Current Challenges Facing the Future of Secondary Education and
Transition Services for Youth with Disabilities in the United States
This paper is intended to promote discussion among professionals,
policymakers, employers, parents, and individuals with disabilities
concerning current and future challenges facing secondary education
and transition services nationally. The issues identified and discussed
should not, however, be viewed as inclusive of the full range of
possible challenges needing to be addressed. This paper (a) presents
findings from research identifying key issues influencing the implementation
of federal legislation relating to transition services at state
and local levels; (b) examines the impact of national organizations,
government reports, policy groups, and the courts on secondary education
and transition services; and (c) presents the major challenges that
the Center must begin to address immediately. These challenges have
broad implications for special education and its relationship with
general education and community agencies and organizations responsible
for supporting youth with disabilities as they make the transition
from high school to postsecondary education, employment, and other
aspects of adult life.
Table of Contents
National Perspective on Secondary Education and
Transition for Youth with Disabilities
Since the mid-1980s, the U.S. Department of Education, Office
of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), has stressed
the importance of improving transition services nationally. The
federal government has assumed a key role in stimulating state and
local efforts to improve transition services through a variety of
policy, interagency, systems change, model demonstration, and research
efforts. Specific language on transition was included in the Individuals
with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (IDEA), and again in IDEA
Amendments of 1997 (IDEA ‘97). From this federal legislation,
regulations were established requiring state and local education
agencies specifically to address the school and postschool transition
service needs of students with disabilities. These needs are to
be met through coordinated planning among special educators, general
educators, community service agencies, parents, and students. Much
of the rationale for establishing these new provisions was based
on the recognition that many young adults with disabilities were
exiting high school unprepared for adult life. Follow-up studies
of former special education students conducted during the past two
decades have consistently documented the unsatisfactory outcomes
achieved by young adults with disabilities as they leave school
and attempt to access employment, postsecondary education programs,
and adult community services (DeStefano & Wagner, 1991; Halpern,
1990; Hasazi, Gordon, & Roe, 1985; Johnson, McGrew, Bloomberg,
Bruininks, & Lin, 1997a, 1997b; Wagner, 1993). Predominant themes
emerging from these and other studies include lower than desired
academic achievement levels; high dropout rates; substantial levels
of unemployment and underemployment; economic instability, dependence,
and social isolation; and low levels of participation in postsecondary
education and training programs.
For two decades, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)
has sponsored transition research, demonstration, and training initiatives
that have resulted in a knowledge base of promising approaches and
strategies for the delivery of transition services for students
with disabilities. Advances and innovations in interagency cooperation,
access to postsecondary education and training, supported employment,
transition planning, student and parental involvement in school
and postschool decision making, development of adult living skills,
and self-determination and self-advocacy, are all valued examples
of previous and current efforts. These varied approaches and strategies
serve as the foundation upon which state and local education agencies,
in partnership with community service agencies, parents, and students,
have based the development of their transition programs and services.
Emergent Policy Influences on the Provision of Secondary
Education and Transition Services
Since the mid-1980s, the efficacy of public education programs
has been challenged by policymakers, business leaders, professionals,
and the general public. Whether the impetus for reform comes from
a perception of “falling behind” our international counterparts
(as asserted in A Nation at Risk in 1983), “falling
short” of providing equitable opportunities to all U.S. children
(as in the 1988 report, The Forgotten Half), or not producing
youth prepared for the labor market (as in What Work Requires
of Schools, the 1991 report of the Secretary’s Commission
on Achieving Necessary Skills [SCANS]), the consensus seems to be
that there are serious things wrong with public education, that
the problems are systemic rather than programmatic, and that nothing
short of major structural change will fix these problems (Cobb &
Johnson, 1997; Thurlow & Johnson, 2000). While these concerns
initially focused on improving general education, there are now
efforts to closely align special education programs with emerging
general education reforms (e.g., Testing, Teaching and Learning,
Elmore & Rothman, 1999; Educating One and All, McDonnell,
McLaughlin, & Morison, 1997).
Special education programs have been influenced by several recent
federal education reforms, including the School-to-Work Opportunities
Act of 1994, Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994, the Improving
America’s Schools Act of 1994, the Workforce Investment Act
of 1998, and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, all of which
have promoted comprehensive strategies for improving public school
programs for all students, including those from diverse, multicultural
backgrounds and situations of poverty. These reforms stress high
academic and occupational standards; promote the use of state and
local standards-based accountability systems; point to the need
to improve teaching through comprehensive professional development
programs; and call for broad-based partnerships between schools,
employers, postsecondary institutions, parents, and others.
With the reauthorization of IDEA in 1997, significant new requirements
were put into place to ensure students greater access to the general
education curriculum and assessment systems. IDEA ‘97 also
expanded previous transition requirements by requiring that each
student’s individualized education program (IEP) include,
at age 14 or earlier, a statement of transition service needs focusing
on the student’s course of study (such as participation in
advanced-placement courses or vocational education programs). The
IEP must also include, beginning at age 16 or younger, a statement
of needed transition services and interagency responsibilities or
needed linkages. The current reauthorization of IDEA will continue
to support and strengthen these requirements.
The current challenge is to integrate and align these transition
requirements with other legislated requirements giving students
with disabilities greater access to the general education curriculum
and assessment systems. Several recent studies indicate that the
implementation of transition service requirements has been too slow,
with many states failing to achieve minimal levels of compliance
(Hasazi, Furney, & DeStefano, 1999; Johnson & Sharpe, 2000;
National Council on Disability, 2000). Areas of greatest noncompliance
include having appropriate participants in IEP meetings, providing
adequate notice of meetings, and providing a statement of needed
services in students’ IEPs. These problems have been complicated
further by state and local standards-based assessment systems that
either fail to include students with disabilities or provide inadequate
accommodations to support their participation.
Students with disabilities often have trouble meeting graduation
requirements, and concern is mounting about the relationship between
students’ academic experiences and the formulation of postschool
transition plans that address how students will access postsecondary
education, employment, and community living opportunities (Guy,
Shin, Lee, & Thurlow, 1999; Johnson, Sharpe, & Stodden,
2000; Johnson & Thurlow, 2003; Policy Information Clearinghouse,
1997; Stodden & Dowrick, 2000a, 2000b). Limited levels of service
coordination and collaboration among schools and community service
agencies create difficulties for students with disabilities as they
seek to achieve positive postschool results. Strategies are desperately
needed to help state and local education agencies and community
service agencies address transition service requirements as students
access the general curriculum and meet state standards and graduation
The next reauthorization of IDEA, set for 2003, is expected to
retain the current focus on high academic achievement and the inclusion
of students with disabilities in state and local standards-based
accountability systems. Further, discussions will continue to focus
on effective strategies and interventions that help students develop
other essential adult life skills through vocational education,
training, community participation, and other means. Federal policy,
research and demonstration, state and local initiatives, and other
developments since 1975 have focused considerable effort on improving
school and postschool results for youth with disabilities. This
results-based policy ideology will no doubt continue as a major
influence on both special education and general education throughout
the current decade.
The Role of Federal Legislation
Given the complexity and long-term nature of transition, it is
evident that families, schools, adult service providers, state agencies,
and postsecondary institutions cannot carry the entire burden of
fiscal, programmatic, and planning responsibility. Over the past
two decades, Congress has enacted a broad range of federal legislation
to make available an array of programs and services designed to
support young people with disabilities in their transition from
school to postsecondary education, employment, and community living.
The following briefly summarizes several of these major legislative
Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law
provides comprehensive services to all individuals with a disability,
regardless of the severity of the disability, and outlaws discrimination
against citizens with disabilities. Section 504 of this law specifically
prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of disability.
It also focuses on adults and youth transitioning into employment
settings. The act ensures the development and implementation of
a comprehensive and coordinated program of vocational assistance
for individuals with disabilities, thereby supporting independent
living and maximizing employability and integration into the community.
