The Power of High Expectations for Special Education Students

For the past four decades, I have, along with many others, worked to make changes to special education programs and services, focusing on creating better outcomes for students with disabilities. For me, these are very personal issues. Growing up, my older brother Vance had significant intellectual and developmental disabilities. At the time, there were few resources or services for the individuals with disabilities or their families. My parents had two options: place Vance in a state institution or care for him at home with no help or support from the state or county services. They chose to care for him – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – until my mother’s death and my father’s failing health forced us to place him in a regional treatment center. By 1989, the available community-based options had developed to the point where he could move into a group home with three other adults and a live-in staff. He remained there until he passed away in 1998.

Changing Policies, Changing Attitudes

Thankfully, the world for students and adults with disabilities today looks much different than the one my brother grew up in. Over the past decades, there’s been a dramatic change in how society, schools and governmental agencies approach support and care for individuals with disabilities. The key concept in this shift is in the name of the organization I have the privilege of directing, the Institute on Community Integration.

This shift towards integrated, community-based services and supports for children, youth and adults with disabilities is all around us. It was signaled by the closing of Minnesota’s state-operated regional treatment centers. It’s evident in federal legislation calling for inclusive classrooms that integrate special education students into a regular school curriculum along with their peers. It’s apparent in the movement from sheltered employment to integrated, competitive employment in the community. Special education students now are encouraged and empowered to earn a diploma and pursue post-secondary education. While this has been a gradual evolution, when I look back at where we are now compared to where we were 30 years ago, it’s a significant paradigm shift in how society views individuals with disabilities.

More Work to Be Done

Despite all these positive changes, we still have significant work to do in improving our special education practices and improving outcomes for students and adults with disabilities. In most key measures, our special education students still lag behind their peers. The dropout rate for students with disabilities is twice that of the general high school population. Special education students are three times less likely to pursue post-secondary education. Perhaps the most troubling statistic is that fewer than half of individuals with disabilities who exit our public schools are fully employed even one or two years out from their special education program.

Though I believe we are headed in the right direction, statistics like these are why we continue to look for opportunities to create open communities in which people with disabilities can have real jobs, live in real homes and participate in the culture of a community just like anyone else. Improving outcomes for youth and young adults with disabilities once they leave the educational system is one of the reasons we worked on the National Longitudinal Transition Study with Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. This study included 12,000 students with and without disabilities to develop a better understanding of their educational experience and post-school aspirations. When completed, we’ll have a much better base of knowledge from which to base our policies and services.

High Expectations & Self-Determination for Special Education Students

If there’s one thing that my experience in working with students with disabilities has taught me, it’s the power of high expectations we hold for them as professionals, family members and the general public. When I interview parents, I’m sometimes surprised by how low their expectations are for their child. That simply doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, 86 percent of students in special education have mild disabilities and function much like anyone else in society. What they primarily lack is the self-confidence and support to plot their own course in life.

As we move forward as a nation and a state, we need to continue to maintain high expectations for students with disabilities. We don’t need to water things down; we need to provide different educational opportunities and encourage students with disabilities to participate in general education classrooms with their peers who do not have disabilities.

Secondly, as we evolve public policy, we must consider students with disabilities in shaping these policies. We say, “This law is to help all students to perform better.” But does “all” really mean all? There’s a lot of lip service paid to special education and other public policies intended to support people with disabilities, but policies are often crafted with the general population in mind – and the thought that we’ll figure out what it means for students with disabilities later.

That’s not how it should be. When you start to separate certain groups of students, you’re not developing a complete system for all students; you’re developing systems that become compartmentalized. If you’re setting high expectations for everybody in this country – that should mean everybody. Then you figure out how you’re going to do it.

Finally, we need to consider how we are preparing special education students to be self-advocates in their adult lives. Beyond academic achievement, we need to teach them the ability to leave school and be self-directed – to identify and pursue opportunities. Those are skills necessary to becoming a successful adult and making good decisions as you move forward in life.

30 Years of Progress

At the Institute on Community Integration, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, we believe that all persons with intellectual, developmental, and other disabilities should live as valued members of local communities. Empowering them to succeed and live independently has been our mission for the past three decades. I’m proud of our success and I believe it’s proof that, by combining high expectations with community support, all students and adults are capable of great things.

David Johnson

About the Author

David Johnson, Ph.D.

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