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Are Schools Making the Special Ed Grade?

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This week, we've thought a lot about special education. About mainstreaming and inclusion. About how schools and families struggle to fulfill the mandate of federal law: that all students must receive the best education possible, in the least restrictive setting possible. The pathways vary from student to student, school district to school district. It's hard to say this is right, that is wrong. But this IS school, in an era of standardized measurement, and accountability. Parallel to all the tests kids take is another set of measurements tracking how schools are doing. It's based on outcomes. How the clients did... the kids. Martha Foley spoke with Robert Shepherd, who's leading research into outcomes in New York State.

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MARTHA FOLEY: Basically, I want to know from you, if you can tell me this, how Special Ed is working for students in New York State. You know, what it looks like out there and what that says about how Special Ed is practiced. So, I want to start with how you are measuring outcomes.

ROBERT SHEPHERD: Well, we try to measure outcomes for students in education in a variety of ways. As a tax payer, a parent and an educator. High school education should result in the opportunity for kids to succeed once they get out of school. So it's more than test scores and a diploma. It's what are kids empowered to achieve once they leave school. Transition planning and services are supposed to target the education of students with disabilities from age about twelve or fourteen or sixteen on depending on who you're listening to. On based on what they want to do for living, learning and earning; what their life long goals are. And so the extent to the extent that kids are able to achieve those goals, you know, we're saying that transition planning and education were successful. So the New York State post-school indicator study supplements those things that are available under No Child Left Behind as far as graduation rates, test scores, participation and other factors such as that.

MARTHA FOLEY: So they're the more numbers side of this? Or..

ROBERT SHEPHERD: No, we are the numbers side. But No Child Left Behind looks at all kids. And requires that states and therefore districts look at sub-populations including kids with disabilities to insure that each group, everyone is able to succeed in the terms of participation and testing, achieving success on those tests and graduation. The post-school indicators study is zeroing in on to the extent to which are kids with disabilities succeeding in living, learning and earning. How do their experiences after high school in those areas compare with kids without disabilities? And to the extend that we can discern from the information that we gather what things can we do more of that encourage success.

MARTHA FOLEY: So who are you asking this?

ROBERT SHEPHERD: We interview students with disabilities as seniors and at one, three and five years out of high school. I want to digress for just a minute. What we've done is we've picked about one in four schools in New York State randomly and then recruited schools and then from those schools enrolled students. We have over thirteen thousand students enrolled between the two school years that we're looking at.

MARTHA FOLEY: So this is all of New York State you're looking at?

ROBERT SHEPHERD: Yes, all of New York State. And we interviewed students as seniors, at one year out of high school, at three years out of high school and we're now interviewing at fives out of high school. The senior's survey was a booklet that was administered at their school with as you talked about test modifications or combinations as was appropriate. And since then we primarily do phone interviews with youths.

MARTHA FOLEY: So you actually ask them the questions?

ROBERT SHEPHERD: We ask them the questions. And the questions range from are you working or going to post-secondary to, do you feel prepared for like reading a text book or technical manual at work and how satisfied they are with their lives.

MARTHA FOLEY: So, what does it look like?

ROBERT SHEPHERD: Well, I think in the broadest terms if we're talking about are kids succeeding what we look at first is what we call the living, learning and earning. You know, have students gone on to something productive and engaging you know, after they leave school. So for students with disabilities about eighty-three percent or eight out of ten are either going on to college or another type of life long learning, working or participating in habilitation, rehabilitation programs at one year out of high school.

MARTHA FOLEY: So they're sort of going, you're going back to what they said they thought they might do or want to do.

ROBERT SHEPHERD: That's another level. We're just are they engaged.

MARTHA FOLEY: Okay.    

ROBERT SHEPHERD: We find that fewer students that intend to go to work do and fewer students that intend to go to post-secondary do. But this is just..