Technology-related Assistance for Individuals with
Disabilities Act of 1988. This law assists states
in developing comprehensive programs for technology-related assistance
and promotes the availability of technology to individuals with
disabilities and their families.
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
This landmark legislation guarantees equal opportunity and assures
civil rights for all individuals with disabilities. The law mandates
“reasonable accommodations” for individuals with disabilities
in areas including employment, access to public facilities, transportation,
telecommunications, and government services.
Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education
Act of 1990. This act requires states to ensure that
special population students have equal access to vocational education
and that localities ensure the full participation of these students
in programs that are approved, using Perkins money. States receiving
federal vocational education money must fund, develop, and carry
out activities and programs to eliminate gender bias, stereotyping,
and discrimination in vocational education. The act includes a wide
range of programs and services, including vocational education classes
and work-study for students in high schools, as well as access to
postsecondary technical education programs.
Goals 2000: Education America Act of 1994.
This law established a new framework for the federal government
to provide assistance to states for the reform of educational programs.
It encourages the establishment of high standards for all children,
including children with disabilities, and specifies eight national
education goals for all children.
Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA).
WIA creates a comprehensive job training system that consolidates
a variety of federally funded programs into a streamlined process
allowing individuals to easily access job training and employment
services. As outlined in Section 106 of WIA, states and localities
are required to develop and implement workforce investment systems
that fully include and accommodate the needs of individuals with
Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act
of 1999. This act makes it possible for individuals
with disabilities to join the workforce without fear of losing their
Medicare or Medicaid coverage. The legislation creates two new options
for states. First, it creates a new Medicaid buy-in demonstration
to help people whose disability is not yet so severe that they cannot
work. And, second, it extends Medicare coverage for an additional
four and one-half years for people in the disability insurance system
who return to work.
No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This
act redefines the federal role in K-12 education with the goal of
closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged and minority students
and their peers. It is based upon four basic principles: stronger
accountability for results, increased flexibility and control, expanded
options for parents, and an emphasis on teaching methods that have
been proven to work. The law specifically addresses the importance
of structuring implementation to include every child.
Recent Influences of National Organizations, Government
Reports, Policy Groups, and the Courts
Several recent reports, studies, and court decisions have been
released that affect current policies and practices concerning the
secondary education and transition of youth with disabilities. Highlights
of selected developments are presented here in an effort to further
examine how national groups, advocacy organizations, and the courts
are influencing, or attempting to influence, the transition of youth
National Council on Disability (NCD), Report on Disability
Policy. In a July 2003 report titled National
Disability Policy: A Progress Report (National Council on Disability,
2003), NCD offered a number of recommendations for action at the
local, state, and national levels. These recommendations underscore,
among other things, the need for appropriate accountability measures,
greater involvement of youth in the development and evaluation of
policy and program initiatives, clarification of policies aimed
at reducing work disincentives, seamless integration and clearer
policy guidance on regulations affecting youth with disabilities,
and the need to clarify financial responsibilities and cost sharing
expectations in a way that separates budgetary considerations from
decisions regarding the needs of the student.
General Accounting Office (GAO), Report on Special
Education. In July 2003, the General Accounting Office
issued a report titled Federal Actions can Assist States in
Improving Postsecondary Outcomes for Youth (General Accounting
Office, 2003). This report noted that high school completion patterns
of youth with disabilities have remained stable over recent years,
and that students with some types of disabilities were much less
likely than others to complete high school with a standard diploma,
instead receiving an alternative credential or dropping out. The
report also notes that a variety of transition problems, including
lack of vocational training and poor linkages between schools and
service providers, have been consistently reported by students,
parents, and others. The report’s recommendations include
expansion of the availability and use of data on the postsecondary
employment and education status of youth with disabilities, improved
feedback to states on improvement plans to address transition issues,
consistency in the quality of technical assistance to states, and
the development of strategies for using the federally mandated high
school transition planning process to provide youth and their families
with information about the full array of federally funded transition
OSEP Expert Strategy Panel on Secondary Education,
Transition and Employment. The Secondary Education,
Transition and Employment panel was one of five panels convened
by OSEP in 2000 to assist in the development of a long-range plan
for the IDEA, Part D, Discretionary Grants Program. The panel identified
five primary issues as critical to the improvement of secondary
education and transition services for students with disabilities.
These included: self-determination and self-advocacy, participation
in a rigorous and relevant education curriculum, enhancement of
service coordination and collaboration, improved accountability
for results and postsecondary outcomes, and engagement of practitioners
in rigorous professional development programs. The panel was also
charged with the responsibility of identifying critical gaps needing
to be bridged to achieve improved results for youth with disabilities.
Presidential Taskforce on the Employment of Adults
with Disabilities. In June 2000, a National Youth
Transition summit was sponsored by the Presidential Taskforce on
Employment of Adults with Disabilities Youth Subcommittee. The purpose
of the summit was to provide a forum for a multidisciplinary dialogue
on strategies for improving transition results for young people
with disabilities and their families. Highlights of recommendations
from the National Youth summit include: design and coordinate a
public awareness campaign to promote high expectations and successful
transition of young people with disabilities; design and implement
an interagency one-stop information center on transition; convene
a national institute of federal agencies to focus on the alignment
of resources, programs, and services needed to improve transition
outcomes; coordinate and implement research and conduct interagency
demonstration projects to promote “what works;” strengthen
the transition to postsecondary education environments; and establish
a Healthy and Ready-to-Work Interagency Council charged with ensuring
access to and use of health-care services by young people with special
Commission on Excellence in Special Education.
A report issued in July 2002 by the President’s Commission
on Excellence in Special Education, titled A New Era: Revitalizing
Special Education for Children and their Families, specifically
addressed school-to-work transition for youth with disabilities.
Recommendations outlined in this report include: simplify federal
transition requirements in IDEA; mandate federal interagency coordination
of resources; create a Rehabilitation Act Reauthorization advisory
committee; and support higher education faculty, administrators,
and auxiliary service providers to more effectively provide and
help students with disabilities to complete high-quality postsecondary
education programs. Also included within this report is a strong
emphasis on increased parental empowerment and school choice.
New Freedom Initiative. The Bush administration’s
New Freedom Initiative’s goals are to increase access to assistive
and universally designed technologies, expand educational opportunities,
promote home ownership, integrate Americans with disabilities into
the workforce, expand transportation options, and promote full access
to community life. This initiative specifically promotes full access
to community life through the implementation of the Olmstead Supreme
Court decision and Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement
Act of 1999.
Olmstead decision. In July 1999, the
Supreme Court issued the Olmstead v. L.C. decision. The court’s
decision in that case clearly challenged federal, state, and local
governments to develop more opportunities for individuals with disabilities
through more accessible systems of cost-effective community-based
services. The Olmstead decision ensures that youth with disabilities
who transition from school to adult life have increased opportunities
for independent living by providing for noninstitutional options
in care and services.
Influence of State Priorities and Goals.
In response to the call for improved transition services and secondary
education outcomes, the National Center on Secondary Education and
Transition (NCSET) hosted its first National Leadership Summit on
Improving Results for Youth in September, 2003. Approximately 250
people, representing 42 states and other entities, met in facilitated
dialogue sessions to develop state-level strategic action plans
that will build their capacity to improve outcomes for youth with
disabilities. Specifically, states worked to expand or complement
their current state improvement plans to address areas with significant
need for change and improvement. State teams were asked to identify
state priorities, goals, action steps and technical assistance needs
in relation to transition services and postschool outcomes. This
information was then analyzed to determine the critical challenges
to secondary education and transition evident across states and
regions, and potential technical assistance needs.
