A new, if pushy, idea to improve special education
[This is my column for our new Local Living section, Oct. 29]
When I first returned to the Washington area in 1997 after two decades working elsewhere for the Post, I assumed that readers of my education stories would be most interested in standard suburban topics, such as college admissions, test scores and gifted education. Those issues had their place, but the subject that inspired the most mail proved to be special education.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Affluent, well-educated parents tend to have high expectations for their children and devote much time and energy to dealing with learning disabilities that get in the way of academic and personal success. The problem is, despite some of the best special education programs anywhere, Washington area schools have not raised the level of achievement for such children nearly as high as had been hoped.
Now, however, Buzzy Hettleman is on the case, and we might see some action. Kalman R. Hettleman, the name he gives on his résumé, doesn’t live here. He’s a Baltimore guy. He is also one of the great unsung heroes of school improvement and one of the most energetic people I have met. Whatever he does tends to reverberate beyond his home city, so get ready. He has an idea for raising the standards of special ed programs that will strike many experts as astonishingly unrealistic and doomed to defeat. But I think his notion has potential and wonder what savvy Washington area parents might think of it.
Buzzy’s name keeps popping up whenever I track the origins of education programs that have had significant impact on achievement. He essentially conned Johns Hopkins University scholars Robert Slavin and Nancy Madden into designing and implementing the research-proven Success For All reading program by making them think they were just giving him some ideas while he arranged funding for the project.
On the city school board, he voted to approve the application of the Knowledge Is Power Program, Baltimore’s most effective charter schools. His nonprofit group, Project RAISE, worked on reducing dropout rates. He loves operating under the radar, saying what he wants and leaving meetings when they get boring. But he has also taken on the drudgery of some big government jobs, not just school board member but executive assistant and education aide to two Baltimore mayors, director of the Baltimore CityÖ Department of Social Services and Maryland secretary of Human Resources.
Recently Buzzy, 74, has been acting as a pro bono lawyer representing special ed students trying to get more services from Baltimore’s public school system. He was on the school board that hired Andres Alonso, the school system’s chief executive, who gained knowledge about learning disabilities as a special education teacher in Newark for 11 years.
Buzzy loves teachers and has tried to figure out why dedicated special education instructors were so ineffective. In a 2004 report for the Abell Foundation, “The Road to Nowhere: The Illusion and Broken Promises of Special Education in the Baltimore City and Other Public School Systems,” he concluded that “educators have been slow to embrace the research that discredits low expectations for low-income, low-IQ children. Such low expectations offer elected officials a convenient excuse for fiscally shortchanging poor children who are politically disabled as well as learning disabled.”
Now he is working with Alonso to shake this up by going beyond the usual goal-making to be sure children with learning disabilities don’t fall further behind their grade level. He is instituting a “One Year Plus” plan that would help them reduce the gap between them and non-disabled kids. His lifetime in administrative politics convinces him this will put more pressure on policymakers to increase resources, such as training educators to recognize and apply the most effective instructional programs, which doesn’t happen in many districts. In Fairfax County, special education specialist Kim P. Dockery says this is happening, using techniques such as mandatory homework clubs during regular school hours.
This is what successful public schools have done for all students, raising the learning targets above the usual expectations of just one year’s academic progress for every year in class. It might work for students with learning disabilities, particularly if Buzzy is in the back room, making friends and convincing people they can do things they didn’t know they could do.
| October 28, 2009; 10:00 PM ET
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