Improving Graduation and Employment Outcomes of Students with Disabilities: Predictive Factors and Student Perspectives
Benz, Michael R., Lindstrom, Lauren, Yovanoff, Paul, Exceptional Children
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Amendments of 1997 (Public Law 105-17) make clear that improved postschool outcomes are the driving force and focal point of a free appropriate public education for students with disabilities. The transition mandates contained in the 1997 IDEA Amendments strengthen existing transition concepts and mandates that have been in effect since IDEA was passed originally in 1990 by focusing attention on how students' entire high school programs can be planned to foster success in high school and in their transition to postschool employment, continuing education, and independent living.
The continuing national attention being directed at secondary and transition policies and practices is due in part to research documenting that students with disabilities lag far behind their peers without disabilities on school (e.g., graduation rates) and postschool (e.g., employment rates and postsecondary attendance) achievement indicators (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996). The percentage of youth with disabilities graduating with a high school diploma has remained constant at about 30% over the past 10 years (U.S. Department of Education [DOE], 1998). A study of school exit patterns in eight states documented that 51% of all youth with disabilities exiting school in the 1994/95 school year required alternative education services to complete their basic secondary education; 80% required further case management to achieve their employment, continuing education, and independent living goals (U.S. DOE, 1996).
What dimensions of students' secondary education experiences contribute to success in high school and improved postschool outcomes? Would the secondary and transition program components suggested by research as associated with better secondary and postsecondary outcomes actually produce improved outcomes for students with disabilities if they were implemented by schools? Would students who received such services find them to be helpful and meaningful? This article provides a partial answer to these questions using findings from two complementary studies of a transition program for youth with disabilities that we have been conducting over the past decade in schools across Oregon: The Youth Transition Program (YTP). The first study used logistic regression procedures to examine student and program factors that predicted participants' receipt of a standard high school diploma and placement in employment or continuing education upon exit from the program. The second study used focus group procedures to examine the program factors and staff characteristics identified by a statewide sample of former participants as most useful in helping them achieve their education and transition goals. To establish a context for this article we first (a) review briefly previous research on factors associated with secondary and postsecondary outcomes, and (b) describe the essential components of the YTP upon which the research presented in this article is based.
FACTORS ASSOCIATED WITH SECONDARY AND POST-SECONDARY OUTCOMES
Research suggests that the following programmatic factors contribute to better postsecondary employment and education outcomes for students with disabilities:
* Participation in vocational education classes during the last 2 years of high school, especially classes that offer occupationally-specific instruction;
* Participation in paid work experience in the community during the last 2 years of high school;
* Competence in functional academic (e.g., reading, math, writing, and problem-solving); community living (e.g., money management, community access); personal-social (e.g., getting along with others); vocational (e.g., career awareness, job search); and self-determination (e.g., self-advocacy, goal setting) skills;
* Participation in transition planning;
* Graduation from high school; and
* Absence of continuing instructional needs in functional academic, vocational, and personal-social areas after leaving school (e.g., Benz, Yovanoff, & Doren, 1997; Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Halpern, Yovanoff, Doren, & Benz, 1995; Heal & Rusch, 1995; McGrew, Bruininks, & Thurlow, 1992; Wagner, Blackorby, Cameto, & Newman, 1993; Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1997).
Several organizational factors also have been identified as associated with exemplary secondary and transition programs and better outcomes for students, including (a) the use of written interagency agreements between schools and adult agencies to structure the provision of collaborative transition services, and (b) the establishment of key positions funded jointly by schools and adult agencies such as vocational rehabilitation to deliver direct services to students in transition (e.g., Hasazi, Furney, & DeStefano, 1999; Kohler, 1993).
If students are to participate in and benefit from the instruction and services identified above they must be enticed to stay in and complete their secondary education. One of the more comprehensive examinations of the "holding power" of secondary programs was conducted by Wagner and her colleagues as part of the National Longitudinal Transition Study (Wagner, Blackorby, Cameto, & Newman, 1993; Wagner, Blackorby, & Hebbeler, 1993). Several student-related factors were negatively associated with school performance and completion, including (a) being identified as emotionally disturbed, (b) having a prior history of absenteeism or course failure, and (c) being 3 or more years behind grade level in reading and math. Several school-related factors were positively associated with school performance and completion rates, including (a) direct, individualized tutoring and support to complete homework assignments, attend class, and stay focused on school; (b) participation in vocational education classes, particularly during Grades 11 and 12; and (c) participation in community-based work experience programs, again especially ,during the last 2 years of high school.