Three overarching themes – State Infrastructure, Programs
and Services, and Youth and Family, and ten priority content areas,
emerged from the data. The state priority content areas included:
state systems infrastructure; data design, collection and use; collaboration;
access to general education, standards and testing; postsecondary
access, enrollment and options; graduation and dropout rates; workforce
development and employment; person-centered and transition-driven
planning; and family education and involvement. These state-level
priorities are complex, persistent, and consistent with the current
national research on transition and secondary education. These priorities
illustrate the need to create more collaborative relationships at
the local, state, and federal levels for improved secondary education
and transition policies, practices, and systems; and point to the
importance of continued emphasis on aligning special programs with
broader education and workforce reforms so that all youth have the
opportunity to achieve successful academic, occupational, and social
outcomes. These priorities also revealed interest on the part of
state leaders about how best to report and use outcomes data to
improve services and programs. Moreover, the education and involvement
of youth and families in the transition planning process remains
a critical need. The issues identified continue to challenge NCSET
and other national technical assistance providers to work directly
with states in focusing on developing more effective results-driven
systems and enhanced research-to-practice efforts.
Challenge 1: Promote students’ self-determination and self-advocacy
Self-determination is a concept reflecting the belief that all
individuals have the right to direct their own lives. Students who
have self-determination skills are more likely to be successful
in making the transition to adulthood, including employment and
community independence (Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1997). Starting
with the 1990 IDEA legislation, transition services must be based
on students’ needs and take into account students’ interests
and preferences. To accomplish this goal, students must be prepared
to participate in planning for their future. IDEA ‘97 also
supported students’ participation in planning for their future
by requiring that all special education students age 14 and older
be invited to their IEP meetings when transition goals are to be
discussed. OSEP has played a major role in advancing a wide range
of self-determination strategies through sponsored research and
Research indicates that many students are attending their IEP
meetings (Hasazi, et al., 1999; Johnson & Sharpe, 2000). There
remain, however, a significant number who are not involved. This
raises questions as to whether these students are not being extended
opportunities for involvement, or are simply choosing not to attend.
Questions must also be raised as to how well prepared these young
people are to participate in, and ultimately lead, discussions concerning
their goals. Effective student participation in the IEP process
requires more than attendance. It requires that students have the
skills to move their lives in the directions they themselves choose,
and have the support of their school, family, and the adult service
system in accomplishing their goals. Practices that empower youth
to play a meaningful role in the IEP process, and ultimately direct
their IEP meetings, need to be implemented more consistently and
systematically in schools throughout the country. Parents, educators,
and researchers agree on the need to promote self-determination,
self-advocacy, and student-centered planning. Self-determination,
the combination of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable a
person to engage in goal-directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior,
has become an important part of special education and related services
provided to individuals with disabilities (Abery & Stancliffe,
1996). Self-determination skills include self-advocacy, social skills,
organizational skills, community and peer connection, communication,
conflict resolution, career skill building, career development and
computer/technological competency (Martin & Marshall, 1996;
Wehmeyer, Kelchner, & Richards, 1996). Research has found that
helping students acquire and exercise self-determination skills
is a strategy that leads to more positive educational outcomes.
For example, Wehmeyer and Schwartz (1997) found that one year after
graduation, students with learning disabilities who received self-determination
training were more likely to achieve positive adult outcomes, including
being employed at a higher rate and earning more per hour, when
compared to peers who were not self-determined. A common element
of many exemplary self-determination programs is the presence of
an individual with a philosophy, and the accompanying motivation,
to see self-determination practices implemented or enhanced in his
or her school or district. Exemplary self-determination programs
also have strong administrative support encouraging the implementation
of self-determination programs in schools. Without administrative
support, student self-determination programs are often limited to
individual classrooms and teachers who are dedicated to doing whatever
they can to further their students’ self-determination, despite
limited resources and inadequate administrative commitment (Wood
& Test, 2001).
Educators, parents, and students consistently recommend that self-determination
instruction begin early, well before high school. This recommendation
is consistent with published recommendations for self-determination
instruction (Wood & Test, 2001). Natural opportunities for making
choices occur throughout life, and increased opportunities to express
preferences and choices, beginning in early childhood, can heighten
an individual’s sense of self-esteem and self-direction.
Izzo and Lamb (2002) suggested that schools seeking to encourage
self-determination and positive postschool outcomes for students
with disabilities should (a) empower parents as partners in promoting
self-determination and career development skills; (b) facilitate
student-centered IEP meetings and self-directed learning models;
(c) increase students’ awareness of their disability and needed
accommodations; (d) offer credit-bearing classes in self-determination
and careers; (e) teach and reinforce students’ internal locus
of control; (f) develop self-advocacy skills and support student
application of these skills; (g) infuse self-determination and career
development skills in the general education curriculum; and (h)
develop and implement work-based learning programs for all students.
Recommendations Regarding Challenge 1
- Provide opportunities for decision-making starting in early
childhood, and encourage their children to express their preferences
and make informed choices throughout life.
- Begin self-determination instruction early in the elementary
- Intensify teaching of specific self-determination skills during
- Support students’ development and use of self-advocacy
skills, and teach students to develop an internal locus of control.
- Make work-based learning, self-directed learning, and career
exploration opportunities available to all students.
- Incorporate self-determination and career development skills
in the general education curriculum.
- Promote and support student-centered and student-run IEP meetings.
Challenge 2: Ensure students have access to the general education
To prosper and gain the knowledge and skills needed for success
in a variety of settings, students with disabilities must have more
than mere access to school buildings and placement in the least
restrictive environment; they must have access to educational curriculum
and instruction designed to prepare them for life in the 21st century.
This assumption was the basis, in part, for the requirements in
IDEA ‘97 stipulating that states must provide students with
disabilities access to the general education curriculum, including
the identification of performance goals and indicators for these
students; definition of how access to the general curriculum is
provided; participation in general or alternate assessments; and
public reporting of assessment results. All of these requirements
are embedded within a context of standards-based education, in which
standards for what students should know and be able to do are defined
at the state level, appropriate standards-based education is provided,
and success in meeting expectations is measured through large-scale
The need for the access requirements in IDEA ‘97 was supported
by research demonstrating (a) a lack of educational success (or
a lack of any information about educational success) for many students
with disabilities (e.g., McGrew, Thurlow, & Spiegel, 1993; Shriner,
Gilman, Thurlow, & Ysseldyke, 1994/95), and (b) the all too
common provision of an inappropriately watered-down curriculum (Gersten,
1998), or a curriculum undifferentiated for students with disabilities
(McIntosh, Vaughn, Schumm, Haager, & Lee, 1993). According to
Nolet and McLaughlin (2000), “the 1997 reauthorization is
intended to ensure that students with disabilities have access to
challenging curriculum and that their educational programs are based
on high expectations that acknowledge each student’s potential
and ultimate contribution to society” (p. 2). Within the educational
context of the late 1990s and early 2000s, this means that all students
with disabilities, regardless of the nature of their disability,
need to have access to standards-based education.
All states (or districts within states) have become engaged in
the work of identifying content standards and setting performance
standards for what students should know and be able to do (American
Federation of Teachers, 2000). While these standards-setting efforts
may not have initially considered students with disabilities (Thurlow,
Ysseldyke, Gutman, & Geenen, 1998), as time has passed many
states have reconsidered their standards in this light. This reconsideration
occurred, if for no other reason, because the IDEA assessment requirements
indicated that states would need to develop alternate assessments
for those students who could not participate in general assessments.
The alternate assessments, like the general assessments, were to
be aligned to the state’s standards, a requirement reinforced
by the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education
Act, known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
The IDEA requirements for inclusion of students with disabilities
in assessments and access to the general curriculum have been reinforced
strongly by NCLB, which requires that students with disabilities
participate not only in assessments, but also in accountability
systems. The purpose of these requirements is to ensure that schools
are held accountable for these students’ access to the general
curriculum, higher expectations, and improved learning. Requirements
for students with disabilities to be included in state accountability
systems, and for measuring whether schools have achieved adequate
yearly progress (AYP), have heightened the importance of access
to the general curriculum for all students with disabilities.
