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Journal Issue: Special Education for Students with Disabilities Volume 6 Number 1 Spring 1996

Transition from High School to Work or College: How Special Education Students Fare
Mary M. Wagner Jose Blackorby


These analyses from the NLTS document the early postschool outcomes that were achieved by young people with disabilities who had gone through secondary school in the mid to late 1980s. The secondary school programs they experienced influenced, sometimes considerably, some of their later outcomes. What schools do can make a difference in what students later achieve.

Yet a variety of school reform policies may be inconsistent with findings regarding what helps students with disabilities achieve more positive postschool outcomes. For example, raising academic course requirements for graduation might encourage students to take more advanced academic courses, and data show benefits are associated with this kind of course taking for some students in terms of supporting their enrollment in postsecondary education programs. However, policies that foster academic course taking may leave little room in students' schedules for the vocational courses that are more attuned to the employment goals of a majority of students with disabilities. Vocational courses were strongly related to lower probabilities that students would drop out of school and, independent of school completion, also were strongly related to positive employment outcomes. Can course-taking policies be developed that permit flexibility in course choices rather than forcing students with disabilities to trade off the potential benefits of academic versus vocational courses?

Further, any courses, whether academic or vocational, only benefit those who can succeed in them. A consistent message of NLTS findings is that regular education academic courses are difficult for many students with disabilities, and when they fail there, students are more likely to drop out of school.5 Findings presented here confirm the negative postschool path taken by many students with disabilities who dropped out of school. Perhaps the greatest positive contribution schools can make to the postschool success of students with disabilities is to contribute to the in-school success of those students, regardless of the placement of their courses. As the inclusion movement gains momentum, great care must be paid to issues of quality and support. Placement in regular education offers little postschool benefit to students who cannot succeed in those courses.

Finally, NLTS analyses of contributions to outcomes for students with different kinds of disabilities confirm that there is no "magic bullet" that offers benefits to all students. Vocational education appears to have benefitted students with mild disabilities but not those with sensory impairments. Academic course taking benefitted those with sensory impairments but not those with severe disabilities. Regular education placement appears to have advantages in some outcome areas for students with physical disabilities but to be less helpful to those with either mild or severe disabilities. In shaping policy and programs for students with disabilities, a range of options, tailored to the individual needs of students, continues to be the most effective approach to meeting the wide range of needs, preferences, and abilities of students who participate in special education. No principle that is held to be appropriate for all students, with or without disabilities, is likely to succeed in helping all students meet their needs. A diversity of students requires a diversity of program choices if students are to benefit from their educations and make a successful transition to adulthood.