Special Report
Special Education

Standards Open the Door for Best Practices From Special Ed.

April 23, 2012 8 min read

Some instructional approaches associated closely with special education are gaining traction more quickly than ever as more states and districts look to them as the ideal tools to implement the Common Core State Standards.

In particular, two strategies—universal design for learning and response to intervention—are being cited by states in requests for waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act in the section about how they will implement the standards. Those familiar with the techniques say the pairings are logical, and the timing is right.

“To us, it makes perfect sense. With UDL, you really do start with addressing goals that are applicable for all learners,” said Patti Ralabate, the director of implementation for the Center for Applied Special Technology in Wakefield, Mass., which helped develop UDL.

Broadly, universal design for learning is an instructional method that involves creating lessons and classroom materials flexible enough to accommodate different learning styles. And response to intervention is an approach intended to provide early identification of students’ learning problems paired with the use of focused lessons—interventions—to address those problems before it’s too late.

“Without a system to be responsive to student need, we’re kind of back where we started with standards: aiming at the middle. There was going to be nothing intrinsically new unless we seized upon an opportunity to make this about every kid,” said Emilie Amundson, the assistant director of content and learning for the Wisconsin education department. “We have an opportunity to sell RTI as a process that helps implement the common core as opposed to this thing you do for special ed.-identification or special education.”

And because the common-core standards are new, the timing is perfect for states to shift to using UDL and RTI, said Ricki Sabia, the chairwoman of the National UDL Task Force in Washington and the associate director of the National Down Syndrome Society, based in New York City.

States are “redoing their curriculum anyway. We never expected people to just throw out everything and start all over,” Ms. Sabia said. “Now, all of a sudden, they are changing everything.”

Marrying Strategy, Content

Districts already using either or both approaches say there is no question about their benefits for implementing the common-core standards.

When the Bartholomew Consolidated school district in Columbus, Ind., began reworking its approach to instruction to incorporate the principles of universal design for learning a few years ago, it was presented from the start as something to be used with all students, regardless of whether they had a disability.

That approach will stick as the district begins teaching the common-core standards, said George Van Horn, the special education director for the 12,000-student district.

“We don’t believe there’s something for one segment of students that’s not for the benefit of other students,” he said. He illustrates this for some teachers by noting the utility of closed captioning in a crowded bar or noisy gym. “It was created for people with hearing difficulties, yet look at the benefit,” he said.

When a science teacher incorporated common-core vocabulary into her lessons, she didn’t order students to memorize a list and take a test—a task some students wouldn’t be able to manage. Instead, students were able to show they’ve learned the words using journals, doing some kind of project, or carrying out a computer activity. The latter approach reflects the work the district is working on with Ms. Ralabate’s center to improve literacy instruction across subjects, a demand of the common-core standards.

In the Chelmsford, Mass., school system, universal design for learning has been applied in pockets across the 5,000-student district for several years, said Kristan Rodriguez, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

Now, the district is working with the Center for Applied Special Technology on marrying UDL with teaching the common-core standards that require students to show their prowess in persuasive and informative writing.

But teachers already familiar with UDL who are teaching the standards—Massachusetts students will be tested on the English/language arts common-core standards next year—are using it with other standards already, Ms. Rodriguez said.

A recent example: A middle school English teacher said some of her students who had taken a midterm didn’t show mastery of certain skills on the exam. She split them into groups, matching those who missed similar questions, and asked them to demonstrate their knowledge of those skills in another way, by teaching it to the rest of the class.

Providing students with choice, a different way of expressing themselves, is one of the core tenets of UDL.

“Kids that initially had trouble with understanding those skills created an activity that demonstrated their mastery,” she said.

Doubling Up

The shift in the use of UDL is also significant for students because of the very aim of the new standards, Ms. Sabia said, which is to produce a generation better prepared for life after high school.