Providing meaningful access to the general curriculum requires
a multifaceted approach. Appropriate instructional accommodations
constitute one piece of this picture (Elliott & Thurlow, 2000).
Other elements include the specification of curriculum domains,
time allocation, and decisions about what to include or exclude
(Nolet & McLaughlin, 2000). The process of specifying the curriculum
in a subject matter domain requires cataloging the various types
of information included in the domain (facts, concepts, principles,
and procedures) and setting priorities with respect to outcomes.
Allocation of time for instruction should be based on the priorities
that have been established. Decisions about what to include or exclude
in curriculum should allow for adequate breadth (or scope) of coverage,
while maintaining enough depth to assure that students are learning
the material. Universal design is another means of ensuring access
to the general curriculum (Orkwis & McLane, 1998). When applied
to assessment, Universal design can help ensure that tests are usable
by the largest number of students possible (Thompson, Johnstone,
& Thurlow, 2002).
Research indicates that a variety of instructional approaches can
be used to increase access to the general curriculum and standards-based
instruction (Kame’enui & Carnine, 1998). Approaches such
as differentiated instruction (Tomlinson, 1999), strategy instruction
(Deshler, et al., 2001), textbook organization (Crawford & Carnine,
2000; Harniss, Dickson, Kinder, & Hollenbeck, 2001), and technology
use (Rose & Meyer, 2000), are showing that access to the curriculum
can be substantially improved, with positive outcomes for students
Recommendations Regarding Challenge 2
- Use universal design to make classrooms, curriculum, and assessments
usable by the largest number of students possible without the
need for additional accommodations or modifications.
- Provide appropriate instructional accommodations for students.
- Provide instructional modifications only when necessary.
- Clearly specify the subject matter domain (facts, concepts,
principles, and procedures) and scope of the curriculum.
- Set priorities for outcomes, and allocate instructional time
based on these priorities.
- Use instructional approaches that have been shown to promote
positive outcomes for students with disabilities.
Challenge 3: Increase the school completion rates of students with
Dropping out of school is one of the most serious and pervasive
problems facing special education programs nationally. The National
Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS) found that approximately 36%
exited school by dropping out. The NLTS data also revealed that
risk factors such as ethnicity and family income are related to
dropout rates, and that some groups of special education students
are more apt to drop out than others. Of youth with disabilities
who do not complete school, the highest proportions are students
with learning disabilities (32%), and students with emotional/behavioral
disabilities (50%) (Wagner, et al., 1991).
National data indicate that there has been some improvement in
the overall graduation rate of students with disabilities in the
United States. Between the 1995-96 and 1999-2000 school years, the
percentage of youth with disabilities graduating with regular diplomas,
as reported by states, grew from 52.6% to 56.2%. During the same
period, the percentage of students with disabilities reported as
having dropped out of school declined from 34.1% to 29.4% (U.S.
Department of Education, 2002). While these data are encouraging,
the dropout rate for students with disabilities still remains twice
that of students without disabilities.
Concern about the dropout problem is increasing because of state
and local special education agencies’ experiences with high-stakes
accountability in the context of standards-based reform (Thurlow,
Sinclair, & Johnson, 2002). State and local school districts
have identified what students should know and be able to do, and
have implemented assessments to ensure that students have attained
the identified knowledge and skills. Large numbers of students,
however, are not faring well on these assessments. For youth with
disabilities, several factors beyond academic achievement affect
their performance on these tests, including accurate identification
of the disability, provision of needed accommodations, and educational
supports that make learning possible regardless of disability-related
factors. The provision of accommodations is of particular importance
in helping to ensure students’ success within state standards
and reform initiatives.
NCLB is having a significant impact on states. Under the Title
I requirements of NCLB, schools will be held accountable for student
progress, using indicators of AYP. These indicators include measures
of academic performance and rates of school completion. Schools
will be identified as needing improvement if their overall performance
does not increase on a yearly basis, or if any of a number of sub-groups
does not meet specified criteria. Students with disabilities are
identified as one of the sub-groups whose performance will count
towards assessment of AYP. If these students do not perform well,
questions must be raised as to what incentives schools have to focus
effort and resources on these youth. Given the pressures, it is
possible that schools and educators within them may encourage special
education students to seek alternative programs and leave their
buildings, effectively causing many to drop out of school. High-stakes
tests add to the pressure on students, because they determine whether
students are promoted from one grade to the next, or graduate from
high school with a standard diploma (Thurlow & Johnson, 2000).
Students who experience failure or who see little chance of passing
these tests may decide to leave school, because they fear they will
be held back, or because they expect they will not graduate with
a standard diploma or acceptable alternative credential. Accountability
without the necessary opportunities and support for students with
disabilities may increase the rate at which they drop out of school
and fail to graduate. Dropout trends associated with these and other
factors should be systematically evaluated and documented over the
next several years.
Overall, Americans recognize that the nation can no longer afford
to have students drop out of school. Youth who drop out generally
experience negative outcomes, which may include unemployment, underemployment,
incarceration, and other difficulties. School dropouts, for example,
report unemployment rates as much as 40% higher than youth who have
completed school. Arrest rates are alarmingly high for youth with
disabilities who drop out of school: 73% for students with emotional/behavioral
disabilities and 62% for students with learning disabilities. More
than 80% of incarcerated individuals are high-school dropouts (Office
of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1995). The social
and economic costs of incarceration have been well documented and
affect every level of society. Further, because postsecondary education
is increasingly important to the pursuit of careers offering a livable
wage, students who drop out of school have significantly diminished
In the United States, dropout prevention programs have been implemented
and evaluated for decades, but the empirical base of well-researched
programs is scant, and well-done evaluations of dropout prevention
programs specifically targeted towards students with disabilities
are extremely rare. Perhaps the best-researched program at the secondary
level for students with disabilities at risk of dropping out is
the Check & Connect program (Sinclair, Christenson,
Evelo, & Hurley, 1999; Christenson, 2002). Using randomized
assignment to experimental and control groups, these researchers
found significant positive results for their program. Check
& Connect includes the following core elements: (a) a monitor/advocate
who builds a trusting relationship with the student, monitors the
student on risk indicators, and helps problem-solve difficult issues
between the student and the school; (b) promotion of student engagement
with the school; (c) flexibility on the part of school administrative
personnel regarding staffing patterns and use of punitive disciplinary
practices; and (d) relevancy of the high school curriculum to students.
The empirical literature on dropout prevention programs for at-risk
students (including, but not limited to, students with disabilities)
is somewhat broader but still lacking in high-quality research designs.
Lehr, Hansen, Sinclair, & Christenson (2002) recently completed
a meta-analysis of dropout studies published between 1980 and 2001;
45 research studies were included in the final integrative review.
Of these, less than 20% employed randomized assignment procedures,
and not a single study was a true experiment. Nonetheless, their
findings were quite consistent with well-researched components of
the Check & Connect model, and were also consistent
with a number of other empirical sources of information. Two common
components of successful secondary dropout prevention programs are
work-based learning and personal development/self-esteem building
(Farrell, 1990; Orr, 1987; Smink, 2002). Equally important, however,
as pointed out by Lehr et al., is tailoring or contextualizing these
and other intervention components to the particular school environment.
Finally, early intervention also appears to be a powerful component
in a school district’s array of dropout prevention services.
In an experimental study involving longitudinal data collection
for 22 years, Schweinhart and Welkart (1998) documented impressive
outcomes of their High/Scope Perry preschool study of three- and
four-year-olds who were at risk of school failure.
Recommendations Regarding Challenge 3
- Develop methods and procedures to identify, document, and widely
disseminate research-based information on best practices in dropout
prevention and intervention.
- Determine the incentives and methods needed to fully implement
evidence-based models, practices, and strategies within state
and local school district programs.
- Conduct research to demonstrate and validate new dropout prevention
and intervention strategies that work with high-risk groups of
students, such as students with emotional/behavioral disabilities,
minority students, and students living in poverty.
