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Most state-level special education directors have made Universal Design for Learning a top priority, according to the first comprehensive report on state and local implementation of the curriculum framework.
But the directors say other state and district staff members aren't sure what Universal Design for Learning is.
Let's clear that up.
Universal Design for Learning is a research-based curriculum framework that came out of a movement to utilize technology to assist learning among students who have physical and cognitive disabilities. In time, the curriculum framework expanded to meet the needs of all students.
"It is such an important initiative for all students and teachers. And it's something that is not only complementary with other reforms, such as RTI (Response to Intervention) and PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), but it's essential in order for these other reforms to work to their best ability to help students," said Ricki Sabia, associate director of the National Policy Center at the National Down Syndrome Society, during a webinar on Tuesday, May 15.
Teachers give students choices for how to learn and vary their teaching methods. Those choices could include taking an online class, working on a project the student is interested in, or communicating on social networks.
In the "Universal Design for Learning: Initiatives on the Move" report, the National Center on Universal Design for Learning looked at how state and local policies and initiatives addressed the framework. It also studied how effectively the federal Race to the Top and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants have supported them.
The nonprofit research and development organization CAST asked 19 states that mentioned the framework in their phase one and phase two Race to the Top applications to participate. Fourteen agreed. CAST didn't break out the results by state, but rather focused on overall patterns among them.
View 19 States that Mentioned Universal Design on Grant Applications in a larger map
In interviews with the 14 state special education directors, they expressed a high degree of familiarity with Universal Design for Learning. The framework aligned with their Common Core State Standards and statewide assessments initiatives. And their state technology plans or 21st century learning initiatives included it as well.
Twelve of 14 state special education directors make Universal Design for Learning one of their top priorities.
States are using their Race to the Top funds for activities that support the framework's implementation. States are developing a model curriculum, purchasing accessible curriculum materials, creating Web-based online resources to address the Common Core State Standards, professional development related to co-teaching, and infusing it into higher education programs.
These state leaders emphasized the importance of making sure Universal Design for Learning reaches beyond special education and moves into general education. In Maryland, the framework started in special education, but now the Division of Instruction has taken the lead, said Fran Sorin, coordinator of professional development in the Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services in the Maryland Education Department.
Maryland has made it a statewide initiative. Senate Bill 467 and House Bill 59 established the Task Force to Explore the Incorporation of the Principles of UDL into MD Education Systems. The department has been implementing the task force's recommendations piece by piece.
Maryland started implementing Universal Design for Learning in its Co-Teaching Network Cohort and then integrated it into Leadership Academy content. In 2010, a statewide introductory conference reached more people.
In seven districts and 25 schools designated as needing improvement, the state began a combination of face-to-face and online professional development on the framework. The framework dovetailed with a co-teaching model that the state had already started pushing.
Now this professional development is offered statewide, and the state has developed Web-based resources to help educators. Universal Design for Learning guidelines and curriculum have made it into the Education Department's requests for proposals funded through Race to the Top.
By 2013-14, each school system will use the framework's guidelines in Common Core State Curriculum in English and math. By 2014-15, local school systems will use these guidelines and principles in instruction and professional development.
"People are realizing that it is something natural, it is something that's best for all kids and not just kids with disabilities," Sorin said in a webinar on the report results.
Thomas Hehir and Associates conducted a study of how school districts used their American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to support Universal Design for Learning. The study included respondents from 132 school districts in 34 states.
Fourteen percent of large districts spent more grant money hiring new staff, compared to just 6 percent of smaller school districts. The smaller schools invested more on professional development (24 percent) and technology (33 percent).
The districts reported that the grant funds were either "effective" or "very effective" in helping them, in the long-term, serve students with disabilities. A high percentage of their funds went toward buying computers. They also supported professional development and curriculum. They also purchased technology to implement Universal Design for Learning.
Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation staff in Columbus, Ind., weren't getting the systemic improvement they had hoped for. So they focused on improving individuals rather than students as a whole. And they only tried new things with students who didn't succeed.
"We had a lot of random acts of improvements," said George Van Horn, director of special education.
The school district adopted the Universal Design for Learning framework to create a flexible learning environment that covers academics, behavior, curriculum and instruction. More than half of the teacher evaluation rubric is now based on the framework. And students have multiple pathways for learning, including online learning, early college and high school programs, and new technology schools that are project-based.
"Our goal is to provide students options because we don't believe there's one-size-fits-all," Van Horn said.
For example, a seventh grade student in a high ability classroom at Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation had major behavioral issues. The director of secondary education suggested that the pupil look into online options and high school courses. With the support of teachers at his school, the student passed high school courses as a seventh-grader through online activities.
In another example, a social studies teacher at Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation used My Big Campus, a Facebook-esque platform, during the South Carolina Republican primary and debate to have live conversations with students about what was going on. That gave students an opportunity to talk when they might not have spoken up in class.
While the district hasn't focused on standardized test scores, it has seen improvements. Since 2009, the district has seen a 10 percent increase in the number of students with disabilities who are scoring better on Indiana's state test. Sixty-eight percent of English language learners improved their scores. And seven percent more K-8 students received the highest testing recognition in the state.
That said, assessments need to be much better designed so that Universal Design for Learning isn't tied to assessments that aren't very good, said David Rose, founder and chief education officer of CAST.
"Traditional assessments, which are done largely to make the convenience of a score, are not really ideal measures of where we want students to be," Rose said. "Traditional large-scale assessments are kind of a compromise on quality in order to get some scores."
While Universal Design for Learning has made progress, Rose said, the next step embed assessments in a Universal Design for Learning framework all the time, so educators always measure students' results.
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