IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Improving Transitions: How NCSER-supported Work is Helping Prepare Students for Success

Talk of “transition” on Capitol Hill frequently focuses on political issues, such as the transition from one administration to the next. But on March 4, the conversation was about a very different type of transition—promoting positive outcomes for students with disabilities after high school.

For students with disabilities, post-high school goals are often similar to their non-disabled peers, but preparing them for success requires planning, support, and targeted interventions.

Over the past several years, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) in the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has funded research to innovate and develop as well as rigorously assess interventions that help students make successful transitions after high school.

A briefing on Capitol Hill was held this month to share recent research on transition for these students conducted by experts in the field. These experts have all received funding support from NCSER to help us better understand the transition challenges facing students with disabilities and to develop research-based programs and supports to increase the chances of success for students with disabilities.

"Young people with disabilities want the very same things as anyone else. A satisfying job, close relationships, a comfortable and safe place to live, a college degree, involvement in their community, friends they can count on, a chance to give something back, and an opportunity to be part of caring communities."

– Dr. Erik Carter, Vanderbilt University

Mary Wagner, of SRI International, began the briefing by talking about the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (known as the NLTS2), the more recent longitudinal study of the experiences of youth with disabilities as they transitioned from secondary school into postsecondary life over a 10-year period. Dr. Wagner presented findings that show that there has been progress in preparing students for, and engaging them in, postsecondary education. Additional academic courses, a paid job, and participation in transition planning and goal setting in high school were associated with increases in postsecondary education enrollment for these students after high school. However, the improvements have been uneven for some groups of students with disabilities and many challenges remain. For example, the rates of employment over time have not increased. 

David W. Test, of University of North Carolina-Charlotte, presented information about the innovative program “Communicating Interagency Relationships and Collaborative Linkages for Exceptional Students” or CIRCLES. This program involves three levels of interagency collaboration to promote positive outcomes for students with disabilities in secondary schools. The program connects students to more information and resources as well as provides mentoring support and partnerships. Ongoing research indicates the CIRCLES program is having a positive impact on student outcomes as compared to students receiving school services typically provided to support transition. In addition, participating students overwhelmingly agreed with the statement that they were “prepared for life after school” and their parents strongly agreed that they had “a better understanding of their child’s needs” and reported playing an active role in transition preparation.

The final two speakers discussed programs aimed at helping with transitions for students who face some of the greatest challenges.

Laurie E. Powers, of Portland State University, presented a research-based intervention program, “My Life,” for youth in foster care who also have disabilities. This program combines youth-directed coaching, workshops, and partnerships and mentoring to assist students in identifying goals and provide information and guidance they need to help them to experience success and to understand that they can achieve their goals. Many youth in foster care face extreme challenges in general: higher levels of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, abuse, and other mental health issues, and face incarceration rates of 10 times more than the general population. In addition, about 6 in 10 receive special education services and many also have developmental disabilities.

Research results have been positive. Students in the My Life program were found to be better prepared for postsecondary education and careers, and more were graduating from high school and fewer were homeless. After one year, postsecondary employment rates were up and rates of incarceration were down compared to the students who received services as usual.

Lastly, Erik Carter, of Vanderbilt University, presented research on improving workplace transitions for youth with intellectual disabilities (ID) in high school through a summer job support program. Although a disability does not predict aspirations, it does often predict post-high school experiences. Based on an analysis of data from the NLTS2, most youth with ID have a goal of employment, but only about 15 percent of all adults with ID are employed. A factor positively predicting outcomes for these students were the high expectations of those teaching them.

Project Summer embodies high expectations for these students and involves individual summer-focused transition planning, identification of community resources, and opportunities for youth to connect to community support and employment opportunities. Research indicates that the youth involved in Project Summer were much more likely to obtain employment or volunteer experiences in their community (66%) than their peers (19%) and all were paid above the minimum wage. This research also demonstrated that schools and communities have the capacity to support and promote the employment of youth with severe disabilities.

The briefing was sponsored by Senator Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, Representative Suzanna Bonamici, of Oregon, and Representative Michael Honda, of California and was arranged by the Friends of IES, a group that advocates for education research. Certainly, there is much more work to be done to help students with disabilities successfully transition from high school and help them achieve their goals. But this month’s briefing demonstrated that progress is being made.

By Kimberley Sprague, Senior Research Scientist/Education Analyst, NCSER, and Dana Tofig, Communications Director, IES