- Investigate and share information about the impact of new accountability
forces (e.g., high-stakes testing, more stringent graduation requirements,
and varied diploma options) on the exit status and school completion
of youth with disabilities.
- Build on newly-funded longitudinal studies (e.g., National Longitudinal
Transition Study-2 and Special Education Elementary Longitudinal
Study) to examine how students’ engagement with school,
along with critical contextual variables of home, school, community,
and peers, relate to dropout and graduation outcomes.
Challenge 4: Make high school graduation decisions based on meaningful
indicators of students’ learning and skills and clarify the
implications of different diploma options for students with disabilities
Requirements that states set for graduation can include completing
Carnegie Unit requirements (a certain number of class credits earned
in specific areas), successfully passing a competency test, passing
high school exit exams, and/or a series of benchmark exams (Guy,
et al., 1999; Johnson & Thurlow, 2003; Thurlow, Ysseldyke, &
Anderson, 1995). Currently, 27 states have opted to require that
students pass state and/or local exit exams to receive a standard
high school diploma (Johnson & Thurlow, 2003). This practice
has been increasing since the mid-1990s (Guy, et al., 1999; Thurlow,
et al., 1995). States may also require any combination of these.
Diversity in graduation requirements is complicated further by an
increasingly diverse set of possible diploma options. In addition
to the standard high school diploma, options now include special
education diplomas, certificates of completion, occupational diplomas,
Many states have gone to great lengths to improve the proportion
of students with disabilities passing state exit exams and meeting
other requirements for graduation. Strategies have included grade-level
retention, specialized tutoring and instruction during the school
day and after school, and weekend or summer tutoring programs. While
these may be viewed as appropriate interventions and strategies,
there is little research evidence to suggest that this is the case.
Persuasive evidence indicates, for example, that repeating a grade
does not improve the overall achievement of students with disabilities
(Allington & McGill-Franzen, 1992; Holmes, 1989).
The implications of state graduation requirements must be thoroughly
understood, considering the potential negative outcomes students
experience when they fail to meet state standards for graduation.
The availability of alternative diploma options can have a considerable
impact on graduation rates. However, the ramifications of receiving
different types of diplomas need to be considered. A student who
receives a non-standard diploma may find their access to postsecondary
education or jobs is limited. However, it is important for parents
and educators to know that if a student graduates from high school
with a standard high school diploma, the student is no longer entitled
to special education services unless a state or district has a policy
about continued services under such circumstances. Most states do
not have such policies.
Recommendations Regarding Challenge 4
- Promote the use of alternate assessments, including authentic
or performance-based assessments, portfolios, and other documentation,
to support graduation decisions.
- Clarify the implications of state graduation requirements and
the appropriate use of alternative diploma options for students
with disabilities. Consider the potential impact of alternative
diplomas on a student’s future access to postsecondary education
and employment opportunities. State and local education agencies
should thoroughly discuss the meaning of these alternative diplomas
with postsecondary education program representatives and employers.
- Clarify the implications of different diploma options for continued
special education services. Special education and general education
teachers should carefully work with students and families to consider
the ramifications of receiving a high school diploma. In some
cases, it may be advisable to delay formal receipt of a standard
high school diploma until the conditions (goals and objectives)
of the student’s IEP have been fully met, including all
transition service requirements as outlined in IDEA ‘97.
Challenge 5: Ensure students access to and full participation in
postsecondary education and employment
Young adults with disabilities continue to face significant difficulties
in securing jobs, accessing postsecondary education, living independently,
fully participating in their communities, and accessing necessary
community services such as healthcare and transportation. It is
well understood that preparation for the transition from high school
to postsecondary education, employment, and independent living must
begin early, or at least by age 14. It is at this age that students’
IEP teams must engage in discussions regarding the types of course
work students will need, at a minimum, to be able to enroll in postsecondary
education programs, the types of learning options and experiences
students will need to develop basic work skills for employment,
and the skills needed for independent living.
As a result of ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973,
and other federal legislation, awareness has grown regarding accessibility
issues faced by youth with disabilities seeking postsecondary education,
life-long learning, and employment (Benz, Doren & Yovanoff,
1998; Stodden, 1998; Johnson, Stodden, Emanuel, Luecking, &
Mack, 2002). The number of youth in postsecondary schools reporting
a disability has increased dramatically, climbing from 2.6% in 1978,
to 9.2% in 1994, to nearly 19% in 1996 (Blackorby & Wagner,
1996; Gajar, 1992, 1998; Wagner & Blackorby, 1996). While this
increase is encouraging, and while many colleges have increased
their efforts to serve students with disabilities (Pierangelo &
Crane, 1997), enrollment of people with disabilities in postsecondary
education programs is still 50% lower than it is for the general
population. Gaps seen in postsecondary enrollment persist into adult
employment (Benz et al., 1998; Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Gilson,
1996), and are greater when comparing those with less educational
attainment. Only 15.6% of persons with disabilities who have less
than a high school diploma participate in today’s labor force;
the rate doubles to 30.2% for those who have completed high school,
triples to 45.1% for those with some postsecondary education, and
climbs to 50.3% for disabled persons with at least four years of
college (Yelin & Katz, 1994).
The National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational
Supports (NCSPES) at the University of Hawaii has conducted an extensive
program of research focused upon the access, participation, and
success of youth with disabilities in postsecondary education and
subsequent employment. NCSPES has studied these issues within four
areas of intervention:
- The process and content of preparation received by students
with disabilities in high school under IDEA. Findings indicate
that students need to understand themselves and their disability
in relation to needed services and supports, and be able to describe
their needs and advocate for themselves in various postschool
educational and employment settings (Izzo & Lamb, 2002; National
Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports, 2000b;
Stodden & Conway, in press; Stodden, Jones, & Chang, 2002).
- The manner in which services and supports, including the
use of technology, are made available and provided to students
with disabilities in postsecondary programs. Findings indicate
the need for a minimal standard of postsecondary support provision
and new models of support provision that are personally responsive,
flexible, and individualized, as well as coordinated with instruction
and integrated with the overall support needs of the student (Burgstahler,
2002; National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational
Supports, 2000a; Stodden & Dowrick, 2000a, Stodden & Conway,
- The coordination and management of educational supports
and services with the many other services and supports required
by most students with disabilities in postsecondary education.
Most students with disabilities have a range of health, human
service, transportation, and fiscal needs beyond the educational
supports typically provided in postsecondary programs. A significant
number of students with disabilities in postsecondary education
require either assistance with case management or the skills,
knowledge, and time to manage their own services and supports
(National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports,
2000b; Stodden & Dowrick, 2000b; Stodden, et al., 2002).
- Transition or transfer of educational supports from postsecondary
settings to subsequent employment settings. Many students
with disabilities completing postsecondary education have difficulty
finding subsequent employment in the profession for which they
have prepared. Few postsecondary institutions facilitate or provide
assistance with the transfer of supports to the workplace (National
Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports, 2000b;
Estimates of the employment rate of persons with disabilities
vary, depending upon factors such as the method of data collection
used, and the definition of disability. Data from the Bureau of
Labor Statistics (BLS) indicate that in 2002, an estimated 30.9
percent of civilian non-institutionalized people with a disability
in the United States, age 18-24, were employed, compared to 84.7
percent of those without a disability (Houtenville, 2003). This
statistic indicates that many adults with disabilities face significant
barriers to participation in the workforce. The BLS estimate is
based on the Current Population Survey (CPS), which is a monthly
survey conducted by the Bureau of the Census. For purposes of the
CPS, persons with a disability are those who have a health problem
or disability that prevents them from working or limits the kind
or amount of work they can do.
