Photo of 4 girls with their arms each other at school, including one girl with Down syndrome.

HDI Projects for Education & an Insider Perspective from Mike Abell: Part 1

Amanda Kelley Corbin

Dr. Mike Abell has worked in special education since 1991 and has experience with students with disabilities from preschool to post-secondary transition. He has worked on projects dealing with behavior supports and behavior intervention programs in schools, and he has worked to help school districts incorporate assistive technology and universal design for learning principles in classrooms.

Work at HDI

For the past seven years, Dr. Abell has been at HDI. He served as a director for the Mid-South Regional Resource Center, a technical assistance center that supported nine state education departments and their office of special education to comply with federal policies and procedures. This involved assisting state staff with policy development, support, data collection, analyses, and professional development on new and research-based practices. Over the past four years at HDI, Dr. Abell has worked on the IDEA Technical Assistance Data Center and the Kentucky State Personnel Development Grant.

The IDEA Data Center

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, every child with a disability is entitled to a free and appropriate public education. IDEA is a federal law that requires schools and early intervention programs to serve the educational and developmental needs of children with disabilities. It covers children from birth to age 21. Before IDEA was passed in 1975, over one million children were excluded from school because of their disability.

IDEA began collecting data to make sure children were receiving services. Now the data collected is used for more. Data can be used to highlight discrepancies and drive change. IDEA data provides a picture special education and helps decision makers understand what’s working and what isn’t.

The IDEA Data Center provides supports to state education departments across the US and the territories. The center focuses on helping better collect, analyze, and utilize special education data and report it to the US Department of Education. Dr. Abell explained,

All states collect an amazing amount of student education data, all different types of information—discipline data, outcome data, etc. and those states are required to report that to the federal government, but there’s a lot of challenges in collecting and disaggregating the data to the point where it’s of really high quality, because you want the best data you can possibly have to make decisions around.

Each child’s data is used to determine which services they need. Data are then combined with other students’ data to evaluate how well the overall system is working. (Children’s identities are kept private.) This combined data shows patterns and trends so leaders can make better decisions for students. Because of this, IDEA data is very important. Dr. Abell explained, “We work to help our state departments of education really do a better job around data quality and data use pertaining to special education data that then can be sent to the US Department of Education who then uses that for policy decisions, funding formulas, etc.”


In addition to his work with the IDEA Data Center, Dr. Abell is co-manager of the Kentucky State Department of Education State Personnel Development Grant (KY SPDG). KY SPDG is a five-year federally funded grant that focuses on professional development for special education teachers in Kentucky. “We’re focused on training teachers around the area of discipline and positive behavior supports to help teachers be more effective in working with students with discipline and behavior problems,” Dr. Abell said. “We also work with districts [on] utilizing high quality leadership practices so that district leadership teams can be more effective in the decision-making processes.”

KY SPDG trainings serve select group of districts every year. Dr. Abell explained, “We meet with the districts, look at their strengths, weaknesses, areas that they want to improve on, and then build a plan based on what the leadership has identified.”


Dr. Abell’s experience gives him an insider perspective on education. “We’re in amazing times,” he said, “really amazing times. There are a lot of challenges out there but there are a lot of opportunities. It’s not going to be like it used to be—that’s for sure.” Dr. Abell characterized the state of education today in terms of innovation and disruption. Both are having a significant impact that will likely continue for the next 10 years or so.