November 6th, 2009

Measuring Success

In our most recent piece for The NewsHour, we met Andrew Walker, a high school senior in Rochester, New York who is planning on working in construction after graduation this spring.  Eventually, he’d like to go to college to study engineering. andrew But just a few years ago, no one expected Andrew to even finish high school because of a learning disability that made it difficult for him to read or do math.

That all changed when Andrew joined Rochester’s Work Experience Program (WEP), which combines small academic classes with vocational education. Carleen Meers, Assistant Director of the program, told us that close to 80% of WEP graduates obtain competitive employment or enroll in college after high school.  

That’s an impressive figure — but it’s also important to note that the fact the figure exists at all is impressive!  When Meers joined WEP, there wasn’t any data to track student outcomes after graduation.  That’s not unusual. 

In many states, school systems simply do not know how well they have prepared special education students for life after high school.

Oregon, where 1 out of 8 students is in special ed, is trying to learn. An article from The Oregonian details a recent survey conducted by the Oregon Dept. of Education, the first of its kind in the state:

 Telephone surveys of former students in every school district found that about 1,150 of the 4,200 special education students who finished their high school education in 2006-07 spent the next year without getting a job that paid minimum wage or any post-secondary education.

That’s a quarter of Oregon special ed students.  But officials are optimistic:

State and national officials called the results a big success, simply because schools are finally tracking what happens to students with disabilities once they leave school, information that will help them better prepare future students.

I’m reminded of a conversation John Merrow had with then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings about No Child Left Behind in 2007.  In the video below, at about 8:30, John asks a question about states using loopholes.  Spellings’ response — a “Hooray” that the question can be asked at all because of the new availability of data — underscores the tension, playing out in school districts across the country, between the act of measuring success and acting meaningfully on the information learned.

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