Another pressing challenge is the participation of youth with disabilities
in state and local work force development initiatives, such as the
Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998. WIA services for youth include:
(1) establishment of local youth councils, (2) Youth Opportunity
Grants that promote employment and training, (3) comprehensive career
development services based on individualized assessment and planning,
(4) youth connections and access to the One-Stop career center system,
and (5) performance accountability focused on employment. Participation
in WIA programs offers expanded opportunities for community-based
work experiences and access to employment training services and
career supports (Luecking & Crane, 2002). It is critically important
to ensure that initiatives such as WIA’s youth employment
programs are fully accessible to individuals with disabilities as
they pursue postsecondary education and employment opportunities.
WIA programs, by design, further promote cross-agency approaches
to serving youth, leading to strong coordination and collaboration
Recommendations Regarding Challenge 5
- Ensure that prior to each student’s graduation from high
school, the student’s IEP team identifies and engages the
responsible agencies, resources, and accommodations required for
the student to successfully achieve positive postschool outcomes.
- Promote the value of preparation for and participation in postsecondary
education. All agencies must recognize the value of postsecondary
education and lifelong learning in securing, maintaining and advancing
- Identify the specific types and levels of accommodations and
supports a student will need to participate in postschool environments.
- Ensure that community service agencies participate systematically
in the development of postschool transition plans. Strategies
to consider include formalizing agency responsibilities through
interagency agreements or memorandums of understanding, and formalizing
follow-up procedures and actions when agencies are unable to attend
transition planning meetings.
- Engage in integrated service planning. IEPs should be coordinated
and aligned with the individualized service plans required under
other federal and state programs (Title I of the Rehabilitation
Act of 1973, Title XIX of the Social Security Act [Medicaid],
Title XVI of the Social Security Act [Supplemental Security Income],
and other federal programs).
- Provide information to parents on essential health and income
maintenance programs. Information on the Supplemental Security
Income SSI program, including information on basic program eligibility,
benefit redeterminations for 18-year-olds, appeals processes,
and use of SSI work incentives in promoting employment outcomes
should be readily accessible to professionals, parents, and students
with disabilities. Special education personnel should play a major
role in making such information available and assisting parents
and students in accessing needed benefits.
- Promote collaborative employer engagement. Increased secondary
and postsecondary work-based learning opportunities, and ultimately
jobs, are predicated on available and willing employers. Vehicles
are needed, such as intermediary linking entities, to convene
and connect schools, service agencies and employers so as to maximize
the important learning opportunities that workplaces represent.
Given the multiple youth initiatives that typically exist in communities,
it is expedient to engage employers through collaborative efforts
that minimize the distinctions among categories of youth.
- Establish partnerships with workforce development entities.
Participation of youth and young adults with disabilities, family
members, and special education and rehabilitation professionals
in and access to state and local workforce development initiatives
should be promoted.
Challenge 6: Increase informed parent participation and involvement
in education planning, life planning, and decision-making
Research has shown that parent participation and leadership in
transition planning play an important role in assuring successful
transitions for youth with disabilities (DeStefano, Heck, Hasazi,
& Furney, 1999; Furney, Hasazi, & DeStefano, 1997; Hasazi,
et al., 1999; Kohler, 1993; Taymans, Corbey, & Dodge, 1995).
Much of the discussion in the research literature centers on the
role of parents as participants in the development of their child’s
IEP. IDEA ‘97 requires that state and local education agencies
notify parents and encourage their participation when the purpose
of a planned meeting is the consideration of transition services.
Beyond the IEP process, family training and family involvement in
program design, planning, and implementation are significant factors
leading to positive youth outcomes (Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak,
& Hawkins, 1998).
In addition, the Rehabilitation Act specifically cites the value
of family and other natural supports as a fundamental principle
shaping vocational rehabilitation policy. Recent amendments to the
Rehabilitation Act give greater emphasis to the role of families,
authorize funding for family training on vocational rehabilitation,
and enhance opportunities for family members to be involved in the
rehabilitation process. While existing policies have strongly encouraged
the participation of parents, it is less clear how successful current
strategies have been in creating meaningful and valued roles for
Family relationships and support can play a particularly influential
role in the lives of youth from diverse cultural communities (Leung,
1992; Irvin, Thorin, & Singer, 1993; Hosack & Malkmus, 1992).
Despite recognition of the importance of consumer and family involvement,
families are resources that have been underutilized by transition
and vocational rehabilitation professionals (Czerlinsky & Chandler,
1993; DeFur & Taymans, 1995; Marrone, Helm, & Van Gelder,
1997; Salembier & Furney, 1997). Although parents and professionals
are working to forge new relationships, there remains a need to
build the level of trust and collaboration between them (Guy, Goldberg,
McDonald, & Flom, 1997).
Family members also contribute to work readiness and employability
in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly, and in manners
beyond those typically recognized (Timmons, Schuster, & Moloney,
2001; University of Arkansas, 2000; Way & Rossmann, 1996). Family
members act as systems advocates, role models, teachers, service
coordinators, and job developers (Lankard, 1993). They can play
a significant role in finding employment for their adult children
with disabilities and provide important job supports that can help
these young adults to keep a job (Crudden, McBroom, Skinner, &
Moore, 1998; University of Arkansas).
Although the nature of relationships may change, parents and family
continue to play important roles in the lives of young adults with
disabilities, even after the age of majority. Ideally, students
are able to advocate for their own choices during transition planning.
However, family advocates continue to play a significant role while
youth are developing their self-advocacy skills. Students themselves
report the need for their families to guide and support them as
they plan for the future (Morningstar, Turnbull, & Turnbull,
While the value of family involvement is well-understood, the current
system does not make it easy for families to be effective partners
in the transition process. Multiple service programs form a confusing,
fragmented, and inconsistent system (General Accounting Office,
1995). Parent centers report that families of young adults with
disabilities are deeply frustrated by the lack of coordinated, individualized
services for high school students and the paucity of resources,
programs, and opportunities for young adults once they graduate
(PACER, 2000). Cultural differences may further complicate relationships
with professionals (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory,
Recent surveys indicate families seek information on a variety
of issues including: helping youth develop self advocacy skills;
balancing standards-based academic instruction with functional life
skills training; inclusive education practices at the secondary
level; post-secondary options for young adults with developmental
and cognitive disabilities; pre-employment experiences and employment
options that lead to competitive employment; financial planning;
resources available to youth through the workforce investment, vocational
rehabilitation, Medicaid, and Social Security systems; better collaboration
with community resources; housing options; and interacting with
the juvenile justice system (PACER, 2001).
Meaningful parent and family involvement and participation must
also expand beyond the individual student level. Youth and family
involvement are important in making service systems and professionals
aware of their needs (Gloss, Reiss, & Hackett, 2000). Research
indicates that parent participation and leadership in transition
planning practices enhance the implementation of transition policy
(Hasazi, 2000). Family members can be fully included in the research
process (Turnbull, Friesen, & Ramirez, 1998) and at all levels
of policy and service delivery planning. Involving family members
in the development and evaluation of federal, state, and local policies
and practices helps assure that the services and supports available
to youth with disabilities are of the highest quality (Federal Interagency
Coordinating Council, 2000). In order for families to expand their
participation beyond their own child, family members must have opportunities
to increase their own knowledge and develop leadership skills.
As our communities become more diverse in culture, race, ethnicity,
and religious heritage, we are challenged to involve families whose
primary language is not English, who are recent immigrants with
no formal school experience, families in poverty and low socioeconomic
status, and those who have had negative school experiences. It is
widely acknowledged that the participation of parents from diverse
multicultural and economic backgrounds has been difficult to achieve
in both special education and rehabilitation systems (Johnson, et
al, 2002). In addition, the majority of students from racial and
ethnic minority groups have a wealth of cultural knowledge and skills
that are rarely acknowledged, accommodated, or seen as strengths
by educators and schools (Hale, 2001; Burnette, 1999). In fact,
culturally-based knowledge and behavior may even be misinterpreted
in ways that lead to a misdiagnosis of disability and inappropriate
placement in a special education program (Patton & Meyer, 2001;
Utley & Obiakor 1997). Patton and Meyer report that poor socioeconomic
conditions, cultural and ethnic indicators, large urban settings,
and large numbers of minority students in a school system are key
factors in the overrepresentation of students of color in special
education. Youth with disabilities who are from diverse cultural
groups also remain among the most underemployed of all young people
with disabilities (National Council on Disability, 2000).
