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Baltimore policy a national model in special education

Stop the presses and hold the tweets: The beleaguered Baltimore city school system is an acclaimed national model in special education. The spotlight is shining on its first-in-the-nation reform policy to fulfill the academic and civil rights of students with disabilities.

The policy, known as "One Year Plus," is the model behind the "significant guidance document" issued by the U.S department of education in November 2015 that significantly raises the bar for the progress that students with disabilities are legally entitled to achieve. School systems nationwide should now look to city schools for how to elevate expectations and outcomes for students in special education.

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One Year Plus, initiated about eight years ago by former CEO Andrés Alonso with my assistance, seeks to assure that the great majority of students with disabilities receive special instructional and related services that enable them to meet the same academic standards as non-disabled peers. If they fall behind their grade level, they should receive intensive services that "close the gap."

Parents cheered, but many educators expressed disbelief. The policy defied conventional wisdom and practice. It wasn't realistic, they said. These students are disabled, aren't they?

Not as much as you would think. There is sound research behind the federal mandate that most students with disabilities should be able to meet high standards. The National Center for Educational Outcomes, the pre-eminent research organization on accountability for the achievement of students with disabilities, finds, "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" the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act.

Moreover, the 15 to 20 percent of students who have severe cognitive limitations can also attain higher levels of performance if expectations and services are appropriately elevated.

Yet such results almost never occur. Nationally, the number of students with disabilities scoring at proficiency on state tests is 30 to 40 percent lower than non-disabled peers. Most revealing, students in the largest category of disabilities — those identified as having a "Specific Learning Disability" 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. In addition, students with disabilities drop out at about twice the rate of non-disabled peers.

No wonder national experts acclaimed the One Year Plus policy. For example, a former head of the National Center for Special Education Research wrote, "Baltimore's One Year Plus policy is a step ahead of the nation." And a renowned research scientist at the University of Minnesota stated, "The One Year Plus policy should be highlighted nationally as a promising path to raising expectations and academic achievement for all students with disabilities."

Several years ago the new city schools CEO Sonja Santelises, then the chief academic officer, and I and another advocate met with federal officials to urge national dissemination. That meeting paved the way for the guidance document that finally emerged last November.

That's the good news. Not good at all, however, has been the unmistakable backsliding in implementation in city schools over the past two years. Expectations have been weakened; meaningful monitoring has been eliminated; and virtually nothing has been done to improve instruction. A high priority for Ms. Santelises is to revive the momentum.

Another notable disappointment is the failure of the Maryland state department of education to implement statewide the federal guidance and principles underlying One Year Plus. For at least two years, state officials have claimed to be committed to doing so, but little to no concrete action has occurred. However, here too, new leadership offers hope. New state superintendent Karen Salmon, a former special education teacher and administrator, has promised prompt review.

Let's hope the city model is widely adopted and improved. Until then, students with disabilities will continue to have their potential for success underestimated and their legal and moral right to an adequate education unfulfilled.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

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