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Voc. Ed.'s Impact on Learning Disabled Studied

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WASHINGTON--Vocational-education programs may do little to prevent learning-disabled students from dropping out of high school, a new study suggests.

Two University of Pittsburgh researchers, Naomi Zigmond and Helen Thornton, base that preliminary conclusion on a study of 76 learning-disabled youths in the Pittsburgh area--38 of whom had been enrolled in vocational-education programs in high school.

While the dropout rate for the students who had never taken a vocational-education class was higher, the researchers said, the indicators for dropping out were also stronger among that group than the vocational-education students.

The majority of dropouts in the non-vocational group, the researchers found, had either failed numerous classes in the 9th grade, been absent frequently that year, or both--all factors considered by the researchers to be predictors for dropping out. Most students who chose to enroll in vocational-education courses did not have the same characteristics.

From these findings, the authors conclude that "the graduation rate of O.V.T. [occupational vocational technical] enrollees may be explained by the nature of the student who enrolls in the program.''

In addition, they found that 76 percent of the students in their study who dropped out did so before their sophomore years. But 95 percent of the vocational-education students, by contrast, did not enroll in those classes until their junior or senior years.

"It can be concluded that the holding power of secondary vocational education for learning-disabled students at risk for dropping out is minimal at best,'' the authors write.

Series of Reports

Their paper was among a series of four reports on learning-disabled dropouts presented last Tuesday during a meeting here of the American Educational Research Association. The interrelated studies are all being conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh. Ms. Zigmond said the combined research efforts would help "build the learning-disabled-dropout story.''

Such students, she pointed out, drop out at a higher rate than their non-disabled peers. Studies have shown that the rates may range from 26 percent, recorded in one middle-class, suburban school district in the Midwest, to 47 percent in the Pittsburgh district the researchers studied, she said.

And vocational education, Ms. Zigmond said, has been one popular means of serving the potential learning-disabled dropout.

'Accommodating' Students

Another not-yet-completed study in the Pittsburgh series describes how one Pennsylvania junior-senior high school and its teachers have tended to "accommodate'' six 10th-grade students--three of whom were learning disabled--who are at high risk for dropping out.

The descriptions, culled from five months of classroom observations and interviews, chronicle a number of practices that have allowed some schools to keep such students from dropping out, without actually changing their approach to schoolwork. They show, for example, how schools often allow students to pass despite repeated absences, and how teachers sometimes "help'' learning-impaired students on tests--and grade their homework on the basis of whether or not it was completed, not whether it was correct.

"We believe that the kinds of accommodations outlined in this paper may play a key role in keeping students academically engaged enough to be able to complete their high-school careers,'' wrote the researchers, Sandra E. Miller, Gaea Leinhardt, and Ms. Zigmond.

But, they pointed out, the students come to expect such accommodations, and they "may have some unintended negative side effects'' that limit what students get out of school. The classroom observations will continue until May.

The Pittsburgh researchers cautioned that their studies, which also include an attempt to examine the experiences of learning-disabled youths in the critical 9th-grade year, are based on small samples and will need to be confirmed by subsequent research.

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