Targeted Collaboration for Inclusion and Equity in Special Education

Our schools are failing over 7 million students with disabilities. In most areas of the country, outcomes for students with disabilities lag significantly behind non-disabled peers. A key piece of this problem is the lack of intentional collaboration about student needs across school teams - teachers, administrators, specialists, parents, and other stakeholders who work with individual students.
People Impacted
$ 550B
Potential Funding
I have this challenge
the problem
Nature and Context

Our schools are failing over 7 million students with disabilities. In most areas of the country, outcomes for students with disabilities lag significantly behind non-disabled peers - clear evidence of a problem that requires immediate and drastic action.

One significant piece of this problem is the lack of intentional collaboration about student needs across school teams - teachers, administrators, specialists, parents, and other stakeholders who work with individual students.

In The Ability Challenge’s (ABC's) 2018 national survey:

  • 70% of educators identified collaboration as a key driver in building a successful special education program.

  • Only 35% of schools have a structure in which collaboration is formally integrated into the operating culture. The other 65% report having no formalized systems for collaboration. They work with their peers in an informal or ad-hoc manner, or, in some cases, not collaborating at all.

Collaboration is happening, but not the kind that leads to dramatic results for students. Two critical impacts on students emerge.

  1. General educators (those trained to teach general education students, not students with disabilities) are siloed and struggling to support students with disabilities in their classrooms, many students are not able to access grade-level content in ways that lead to success.

  2. The lack of collaboration among the adults working with students across schools has led to fragmented and piecemeal support for diverse learners.

Special educators are frequently stuck completing paperwork and ensuring compliance, rather than providing expertise on instructional approaches for diverse learners.

The Core Problems to solve with Technology, Content & a Program:

  1. Educators need training and tools to build the skills, mindsets, and habits to effectively collaborate with each other so that they can better identify, share and meet the unique needs of students with disabilities in physical and virtual classrooms.

  2. Students with disabilities, often work more with teachers and providers than their peers and need consistency in their interventions to make progress. This lack of effective collaboration is marginalizing, unsupportive, and obfuscating.

Symptoms and Causes
  • While more than 80% of students with disabilities spend all or some of their day in an integrated classroom, only 17% of educators feel well-prepared to teach them.

  • A lack of professional development and collaboration impedes educator awareness of how disability impacts learning, and competing priorities pull teachers in many directions.

  • Instead of using specially designed instruction, accommodations, interventions, and other supports that help students with disabilities, teachers are defaulting to a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

  • COVID-19 has further exacerbated and highlighted these challenges.

the impact
Negative Effects

If the general educators don't know what to do, then they cant serve kids well.

Knowledge, mindsets, and skills about disability and learning, when paired with inputs from peers with expertise (hence the collaboration element), can transform the way kids are served in classrooms.

Children with disabilities constantly face barriers to the enjoyment of their rights and inclusion in society. But the tide is changing, as reported by the UNICEF, many countries have begun to reform their laws and structures in the past two decades to promote the participation of children with disabilities as full members of society. 

Economic Impact

One challenge is that most schools are not adequately addressing collaboration as a component of school improvement, so looking at resources devoted to this solution it looks overwhelmingly like nothing - hence the challenge putting the problem and our solution together for potential partners.

Looking at assessing total cost of the problem, we can start with the economic costs of not educating more than 7 million children, including the 35% who don't graduate from school, are significant. According to one report, increasing the graduation rate to 90% of all students for one high school class could boost the national economy by over $10 billion.

Success Metrics

We envision an evolution of the success metrics as per the Ability Challenge's Theory of Change. Our theory of change goes through 3 stages:

  1. Create Demand

  2. Build Capacity

  3. Create Systemic Impact

The emerging metrics are:

Operating Indicators:

  1. Phase 1

    • # schools

    • % faculty trained

    • % faculty engaged (active within 7 days)

    • % faculty collaborating

    • Web metrics: active users, session duration, etc

  2. Phase 2

    • Cross school benchmarking

    • Improved efficacy among trained faculty

    • Improved relational trust

  3. Phase 3

    • National benchmarking

    • Peer programs benchmarking

Social Impact Indicators:

  1. Phase 1

    • # children with disabilities that led by trained faculty

    • % children with disabilities that are led by trained faculty

    • Student Belonging Index (trendline)

  2. Phase 2

    • Student grades trend

  3. Phase 3

    • Dropout rate, 

    • Graduation rate, 

    • New Policies influenced by our data and success

    • New Funding sources influenced by our data and success

who benefits from solving this problem
Organization Types
  • K-12 Education Institution

  • School Districts

  • Higher education institutions

  • Employers

  • Families and students


There are three direct audiences.