“Being college- and career-ready is not just about mastering content. It’s about knowing how to approach things,” she said. When students know the most effective ways to learn and express themselves, those are strategies they can use the rest of their lives. But if they know something, and their teachers can’t tell, “you’re wasting time reteaching. And the kids are getting frustrated,” she said.

An ideal situation for implementing the common-core standards would be one in which UDL and RTI are employed together—which is the approach in Chelmsford and other Massachusetts districts, Ms. Sabia said.

“UDL is key for RTI. If you’re not letting [students] show what they know,” Ms. Sabia said, “you’re not going to know whether the intervention is working.”

The Center for Applied Special Technology is working with several districts specifically on connecting the common-core standards with UDL, Ms. Ralabate said. It recently received an $800,000 grant from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to work with four districts for a year on implementing UDL in sync with the standards, including Chelmsford, Bartholomew, and in Maryland, the systems in Baltimore and Cecil counties. (The Gates Foundation also provides support for coverage of K-12 business and innovation in Education Week.)

In the past, much of the center’s work has been about just informing people what universal design for learning is, Ms. Ralabate said.

“This gives us the opportunity to do more than just awareness-building. It gives us the opportunity to do a lot of matching and coordinating between other initiatives and UDL,” she said.

Other states and districts are working through these coordination efforts on their own.

In the Kent Independent School District in the Grand Rapids, Mich. area, special education director Laurie VanderPloeg said pieces of UDL had been in place long before the common-core standards. The strategy was targeted at only a fraction of Kent County’s 109,000 students. Now, UDL has been embedded in the curriculum districtwide.

“Before, it was students with disabilities who had it as accommodations,” she said. Now, all students benefit, and there is less attention on whether an individual student has a disability.

In North Carolina, universal design for learning has been used for a while, said Claire Greer, the state education department’s consultant for autism, severe, and multiple disabilities and the coordinator of its deaf-blind project. But because of the common-core standards, the attitude about its use and potential has changed dramatically, she said.

“For the first time, it’s a part of instruction. That is the shift that’s being made. The UDL information is no longer just housed in special ed.,” Ms. Greer said. “UDL is ... not about special ed.; it’s about all learners.”

Challenges Remain

New approaches to instruction won’t erase the challenges of implementing standards that are more demanding of students and teachers than most states’ existing standards. In the 2,800-student Mason County, Ky., district, students with disabilities’ education plans are now being written based on the standards, said Greta Stanfield, its special education director.

Some teachers “get these big deer-in-the-headlights looks. ‘We can’t teach all those standards in one year,’ ” teachers say. Instead, they determine which standards are truly essential, she said.

“Can they achieve the same [amount of standards] in a single year? No,” Ms. Stanfield said. “Even our gifted students are struggling.”

To help students who show they are falling behind, the district has increased the amount of time they spend on math from 55 minutes a day to 90. Most of those students have disabilities, she said. Next school year, some will have 60 minutes more on top of that, at the expense of classes she said she knows are engaging, such as art.

For students with disabilities, the standards, accepted by all but four states, could eliminate some of the time students with disabilities lose moving between schools and states, said Lindsay Jones, the senior director of policy and advocacy services for the Council for Exceptional Children in Arlington, Va.

“You should be able to do that and not worry—especially for kids with disabilities where transition is a huge issue,” she said.

But one overarching fear remains, despite the changes to instruction the standards may bring, improvements to education plans, and the smoothing of transitions.

“What we saw in the beginning of No Child Left Behind was, blame the kids with disabilities—they’re so far behind,’ ” Ms. Jones said. Indeed, many schools failed to make the law’s hallmark adequate yearly progress benchmark solely because of students with disabilities.

As the stakes for schools have risen, with demands increasing for all students, “it was all of a sudden, ‘Wait a minute. Everybody’s behind,’ ” Ms. Jones said.

The rigorous new standards may once again turn students with disabilities into scapegoats for poor school performance, she said.

“I think you’re going to see the same thing,” Ms. Jones said. “I’m concerned that will repeat itself.”

Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as States Adapting Best Practices From Special Ed. for Standards

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