Students With Disabilities Can Succeed!

October 2013 / Abell Reports / Education

How Baltimore City Public Schools are transforming special education.

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 Baltimore City Public Schools are a trailblazing exception. Under the leadership of Andres A. Alonso, a former special education teacher who resigned in June 2013 after serving six years as CEO, the Baltimore schools have created a national model that raises the bar dramatically for the academic progress that students with disabilities are expected to achieve.

The model is the “One Year Plus” policy that went into effect system-wide in the 2012-2013 school year. 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.

This report examines how One Year Plus works and the two foundations on which the policy is built. First, contrary to conventional perceptions, the large majority of students with disabilities have the cognitive ability to achieve state academic standards. Second, under federal and state laws, these students are legally entitled to specially designed instruction and other supportive services that will enable them, notwithstanding their  disabilities, to actually achieve the standards. Both of these foundations are misunderstood or ignored by policymakers, parents, advocates and even the most dedicated educators.

The consequence is the extremely low academic achievement of students with disabilities. Nationally, the number of students with disabilities scoring at proficiency on state tests is 30 to 40 percent lower than their non-disabled 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 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.

Moreover, the achievement gap is much larger than it looks because the test scores and progress of students with disabilities are misrepresented and inflated. As detailed in this report, this deception occurs in various ways, some above-board, some not.