In the wake of the departure of Andrés Alonso, a commanding CEO for the past six years, Baltimore City school bells may be ringing a different tune this year. And listeners will be wondering: Will his bold legacy last?
His best-known institutional reforms include extensive school autonomy, a wide variety of schools of choice, a progressive teacher contract, and restrictions on suspensions of students. These are likely to survive, but they are fairly commonplace across urban school districts, and he is not a signature founder of any of these movements. But one lesser-known reform is one-of-a-kind nationally and likely to be his most lasting legacy: the "One Year Plus" initiative to raise the academic performance of students with disabilities.
One Year Plus has been overshadowed by the special education settlement agreement ending the 26-year lawsuit over procedural rights. But it is One Year Plus — implemented systemwide last school year — that is in the forefront of the national movement to transform the focus of special education from procedural compliance to academic outcomes. The U.S. Department of Education states that it is "rethinking its accountability system" to put more emphasis on instructional results, and its top special education official, Acting Assistant Secretary Michael H. Yudin, recently indicated that One Year Plus should be disseminated as a national model.
Under One Year Plus, students with disabilities who are not severely cognitively disabled are expected to achieve state academic standards. Usually there is a big gap between their grade level and performance level (for example, Johnny is in the fifth grade and reading at a second grade level). If so, they should receive services that enable them to achieve more than one year's progress each year (say, 15 to 18 months' progress), reducing the gap and bringing them closer to meeting state standards.
The prevailing nationwide standard is far lower. Goals for such students are vague and regarded as aspirations not expectations, so when students fail to attain the goals, educators and policymakers pay little attention.
But shouldn't we expect students with disabilities to achieve far below their nondisabled peers? The answer requires a deeper understanding of the range of disabilities. In particular, educators have not sufficiently distinguished between students with severe cognitive disabilities — who in general are not able to meet the same academic standards as nondisabled peers — and students who are not severely cognitively disabled and are, with supports, able to meet the standards.
A big surprise is that students with the most severe disabilities make up less than 20 percent of all students with disabilities. An even bigger surprise, as reported by the National Center on Education Outcomes (NCEO), a leading national research organization, is 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 [federal law]."
Yet, for example, students identified as having a Specific Learning Disability like dyslexia — nearly half of all students with disabilities — have low to above-average cognitive abilities. Nonetheless, national data show that at least one-fifth of them are reading at five or more levels below their enrolled grade level, and close to half are three or more grades below.
Higher expectations, then, are one foundation of the One Year Plus policy. The other foundation is the legal right of such students to be enabled to meet state standards, including the looming Common Core standards.
While the One Year Plus policy applies directly only to students with disabilities who are not severely cognitively disabled, it creates a framework for raising expectations and academic and functional performance levels of all students with disabilities.
But will One Year Plus succeed in transforming special education? National experts think it can. Rachel Quenemoen at the NCEO says it should be "highlighted nationally as a promising path." Education scientist Donald Deshler states, "Our research show that the students under the policy can meet the One Year Plus expectation."
There are encouraging signs of success. Early monitoring reports, my own experience representing individual students, and other anecdotal evidence show improved student outcomes. But of course conclusive evidence must await implementation over several years and a full evaluation.
In the meantime, One Year Plus is a big, bold step forward. And special education is probably the reform ground on which Mr. Alonso, formerly a special education teacher, will have cast his longest shadow.
Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.