Published Online: May 15, 2012

Study Tracks Growing Understanding of UDL

State and district education leaders say they understand the importance of universal design for learning, and they spent federal stimulus money on putting that set of educational principles into practice, but some of them still aren’t entirely sure what it is, according to a new study.

Universal design for learning, or UDL—a relatively new approach to instruction—originally grew out of a desire to level the playing field in classrooms for students with disabilities. The new study finds that that many states and districts have embraced UDL’s tenets, which call for students to be presented with information and content in different ways and for giving them multiple options to show their understanding of what they know. The instructional approach is intended to help all students, not just those with disabilities. But plenty of misconceptions remain about the approach, which is essentially a set of principles aimed at adapting instruction and providing technological supports to give all students, regardless of disability, equal opportunities to learn.

The reportRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader released today, “Universal Design for Learning: Initiatives on the Move,” for the first time looks at how UDL is being implemented and understood, how 2009’s American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and its Race to the Top grant program advanced UDL, and state and district leaders’ perceptions about the principles.

Because UDL was referenced in the federal stimulus programs, has been defined in some federal legislation, and has been closely linked to the launch of the new Common Core State Standards, it was time to see whether people really know what it is, said Patti Ralabate, the director of implementation at the Center for Applied Special Technology, or CAST, in Wakefield, Mass., and one of the study’s authors. The study was commissioned by her organization and the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, which is part of CAST.

“If they’re calling it UDL, what are people doing,” Ms. Ralabate said. “And what do they know?”

The study included observations of 14 states that had mentioned UDL in their Race to the Top applications and a survey of 134 local special education directors in districts that received federal stimulus dollars.

The good news is: All the state leaders reported being familiar with UDL principles, and more than half the district directors were, too. But the district directors also said limited funding, insufficient staffing, and the time needed to implement UDL remain obstacles.

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The study’s results show that as effective as UDL’s premise can be, states and districts need more support and information about how to put the ideas behind it into practice effectively. The transformation a district may go through as it implements UDL won’t happen overnight, Ms. Ralabate said. Her organization has provided professional development and training to districts all over the country, but is only now involved in broader projects that provide intense support across a district.

“The bottom line is that we believe UDL implementation is a process,” she said. “It’s going to be different in different places. We need to be responsive to those needs just like you are with learners who learn differently—there’s not going to be one way or one definitive example or model.”

Spending Patterns

One thing researchers found particularly promising was how much districts used special education stimulus dollars to invest in UDL—which would be employed by general education teachers.

“A significant amount of this money was used to improve the capacity of general education to serve students with disabilities, not develop separate special programs,” said Thomas Hehir, a former director of the office of special education programs at the U.S. Department of Education and currently a professor of practice at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. He and two doctoral candidates worked on the survey of district special education directors. “All of that [effort] is about giving teachers the skills to teach students with more diverse needs.”

Districts in the survey spent about a quarter of their ARRA money for special education on technology, including computers, that could be used in supporting students with disabilities in the regular classroom. But the amount spent on desktop and tablet versions of computers was about the same, said Todd Grindal, one of the doctoral candidates who collaborated with Mr. Hehir.

The distinction is important because tablets may be far easier to use for some students with disabilities and can even be mounted on wheelchairs, he said. ("iPads Become Learning Tools for Students With Disabilities," March 2, 2011.)

Drilling down further to other technology investments was also telling, Mr. Grindal said: Districts bought Braille-related software and voice-to-text technology.

“They spent more money on specific types of technology, which we could reasonably expect to further UDL,” he said.

The study’s results represent a significant shift, said Mr. Hehir, who left the Education Department in 1999.

“So much of this investment was not going into building up separate special education programs. I don’t think you would have seen that 10 years ago,” he said, noting the push to account for all students’ performance by 2001’s No Child Left Behind law.

But general education teachers need training to work with an increasingly diverse set of students, Mr. Hehir said, and it seems states and districts are not only seeing UDL as a way to make inclusive settings work, they are investing in it.

“People have seen the importance of including kids [with disabilities], but just putting kids in classrooms is not necessarily going to improve outcomes for these kids.”

Nevertheless, he and Ms. Ralabate said the report shows the need for continued promotion and investment.

After response to intervention was referenced in federal special education law, the approach took off as a method of strategically targeting instruction, Mr. Hehir said. There has been strategic federal investment, research, and technical assistance regarding RTI, which involves early identification of students’ learning problems and focused interventions to address those problems before they are entrenched.

“The same things are probably necessary for UDL,” he said. “The audience will be very receptive.”

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