Essential Educator, December 12, 2013
This article is based on a research study conducted across four states in March, 2013 on the barriers and facilitators in interagency collaboration for students with disabilities. One of the authors, Deanna L. Taylor, is the founder of Transition Universe.
Effective collaboration that results in successful postschool outcomes for young adults with disabilities (such as employment or enrollment in college courses) depends on many factors. One factor is interagency collaboration, meaning frequent interaction between special education (SE), vocational rehabilitation (VR), and other agencies leading to successful outcomes (e.g., Test, Fowler, Kohler, & Kortering, 2010). Model demonstration projects have shown that continuous interactions between transition SE teachers, VR counselors, and other stakeholders have improved the transition processes and outcomes (Noonan, Erickson, & Morningstar, 2012). But what happens in transition classrooms in Utah and across the U.S. may be very different from what happens in model projects.
Trach (2012) explained low levels of collaboration between SE and VR: These systems operate in different departments, require different legislation, and receive different resources. The provision of coordinated and related services are an integral part of a free and appropriate public education for students under Part B of IDEA, but the collaboration process is not clearly described. (p. 40).
We conducted a survey study to identify barriers and facilitators to collaboration between SE and VR. Only SE teachers and VR counselors with experience in assisting students/clients in transition from school to adulthood received the survey. Teacher and counselor questionnaires were nearly identical. Respondents were 220 SE transition teachers and 78 VR counselors from Utah, Florida, Maryland, or Oregon. In Utah 135 transition teachers and 10 VR counselors responded.
Across four states, 60% of SE transition teachers indicated that VR counselors were integral to transition planning. The same percentage of SE transition teachers in Utah found VR counselors to play an integral role. In contrast, 94% of VR counselors indicated that their roles were integral to transition planning. In Utah, 100% of VR counselors indicated that their roles were integral. Most transition teachers reported that they interacted with VR counselors on an annual basis. However, the VR counselors reported that they received information about students in transition and were invited to IEP meetings at least weekly. The highest percentage of SE transition teachers (37%) indicated that VR counselors never participated in activities other than the IEP meetings while only 13% of VR counselors reported never and 43% reported at least monthly. Overall, 32% of SE transition teachers indicated that VR counselors were invited to IEP meetings at least annually, but 32% of VR counselors reported invitations at least weekly. Obviously, the difference in perceptions is explainable, at least in part, because VR counselors with transition caseloads often work in multiple schools and visit with multiple transition planning teams.
We asked SE transition teachers and VR counselors whether they were satisfied with the role of the VR counselor in the transition process. Seventy-seven percent of VR counselors reporting that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their involvement, compared to 53% of SE transition teachers.
We asked participants to rate the importance and feasibility of 14 collaboration practices in transition. The “best practices”, shown in Table 1, were collected by the researchers based on a review of the collaboration literature. First, respondents rated importance of these practices on a 4-point scale ranging from Very important (1) to Not important (4). Second, respondents rated feasibility of implementation on a 4-point scale from Highly likely (1) to Not likely (4). That is, the lower the number, the higher the importance/feasibility. We wanted to examine what collaboration practices were considered important and feasible by both groups. We split the 4-point scale in half to make decisions about importance and feasibility. That is:
• If the mean rating was between 1 and 2.5, we considered it important/feasible.
• If the mean rating was between 2.5 and 4, we considered it unimportant/not feasible.
The list of practices in Table 1 is arranged according to the overall sample’s ratings of importance. Ratings in Table 1 are not divided into SE and VR but represent overall data.
Although all items were rated important, most were considered not feasible. Overall, 11 of 14 practices were considered not feasible. In the Utah sample, 10 of 14 items were considered not feasible. The most important practice (lowest number) was Providing Training to Transition Teachers on Transition Process and it was considered feasible. We found that SE transition teachers’ and VR counselors’ ratings of importance were nearly identical. However, ratings of feasibility differed between SE transition teachers and VR counselors (Mann-Whitney U, p < .005). SE transition teachers rated feasibility much lower than VR counselors. Differences in ratings of feasibility may suggest that SE transition teachers are less optimistic than VR counselors about whether collaboration can be improved.
We asked respondents to identify the “next critical steps” for improving collaboration and grouped responses according to themes. The most common theme across both transition teachers and VR counselors was More Time for Developing Relationships (with the Other Agency Personnel) to Improve Collaboration. The second most common theme for transition teachers was Additional Funding, and for VR counselors, Increased Administrative Support.
Findings from this four-state survey indicate that SE transition teachers and VR counselors perceive that collaboration is important and must be viewed as a high priority to improve transition outcomes, but considerable work remains in regards to understanding roles and responsibilities, as well as implementing practices considered important. Consistently low feasibility ratings may mean that practitioners are not optimistic about the prospects of improving collaboration. Based on the suggestions offered by participants, administrative approval and funding are viewed as imperative for actual implementation of collaboration to occur, neither of which is perceived as likely. If this is the case, we must conclude that key decision-makers must lead the charge to improve collaboration.
See additional suggestions for improved collaboration paraphrased from SE transition teachers’ and VR counselors’ statements in Figure 1. Although some of these suggestions may not be feasible in the literal sense, they may compel the reader to generate new or modified plans.
• Clarify roles and responsibilities. See Utah Transition Action Guide at http://www.schools.utah.gov/sars/Transition/guidelines.aspx
• VR counselors often attend IEP meetings with no prior information about the child. Given parent consent and district release, arrange for relevant documents to be sent to the VR counselor prior to the meeting so the counselor can be more effective.
• Hold training with diverse groups consisting of parents, family members, students, SE transition teachers, other school personnel, and VR.
• VR counselors’ calendars fill up far in advance. Teachers should plan IEP schedules several weeks ahead and notify VR. Perhaps counselors can reserve an afternoon a month for IEPs.
• Beyond IEP meetings, invite VR counselors to school functions with advance notice.
• VR and SE should collaborate on a grant writing process to fund a year or two of joint training to help all those involved in the transition process.
• Convince legislators that successful post-school outcomes make transition cost effective. It’s money well spent.
• Provide funding for more vocational training programs for those individuals with diverse learning styles and disabilities through partnerships at vocational centers or local community colleges.
• Hire paraprofessionals to work in the community developing job placements. These could be retired individuals or family members who want to make a difference.
• Contact high school alumni dedicated to their alma mater who will arrange internships or paid employment.
• Beyond a “memo of understanding”, create real joint training opportunities for SE transition teachers and VR counselors. Don’t limit it to supervisors or state office personnel.
• SE and VR should merge yearly training schedules before the school year begins.
Authors: Deanna Taylor, Bob Morgan, & Jared Schultz, Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation, Utah State University
References available from the authors.