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.