Interagency Collaboration in Transition to Adulthood for Young Adults with Disabilities: Barriers and Facilitators

Posted on December 12, 2013


In the process of moving through secondary grades towards high school graduation, treat many students with mild disabilities (e.g., more about specific learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, emotional disturbance) fall behind their peers without disabilities in math achievement (Powell, Fuchs, & Fuchs, 2013; Wagner, Newman, Cameto, & Levine, 2006). This gap in math achievement places students with mild disabilities at a disadvantage when it comes to entering postsecondary education. Over half of all students with specific learning disabilities enter higher education (e.g., applied technology colleges, community colleges, universities), but only about one-fourth of them are awarded diplomas (compared to 54% of peers without disabilities).

The gap in math achievement is likely caused by several factors. First, many students are well behind grade level expectations when they are evaluated for special education eligibility. Second, special education teachers themselves are often not specialists in math assessment and instruction. Third, special instruction is often delivered in resource rooms which may reduce opportunities of both teachers and students from interacting in the general education classroom and understanding the high math expectations. Fourth, limitations in funding have eliminated qualified teacher and paraprofessional positions critical to provision of intensive, individualized instruction (Strawser & Miller, 2001).

We wanted to determine the extent to which students with mild disabilities were ready for college math, but by investigating teacher perception rather than test scores. Teacher perceptions are important because they have a powerful influence over what is taught in the classroom and how. We conducted a survey to find out the extent to which resource classroom special education teachers in high schools perceived students with mild disabilities (those who had postsecondary education goals) to be prepared for math at the college level. “College” was defined as either two or four-year post-secondary institutions. We also wanted to find out what resource teachers perceived as barriers to math preparedness and what they suggested as possible solutions.


Participants were 47 resource special education math teachers from Utah high schools (53% response rate). We targeted these teachers because they provided the perspective of educators responsible for preparing students with mild disabilities for college mathematics. We did not ask general education teachers to participate in this study.


We developed a web-based survey questionnaire containing items requiring teachers to rate student readiness on four math constructs: (a) subject knowledge (subdivided into algebra; geometry; and calculus, trigonometry, and probability), (b) measurement and data representation, (c) number sense, and (d) mathematical reasoning and generalization (Corbishley & Truxaw, 2010). For example, the algebra item stated: “Students possess subject knowledge of algebra (i.e., students are able to solve one-step equations, word problems, and two variable equations; combine expressions; graph functions; find inverses).” We also asked about calculator and study skill abilities. Using a Likert-type scale (1=very poor, 2=poor, 3=adequate, 4=proficient, 5=excellent), teachers rated student abilities as well as the importance of the skill to college success (1= not at all important, 2=somewhat important, 3=important, 4=very important, 5=absolutely critical). Additionally, two questions asked teachers to rate how successful students with mild disabilities could be in college (1=not at all successful, 2=rarely successful, 3=somewhat successful, 4=successful, 5=highly successful) and how important it was for such students to attend college (1= not at all important, 2=somewhat important, 3=important, 4=very important, 5=absolutely critical). Finally, teachers answered open-ended questions about math preparedness, barriers and solutions.


Mathematical readiness. Figure 1 presents average ratings on mathematical content. To assess the size of the gap between ratings of importance and ability, the average ratings of ability were subtracted from average ratings of importance for each item to determine a rating difference score. The larger the rating “gap” between importance and student ability, the larger the rating difference score. As shown in Figure 1, ability was rated lower than importance, on average, for all items.  In general, average ratings on all but one of the ability items were between 2 (poor) and 3 (adequate). Calculator use and number sense ranked highest, with subject knowledge of calculus, trigonometry, and probability ranked lowest of the other seven items. Average ratings of importance were more varied, with all but one falling between 3 (important) and 5 (absolutely critical), and study skills, calculator use, and reasoning and generalization rated the highest.  Interestingly, two of the top three items ranked most important, study skills and reasoning and generalization, demonstrated the largest difference between ratings of importance and ability.  This mismatch in critical math skills indicates a need to provide a stronger focus during math instruction on foundational skills that will help students with mild disabilities be more successful in math.


Perceived barriers. We coded teacher responses to create categories of perceived barriers. All barriers fell into categories that we labeled system, student, family, or teacher. Within each category, the highest frequency responses are shown in Figure 2.



Perceived solutions. After coding, solutions suggested by respondents fell into the same categories as barriers. Figure 3 shows responses with the highest frequency solutions within each category.


Comparison of ratings of student preparedness to college success. Teachers rated the importance of college attendance and math between important and very important, 3.3 and 3.9, respectively on a 5-point scale.  They rated how successful students could be in college between somewhat successful and successful, or 3.7 on a 5-point scale.  However, teachers’ mean rating of student math ability was below the mid-point (between poor and adequate, or 2.4 on a 5-point scale).


This survey study investigated the perceptions of a sample of high school special education teachers regarding the mathematical preparedness of high school students with mild disabilities. Results showed that teachers perceived students to have low ability on most mathematical knowledge or skills, and that the knowledge and skills were rated very important or critical to success in college. The largest differences in perceived ability and math importance were found to be in study skills, reasoning and generalization, and subject knowledge of calculus, trigonometry, and probability. Although all areas were rated as important, the findings suggest that these three are critical for students with mild disabilities who want to participate in college math classes.

Calculator use was rated as the second highest in math importance (4.2) with the smallest difference between importance and ability (1.1). However, many teachers commented that their students are “dependent” on calculators, even to do basic calculations. Two participants stated frustration that calculators could not be used in developmental college classes.  Taken together, these comments suggest a need for greater clarification of how and when a calculator should be used.

Respondents rated study skills by far the highest in importance, but near the middle in student ability, giving it the largest rating difference score (2.0). Ironically, when asked how they spend instructional time during math, none of the respondents stated that they spent time teaching study skills, and none stated that they wished they had more time to teach study skills. It seems that these teachers believe students should have the necessary study skills by the time they reach high school, and that it is not the teacher’s responsibility to teach study skills. However, given the reported discrepancies between the importance of study skills, lack of time spend teaching them, and lack of students’ ability with study skills, study skills seem to represent a significant gap that teachers need to address.  Explicitly teaching students study skills at all grade levels would not only benefit students in college, but throughout elementary and secondary school, potentially reducing some of the barriers teachers reported that were related to students.

Perhaps the finding of this study that raises the most concern was what teachers perceived about accountability for student math preparedness. Teachers definitely recognized the importance of students with disabilities enrolling in college and that they were not prepared mathematically; yet they seemed to be saying “someone else is/was responsible; there’s nothing I can do.” While teaching is certainly not the only variable affecting student math achievement, teachers must take responsibility for implementing solutions, particularly when many of the other perceived solutions are not within their control.

Our findings also suggest the need for greater communication between IEP teams and post-secondary personnel (such as college disability services office professionals and college advisors) about what math skills are required, so that teams can determine priorities and plans for individual students. Because more students with mild disabilities are attending college (whether they were expected to or not), special educators and administrators need to improve programs and services to increase student preparation, particularly in math—which is one of the greatest barriers to college success.

Authors: Adam D. King, Robert L. Morgan, Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation, Utah State University, and Catherine A. Callow-Heusser, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Utah State University

References available upon request of the first author.

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, pills meaning frequent interaction between special education (SE), stuff 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).

Survey Procedures

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.

Survey Results

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.

Table-1 Table-1part2


•    Clarify roles and responsibilities. See Utah Transition Action Guide at

•    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.

Administrative Actions

•    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.

AuthorsDeanna Taylor, Bob Morgan, & Jared Schultz, Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation, Utah State University

References available from the authors.