MARTHA FOLEY: They're doing something

ROBERT SHEPHERD: At the time of the interview, are they doing something. So, as a community, or as a community member, as a researcher, you know, eighty-three, depending on the year and the group you know, eighty-three, eighty-five percent being quote successful is pretty good. There are those that have been left out. And if we look at how it compares to a General Ed group the students that the schools considered not to have disabilities, those are over ninety percent engaged, around ninety-five percent engaged in either post-secondary education or work. More students without disabilities are engaged and going to post-secondary education. About half as many kids with disabilities continue their education after high school. Post-secondary education is understood to be the gateway to good jobs, higher paying jobs and a career. So there is some concern or continued concern on how do we increase the numbers of kids that go on to post-secondary education.

MARTHA FOLEY: Succeeding in that way. Right.

ROBERT SHEPHERD: And not only go but succeed.

MARTHA FOLEY: Yeah. And you feel this is a, gives you a pretty honest picture of this sort of population you're looking at.

ROBERT SHEPHERD: Our study has been looking primarily at school completers - kids that graduate. In earlier studies we looked at both completers and drop-outs. We all know that the experience of kids who drop-out is much less successful than kids that complete. That is an area of great concern for the federal government and the state and law and regulation and there's a lot of focus on increasing school completion. But when you look at those who complete, I think we're doing okay.

MARTHA FOLEY:  Well, that was my next question. Are the schools doing what they're supposed to do? Are kids you know, benefiting? And you know, I'm also curious about how the federal and state interaction goes? I mean, I'm assuming that states have been. Well maybe I'm making a wrong assumption there. Do all states do this kind of outcomes study?

ROBERT SHEPHERD: Only about twenty-two states do follow-up studies of one kind or another. Under a federal law it is now required that all states will report student outcomes for students with disabilities at one year out of high school. And that's going to force more focus nationally on the issue of not only how was school while kids were in school but what actually happens to kids when they're out. As far as how well schools are doing, I think there's always going to be some range of opinion. There's going to be some acknowledged best practice that everyone should be doing. There's some minimum that no one should fall below. And there's always hot spots of excellence and you know, cold spots where schools can do better. I think as far as success goes, the responsibility is truly shared. You know, not only by the school but the community within which it exists. And obviously, the parent and the child have some responsibility as well. And to the extent that the community has a lets say your child's in a community with high unemployment.

MARTHA FOLEY: Um-hum.

ROBERT SHEPHERD: Is that something that the school can change?

MARTHA FOLEY: Right.

ROBERT SHEPHERD: And so you may have a child that's prepared to go to work but the reality is that they and such is Northern New York there's some areas with high unemployment. It makes those transitions that much harder.

MARTHA FOLEY: Is there one thing that you can say about what's still missing and that's not happening or that needs to be addressed at the schools? Or do you think, you know, I mean, you are in New York State which I'm assuming is sort of a leader in this field.

ROBERT SHEPHERD: New York State is seen as a leader in outcome studies and also seen in many places as a leader in transition planning and services as well. We have the advantage in New York State that the Special Ed Administration, and the State Ed government and the education. Sorry, the Special Ed and the Vocational Rehabilitation Administration is in the same place. And that helps with coordination and collaboration. I think what's necessary is that we all whether we're in school or a neighbor or a friend or a service provider, we need to help kids to dream a dream. And to test that dream as they're growing up and set some ambitions goals and understand what compensation strategies are necessary to fill the gap where the disability gets in the way. And to help everyone understand disability, as your series has helped to do. And first accept people as individuals and secondly as someone with a disability.

MARTHA FOLEY: Thank you very much. Robert Shepherd is at the Potsdam Institute of Applied Research and Evaluation. He's looking at outcomes of Special Ed across New York State and we'll have a lot more information including a lot of the numbers that I know you have and a lot of the methodology at our website, ncpr.org later this morning. Thank you.

ROBERT SHEPHERD: Thank you.

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