Opening Doors to Collaboration

Interdisciplinary practices for building collaboration between general and special education teams


About This Collection

Inclusive educational settings benefit all students. Yet too often, special and general education teams are siloed within schools.

In Opening Doors to Collaboration, we share a collection of best practices for improving learning outcomes in secondary students — particularly Black and Latinx students with disabilities experiencing poverty — using collaborative teaming structures between general education and special education staff.

Research-to-Impact Practices

This collection includes three best practices essential to the work of improving collaboration between general education and special education teachers on behalf of improving learning outcomes for all students, two guidance documents on supporting collaborative teaming. It features a case study about how Green Dot Public Schools used quarterly professional development days for co-teachers to co-plan.

The collection also includes a literature review with a concise overview of the research on co-teaching, a growing best practice and service delivery model based on the philosophy of inclusive education.

In addition, our work highlights several cross-cutting findings about the importance of collaboration:

  • Collaboration between general and special educators can begin immediately, even as a formal process is being developed.
  • Additional educators means additional opportunities for students.
  • Co-planning must be a deliberate action.
  • Improving collaboration must be a whole-school (or network) effort.

Co-Planning for Differentiated Instruction

For collaborating teachers to have as much impact as possible, they must have dedicated co-planning time focused on ensuring that their upcoming lessons are both accessible and rigorous for all students, especially their students with disabilities. Teams at Summit Atlas and Collegiate Academies honed this work over time, identifying the core practices that make efficient and effective use of collaborating teachers’ often limited time together. This chapter highlights the importance of each of the key components of co-planning, providing an understanding of the contributions from collaborating teachers that yield the strongest plans. This practice also includes a template for a strong, 45-minute co-planning meeting.

Why it Works

For students with disabilities, effective co-planning:

  • Provides both rigor and accessibility for all students to close preexisting learning and achievement gaps, particularly for Black and Latinx students with disabilities experiencing poverty.
  • Drives alignment in instruction across all settings, accelerating learning and minimizing confusion to positively impact student experience; and
  • Ensures that all students are fully included in the classroom and not “othered.”

Co-planning also benefits teachers:

  • Strong co-planning builds knowledge, skill, and capacity among educators, especially benefiting those new to the field.
  • The structures of co-planning allow for the development of a strong, trusting, and collaborative relationship between educators.
  • Co-planning reorients educators to break down silos and adopt an “All Means All” approach to service “our students.”

With a co-planning model, Collegiate Academies doubled the number of students with disabilities who met graduation requirements through alternative pathways.

English co-planning in action at Collegiate Academies


A Collaborative Approach to Student Work Analysis

Once outcomes-driven co-planning is in place, teams are ready to analyze their students’ work to identify strengths and make necessary instructional changes to benefit students. Collaborative student work analysis dramatically deepens’ both teachers’ understanding of their students’ performance and progress in course content. This practice explores how the generalist and the specialist can contribute their unique vantage points and skills to deeply understand students’ work and plan to proactively remove barriers to access, particularly for students with disabilities. It includes Green Dot’s Student Work Analysis Protocol, which can be adapted by schools to meet their needs.

Why it Works

Collaborative student work analysis using an instructionally focused protocol meets the needs of Black and Latinx students with disabilities experiencing poverty by:

  • Building educators’ capacity to understand root causes of misunderstandings.
  • Ensuring critical alignment between teachers.
  • Explicitly acknowledging the impact of students’ learning needs on their work.
  • Leveraging multiple forms of data.

After collaborating teachers at Ednovate implemented a collaborative student work analysis model, the course pass rate in their class increased from 79% to 97%.

Ednovate, Los Angeles, CA


Achieving High-Impact Co-Teaching: A Gradual Release Model

For schools using co-teaching as a service delivery model, this final practice focuses on how teachers can maximize their shared presence with students. Two educators can accomplish twice what one could on their own, but shifting to that level of practice is immensely challenging. For teachers to increasingly employ high-impact co-teaching models, they need targeted, supportive coaching that aids in their gradual adoption of new models based on students’ needs. Collegiate and Green Dot’s work provides a roadmap for how other schools and networks can enable their co-teachers to grow in similar role optimization.

Why it Works

The use of high-impact co-teaching models benefits students with disabilities by:

  • Promoting true inclusion.
  • Allowing for tailored instructional opportunities.
  • Decreasing student-to-teacher ratios.
  • Affording students consistent access to both of their teachers.

Using an incremental method to coach on high-impact co-teaching models benefits teachers by:

  • Providing explicit support for an approach that is not intuitive.
  • Truly valuing each educator.

When co-teachers optimize their roles during lessons, all students experience double the support they would have with one teacher.

Green Dot Ánimo Watts co-teachers team teach a math lesson before moving to differentiated groupings.


How Quarterly Professional Development Cycles Helped a Network Maximize Data-Driven Co-Planning for Co-Teachers: Green Dot Public Schools

This case study explores the coordination and implementation of quarterly professional development days for co-teaching teams that blend professional learning with intentional co-planning time. These facilitated days create purposeful time for teams to connect, reflect on student data with a student work analysis template, expand knowledge of high-leverage co-teaching models, and design instruction using those models for the upcoming quarter.

At Ánimo Watts College Preparatory Academy, quarterly co-planning PD days contributed to an increase of nearly three times the percentage of students with disabilities passing classes with a C+ or higher.

Quarterly co-planning at Green Dot Public Schools


How-To: Launch Effective Collaborative Teams

Effective instructional coaching for collaborative teachers requires a different approach than coaching individual teachers. This guidance document provides school leaders with recommendations and resources that have been used to form effective school teams at Collegiate Academies, Green Dot Public Schools, KIPP Northern California and Summit Public Schools.

NIC Co-Teaching Learning Tour participants visit partner schools.


How-To: Establishing Coaching for Collaborative Teams

Collaboration between general and special educators has the ability to transform the experience and learning of both students and teachers. But collaborative work between these two historically siloed departments is neither intuitive nor easy to achieve. This guide addresses some of the most common questions leaders face when setting up effective coaching of collaborative teams.

NIC educators collaborate at a convening

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