Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

The Intersectionality of Postsecondary Pathways: The Case of High School Students with Special Education Needs

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

The Intersectionality of Postsecondary Pathways: The Case of High School Students with Special Education Needs

Article excerpt

THE EMPHASIS ON postsecondary education (PSE) as a pathway to economic security is not a new idea, but certainly one that is being stressed in the discourse around improving the life chances of individuals. Internationally? numerous scholars have examined how access to PSE is inextricably linked to various fixed characteristics of individuals, such as race, family socioeconomic background, and parental education, and as such, how these predefined characteristics function to perpetuate cycles of advantage and disadvantage. Access to PSE is understood to be a key marker in ensuring national economic competitiveness in a global sense, and also an indicator of equity within a given nation (Finnie and Pavlic 2013). (1)

Increasingly, attention is being focused on another marginalized group of students: students identified with special education needs (SEN). Data from the 2006 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey have revealed an increased number of youth who have been identified as demonstrating "learning limitations." They constitute 2.5 percent of the population aged 15 and older and represent a 40 percent increase in the number of adults identified as having learning disabilities since 2001 (Brennan 2009). Brennan (2009) also reports that being identified with a learning disability not surprisingly--affects education choices. Findings from Human Resources and Social Development Canada (2006) show many discrepancies in educational outcomes for those with and without disabilities. For example, in 2006 around 8 percent of individuals identified with disabilities had bachelor's degrees compared to nearly double that (15 percent) of people without disabilities. These findings are consistent with others from the United States and Canada, which report relatively small numbers of students with SEN transitioning to PSE (Ferguson 2008; Mackenzie 2009; McCloskey et al. 2011; Newman, Davies, and Marder 2003; OECD 2003; Pumfrey 2008; Shaw, Madaus, and Banerjee 2009).

With an augmented focus on increasing the numbers of youth accessing PSE--as illustrated in strategies such as in Ontario where provincial government targets have been set to 70 percent PSE attainment for all adults by 2020 (Ontario Ministry of Finance 2011)--understanding what helps and what hinders access to PSE for students with SEN has become an urgent priority. While a breadth of knowledge exists that focuses on the success of students with SEN, once they reach university and college (for a detailed review, see Boyko and Chaplin 2012), there is a dearth of literature on what factors enhance or hinder access to PSE for such students. This paper addresses this important gap in the literature. In this exploratory study, we ask what factors impact on PSE access for students identified with SEN and how do these compare to students without SEN? We will explore these questions using 2006 data on 17-year-old students in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).

Special Education Needs, the Life-Course Perspective, and Intersectionality

As a currently constructed parallel system within the realm of public education, the merits, purpose, and function of special education have been hotly debated (Mitchell 2010). The educational profiles of students identified with SEN have been well researched at the school level (K-12) and a growing number of studies have been conducted at the PSE level.

Students who are supported by special education services throughout their tenure in school may experience diminished opportunities to engage in both the school culture, their studies, or with their peers. The proportion of students taught within congregated (segregated) special education classrooms, where there is often a reduced curriculum and lack of access to peers and school participation (Mitchell 2010), varies dramatically across public boards in Ontario (Brown et al. 2013). Although not all students identified with SEN receive segregated support, the very distinction of difference can lead to increased experiences of exclusion. …

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