Poor Instruction Puts Special Ed Students in Low Achievement Trap

Published December 1, 2004

The reporting requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) have revealed that disabled students lag far behind their peers in academic achievement, despite being promised an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and provided with additional educational resources to ensure they receive a “free and appropriate education.”

According to a new Abell Foundation study of special education students and services in the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS), the low achievement level of disabled students is caused by “deeply embedded practices” that are both “unlawful and inept.”

One particularly damaging practice is that the Baltimore public school administrators, IEP teams, and special education teachers fail to utilize research-based instructional practices to help disabled students make even minimum academic progress. Not only are instructional efforts based on low expectations, but instruction is often not individualized as required by IEPs. “Inclusion” is frequently viewed as an end in itself, and little effort is made to intervene if students fall behind.

These practices and more are detailed in the October 2004 report, “The Road to Nowhere: The Illusion and Broken Promises of Special Education in the Baltimore City and Other Public School Systems,” written by special education advocate Kalman R. Hettleman.

Two basic measures reported by Hettleman–graduation rate and dropout rate–underscore the ineffectiveness of special education services. The graduation rate for BCPSS special education students in the 2003-04 school year was just 37.5 percent, half of the overall state graduation rate of 78.4 percent. The dropout rate that year for BCPSS special education students in grades 9-12 was 14.2 percent, more than three times the overall state dropout rate of 4.1 percent.

Test scores show special education students lag far behind their peers. Based on the 2003-2004 Maryland School Assessments, the gap between BCPSS general and special education students averages more than 35 percentage points in reading and 29 percentage points in math. The gap has been widening in recent years.

“The longer the students receive special education services, the steeper their academic decline,” notes Hettleman. Low expectations, he adds, “are toxic self-fulfilling prophesies,” particularly for low-income and low-IQ students.

Low as they are, the test scores still are inflated because of accommodations for special education students, according to Hettleman. He describes how two fifth-grade students had a testing accommodation that allowed “verbatim reading of the entire test.” The teacher read the test passages aloud, even though this was a test of the reading ability of the student. In the official test score results, one of the children was reporting as reading at the eighth-grade level, the other at the fourth-grade level, though neither could read at anywhere near those levels.

“Despite several years of special education, elementary school children are reading about three grades below their age level and cognitive ability and falling farther behind,” writes Hettleman. “Stigma and frustration are causing these children to develop emotional and behavior problems that further impede their learning. Parents who try to fight the system are rebuffed and heartbroken.”

Based on his personal experiences as a pro-bono attorney for special education students in the Baltimore schools and his review of Baltimore special education practices, Hettleman’s major findings are:

  • IEP teams lack the training to apply research on the most effective instructional approaches for students with learning difficulties; consequently they “vastly underestimate the academic potential of such students.” The failure to design and deliver research-driven instruction violates both NCLB and IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
  • IEP teams do not in fact individualize IEPs with “specially designed instruction,” as mandated by IDEA. IEPs do not specify even the most basic elements of instruction, such as learning methods, teacher-student ratio, and teacher qualifications.
  • IEP teams violate IDEA and the district’s own guidelines by not monitoring student performance effectively and by not providing timely interventions when students fail to progress.

“The harm to children with disabilities caused by these practices can hardly be overstated,” writes Hettleman.

Hettleman contends schools conceal their failures by exaggerating student achievement and practicing social promotion. He offers very specific recommendations for fixing the IEP process. Some of his recommendations for BCPSS include:

  • Putting an end to the BCPSS “culture of denial and defensiveness about the lack of academic achievement of special education students” and committing to “transparent review and reform.”
  • Taking steps to educate BCPSS from top to bottom about research-based instruction–both for preventing referrals to special education in the first place, and for substantially improving the instruction students receive when they are referred to special education.
  • Setting proper goals and expectations for students in special education.
  • Training teachers in the use of instructional programs and practices that research has shown to improve student outcomes.
  • Reallocating resources to instruction from procedural compliance.
  • Designing demonstration projects for the development and implementation of adequate IEPs, and seeking outside funding for those projects.

Although Hettleman focuses on Baltimore’s troubles with special education practices, his recommendations for improvement are applicable to school districts across the United States. The problems he describes are not unique to Baltimore.

Lisa Snell ([email protected]) is director of the education program for the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles.

For more information …

The October 2004 report from the Abell Foundation, “The Road to Nowhere: The Illusion and Broken Promises of Special Education in the Baltimore City and Other Public School Systems,” by Kalman R. Hettleman, is available online at http://www.abell.org/pubsitems/ed_road_nowhere_10-04.pdf.