Mislabeled as Disabled

Kenny is a 10th grader in the Baltimore City Public Schools. He is an African American from a disadvantaged neighborhood, attending a high school that requires high grades and test scores. He has good attendance, and has never had any behavior problems. A good kid, by all accounts but one.

Kenny reads at the kindergarten level.

Kenny has spent most of his time in school in special education. He received extensive and expensive services, following an Individual Education Program (IEP) made and updated over time just for him, tailored to his needs.

Yet despite all of this, he is still reading at the kindergarten level in 10th grade.

Kenny’s story starts off a remarkable book, Mislabeled as Disabled, by my friend Kalman (Buzzy) Hettleman. A lawyer by training, Hettleman has spent many years volunteering in Baltimore City schools to help children being considered for special education obtain the targeted assistance they need to either avoid special education or succeed in it. What he has seen, and describes in detail in his book, is nothing short of heartbreaking. In fact, it makes you furious. Here is a system designed to improve the lives of vulnerable children, spending vast amounts of money to enable talented and hard-working teachers to work with children. Yet the outcomes are appalling. It’s not just Kenny. Thousands of students in Baltimore, and in every other city and state, are failing. These are mostly children with specific learning disabilities or other mild, “high-incidence” categories. Or they are struggling readers not in special education who are not doing much better. Many of the students who are categorized as having mild disabilities are not disabled, and would have done at least as well with appropriate services in the regular classroom. Instead, what they get is an IEP. Such children are “mislabeled as disabled,” and obtain little benefit from the experience.

blog_4-4-19_BuzzyHettleman_500x333Buzzy has worked at many levels of this system. He was on the Baltimore school board for many years. He taught social work at the University of Maryland. He has been an activist, fighting relentlessly for the rights of struggling students (and at 84 years of age still is). Most recently, he has served on the Kirwan Commission, appointed to advise the state legislature on reform policies and new funding formulas for the state’s schools. Buzzy has seen it all, from every angle. His book is deeply perceptive and informed, and makes many recommendations for policy and practice. But his message is infuriating. What he documents is a misguided system that is obsessed with rules and policies but pays little attention to what actually works for struggling learners.

What most struggling readers need is proven, well-implemented programs in a Response to Intervention (RTI) framework. Mostly, this boils down to tutoring. Most struggling students can benefit enormously from one-to-small group tutoring by well-qualified teaching assistants (paraprofessionals), so tutoring need not be terribly expensive. Others may need certified teachers or one-to-one. Some struggling readers can succeed with well-implemented proven, strategies in the regular classroom (Tier 1). Those who do not succeed in Tier 1 should receive proven one-to-small group tutoring approaches (Tier 2). If that is not sufficient, a small number of students may need one-to-one tutoring, although research tells us that one-to-small group is almost as effective as one-to-one, and is a lot less expensive.

Tutoring is the missing dynamic in the special education system for struggling readers, whether or not they have IEPs. Yes, some districts do provide tutoring to struggling readers, and if the tutoring model they implement is proven in rigorous research it is generally effective. The problem is that there are few schools or districts that provide enough tutoring to enough struggling readers to move the needle.

Buzzy described a policy he devised with Baltimore’s then-superintendent, Andres Alonso. They called it “one year plus.” It was designed to ensure that all students with high-incidence disabilities, such as those with specific learning disabilities, must receive instruction sufficient to enable them to make one year’s progress or more every 12 months.  If students could do this, they would, over time, close the gap between their reading level and their grade level. This was a radical idea, and its implementation it fell far short. But the concept is exactly right. Students with mild disabilities, who are the majority of those with IEPs, can surely make such gains. In recent years, research has identified a variety of tutoring approaches that can ensure one year or more of progress in a year for most students with IEPs, at a cost a state like Maryland could surely afford.

            Mislabeled as Disabled is written about Buzzy’s personal experience in Baltimore. However, what he describes is happening in districts and states throughout the U.S., rich as well as poor. This dismal cycle can stop anywhere we choose to stop it. Buzzy Hettleman describes in plain, powerful language how this could happen, and most importantly, why it must.


Hettleman, K. R. (2019). Mislabeled as disabled. New York: Radius.

