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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.

By Jay Mathews  | October 28, 2009; 10:00 PM ET
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Hi Jay...not sure you really explained to your readers what one year plus is, but be that as it may, this year, 80% of our Special Education Masters level interns at GW are working in inclusive settings where instruction is a delivered as a team of regular educator and special educators for students with special needs. One of the critical variables in the education of children with special needs is high expectations and team (not turn) teaching in regular classes which sets the bar higher, exposes the children to the standards that are required for all but the children with the most severe disabilities without losing sight of their specific IEP goals, and, in addition, gives them peer models to demonstrate the appropriate behavior that is prerequisite to maximum learning opportunities. More importantly it links the content expert (who has received targeted training in alternative pedagogy) with the process expert (who has specialized training in breaking down content) to provide a better learning environment for all students. This is one area where federal legislation (based on the involvement of the responsive parents that you mention in your article) has pushed several of our local school systems to rethink their service delivery models for children with special needs. We determined a long time ago that separate is not equal and both suburban and urban school systems are now getting a much firmer grip on what it means to give all students an appropriate education. It's not only the "plus", it's what you do with the "plus" that makes things work for both "special" and "plain" kids.

Posted by: jshotel | October 29, 2009 8:00 AM | Report abuse

The dedication of the people above sounds wonderful, and I am delighted to hear of an energetic 74-year-old modeling major involvement in an important issue for other older citizens who think they have little to offer society.

I am concerned that in the zeal to raise the bar and expectations for special needs
students, that some very real truths may be ignored, and one of those is the issue of emotional and/or intellectual maturation. Many of these students' bodies and intellects are out of sync with each other, and often delayed. The abstract thinking ability may not kick in until 2 or 3 years after that of his/her peers. Fine motor skills, gross motor skills, dyslexia, auditory processing difficulties, etc. etc. are all very real, and while you may compensate for them in many ways, a lot of it takes time; it's a tall order to ask that everyone graduate in lock-step just to speed things up gratify everyone's egos.
I'd like to see another aspect added to the "One Year Plus" - and it's not a new suggestion, but rather ignored - and that is to add a 13th (or even 14th) year for the students who just need a little more time for their intellects to catch up with their bodies. I've seen many 12th grade special needs students who would have made fine 10th grade students in a regular high school program. Another year or two might have given them a level playing field when actually starting college instead of being on the bottom rung or, more ominously, leave them vulnerable to becoming discouraged with adulthood and dropping out in one fashion or another.

13th years are not unknown, by the way;
I lived in Quebec or 3 years, and most of their high schools go to 13 years for everyone. They do have a different college system.

If anyone is interested in any further clarificatation on some of my spec. ed experiences, you can email me:

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 29, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

My thanks to jshotel for filling in details I lacked the space to provide.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 29, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

The poster who described the special skills needed from the "content-providing" teacher compared to the abilities of the "process expert" is right on the mark. Ideally, the later facilitates the "process" whereby the child learns the "content" taught by the former to the entire group of students. So called "team-teaching" has been put in place in Fairfax County, e.g., but there are wide variations in the way classes are managed. Rather than providing the "special" help needed by some students in the class, some special ed teachers take turns teaching the material to the whole group. Each teacher becomes part time, in essence. Other failures of this system may include-an absence of the technology supports needed by the student (these are often only provided in a special education classroom), a lack of team-supported teaching in classes required for graduation, but not considered "core classes", such as foreign languages, sciences, and social studies, and finally, a complete lack of these kinds of supports for students who are capable of taking challenging Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate and Honors courses, IF they get the help with their poor executive function skills.

The second poster makes an excellent point also. Emotional, physical, and intellectual maturity come when the child is ready. Schools are too quick to push these kids out the door one way or another, by graduating them before they are really ready or by ignoring their needs to the point where the kid acts out from frustration or anxiety, giving the school justification (in their eyes) to remove him permanently. My nineteen year old would thrive in tenth grade about now, after already failing a year of NOVA.

Posted by: Notyourmomma | October 30, 2009 6:45 PM | Report abuse

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