Special Education

A Level Playing Field

By Lani Harac — October 07, 2004 17 min read
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The UDL approach was originally devised for kids with physical and learning disabilities.

Kelly Driscoll’s humanities class wasn’t nearly as rowdy as the group next door, but it was far from quiet. A computer-generated voice occasionally penetrated the muted clicketyclack of 19 middle schoolers working on laptops, and a handful of kids tossed play-insults at each other between discussions of what they were reading. Punctuating the buzz were intermittent pronouncements from a corner of the room. “Yessss!” Anais Perez exclaimed, setting her gold nameplate earrings swinging. “That’s so sad,” she said a few minutes later. Then, with conviction and a strong New England accent: “Such a liuh.”

Her thick black hair wrapped in a messy bun, Anais and her classmates were using software called Thinking Reader to read Bud, Not Buddy, Christopher Paul Curtis’ tale of an orphan’s childhood during the Great Depression. Though the tone of the book is light, Bud’s life in Flint, Michigan, is hard, with stints in cruel foster homes. As the class wrapped up on a morning in late May, Anais got into an exchange with Michael Guerra, a lanky boy seated across from her, about what happens during Bud’s first night with a new family, the Amoses. Their son, Todd, makes a habit of harassing foster kids with a pencil, and Bud is no exception—although he’s the one who gets punished by Todd’s mother after the two boys are caught fighting.

“It’s nasty, sticking a pencil up someone’s nose,” Anais observed. “I’d wanna go back to the [orphanage]. She didn’t even hear Bud’s side of the story.”

“Would you believe your own kid or someone you found on the street?” Michael countered.

“You can believe both of them,” Anais replied. “Sometimes you don’t know who’s telling the truth.”

When Anais arrived at Young Achievers Science and Mathematics Pilot School as a 2nd grader, she could barely read and she was performing below grade level in all of her classes at the K-8 school. The next year, she was given an individualized education plan, which until 6th grade meant leaving her classroom for large chunks of time to get extra help in reading, writing, and other subjects. When she was with her regular teachers, she usually tried to avoid reading altogether by misbehaving.

But as one of Driscoll’s 7th graders, Anais did something different this past year: She stayed in class. “I had a chance to sit...with kids my age, kids that are supposed to be in my grade,” she says. “And that’s instead of getting kicked out of the class.”

Driscoll is a practitioner of something called Universal Design for Learning, born 20 years ago at a clinic not far from Young Achievers. The UDL approach—in which students use whatever print or technological tools they need—was originally devised for kids with physical and learning disabilities. It has been so successful among those students that the group responsible for it recently drew up guidelines for the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, currently up for reauthorization.

That same group, a nonprofit called the Center for Applied Special Technology, is now trying to get UDL into mainstream classes. Its researchers claim that with the right materials, technology, and training, teachers can make all lessons flexible enough to benefit every student—including those considered “disabled.”

“We don’t know any teachers who really want it the way it is, having school largely be a sieve separating students,” says David Rose, a CAST founder. “It’s no fun going home at the end of the day knowing you have students falling further behind while you do your job.”

That may be true. But UDL, like any technology-related educational approach, isn’t cheap. And at least initially, it requires teachers to spend extra hours crafting lessons. So as the federal government and several state-level administrations add UDL to their education policies, it’s worth taking a look at how it’s applied in the Boston area, where CAST’s wide-ranging theories have already met the day-to-day realities of the classroom.

Anais lives in Dorchester, a working-class Boston neighborhood, with her mom, three brothers, and a foster brother. They reside in a new single-family home on a street otherwise dotted with dilapidated apartment buildings. Her mom, Ana Dominguez, is a native of the Dominican Republic and moved to Dorchester when she was 14, the age Anais is now. The34-year-old Dominguez has a pierced belly button and bears a striking resemblance to her daughter. She’s also a single mom who works part-time as an administrative assistant in a nursing home.

Although tall and broad-shouldered, Anais moves gracefully; until recently, she studied hip hop, ballet, and tap at a dance school near Young Achievers, in Jamaica Plain. She spends most of her free time now hanging out with cousins who live close by.

