Most Md. kids in special education don't belong there

At the end of school, an elementary School student jumps from the curb to his bus for the ride home.

No one needs more bad news about our public schools, but — sorry — here’s a shocker: In Maryland as many as 65,000 public school students are illegally classified as disabled and placed in special education, where they suffer unnecessary harm.

These students are not disabled in the true sense of a medical or clinical disability, yet they comprise about two-thirds of all students in special education. How can this wrongdoing happen on such a large scale?


These students, whom I call “mislabeled as disabled,” often are struggling readers who have simply fallen far behind their peers. There are so many of them — and they are so far behind — that they severely limit the ability of general education teachers to instruct and manage the whole classroom. And so, as a last resort and in blatant violation of federal and state laws, they are “dumped” into special education.

Even if such struggling learners met some indicators of a true disability, laws require that they should not be found eligible for special education unless they received adequate prior instruction in general education. But they don’t receive it. General education teachers aren’t given the tools to provide struggling readers with the extra assistance — the evidence-based instructional interventions and the small teacher-to-pupil ratios — that they need.


Further, many policymakers and educators fall prey to what President George W. Bush called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” The general public and, indeed, many parents assume that students in special education are not cognitively able to learn to read and achieve academic success. Yet, that is a fateful misunderstanding. The poor student performance of low-income students, for example, is too often blamed on poor family background rather than, as it should be, on poor instruction.

Researchers estimate that between 50 and 75 percent of struggling learners end up unnecessarily — and therefore illegally — in special education. Still, that would not be such a bad thing if special education were truly special. But it isn’t, at least for these low-performing readers.

The great majority of students in special education — those who do not have significant cognitive limitations — do not get the “specially designed instruction” and other services that laws mandate. They fall deeper in the academic hole. The valiant efforts of special education teachers are simply too little, too late.

In Maryland, based on national tests, less than 4 percent of all students in special education — including those with dyslexia — achieve proficiency in reading. Moreover, their academic ruin is compounded by the stigma and segregation that they experience in special education.

It’s scant consolation that this tragedy is nationwide. But it can be combated. As Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University and the nation’s leading expert on tutoring interventions, puts it: educators “have proven programs and practices that are known to be able to prevent school failure or successfully solve problems.”

Reforms would not only keep struggling learners from being misplaced in special education. They would also allow special education to focus more effectively on those students that it was intended to serve: students who are “truly disabled” mainly because of severe cognitive limitations.

So why, against all research and reason, don’t we right these wrongs? That’s a long story (told in my book “Mislabeled as Disabled” published this month). But the villains are not hard to guess. Foremost, they are us. We as a state and nation don’t provide sufficient resources to allow teachers to teach our children to read, especially poor children of color. The Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (the Kirwan Commission) has pointed us in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.

Until we get there, students who are “mislabeled as disabled” will continue to be victims of educational abuse. We should become enraged and then engaged in the effort to bring about reform.


Kalman R. Hettleman, a member of the Kirwan Commission, is the author of “Mislabeled as Disabled: The Educational Abuse of Struggling Learners and How WE Can Fight It,” published this month by Radius Book Group. He can be reached at