Special education for all?

The New York City Department of Education is currently implementing special education reform. One of its principles is that “all schools should have the curricular, instructional, and scheduling flexibility needed to meet the diverse needs of students with disabilities with accountability outcomes.” At the same time, “students with disabilities must have access to the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS).” 

How do you meet the students’ diverse needs and make the standards accessible for them? Welcome to Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a “framework” that enables teachers to design curricula for diverse learners in advance, instead of on the fly. On the one hand, it’s difficult to object to something like this. Shouldn’t teachers consider students’ needs when planning curricula? Shouldn’t the curricula reflect the students, at least in part? On the other, it could distract from subject matter. It could send students the message that they need pictures, sounds, activities, strategy instruction, and so forth whenever they don’t understand something.

According to the UDL guidelines, the current curricula are not simply flawed; they are disabled (in terms of who they can teach, what they can teach, and how they can teach. (Why do people find it necessary to disparage the old when presenting the (supposedly) new? Aren’t some curricula better than others?) UDL addresses these “disabilities” by making the curricula more accessible to learners: that is, by providing multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement.

For instance, according to the guidelines, “an equals sign (=) might help some learners understand that the two sides of the equation need to be balanced, but might cause confusion to a student who does not understand what it means.” Therefore a teacher should provide “alternative representations” (instead of, say, telling the student what the equals sign means).

Or consider this: “While a learner with dyslexia may excel at story-telling in conversation, he may falter when telling that same story in writing.  It is important to provide alternative modalities for expression, both to the level the playing field among learners and to allow the learner to appropriately (or easily) express knowledge, ideas and concepts in the learning environment.” But shouldn’t any student, including a student with dyslexia, learn how to write? Granted, the student should have the opportunity to speak as well. That is nothing new or fancy. It is possible that a student might have difficulty with both speaking and writing. What to do but practice?

Multiple representations and modes of expression are far from the whole of UDL. Teachers are supposed to “scaffold” the development of the “executive functions” of students’ brains: “The UDL framework typically involves efforts to expand executive capacity in two ways: 1) by scaffolding lower level skills so that they require less executive processing; and 2) by scaffolding higher level executive skills and strategies so that they are more effective and developed.” For instance, when it comes to “higher level executive skills,” teachers should guide students in the formation of their own personal learning goals and help them develop strategies for learning. All of this is fine in moderation, but (a) it can take up a great deal of class time and (b) it can send students the wrong message about their own responsibility and role.

In my experience, students who study at home (that is, who don’t just zip through the homework, but think about it until they understand it) are rarely in need of strategy instruction, multiple representations, and so forth. The strategies come to them as they wrestle with the material. A few tips can help, but they need not be elaborate. In class, these students benefit from challenging instruction. This includes a variety of representations (such as when the geometry teacher says, “Or think of it this way”).  It includes some clarifications, review of basics, hints about how to learn this material, questions pointing to the next step, and exposition of new material. Students then seize this material and work on it. 

By no means am I arguing that a teacher should leave students in the lurches, ignoring them when they stare blankly at the wall or doodle in their textbooks. Of course she should think about what students need and how to draw them in. But take this too far, and you won’t have a lesson that compares the formulas for the hyperbola and ellipse. You won’t have a discussion of Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” You’d end up teaching material that required less intensive study–because you’d have to bring in all your multiple this and that.

If UDL is meant as a collection of suggestions and principles, then much of it makes sense (though I still take issue with the equals sign example). But the word “universal” makes me wary, as does the blanket dismissal of current curricula. Teachers have incorporated UDL-like practices for centuries. It is important to question and refine what we are doing; it is damaging to bring in some sweeping change, some revolutionary lawnmower that tears up the field.

Addressing disabilities in the classroom is a tricky matter; it requires knowledge, skill, and good judgment. But we do students a disservice, overall, when bending too far to accommodate them. One learns by wrestling with things. If students understood this, if at home they pondered and practiced what they were learning in class, we’d see a profound difference in our schools. Teachers, then, would have more room to wrestle with the material at higher levels and plan challenging, well-crafted lessons.