Research on the relationships between dimensions of secondary education programs and school completion is supported by research examining students' perceptions of their secondary education programs. A majority of the high school students with learning and behavioral disabilities interviewed by Guterman (1995) said their placement in special education had not helped them academically, and they objected to what they viewed as the low-level, irrelevant, and duplicative (with regular education) instruction they received. At the same time, all the youth in this study acknowledged that they had not mastered basic academic skills and their placement in special education was warranted. Moreover, these youth did not want to be supported by special education staff in the general education classroom as that would draw attention to their academic difficulties. What these youth did want was instruction in a challenging and relevant curriculum that would prepare them for life after school. It did not matter to these youth where this instruction was delivered as long as it was meaningful and did not require a special education label to participate. Lack of relevancy of the high school curriculum appears repeatedly as a main reason given by students with and without disabilities for dropping out of school or for pursuing alternative education services (Kaufman, Klein, & Frase, 1999; Lange & Ysseldyke, 1998; Lichtenstein, 1993).
YOUTH TRANSITION PROGRAM
The YTP is a transition program for youth with disabilities operated collaboratively by the Oregon Department of Education, the Oregon Vocational Rehabilitation Division, the University of Oregon, and local schools statewide. The YTP began in seven schools in 1990 under the auspices of a federal grant. The program now operates in 80% of all high schools across the state and is funded annually through a combination of state and local funds from the participating education and rehabilitation agencies. For the past decade, our role at the University of Oregon has been to provide model development, training, technical assistance, and evaluation services to staff in local sites statewide. The research on promising practices reviewed above has provided the foundation and framework for the development and revision of YTP services over the past decade.
The YTP serves youth with disabilities who require support beyond the services typically available through a district's traditional general education, special education, and school-to-work programs to achieve their secondary and postsecondary employment and continuing education goals. Although youth participating in the YTP are representative of all secondary youth with disabilities with respect to primary disabling condition, students typically are referred to the program by school staff because of additional barriers to secondary completion and transition success (e.g., at risk of dropping out of school, limited or negative job experiences, teenage parenting responsibilities, unstable living situation).
The goal of the YTP is to improve participants' postschool outcomes and prepare them for meaningful competitive employment or career-related postsecondary training. Three key personnel provide direct services to students in each local community: (a) a certified special education teacher who serves as a Teacher-Coordinator, (b) one or more Transition Specialists (district classified positions) who work under the supervision of the Teacher-Coordinator, and (c) a Rehabilitation Counselor from the local Vocational Rehabilitation field office. These personnel work as a team with the student through all stages of the program. The Teacher-Coordinator and Transition Specialists operate as part of the districts' special education services. Typically they have offices in the high schools or alternative education settings in which they operate in order to collaborate with building staff, but the majority of their work with students occurs in the community.
The YTP provides services to students beginning during the last 2 years they are in high school and continuing, if needed, during the early transition years after leaving school. Through the YTP students receive (a) transition planning focused on postschool goals and self-determination, and help to coordinate school plans with relevant adult agencies; (b) instruction in academic, vocational, independent living, and personal-social content areas, and help to stay in school and obtain a completion document; (c) paid job training while in the program, and help to secure employment or enter postsecondary training upon leaving the program; and (d) follow-up support services for up to 2 years after leaving the program, provided on an as-needed basis, to help students negotiate the vagaries of the transition years more effectively and build on the successes they have already achieved.
The effectiveness and impact of the YTP has been assessed through an external evaluation conducted under the auspices of the U.S. DOE (Horne & Hubbard, 1995; Rogers, Hubbard, Charner, Fraser, & Horne, 1995). This evaluation included on-site visits to local YTP sites, interviews with key stakeholders, and review of data on program services and results including the methodological procedures used to collect and analyze findings. Highlights from this study documented that (a) 90% of YTP participants obtained a high school completion document; (b) 82% of participants were placed successfully in a competitive job, postsecondary training, or a combination of both at the point of program exit; and (c) rates of engagement in employment or education remained consistently above 80% for program completers during the first 2 years after leaving the program. Outcomes for YTP participants were educationally and statistically significant improvements over outcomes achieved by two comparison groups--a statewide sample of students who received special education services in Oregon but who were not in the YTP, and a statewide sample of transition-aged youth who received Vocational Rehabilitation services but who were not in the YTP.
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Publication information: Article title: Improving Graduation and Employment Outcomes of Students with Disabilities: Predictive Factors and Student Perspectives. Contributors: Benz, Michael R. - Author, Lindstrom, Lauren - Author, Yovanoff, Paul - Author. Journal title: Exceptional Children. Volume: 66. Issue: 4 Publication date: Summer 2000. Page number: 509. © 1999 Council for Exceptional Children. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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