The Ultimate Beneficiaries are students - diverse learners in particular, but all students benefit. The proposed approach in this document: targeted collaboration ensures that each student has access to a collaborative educator team with the mindsets, skills, and tools to meet their unique learning needs, ultimately any solution has to align with this vision.

The Direct user is educators - which includes teachers (general and special education), specials teachers, paraprofessionals, related services providers, and others who work in the school who can benefit from sharing information and strategies about what works for learners.

An emerging Direct User is families and caregivers - To offer a 360-degree support to the learning process of these students

Secondary users are administrators - both because they are often the business decision-makers that support and manage school improvement efforts. This occurs at both the district and school levels.

financial insights
Potential Solution Funding

There are many Government Programs, Private Foundations, Family Foundations, and Impact Investors that support Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in education. Some leading organizations supporting this type of work are:

  • The U.S. Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education.

  • The Raikes Foundation

  • The Ford Foundation

  • Oak Foundation

  • Walton Family Foundation

Ideas Description

In order to solve the problem that there is a lack of intentional collaboration about student needs across school teams, The Ability Challenge developed the targeted collaboration approach.

The fundamental premise of this proposed solution is that building targeted collaboration across school teams will improve outcomes for all students, especially those with disabilities and other diverse learning needs.

Targeted collaboration is an approach to the daily interactions educators have to identify, share, and meet the needs of diverse learners in the classrooms.

The Ability Challenge seeks to develop this across several levels - educator training, leadership coaching and change management support, and technology tools to facilitate easier and more intentional collaboration.

Developed from research, bolstered from decades of practice, and input from over 1,000 educators, targeted collaboration elevates the highest leverage practices that drive impact on student outcomes.

There are five dimensions for developing targeted collaboration in educators (especially those with no prior knowledge of special education):

  1. Creating a culture of collaboration;

  2. Understanding student potential;

  3. Building professional partnerships;

  4. Coordinating and communicating for consistency; and

  5. Building family partnerships.

Targeted collaboration helps individual educators identify unique student needs and remove barriers to instruction.

Additionally, targeted collaboration helps educator teams work together to bring coherence, alignment, and intention to their work with students and families.

One proposed approach by The Ability Challenge is a 3 steps process:

  1. Creation of training material & processes 'Inclusion-related' for educators and staff at K-12 educational institutions, and for families and caregivers of children with disabilities.

  2. Definition of Key Performance Indicators to measure the success of these inclusion-related programs.

  3. Identify areas of friction in the execution of these programs and ideate how technology can help mitigate these friction points.

Technology idea:

The Ability Challenge has an online learning platform to disseminate curriculum and a first version (also referred to as a Most Viable Product or MVP) tech tool used with several schools to test assumptions about how to build more collaborative habits in schools.

As a next step, they seek to create a version of their prototype that includes the training and leadership modules they're currently building.

The Ability Challenge Theory of Change:

  1. Create Awareness & Demand

    • Raise awareness of the opportunity to improve the education of children with special needs by providing teachers with the right tools

    • Define Key Performance Indicators & Goals (evidence of success)

    • Engage Teachers & Students

    • Engage Supporters: Parents, School Administrators, & Peer Orgs.

  2. Build Capacity and Scale Execution

    • Create Curricula, Programs & Tech Tools

    • District level pilots to capture success data

    • Leading indicators: Student Belonging Index, Teacher Collaboration, Net Promoter Score with Program, student grades trend

    • Long Term Indicators: Drop-out rate decrease, and Graduation rate increase

    • Scale Mechanism for regional roll-outs

    • Partnerships & Strategic Alliances

    • Evolving the role of Tech as an enabler of these programs and as a data capture mechanism for longitudinal evidence of success

  3. Systemic Impact:

    • Data used to inform policy and advocacy efforts

    • New Funding for inclusive education thanks to evidence of success collected

    • Better grades & reduced dropout rates

    • Increased sense of belonging

Input Needed From Contributing Editors
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