  1. SuperSub says:

    This seems to be the bastard child of differentiated instruction and metacognitive thinking, with a little Vygotsky sprinkled in to pacify skeptics.

  2. Ponderosa says:

    “Universal instruction” runs the risk of becoming lowest-common denominator instruction.

    I bend over backwards to make my history lectures ultra-lucid. I make many hand-drawn slides to elucidate. I break down concepts into parts and explain each. The result, I think, is that both talented and lagging students can understand the history well if they choose to pay attention. However I still feel that I am failing the very top and the very bottom students. The lesson should be much faster, or much more nuanced, for the top kids. It should be slower and simpler for the very bottom kids, many of whom still tune out despite my pictures and realia. If I were to make an all-out effort to “save” these low-end students, I would really be failing the other students.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Caveat: I’m writing this on the fly, so excuse me if my thoughts drift or have a general incoherence.

    I’ve had some experience with UDL, particularly as it is presented to those who are training to be teachers. I’ve seen it at work in classrooms, and I’m generally of the belief that it’s seriously flawed in two ways because of assumptions it makes that are questionable.

    First, there is the belief that everyone’s learning is different — that learning is like “fingerprints”. This is probably literally true, in the sense that my learning is my learning, and your learning is yours. The phenomena of our learnings are numerically distinct, and probably have some minor cosmetic differences, just like fingerprints. But fingerprints (for the most part) are functionally interchangeable when it comes to their actual deployment: gripping things. Saying that everyone’s learning is different is not the same as saying that there are, in each and every person, differences that are relevant to teaching.

    In fact, we (humans) learn in very predictable ways. That’s not to say that there may not be some broadly functional distinctions to be made between various types of student; but it is to say that the vision of every single student as relevantly unique is false.

    Second, and perhaps more importantly, UDL confounds “opportunities” for learning with “results of learning.” Now, from a certain point of view, this makes sense. I can be said to have an equal opportunity to become an NBA all-star when compared to Kobe Bryant; we both can show up to try-outs and give it our all. But from another perspective, I don’t have an equal opportunity, because I do not get to possess the same sort of natural athletic gifts that Bryant has.

    The thinking that underlies this is really what I consider to be the most serious flaw in Kantian-Rawlsian thinking: the notion that what matters to people’s identity is some kernel of disembodied rationality, and will a sort of volitional homunculus that is the self and upon which get draped contingent rainments like one’s body, one’s talents, one’s social position, etc.

    The UDL framework makes the same sort of assumption about students: that the various levels of intelligence, the various levels of motivation, background knowledge, self-discipline, etc., are all contingencies that are external to the core essence of each student, and that to give each student (read: each disembodied kernel of rationality and human worth) an equal opportunity, the various barriers that arise from their contingent characteristics should be swept away.

    To have an equal opportunity for learning, in other words, is to be in a situation that is structured such that the results of the educational process depend solely on will. And even that is abstracted away to a certain degree, with the view that “engagement” and “motivation” influences the operation of the will and that the environment should be set up to remove any barriers to choosing to learn.

    Finally — and this isn’t a third assumption, but a terrible mistake that proceeds from the first two flawed assumptions — UDL ends up abstracting the learning process to the point of futility. This is somewhat similar to your point about how UDL will end up teaching different content, but not exactly the same. Let me see if I can explain what I mean by example.

    UDL is very concerned with how educators set up the learning objectives for their students, and pushes an approach that (they say) gets to the important heart of what is really desired: learning. Here’s an example of how UDL sets itself apart from its perceived opponents (who may or may not really exist):

    Traditional Learning Goal: Students will read the chapter on the Agricultural Revolution and will write, in cursive, a 200-word report about its technological innovations.

    UDL Goal: Students will learn and present information about the technological innovations underlying the Agricultural Revolution.

    UDL, its proponents argue, dismisses the sorts of arcane trappings that normally accompany learning goals and instead focuses on the pure, generalized goal of learning and demonstration through whatever methods will work best for each individual student.

    This sounds great, right? I mean, who doesn’t want to get right down to the essence of what’s important and pursue it directly?