 This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Happy Birthday, IDEA

It’s hard for me to believe, but this year marks the 40th anniversary of Pub. L. 94-142, the forerunner of today’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). I was a special education teacher before IDEA, and I saw many of the positive changes that took place because of the law. I taught developmentally delayed children in Oregon, which was ahead of the curve in many ways and was starting to implement mainstreaming before 1975. I worked in a self-contained school, and the classes were slowly being moved out to other schools one by one. My kids were the lowest-performing in the self-contained school (a privilege for the new teacher), so we were going to be the last class to move. My principal took me to see the elementary school to which we were to be moved. It was totally inappropriate. The only source of water or toilet facilities was the boy’s bathroom down the hall, which had one of those old-fashioned fountains that you activated by stepping on a bar and getting a fine spray of water. I had diapers to change. I refused to go.

My principal was understanding. She and the whole rest of the staff left my building. They put the school phone in my classroom. It was actually kind of fun. I was 22 years old and was in charge of my own school. The irony is that then and now I’ve been a big advocate of mainstreaming, or integration, but I started my career fighting it.

In that long-ago school, I had many extraordinary experiences, but one in particular sticks with me. It makes me so angry and frustrated that to this day I cannot speak about it without choking up.

Because I was the only male teacher, I was assigned large, obstreperous kids. One of them was a 15-year old I’ll call Sam. Sam had spent his entire school career in my school. He was extremely difficult. If you asked him to do anything at all, he would fly into a rage, scratch, kick, and bite. Under the best of circumstances he would spit in all directions.

Because I was young and idealistic, I decided to go visit all of my kids at home, something no other teacher had ever done, to my knowledge. When I told my colleagues I was going to visit Sam and his mom, they took me aside and whispered to me, “Watch out. His mom is crazy. She thinks Sam can talk.”

I went to Sam’s house which was on a small farm. His mother was very nice, and she did not seem crazy at all. We chatted for a while, and then I casually mentioned that the staff at my school said that she thought Sam could talk. Could he?

Sam’s mom sighed. “Yes,” she said, “but I’ve long ago given up getting anyone at the school to listen.”

I asked what kinds of things he could say, and then asked what he liked. She told me that he loved music and asked for records all the time.

The very next day, I was ready. I had my aide watch the other kids, and I put on a record for Sam. Then I picked up the arm on the turntable. “Say ‘record,’” I said to Sam, “and I’ll put the music back on.”

Sam went completely wild. He tore his clothing. He tried to scratch and bite me. I got him in a gentle but secure hold on the floor where he could not hurt himself or me, and just held him struggling and making inarticulate groans and shrieks. We remained in that position for perhaps a half hour. Finally, Sam calmed down.

“Record,” he said.

Sam could talk.

From then on, I worked with Sam every day. I got audio tapes with current popular songs on them and used a few seconds of music to reinforce good behaviors. He learned, or really relearned, language skills at a great rate. Later, I realized that he needed to learn occupational skills so he could stay at home and work in a sheltered workshop that had moved into my school after all the kids left. I taught him to do what the sheltered workshop did, fold and stuff letters and other similar tasks. Sam became calm, well behaved, even loving. He stopped spitting.

So what is infuriating? Sam could always talk. I don’t want to blame my fellow teachers, who were some of the finest people I’ve ever worked with. But the fact is that Sam did not talk because no one was willing to do what was necessary to reach out to him, to ask him for his best.

The story of Sam haunts me as I advocate for evidence in education. Well-meaning people who love children, who have devoted their lives to children, all too often fail to ask for the best from children because they choose to ignore the evidence. It is a full-blown crisis when a child does not learn to read. There are numerous programs with strong evidence of effectiveness in preventing or remediating reading failure. When educational leaders choose not to seek out these programs or practices, they are failing to ask the best from children, or to give children the best chance to succeed. Why is this OK? When our leaders fail to fund research, innovation, and diffusion of proven programs, they are failing hundreds or thousands of children who could have succeeded with a program not yet invented because no one insisted that it be supported, evaluated, and disseminated if it worked. Why is this OK?

On this 40th anniversary of Pub. L. 94-142, I hope we can take a moment to reflect on what that extraordinary act was supposed to achieve. It was not just intended to guarantee services to children with disabilities, not just to serve them in the least restrictive environment, not just to see that they had IEPs. The idea was to help children achieve the maximum degree of success they could achieve. The idea was to ask for the best from every child, and to give whatever it takes to see that they do succeed. With the advent of evidence-based reform, and a rising number of proven solutions available for use with all sorts of children, it should become increasingly possible to demand more of ourselves as educators. If we know how to do better for children at risk, there is no excuse for not doing it.