The importance of establishing credibility and trust with culturally
and racially diverse populations cannot be overemphasized; cultural
responsiveness is essential to establishing such confidence (National
Center for the Dissemination of Disability Research, 1999). Tailoring
training to the cultural traditions of families improves recruitment
and outcome effectiveness (Kumpfer & Alvarado, 1995). For example,
parents from culturally and racially diverse populations often prefer
one-on-one meetings to more traditional training formats such as
workshops (Minnesota Department of Children, Families & Learning,
1998; National Center for the Dissemination of Disability Research).
Additional strategies include family-mentoring programs, needs assessment
surveys, and working with culturally specific community organizations
that have created relationships of trust (National Center on Secondary
Education and Transition, 2002).
Recommendations Regarding Challenge 6
- Provide comprehensive parent/family training, including training
to help parents and families understand the changing nature of
their role and what they can do to foster self-determination and
promote informed choice.
- Work to reduce the confusion and frustration experienced by
parents and families by coordinating services and streamlining
access to information and programs.
- Provide opportunities for parents to enhance their knowledge
of policy issues and develop leadership skills. Establish strategies
and methods to actively engage parents in discussions and decisions
concerning school and postschool options, both on behalf of individual
students and at policy-making levels.
- Expand parent and family involvement and participation beyond
the individual student level. Provide opportunities for parents
to participate in developing policy and defining transition planning
- Work with community organizations serving culturally and racially
diverse populations to assure that programs and services meet
the needs of all parents and families.
Challenge 7: Improve collaboration and systems linkages at all levels
Effective transition planning and service depend upon functional
linkages among schools, rehabilitation services, and other human
service and community agencies. However, several factors have stood
as barriers to effective collaboration, including (a) lack of shared
knowledge and vision by students, parents, and school and agency
staff around students’ postschool goals and the transition
resources necessary to support students’ needs and interests
(Johnson, et al., 2002); (b) lack of shared information across school
and community agencies, and coordinated assessment and planning
processes, to support integrated transition planning (Benz, Johnson,
Mikkelsen, & Lindstrom, 1995); (c) lack of meaningful roles
for students and parents in the transition decision-making process
that respects students’ emerging need for independence and
self-determination and parents’ continuing desire to encourage
and support their children during the emancipation process that
is part of becoming a productive, contributing young adult (Furney,
et al., 1997); (d) lack of meaningful information on anticipated
postschool services needed by students and follow-up data on the
actual postschool outcomes and continuing support needs of students
that can be used to guide improvement in systems collaboration and
linkages (Hasazi, et al., 1999; Johnson & Sharpe, 2000); (e)
lack of effective practices for establishing and using state and
local interagency teams as a means for capacity building in transition
collaboration and systems linkages; and (f) lack of coordinated
eligibility requirements and funding for agency services (Luecking
& Crane, 2002).
These barriers to more effective collaboration are not insurmountable.
Research suggests that systems can work more effectively together
and student achievement of meaningful secondary and postschool outcomes
can be improved through (a) the use of written and enforceable interagency
agreements that structure the provision of collaborative transition
services (Johnson, et al., 2002); (b) the establishment of key positions
funded jointly by schools and adult agencies to deliver direct services
to students (Luecking & Certo, 2002); (c) the development and
delivery of interagency and cross-agency training opportunities;
(d) the use of interagency planning teams to facilitate and monitor
capacity building efforts in transition (Furney, et al., 1997);
and (e) the provision of a secondary curriculum that supports student
identification and accomplishment of transition goals and prepares
youth for success in work, postsecondary, and community living environments
(Hasazi, et al., 1999). Promising collaboration strategies have
been proposed to link secondary education systems with employers
and community employment services funded under the Workforce Investment
Act (Luecking & Crane, 2002; Mooney & Crane, 2002) and with
postsecondary education systems (Flannery, Slovic, Dalmau, Bigaj,
& Hart, 2000; Hart, Zimbrich, & Whelley, 2002; Stodden &
Collaborative approaches bring together community agencies to
focus their collective expertise and combined resources to improve
the quality of transition planning and services for youth with disabilities.
This sharing of resources, knowledge, skills, and data requires
planned and thoughtful collaboration among all participants. The
President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education
(2002) suggested connecting special education to outside services
such as vocational rehabilitation as a way to improve post school
outcomes for youth with disabilities. The commission also found
that, currently, not enough interagency activity occurs between
schools and vocational rehabilitation agencies. Fiscal disincentives
should be removed and waiver options provided to promote cost-sharing
and resource-pooling among agencies to improve the availability
of needed transition services and supports for students with disabilities.
Recommendations Regarding Challenge 7
- Use cross-training and other methods to promote collaboration
between general education and special education in student assessment,
IEP and transition planning, and instruction.
- Promote collaboration between schools and vocational rehabilitation
through the establishment of jointly funded positions.
- Promote access to a wider array of community services by mapping
community assets and developing interagency agreements that promote
and support the sharing of information and engagement in joint
planning. Align organizational missions, policies, actions, and
day-to-day management so that young people and families have ready
access to the services they need.
- Establish cross-agency evaluation and accountability systems
to assess school and postschool employment, independent living,
and related outcomes of former special education students.
- Develop innovative interagency financing strategies. Identify
ways to promote cost-sharing and resource-pooling to make available
needed transition services.
- Promote collaborative staff development programs. Effective
approaches include cross-training; train-the-trainer; team-building;
and others involving collaborative relationships between state
and local agencies, institutions of higher education, parent centers,
and consumer and advocacy organizations.
Challenge 8: Ensure the availability of a qualified workforce to
address the transition needs of youth with disabilities
State and local education agencies across the United States are
currently experiencing a shortage of qualified personnel to serve
children and youth with disabilities. In 1999-2000, more than 12,000
openings for special education teachers were left vacant or filled
by substitutes (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). Further, an
additional 31,000 positions were filled by teachers who were not
fully certified for their positions (U.S. Department of Education,
1999). Similarly, severe shortages of paraprofessionals and related
services personnel nationwide are widely reported, and, there is
growing concern over the skill levels of those currently doing this
It is critically important to increase the number of secondary
special education teachers who can ably support students with disabilities
through the process of transition to adult life. However, few institutions
of higher education offer preservice training programs providing
specialized emphasis on secondary education and transition services.
Consequently, many new teachers are entering the field without the
specific knowledge and skills needed to support transition. Miller,
Lombard, and Hazelkorn (2000) report that few special education
teachers have received training on methods, materials, and strategies
for developing meaningful IEPs that include goals and objectives
on transition or specifically address the student’s transition
needs through the curriculum and instruction. Further, many special
education teachers underutilize community work-experience programs
and fail to coordinate referrals to adult service providers.
Beyond preservice training, high-quality continuing professional
development is needed to ensure that current teachers are up-to-date
and fully able to support students in the transition from school
to adulthood. Miller et al. (2000), in a national study, found that
nearly 8 out of 10 teachers (79%) reported receiving five hours
or less of inservice training regarding inclusion of students with
disabilities in their districts’ school-to-work programs.
Further, nearly half (49%) indicated they had received no inservice
training related to inclusionary practices for students with disabilities.
These findings are consistent with the report published by the National
Center for Education Statistics regarding the preparation and qualifications
of public school teachers (Lewis, et al., 1999). This report notes
that fewer than 2 out of 10 teachers (19%) spent more than eight
hours per year on professional development activities to address
the needs of students with disabilities, despite the fact that teachers
report that professional development of longer duration is more
The promotion of improved levels of collaboration between general
education and special education points to another area of need.
