate is that over $14 million each year is being misspent on excessive procedures. (Only rough estimates are available because the city school system does not have a unified special education budget and does not isolate or analyze compliance costs.) The parties in the lawsuit have agreed to “disengagement"—a plan to end or reduce court supervision—by June 2003. But that is too long to wait, and the conditions for full disengagement are unlikely to be met.

In any event, city school officials should be doing much more to fill the instructional vacuum. The top special education administrators are strong on procedural enforcement, but weak on developing instructional best practices. They lack expertise in curriculum and instruction, especially in reading. Yet, the school board and the district’s chief executive officer have failed to take charge. City schools have achieved notable gains under a master plan for general education, but there is no comparable blueprint for improving special education.

The board and the CEO say they are afraid to rock the legal boat. But their hands are not tied nearly as tightly as they claim. Here is a series of steps they could take that would not violate federal or state law or court decrees, but would boost the academic prospects of special education students:

  • Strengthen the integration of special education and general education. The head of special education should report directly to the chief academic officer, rather than report separately to the CEO. Now, special education administrators operate with almost complete autonomy. In the past, an argument could be made that a separate special education office was necessary to put muscle behind the overhaul of procedural compliance. But with compliance on track and instruction off track, that possible justification no longer exists.
  • Develop a plan for instructional reform that prevents mild learning problems from turning into virtually irremediable disabilities. The plan must strengthen early interventions, incorporate emerging research on instructional best practices, and provide more training for teachers in reading. Baltimore, like other districts across the country, has been slow to recognize the critical link between early reading proficiency and the persistently poor academic performance of special education students. As G. Reid Lyon and other experts point out, problems in reading are the root cause of the eligibility for most students receiving special education services. These students, Mr. Lyon writes, are “teacher disabled.” Special educators in elementary schools must first and foremost become reading teachers.
  • Take aggressive, immediate steps to mitigate the excessive focus on procedural compliance and the waste of resources. A large majority of the school system’s more than 350 compliance-audit standards are not mandated by law or by court decrees; nor do they exist elsewhere in the country. The district should obtain an outside review to determine which parts of its vast compliance maze are needed and cost-effective, and should strip away its self-imposed extra layers of paperwork and bureaucracy. Millions of dollars can be redirected to early academic interventions. Moreover, the obsession with compliance saps teacher morale and makes it harder to recruit and retain special educators and the providers of related services.
  • Advocate vigorously for adequate resources for special education instruction. While many millions of dollars are being misspent on compliance, classroom instruction and related services are being shortchanged. Federal law is supposed to guarantee that special education services will meet each student’s individual needs, usually without regard to cost. But that isn’t happening. The ugly secret of special education, too often ignored even by advocates for children with disabilities, is that many individualized education plans are extremely inadequate. Overspending on procedural compliance obscures the underfunding of instruction and related speech and language, psychology, and social-work services.

Special education staff members report being conditioned or coerced to tailor IEPs to fit budget limits. The frequency (how often? how long?) and the intensity (what group size for instruction and other services?) of individualized-education-plan services are based more on customary practice than on unfettered professional judgment about the extra assistance that slow-learning students truly need to catch up or keep from falling farther behind.

  • End the practice of making nearly all special education policy decisions behind closed doors. Confidential negotiations in the lawsuit should be confined to putting the final legal touch to policy and budget priorities set publicly by the board and CEO.

The nation can benefit from the painful lessons learned in Baltimore. Educators must step up to the task, and the judicial process must take a step back. The tide of reform must turn from guaranteeing procedural access to assuring quality instruction, especially in reading. Otherwise, special education will remain not special enough, and children with disabilities will never reach their academic potential.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an educational consultant and writer working in Baltimore. He has served as a member of the Baltimore school board, as an educational aide to two of the city’s mayors, and as the state secretary of human resources for Maryland. He can be reached at khettlem@erols.com.

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as Still Fighting the Last War


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