Anais has always had academic problems, however. The Boston school district diagnosed her with something referred to as a “specific learning disability,” although it’s anything but specific. For Anais, its exceedingly hard to identify words and figure out their meanings—"decoding,” as literacy specialists call it. This means she has a tough time understanding written and spoken language and, therefore, struggles in all subjects.

Young Achievers is part of a network of “pilot” schools in the Boston area that essentially function as district-led charters and allow for innovation. In grades 3 through 6, Anais’ special ed teachers used a phonics program that helped her read stories like The Cat in the Hat on her own, though she was never able to keep up with classmates. By 6th grade, though, the routine had become unbearable, according to Anais. She was being pulled out of the classroom most of the day. “In the morning, I’d have to go into class for like two minutes,” she recalls, “and then leave for two or three hours.”

UDL mixes tech with textbook resources.

But things were different with Driscoll, a vibrant, down-to-earth 29-year-old with long brown hair often tucked behind her ears. She was using Thinking Reader as part of a UDL-based curriculum that included everything from giving kids Post-its and highlighters for note-taking to establishing a “library” of books oncassette tape. When Anais used the software this past fall, she was able to finish a grade-level novel for the first time. Then, she says, “I read a whole book on vacation"—accompanied by a recorded version borrowed from Driscoll.

From a distance, UDL looks like many other technology-driven instructional theories. But a few details set it apart. For one, it was developed long before technology played such a prominent role in education; its creators at CAST are among the genre’s pioneers. UDL also allows teachers to make use of multiple pedagogical approaches and technological tools withina single curriculum. But most important is an emphasis on across-the-board cooperation—involving not only CAST and teachers but publishers, too, so that materials can be modified easily to suit individual students’ needs.

Thinking Reader is a good example of how UDL works. When Anais used it for Bud, Not Buddy in May, she began at Level 1, the first of four. Passages were highlighted onscreen while recordings of the same text played aloud, enabling Anais to follow along, sometimes repeating words to herself. At intervals, the recording halted and the screen displayed a prompt or exercise, such as “Look at the highlighted words in the text to help you visualize what is happening, then describe what you see in your mind.” As Anais became more skilled, the number of support prompts decreased and became less explicit. By June, when school was about to end, she’d stepped up to Level 2.

“A student like Anais, who just struggles so much with reversals and what she sees—has she improved in her decoding?” Driscoll asks. “I would say yes, but her improvement in decoding is because she loves to read now. Reading is not as frustrating for her, and it’s something she sees as a part of her life now. She is a student who has become, over the course of the year, confident in her learning.”

Driscoll was teaching reading, writing, and social studies to 7th and 8th graders at Young Achievers. Of the 19 students in her 7th grade class, eight had IEPs. A few, including Anais, were Latino; the rest were African American. The walls of her classroom were covered with posters on which Driscoll had written, with multicolored markers, vocabulary words and reading-comprehension strategies. During one lesson, she used an overhead projector to display atrociously punctuated sentences on a large screen. She would ask one student to correct each sentence—and, if necessary, call on classmates for help.

Driscoll began her career in 1998 in her home state of Connecticut, where she was a special ed teacher for three years. She moved to Boston in 2001 and worked at a middle school that closed the following summer, then switched to YA. In summer 2003, she and a few other YA teachers attended a workshop organized by CAST, based in nearby Wakefield, Massachusetts. Instructors described one of their classroom programs—through which CAST helps educators hone lesson plans—and asked some of the teachers whether they wanted to participate. Driscoll considered the decision a “no-brainer.”

“I like challenges, I like figuring out how people learn,” she explains. “When you’re an education student, you’re asked to write about your philosophy of education. And the more I studied special education, the more I realized all education should be special education.”

The more I studied special education, the more I realized all education should be special education."

Special ed was actually the starting point for CAST. In the early 1980s, a group of clinical neuropsychologists at North Shore Children’s Hospital in Boston were working with kids who had significant cognitive and physical disabilities. A few members of the staff, including David Rose, believed that the usual educational recommendations for these students were insufficient, so they began meeting separately to discuss alternatives and explore how computers might help.

