College and Career Ready? Maybe neither

Last week, I wrote about how NY was moving to lower high school diploma expectations for students with disabilities. Since writing that post, the NY Board of Regents has voted in the law, effective immediately, which has created some confusion for principals.

I’ll admit I know little of the landscape of NY high school exit requirements, since I’ve spent my career at the elementary and middle school levels. What remains unclear to me is what a “local diploma” really means, and how it connects to a viable career, as some advocates for students with disabilities are saying (as reported in this Chalkbeat piece). I’m open to being further educated on this, if anyone out there wants to school me. But right now it seems to be a mechanism for diminished expectations for some students, while enabling adults to claim higher grad rates.

Chalkbeat reporters Alex Zimmerman and Annie Ma further report that “Todd Kaminsky, a state senator who pushed for the new graduation requirements, said the change isn’t about watering down standards, but paving the way for more appropriate, “project-based” measures for students who struggle to meet graduation requirements.”

It’s also unclear to me how reducing requirements for students with disabilities connects to “project-based” measures, as this is not an explicit component of the law itself, which you can view in an overview of on this document provided by NYSED. I’m all for performance-based assessment (which is maybe what Kaminsky meant to refer to—to my knowledge, project-based learning is a pedagogical strategy, not a form of assessment), but utilizing PBA does not require lowering expectations. If these supplanted the traditional Regents exams, I’d be all for it. But I still wouldn’t stand by reducing expectations for students with disabilities.

On Twitter, The74’s Matt Barnum challenged my thinking on high school diploma requirements:

His post provides an overview of research which suggests that stringent high school diploma requirements may have little of the expected benefits (increased academic achievement), while it can have many unintended downsides, such as an increase in drop-out and incarceration rates.

I find this research compelling and a fit rebuttal to the imposition of high standards without compensatory attention paid to providing alternative options.

But I still don’t think lowering expectations for an academic diploma for some, or any, students is the answer. A high school diploma should signify that a student is prepared to enter college.

Not all students are prepared to enter college, whether due to ability or interest. However, all students could be better equipped to begin a career.

The greatest underreported story of last year, in my opinion, is that dramatically greater numbers of students are now failing the GED. This is far more problematic than students failing to obtain a HS diploma.

Couple this with the general dearth of well designed and funded vocational programs and opportunities in the US.

Over in Kentucky, however, there is a more sane and equitable approach that does not require diminishing expectations, as Emmanuel Felton reports. In KY, they are building two tracks between what it might mean to be “college” and/or “career” ready, and this makes a lot of sense to me. Instead of devaluing a high school diploma just to allow states to claim higher graduation rates, we should be investing in alternative pathways to a career that are both viable and rigorous.


Teachers and Education Officials: Expect More from Students with Disabilities


By Onlysilence (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
I believe that most students with disabilities* can and should engage with the same academic content that any other student would receive. Furthermore, I believe that most students with disabilities should be held to the same academic expectations as that of their peers.

I seem to hold somewhat radical expectations for my students, if what I’m hearing from my colleagues and from NY state education officials is accurate.

I was at a meeting with fellow special education specialists in my district several weeks ago and assumed I was speaking to the choir when I shared these beliefs. I was taken aback when a number of other educators strongly disagreed. I heard my fellow educators argue that their students “can’t” be expected to do grade-level work.

When I hear the word “can’t” used by an educator to describe their students’ potential, I get so upset. I know that working with children who face significant challenges is tough work. But really?


I think such a perspective says more about an educator’s lack of vision than a student’s lack of ability.

When you consider disability from a historical perspective, students with disabilities have been denied access to the same expectations and content as that of other students for a very long time. They have been segregated physically, and given “different” curriculum, because no one expected anything from them.

Unsurprisingly, students so treated do not often go on to achieve success.

It was upsetting enough to hear this perspective from my colleagues here in the Bronx. But now I’m also hearing it from education officials up in Albany. There is a plan in discussion and most likely up for a vote soon to water down high school diploma requirements for students with disabilities.

We’ve been here before. NY State used to have a largely meaningless piece of paper called an “IEP diploma” for students said to have met their IEP goals, which are highly subjective measurements primarily measured by those who write them.

I know that a high school diploma doesn’t mean much these days, but it’s a slippery slope when we begin completely dismantling any measure of what academic preparedness might mean.

What kind of message do we send to kids when we lower the bar for them? We don’t expect you to be able to achieve this. You CAN’T achieve this.

But that’s the wrong message. Instead, we should be saying, What will it take for you to achieve this? And if you try and aren’t ready yet — it’s OK because there’s other options for you to have a viable career in the meantime and we will help you to get there.

Not everyone is ready for college. A high school diploma should be a sign that you are prepared to succeed academically in college, not a consolation prize.

If we truly believe that not every student is able to achieve a high school diploma, than we’d better be looking very closely at what we’re doing to build alternative pathways to careers.

But watering down academic expectations for some students is not the way to go, New York. We’re fooling ourselves if we think making it “easier” is helping any kid to succeed. We’re only making it easier for adults to continue to pretend they’re doing their jobs.


*an extremely wide and diverse bucket, BTW. The differences between any given disability and any given student are so vast as to be nearly incomparable. Yet we persist.

Economic Opportunity + Education


I recently wrote about the need to provide options for children and families living in communities impacted by poverty.

Sometimes it can be frustrating as an educator to talk about poverty, because there’s a tone in the sector that this is something we shouldn’t talk about. “Keep your focus in the classroom,” some people seem to say, “don’t worry about what you can’t control.”

Thankfully, there’s educators and activists out there refusing to keep their heads down and ignore the problems of the community they work within.

