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 principles into practice, but some of them still aren’t entirely sure what it is, according to a new study.
The principles of universal design for learning, or UDL—a relatively new approach to instruction—originally grew out the disability community. The study finds that many states and districts have embraced UDL’s tenets, which call for presenting students with information and other content in different ways and giving them multiple options for showing their understanding of what they know. The approach is intended to help all students, not just those with disabilities.
The report released last week looks for the first time at how UDL is being implemented and understood, how the 2009 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 for education, 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, part of cast.
“If they’re calling it UDL, what are people doing?” Ms. Ralabate said.
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: All the state leaders reported being familiar with UDL principles, and more than half the district directors did, too. But district directors also said limited funding, insufficient staffing, and the time needed to implement UDL remain obstacles.
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 intensive support across a district.
The study found that one of the frequently mentioned challenges of putting UDL into practice is that lack of understanding. One person surveyed said teachers are “often left wondering where to start, how to start, how to determine if what they’re doing is UDL.”
“It’s going to be different in different places,” Ms. Ralabate said. “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.”
That variation is what makes UDL sometimes hard to understand, said Kim Hymes, the director of policy and advocacy for the Council for Exceptional Children, based in Arlington, Va.
Teachers want to know “how will I know when I see it? Is it just technology? That’s the greatest myth of UDL, that it has to be technology-rich,” Ms. Hymes said. “Technology can support and bolster, but it is not the beginning and end of UDL principles.”
Researchers said it was promising to see districts used to use special education stimulus aid to invest in UDL, which would also be employed by general education teachers.
General Education’s Role
“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 now a professor of practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He 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.”
That attitude is critical, said Nancy Reder, the deputy executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, in Alexandria, Va.
“Those I work with in a UDL coalition believe strongly that UDL is not just a special education initiative, and that it belongs—should be owned by—general education,” Ms. Reder said. “The state directors of special education to my knowledge are well aware of UDL but it is perhaps their general ed. counterparts who are less knowledgeable.”
Districts 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, Mr. Grindal said.
Drilling down further to other technology spending was also telling, he said: Districts also 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.
But general education teachers also need training to work with an increasingly diverse set of students, Mr. Hehir said, and it appears states and districts not only are seeing UDL as a way to make inclusive settings work, but also are putting money into it.
“People have seen the importance of including kids [with disabilities],” he said, “but just putting kids in classrooms is not necessarily going to improve outcomes for these kids.”
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2012 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Districts Buying Into Universal Design