In 1984, five of them founded CAST as an independent clinic. Children and their parents would visit the office, where the neuropsychologists frequently employed assistive technologies such as computers that recognize voice commands. “With the computer stuff, there were times when it happened right in front of us,” recalls Rose, one of CAST’s two directors and a former preK-12 teacher. “You’d see a kid who was disabled, and within a day, there was a huge change in what they accomplished.”

Recreating the same environment in schools, however, was difficult. So in the mid-1990s, CAST’s mission evolved from “fixing the child” to fixing the education system for students with disabilities. At the same time, Rose and his colleagues were doing extensive research that led them to develop a model of three brain networks central to the learning process. They argued that lessons should be “universally designed,” accounting for these networks and their associated strengths and weaknesses in each student.

From this model, the CAST researchers concluded that “learning disabilities “had nothing to do with how smart kids are or how much they can achieve; what was disabled was the classroom material because only a narrow band of students could use it. A more flexible curriculum, they argued, would be accessible by everyone.

“We realized we could continue helping one child at a time, forever, or we could help a larger number of students,” recalls Grace Meo, another CAST founder and currently its professional development director. “What we’re doing is shifting the burden of change from the students to the curriculum.”

Some Boston-area schools, in fact, have gone beyond even curricular changes, transforming their entire learning environments with accessibility in mind.

The four-year-old building that houses Ipswich Middle School, located 30 miles northeast of Boston in a town of the same name, was designed to be technology-friendly. Every classroom has a half-dozen computers, and each grade level is clustered around what looks like a hexagonal conversation pit outfitted with high-tech multimedia equipment. The Ipswich district also provides free technology training to employees; Pat Previte, who’s spent her 17-year career at the middle school, has taken part every summer.

Previte’s 6th grade English classroom is roomy and quiet, with several windows and a wall of cupboards. Although none of the 85 students in her four classes this past spring had an IEP, she worked with CAST curriculum designer Patti Ganley to create universally designed lessons.

Since the mid-1990s, CAST has been designing “digital books” that offer oral and visual versions of texts and allow students to type, record, or scan in notations. (Print copies are available for students who prefer them.) Thinking Reader itself is a result of CAST’s research. Now produced and distributed by Tom Snyder Productions, an educational software company based near Boston, the program is available even to teachers who aren’t familiar with UDL. CAST has also prototyped and sold a number of other digital materials modeled on UDL principles, including the literacy software WiggleWorks and the Web-based tool Bobby, which determines whether Internet sites are disability-friendly.

Previte didn’t use Thinking Reader this past year, but she and Ganley developed their own digitized novel and allowed students, as they read chapters, to post comments on the class Web site. The last project of the year was a “teaching book,” an idea Previte’s daughter, also an educator, had fashioned with her own colleagues. Students could pick any topic, then, using Internet and print sources, put together their own books, becoming “experts” on their areas of study. As they made their presentations in the last week of May, Alex Buchbaum, a stocky boy with ruddy cheeks, authoritatively answered questions about military history without once referring to his spiral-bound book. Eli Natti, a charismatic student with shaggy brown hair and a slight lisp, enthused about violins: “If you weren’t in Italy,” he avowed, “you weren’t a violinmaker. It’s just that simple.”

“The goal was to have the students recognize different types of nonfiction structures, and then they take that and show they understand the text structures,” Previte explains. “I was definitely able to see gains that they had made. One boy, I helped, but he did a lot of it himself, more than I think he has in the past.”

The equipment needed to do these kinds of projects is expensive. Although final numbers for 2003-04 weren’t available at press time, the market research firm Quality Education Data estimated during that school year that U.S. public schools would spend as much as $5.8 billion on educational technology. And this past spring, the Consortium for School Networking conducted case studies across the country, taking into account costs for maintenance, staff development, and other expenses. It found that each instructional computer had cost the districts between $1,000 and $3,000.

Teacher Kelly Driscoll.

These are the kinds of numbers that concern Todd Oppenheimer. Winner of a National Magazine Award and author of the book The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved, he argues that most of the money for technology is being spent ineffectively and could be better applied to the basics. But he does allow for what’s called “scaffolding"—using computers to support kids rather than think for them. Text-to-speech software, for example, could read aloud an algebraic word problem to a dyslexic student, so long as that student then does the math herself. Although Oppenheimer hasn’t had direct experience with UDL, he’s encouraged by what he hears.