General education classroom teachers, work-study coordinators, career
and technical education instructors, and high-school counselors
all play an important role in supporting a student’s preparation
for transition. These general education personnel need training
and other support when working with students with disabilities.
A recent study of personnel needs in special education (U.S. Department
of Education, 2001), found that general educators’ confidence
in serving students with disabilities was dependent on their relationship
with special education teachers. That is, those who often received
instruction-related suggestions from special educators felt significantly
more confident than those who did not in teaching students with
disabilities and in making educational decisions about them. General
education teachers also need additional knowledge and awareness
concerning special strategies for working with students, opportunities
to participate in continuing professional development programs focused
on student interventions and accommodations, and direct support
within classrooms from paraprofessionals and related services personnel.
The expanded role and use of paraprofessionals and related services
staff to support the secondary education and transition needs of
youth with disabilities has been an important development. Currently,
there are approximately 250,000 individuals in paraprofessional
roles nationally, and this number is increasing (U.S. Department
of Education, 2000). These personnel perform a variety of roles,
including direct classroom support to general education teachers,
serving as job coaches in employment situations, and providing training
to students directly in the community on adult living skills. Nationally,
on average, paraprofessionals spend 37 hours per year in professional
development programs (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). The amount
and scope of training dedicated to supporting the preparation of
paraprofessionals who support youth with disabilities during their
transition to postsecondary education, employment, and community
living has not been documented. However, It is clear that there
are many competing priorities and skill areas that need to be addressed
through these professional development programs. Paraprofessionals
focus much of their attention on providing one-on-one classroom
instruction in academic areas, providing instructional support in
small groups, implementing behavior management plans, modifying
materials, monitoring hallways, meeting with teachers, collecting
data on students, and providing personal-care assistance. Additional
training is clearly warranted; however, such training will need
to be carefully planned in order to be both efficient and effective.
Another development has been the attempt by states to develop
specific licensure or certification that acknowledges the unique
skills and knowledge needed by teachers and others assisting students
in the transition from school to adult life. Several states have
developed state licensure or certification for transition coordinators,
support services coordinators, work experience coordinators, and
school vocational rehabilitation counselors. These licensure and
certification programs are few in number and have been difficult
to maintain, due to costs and competing demands for personnel in
other, broader classifications of special education teacher licensure,
such as learning disabilities and emotional/behavioral disorders.
Rehabilitation and career counselors are often the only link that
school programs have to postschool environments, including employment.
Concern about the quality of services in the area of rehabilitation
counseling has led to the mandate for the Comprehensive System of
Personnel Development (CSPD) in the 1992 and 1998 amendments to
the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This directive seeks to ensure that
personnel are qualified by establishing CSPD minimum standards (U.S.
Department of Education, 2002). However, the CSPD initiative is
being implemented in the context of what may be the largest turnover
and retirement of counselors in the history of the state-federal
system of rehabilitation (Bishop & Crystal, 2002; Dew &
Peters, 2002; Muzzio, 2000). Turnover and retirements have been
reported to be as high as 30- 40 percent of personnel in some states
(Institute on Rehabilitation Issues, 2001). A recent survey reported
an expected 10-15% turnover rate per year for the next 5 years (Council
for State Administrators in Vocational Rehabilitation, personal
communication, April 23, 2003). In general, employment across all
categories of counseling occupations is expected to increase 36%
or more through 2010, faster than the average for other employment
categories (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2002a). The existing counseling
training programs cannot be expected to meet this expanding need.
Bishop and Crystal reported that in the preceding 5-year period,
less than one third of vacant positions were filled by staff with
a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling. The implications
of losing experienced qualified professionals and replacing those
individuals with less qualified and inexperienced staff are obvious.
This trend will have a tremendously detrimental impact on transition
services, and the situation warrants a concerted effort to address
this concern. In the immediate future, the collaboration necessary
for transition may be in jeopardy until new counselors fill the
vacant positions, stabilize their workload responsibilities, and
receive needed training. Progress in addressing this issue should
be closely monitored.
As young people with disabilities prepare for and exit their public
school programs, a significant number will also need access to community
services that address their community living, social and recreational,
health, and other related needs. Persons with intellectual and developmental
disabilities, in particular, will need to rely on service program
personnel to support their everyday living needs. Significant worker
shortages and the associated factors of compensation, recruitment,
training, and support and supervision have become increasingly prominent
issues within the adult service-delivery system for individuals
with intellectual and developmental disabilities (Larson, Lakin,
& Hewitt, 2002). As the national movement from institutional
to community settings has occurred, community service agency professionals
and direct support personnel have been requested to do more, with
greater individual responsibility, less direct supervision, less
structure, and greater competency, but without preparatory or ongoing
training. Direct support staff, in particular, have been the most
difficult to recruit, retain, and provide with proper training to
ensure that they have the ability to address the residential and
employment needs of the individuals they serve in community settings.
Direct support professionals play a key role in the lives of young
people with disabilities exiting public schools by supporting them
in their own homes, in community employment situations, and other
community settings. There are an estimated 413,474 direct support
professionals working in community residential programs and 90,500-120,000
of these personnel working in vocational and employment settings
(Larson, Hewitt, & Anderson, 1999; Prouty, Smith, & Lakin,
2001). In addition, the number of personal and home care aides and
home health aides supporting adults with intellectual and developmental
disabilities is estimated respectively at 414,000 and 615,000 nationwide
(Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2002b, 2002c). In the past quarter-century,
staff turnover rates have consistently averaged between 43-70% in
community residential settings alone (Larson, Lakin, & Bruininks,
1998). Low wages and lack of training for those filling these positions
have compounded these difficulties.
Ensuring adequate training for direct support professionals, front-line
supervisors, and other human services and health personnel is perhaps
one of the greatest work-force development challenges we face as
a nation. Although some training and professional development occurs
at the agency-provider level, this training seldom addresses how
to support young people with disabilities as they complete their
public school programs and attempt to achieve their postschool goals.
Few of these individuals, for example, directly participate in final
student transition planning meetings, where specific levels of student
support needs are matched with the knowledge, skills, and competencies
of personnel to address them. All of these factors have significantly
affected the ability of youth with disabilities to achieve positive
postschool outcomes following their high school experience.
Recommendations Regarding Challenge 8
- State and local education agencies should recruit individuals
with specific responsibilities for transition to promote improved
postschool outcomes among students with disabilities. This means
that institutions of higher education within states will need
to increase the emphasis they place on preservice education programs
for educators, related services personnel, rehabilitation counselors,
and human services professionals.
- Ensure that special education, vocational rehabilitation, and
human services personnel possess the skills and knowledge required
to address the transition service needs of youth with disabilities.
These efforts should include cross-training, alignment of information
to promote common understanding, an emphasis on collaboration
across groups, and commitment to securing outcomes.
- Carefully examine the role that general education teachers can
play in transition. Specific attention to both preservice and
continuing education programs is needed. Attention to the type
and level of support needed by general education teachers during
instruction will help increase the participation of these personnel
in supporting students’ preparation for transition.
- Address the training of paraprofessionals and direct support
staff to assure that these personnel can fulfill their role of
supporting general and special education teachers as well as young
adults who are making the transition into community work, residential,
and adult-living skill-development experiences following high
Addressing the many challenges associated with transition will
require that we engage a much larger audience in our discussions
on how best to proceed. This process should include young people
with disabilities; parents; general education teachers and administrators;
community agency staff, including those who serve youth and adults
without disabilities; postsecondary education programs; and employers.
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This paper is based, in part, on a synthesis of research funded
by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education
and Rehabilitative Services to the National Transition Network at
the University of Minnesota (H158M50001) and prepared by the National
Center on Secondary Education and Transition for Youth with Disabilities
(H326J000005). The views expressed in this paper are those of the
authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University
of Minnesota or their funding sources.
For further information contact:
David R. Johnson, Project Director
National Center on Secondary Education and Transition
University of Minnesota
2025 East River Parkway
Minneapolis, MN 55414
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