Here’s an example of a teacher, Stephen Ritz, who’s not only helping to educate his students in the South Bronx, but creating economic opportunities for them within their community. Take a look:

What’s intriguing is that Ritz presents us with a way out from the polarization of poverty vs. education: we can tackle both, and turn the equation into the win-win of economic opportunities + education.

This is the kind of innovation that I’d like to see more of. Because the children are learning skills and knowledge that will empower them with more options. They are gaining capital: social, natural, psychological, and economic. And that’s the kind of wealth that we need to cultivate in all our communities.

Check out the Green Bronx Machine for more on this great work going down in the South Bronx.

Building an Enabling Environment

Handicap sign

Handicap sign (Photo credit: MattGrommes)

In the last post, Will wrote about the disconnect between the manner in which people with disabilities are depicted by mass media and the sometimes harsh reality that students with disabilities may face in schools every day.

Continuing with the theme of special education, I recently read a fascinating essay on a designer, Sara Hendren, who challenges conventional perspectives of disability and access, and which ties into our advocacy here on EcoSchools for the importance and impact of a school’s environment on well-being and learning.

In “Pretty Ramp Machine” by Tim Maly, Hendren presents a more inclusive vision of disability:

“What I want is much more energy and imagination given to questions of access and use — not tiresome and medicalized ‘accommodations,’ but edited cities where alternate bodies are assumed to be part of the landscape, and where the use of structures and tools might be less scripted,” she says.

This passage resonated with me, as in the realm of special education, we also speak frequently of “accommodations” for students with disabilities, as if all that is required is a systematic program or intervention that will magically enable a student to progress academically. But as Hendren points out, this very word, “accommodations,” reveals a deficit in our thinking. If we truly value diversity and inclusion, then we would develop our curriculum and our systems with access and use for all in mind from the very beginning, rather than as an afterthought.

Hendren thinks designers and architects can do better. “It’s possible to have a very ‘correct’ idea about accommodations, provisions for schooling and such, and still presume a medical model,” says Hendren. “You can carry around the notion that a democratic society is one in which everyone thrives — regardless of productivity, regardless of capacity — and want to provide for those ‘needs.’”

But it’s a much more radical notion to start to think about the ways structures have been un-imagined or preemptively imagined without much variation in body or mind. What would it mean to really profoundly undo our sense of which bodies count?” (bold added)

Here is food for thought. What if we designed school environments, curriculum, and transitional opportunities with a diversity of student needs in mind?

In such an approach, failure would no longer be the hidden option. We would instead consider what students who might “fail” in conventional routes might succeed in otherwise, and provide opportunities for them to engage successfully in that divergency.

"Career Ready" Means Vocational Education and Technical Training

Vocational School in Buffalo, NY: 1910. Photo from the
National Child Labor Committee collection

I’d like to draw readers’ attention to an important article published last year by Boston Consulting Group on vocational education.
Most anytime I speak with someone who works in the field of special education, as I do, vocational education and technical training can be a frequent point of conversation. While we all want our students to have the option of attending an academic institution of higher education, the reality is that some of our most academically challenged students will not exercise that option.*
You’ve got to hand it to us Americans–we’re eternally optimistic and enthusiastic. But on the other side of that optimism is naivety, even willful ignorance. College isn’t always the right option for all students. And for those students who choose not to attend a traditional college, that shouldn’t be seen as a failure–it should be one choice out of many pathways to a fulfilling life of employment and citizenship.
Providing pathways for students in addition to college is not a cop-out from a rigorous academic education. When the Common Core states that it is preparing students to be “college and career ready,” we all too easily gloss over what “career ready” might mean, as distinguished from “college ready.” To be career ready, students need to have real options for training for real careers.
We need to stop thinking about vocational pathways in a derogatory sense. I have written before about the need to value hard work, craftsmanship, and service. I believe strongly in providing all students with the opportunity to work with their hands and provide a service to their society.

Anyway, enough preaching from me. Here’s what the Boston Consulting Group advised as critical factors to building viable vocational systems, based on a study of international best practices:

  • The presence of a coordinated ecosystem in which all stakeholders, including a central agency with clear oversight of the TVET [technical and vocational education and training] ecosystem, actively cooperate
  • Performance-based government funding and support
  • Parity between GAE [general academic education] and TVET and a straightforward means for students to transition between the two tracks
  • Sustained, collaborative efforts from industry
Note the repetition of words such as “coordinated,” “cooperate,” “and “collaborative.” All critical aspects of a resilient and healthy social ecosystem.

I’d like to draw your attention more specifically to the point on parity between GAE and TVET, which I feel is the area most critical for the US to focus on as we seek to provide multiple pathways for all students. On this point, BCG elaborates the following:

In part, students’ negative perception of TVET stems from the current practice of separating TVET into a distinct education “stream,” to which students who fail to meet GAE standards are sent, with no option to return. Changing this perception and increasing student interest in TVET requires increasing the horizontal and vertical mobility between the two paths.

This idea of providing “horizontal and vertical mobility” between academic and vocational pathways seems to me the very idea embodied by the phrase “college and career ready.” Providing students with diverse pathways and options, rather than a singular yellow brick road to higher education, promotes resilience and strengthens communities, rather than ignoring students who fail to conform to a given expectation.

Furthermore, providing this sort of parity and fluidity removes the denigration of TVET as a pathway for “failing” students. TVET should be a viable option for ANY and ALL students — in just the way we want college to be.

* if anyone can point me towards graduation statistics, both high school and college, for students receiving special education services, I’d be much obliged. I’ve heard 12% H.S. graduation rate bandied about in NYC, but I can’t confirm that.