    But UDL makes the same mistake with content that it makes with human nature: the goal of the “traditional” lesson isn’t just to teach some facts about the agricultural revolution. The goal of the traditional lesson is to develop certain particular, deployed capacities in the students. Indeed, on some views, the capacities are primary, and the transmission of knowledge about the Agricultural Revolution is completely secondary to the process.

    UDL views the following as “barriers” that exist in the Traditional assignment above:

    * Some students may have difficulty with cursive handwriting

    * Some students may not be able to effectively organize their thoughts and put them on paper to create a report of this length.

    But writing in cursive and learning to organize one’s thoughts on paper are part of what is sought to be taught!

    That’s not to say that a UDL educator doesn’t want to teach skills, but the UDL philosophy more or less forces educators to fragment the curriculum, rather than integrating it. Every piece of knowledge, every skill, every task, is broken down and presented atomically, stripped to its fundamentals to allow a maximally effective transmission of that particular kernel to each of the various individual learners. It’s highly analytical, and so it appeals to the underlying philosophical commitments described above.

    But it’s no way to teach a person how to flourish in a society. It’s great if you’re programming a computer — or a disembodied kernel of rationality and will. But when you’re teaching people you need to integrate, to turn things into combined exercises. Learning about the agricultural revolution just isn’t that important on its own — even if it does get its own heading in the state standards. It’s not really the primary goal of the lesson, and to treat it as if it is is to make a serious error.

    I’ve gone on long enough, so I’ll stop here.

    • Diana Senechal says:

      Very interesting insights. Thank you for this.

      In a way this reminds me of the pervasive belief that students should be learning “big ideas” and “themes.” According to some, you can have a classroom where certain students are reading Romeo and Juliet, and other students are reading a more accessible story of thwarted love. But the point of reading Romeo and Juliet is not to learn about thwarted love. It’s to come to understand the play itself–and those aspects of the play that might (a) distinguish it from other literature, on the one hand, and (b) inform the study of other works of Shakespeare, other drama, other poetry, on the other.

  4. There is some risk to this way of approaching instruction for students who don’t need to have every concept available in several ways — mostly opportunity cost because it’s so time consuming to design and manage instruction this way. But there is also risk for students with special needs; it is dangerous to assume that you can just throw a student with dyslexiia or cognitive impairment into a UDL classroom and assume that their needs are being met. UDL ends up looking like an “everything including the kitchen sink” environment.

  5. Cranberry says:

    There’s also a cost to the students who can master material quickly and well by standard methods. As the materials grow more complex, it’s not possible to offer multiple modes of academic instruction in every class, is it? And, the requirement to allow different approaches to learning can calcify into requiring different types of projects and assessments. Why should a biology student produce a poster, if he or she would learn more by writing a summary of recently published research reports?

    I am also concerned about “leveling the playing field.” Schools do not function merely as sources of knowledge. They also sort students into categories. Some disability advocates seem to have difficulty acknowledging that students are not equally capable. For example, extra time on standardized tests may help some students produce better scores. Some will argue that the extra time only helps the students with diagnosed disabilities perform up to their “true” level. Fine. If so, why not offer extra time to everyone?

    • North of 49th says:

      Some will argue that the extra time only helps the students with diagnosed disabilities perform up to their “true” level. Fine. If so, why not offer extra time to everyone?

      That’s what they now do on our provincial tests. It used to be that “extra time” was an accommodation that had to be applied for and documented. Now, any student is allowed whatever time he or she requires, within certain parameters. Let’s say a section of the test normally is expected to take 90 minutes. Any students who require extra time can take the entire session (up to 3 or 4 hours, conceivably) to complete that 90-minute section. They cannot, however, take either a meal break or go home for the day and come back to finish it. Potty breaks are allowed but students must complete each section of the test in one sitting, that is, without leaving the building or socializing with others.

      My observation is that “extra time” benefits only those who truly need it. You either know the stuff or you don’t. Flexible time parameters means that students who write slower than average can show what they know, and all students have time to check over their work (you’d be amazed how many still don’t do this). Anxious students seem to perform better.

      On the whole however it has not changed measured outcomes, except that students who formerly got incompletes now get a score.