“You want to use the computer’spowers to break down the steps of learning...to make them more complex, so you really engage [students] and hook them—and eventually get them off the computer,” he says. "[UDL] certainly sounds promising. As long as it’s not overused and oversold, I think this is one of the areas where computers have great promise.”

Oppenheimer isn’t alone in his assessment. Several states throughout the country have adopted UDL as an integral part of their education policies. And CAST was one of the primary collaborators on the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard, a voluntary set of guidelines for publishers that produce digital versions of materials for students with disabilities.

NIMAS, which has been endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education, may not be voluntary much longer. In their current reauthorization bills for the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which is amended and renewed every few years, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate include the guidelines. Once IDEA is reauthorized, publishers will have two years to provide NIMAS-compliant materials for students with disabilities. State-level administrators may also be able to purchase the same materials for general use.

“We used to think [our mission] was a line of code in the software; now we see it as a line of code in a bill,” David Rose says. “What we’re trying to do is build more power into the materials, and more flexibility, so the teacher doesn’t have to remake it.”

Publishing guidelines are not the only CAST-related effort that has been endorsed by the education department. Since 2001, the nonprofit has received more than $5.2 million in federal grants. One grant worth $1.5 million went to research on reading comprehension, an acknowledgment of the gains made by students like Anais.

In June, Driscoll’s classroom was awash with students getting ready to showcase final presentations for Bud, Not Buddy. Anais and two friends, Shardee Burston and Lynnicia Barnett, had decided to perform the scene in which Todd sticks a pencil up Bud’s nose while he’s asleep. After Bud awakens, he fights back—until Mrs. Amos enters and accuses him of picking on her son.

The students introduced the chapter, then Anais, in the role of Bud, curled atop a small table serving as a bed. Shardee, playing Todd, entered with a pencil in hand. The girls wrestled to the floor, then remembered to dip into a plateful of red paint. Both of them now smeared with “blood,” Shardee held her neck as Anais ducked under the bed.

Enter Lynnicia as Mrs. Amos, who listened sympathetically to Todd’s version of events:

Todd: I was only trying to help, and...and look what it’s gotten me.

Mrs. Amos (to Bud): This is how you choose to repay me? Not only have you struck him, you provoked his asthma!

Todd: I was just trying to wake him to make sure he’d gone to the lavatory. I was just trying to help.

Mrs. Amos (to Bud): Go to Todd and apologize, or I shall be forced to give you the strapping of your life.

Bud: It was wrong of me to hit you. I know you were only trying to help, and I’m very sorry for what I did.

The girls recited straight from the book, skipping a few lines here and there to keep the program short. What was notable, at least for Driscoll, was that Anais spokepublicly at all.

“It’s incredible that she read out loud for her presentation because before, she wouldn’t do that,” Driscoll says. “We have had situations this year where teachers asked her to read out loud and then put consequences on her when she didn’t do it.”

At home that afternoon, Anais’ mom, Ana Dominguez, admitted that she still has to prod the teenager to read. But, she continued, speaking with a thick Spanish accent, “she says that she’s doing better, that she’s learning, that she feels more special.”

Dominguez was sitting on a loveseat in a tiny living room dominated by a large-screen television. Soon, Anais and her oldest brother, Michael, arrived. After a quick trip upstairs to her room, Anais dropped onto the couch next to her mom. “Wow,” Dominguez said, looking at two small trophies in her daughter’s hands. "¿Dónde Mikey?”

“He’s upstairs. He only got one,” Anais declared, showing off her soccer awards and a swimming certificate. She told her mother about the presentations in Driscoll’s class and added that one of the observing teachers gave her group top scores in all grading areas.

Reflecting on the school year about to end, Anais recalled that in the fall, she kept waiting for someone to pull her out of class, as they had for years. It took her a few days to realize that with help from Driscoll and UDL, the pattern had changed.

“Now if I read a book, I’ll understand it,” she said. “It showed me...that reading isn’t all that hard and that you can see your own work if you talk to the text and you think through your work. I’m not only at Level 1. I can go up to a Level 2, and a Level 3, and a Level 4.”


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