Ensuring that everyone in this nation is equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed is crucial in our competitive, global economy. One key part of this effort is ensuring that young people and adults of all skill levels who are transitioning to new careers or looking to enhance their careers receive the supports they need to do so. Too often, though, our systems for helping hard-working Americans acquire marketable and in-demand skills can be complex and difficult to navigate for students, job seekers, and employers alike. The good news is that career pathways are a promising solution to that challenge. Career pathways are integrated collections of strategic programs and services that help students and job seekers transition from education to employment. They connect the necessary adult basic education, occupational training, postsecondary education, career and academic advising, and support services so that students and workers can successfully prepare for, obtain, and progress in their career.
After last week’s announcement of a new effort to address widespread disparities in the treatment of students of color with disabilities, we asked two educators to react to the news, drawing on their own experiences as special education teachers.
As a special educator for 17 years, I have long been witness to what civil rights data collections are showing now is pervasive – there is a disproportionately high representation of students of color identified for special education. Additionally, special education students of color face higher risk rates of disciplinary referrals for suspensions, alternative school assignments, and expulsions, which correlate to lower graduation rates.
There’s an irony as education for students with special needs was born out of the civil rights movement. Too often other variables such as language, poverty, assessment practices, and lack of professional development and cultural competence support for teachers have played too big a role, resulting in unnecessary services or students learning in inappropriately restrictive environments.
I remember early in my career proctoring an educational assessment as part of an initial eligibility for a student’s consideration into specialized education. The referral came from a general education teacher who said, “He just isn’t getting the content.” While administering the test, I saw a test filled with cultural biases, and the result was a boy being assigned to a self-contained class unnecessarily. Fortunately that student’s case manager advocated and the case was made for a less restrictive environment. Too many kids don’t have such an advocate.
As the demographics of our nation’s schools become more racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse, we must closely inspect disproportionality to ensure we create equitable learning communities. There are practices that may reduce disproportionality, including pre-referral interventions, family engagement, instructional practices for collaboration in the general curriculum, and professional development, to improve student outcomes.
For years there have been documented situations where minority students have experienced inadequate services, low-quality curriculum, and isolation from their nondisabled peers. I taught minority students in both inclusionary and pullout settings at a high-needs school. At one point I serviced 40 students in grades K-5. What drove me was the fact these students and their parents were expecting me do right by those students so they could be successful beyond elementary school. To not do right by them meant they would potentially fall victim to even more dire circumstances related to poverty.
In grades 4-5, I co-taught with the classroom teacher, co-planning and making sure our lessons included strategies to make sure all students in that class were successful. This kept students in the classroom and pushed them to succeed. The results were not only evident in their IEP progress but also on their standardized test data. The most compelling evidence was in their classroom discourse. The level of engagement they had with their peers regarding what they were learning was powerful and the sense of self-confidence they exuded was infectious. We also spent a lot of time educating parents of their rights and how to advocate for their child. We wanted to them to feel empowered and informed on how to access resources or voice concerns about their child’s plan. Reducing disparities for special education students can mean the difference between lifelong success or failure.
Lisa Coates is a veteran special education teacher in Virginia and was a 2010 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow. Josalyn Tresvant McGhee taught special education in Memphis, Tennessee, for six years and is a current Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow.
Where will you be on Saturday, March 12, 2016? In honor of Women’s History Month, the Smithsonian Institute is hosting a special edition of its annual Museum Day Live! encouraging everyone, in particular, women and girls of color, to participate in a day of exploration, fun and hands-on learning. Hundreds of science centers, libraries, aquariums, libraries, zoos and museums will be opening their doors for free across the country to celebrate the theme “Inspiring Women and Girls of Color.”
This month, and all year, we recognize the importance of educating and supporting the educational attainment and advancement of our girls and women, in particular girls and women of color, around the nation. We also take this opportunity to celebrate the educational progress they continue to make. For example, from 2009 to 2012, the graduation rate at four-year colleges and universities increased by 0.9 percentage points for black women, 3.1 percentage points for Hispanic women, 2.7 percentage points for American Indian/Alaska Native women, and 2.1 percentage points for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women.
Yet, in spite of this tremendous progress, barriers continue to exist for girls and women of color. In order to help them reach their full potential, we know we must continue to invest in their education. Learning can and should take place across many contexts and formal and informal (or free-choice) settings such as summer camps, via the web, in afterschool programs, and at museums or science centers. Additionally, informal education providers are increasingly gaining recognition as key educational partners.
Access to a well-rounded, high-quality education and exposure to student-support services and informal-learning experiences that focus on supporting students’ social and emotional growth are critical components to ensuring their success. Museum Day Live! provides an opportunity for anyone to connect content that they learn in schools to their lives and communities – no matter where you live.
First Lady Michelle Obama has said “One visit, one performance, one touch, and who knows how you could spark a child’s imagination?” Join us for Smithsonian Day Live! and help expand the horizons of young people and encourage our girls and women of color and their peers to learn about the world around them, avenues of creativity, and arts and sciences while sparking their imagination. Find a participating institution in your community and reserve your spots by visiting www.smithsonianmag.com/museumday/venues/museum-day-live-march-2016/.
If there is not a participating institution easily accessible, there are many virtual opportunities that you could engage with on that day. Further, you can check for updates on Twitter with @museumday and join throughout the day, by sharing your photos using #museumday and #ImagineHer.
To learn more and for a toolkit designed to help you spread the word, visit: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/museumday/museum-day-live-march-2016/registration/materials/
Maribel Duran is the Chief of Staff for the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics and Ellen Lettvin is the Robert Noyce Senior Fellow in Informal STEM Learning at the U.S. Department of Education