Able to Succeed:
Fixing the Graduation Crisis in Special Education
Back in February, I wrote an editorial about the need to address the troubling achievement gap between African-American and Hispanic students and their white peers in New York City schools. However, there is another achievement gap that I want to discuss, one that receives less attention, but is nevertheless disturbing and in need of a solution; that is, the achievement gap between special education students and students taught in regular classrooms.
A report titled “Leaving School Empty-Handed: A Report on Graduation and Dropout Rates for Students who Receive Special Education Services In New York City” (June, 2005) by Advocates for Children (AFC) found that only 12 percent of the more than 150,000 students receiving special education services in New York City graduate with a Regents or local high school diploma. The first public report of its kind—which is in-and-of-itself troubling shows that the City’s special education graduation rates trail markedly behind those of students in other parts of New York State and the country. One shocking statistic which highlights this shameful fact is that during the same school year, while 31 percent of special education students in the country and 26 percent of special education students in New York State earned regular high school diplomas, only 12.8 percent of these students received diplomas in New York City. Finally, one of the most unsettling statistics detailed in the report is that of the schoolchildren classified as having an “emotional disturbance,” 96 percent never earn a regular high school diploma.
I have just barely begun to outline a major breakdown in our educational system. The idea that students are dropping out at these rates is inexcusable. To knowingly watch them leave without trying to rectify this crisis is even more unforgivable. The term “special needs student” is not synonymous with the label “unable to succeed,” which is essentially what we are equating it with when we let children drop out. Every student should be expected to succeed whether they are receiving special education services or are taught in a regular classroom. That said, there are different roads to success in school. Particularly for students with special needs, these roads might be longer, with more bumps along the way. But achievement is possible.
So what can be done? First, the Department of Education needs to make it a priority to identify where in the system this failure is occurring. Although special education curriculums vary widely, it is clear with the release of AFC’s study that these programs are in need of greater accountability standards despite their individualized nature. In several states, intervention tactics such as summer school programs have proven effective for students who have not reached acceptable grade levels in math and reading. The AFC also offers several sound solutions, which include greater flexibility for schools to create smaller inclusion classes as necessary, and developing GED programs tailored to students with special needs. In 2004, less than 97 special education students who dropped out of school earned their GED. It is inconceivable that in a city where 20,000 students are in GED programs, no provisions are made for students with disabilities. In addition to improving GED programs, vocational education opportunities for people with disabilities need to be strengthened in New York City, as few exist now. States such as California have been experimenting with programs that link vocational training and special education programs to offer students greater flexibility and choice in their education.
Children with special needs have been labeled all of their lives. Let’s help give them a label they actually want—“able to succeed.”#
Liz Krueger is the State Senator from New York.