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Making special education truly special in Md.

One of the least noticed recommendations in the preliminary report of the Kirwan Commission on school reform in Maryland (on which I am a member) has the potential to revolutionize special education. It calls for an “independent expert study” of the actual costs of adequate special education. But what could be revolutionary about just another study?

The answer is that this study is supposed to be unlike any other ever conducted in our country or perhaps the world. Past and present studies, including those presented to the commission, estimate the costs of special education as it is, not as it should be. There’s a world of difference, with tragic consequences, and we in Maryland have the chance to get it right.

The study proposed by the commission would separate the two large groupings of students in special education. One is students with severe cognitive disabilities who in general are not able to meet academic standards in the same way as their non-disabled peers. The second is students who are not severely cognitively disabled and are able to meet or come close to standards with the right instruction and other supports.

Though disabilities lie along a continuum, policymakers and educators have not sufficiently distinguished between the two groups. Only about 15 percent of all students in special education fall into the first category. An even bigger shocker is that most of the remaining students do not belong in special education at all.

In fact, the great majority of these students are mislabeled as disabled. Their conditions do not meet conventional medical or clinical definitions of disability. Even those with learning problems (including dyslexia) would not need special education if they received early interventions in general education. When this doesn’t happen, general education teachers are overwhelmed by too many students who are too far behind their peers. As a last resort, these students are placed or, let’s face it, “dumped,” into special education.

Federal law requires that struggling learners should not be found eligible for special education unless they received adequate prior instruction in general education. Researchers estimate that between 50 and 75 percent of struggling learners end up unnecessarily and therefore illegally and unjustly in special education.

There is no quick fix, but the study proposed by the Kirwan Commission should reveal the truth and pave the way for reform. The study should estimate the cost of best instructional practices for each group. This will expose how the best instructional practices for students mislabeled as disabled are interventions they should have received in general education.

The framework for the best practices is known widely as “Response to Intervention” (RTI). If RTI is done right, progressively intensive interventions should enable the great majority of struggling learners to avoid being consigned to the inferior instruction, stigma and segregation usually suffered in special education.

Adequate funding for up-front RTI, also recommended by the commission, will greatly reduce the number of students in special education. The cost savings in special education would offset a lot of the costs of RTI. All of this is easier said than done, but do-able — if there is public understanding of the ineffectiveness and illegality of the current system and political pressure to change it.

In turn, this would transform the benefits to the students who are truly disabled because of severe cognitive limitations. Special education personnel would be more specialized and better trained. There would be clearer accountability for evidence-based services that enable students, despite their severe disabilities, to achieve higher academic and life skills.

All told, the study of special education envisioned by the commission could lead policymakers to a de facto reinvention of special education. The disastrous mission creep that has made special education an unfulfilling repository for struggling learners would end. The long overdue reform of special education for truly disabled students would begin.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a member of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, and a former chairman of the Baltimore school board's budget committee. His email is

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