Access for All: Using a Universal Design for Learning Approach to Implement the Common Core

During workshops that aim to develop awareness of the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I hear a consistent message from teachers. My students are already behind with the current standards so how will they handle the new, more rigorous standards? This is a valid concern. Often our instincts are to scaffold pretty heavily so students don’t experience too much difficulty. We want them to feel comfortable in class and stay as motivated as possible. In some cases, complex text and challenging math have been systematically removed from the hands of our struggling students albeit with the best of intentions. The consequences are stark. Many students, especially our lower performing students, have become very dependent learners and have not built the intellectual muscles necessary to excel at the table of scholarship.


The key shifts in the CCSS ask us to tackle what I call the dependency cycle by ensuring that students experience complex texts and tasks that require critical thinking and deep levels of engagement. But how will we do this? What are the implications for implementing the CCSS? Publishers and professional development providers are in frenzy as they answer the CCSS call. I recently previewed a major publisher’s CCSS ELA textbook for high school. The thing was so massive that I could barely lift it. Supposedly it will be offered in (2) books so students can actually transport it. But is more really the answer? Will just giving students more to read and more activities to respond to in the textbook address the college and career readiness goals set by the CCSS?


If we are really going to implement the CCSS and tend to depth over breadth, we need to do things differently. Really differently. Universal Design for Learning, based on concepts of providing equal access to persons with disabilities, has a great potential to guide us as we implement the CCSS. Universal Design for Learning asks us to accommodate learning differences by planning in advance and making instruction available for more students, at lower costs, and reduce the need for after-the-fact steps such as intensive interventions and referrals to special education. The Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium and The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) are developing technology-assisted assessments for the CCSS that are informed by the principles of universal design. The principles of universal design require making curricula, materials, and environments accessible to and usable by all students in the building – from our struggling learners, to our highest performers. As educators, we need to craft new ways to make education more convenient for time-pressed students, more comfortable for people from diverse backgrounds, and more flexible for persons with different learning styles.


So what does this look like? One way to look at this is through the lens of Response to Intervention (RTI) inquiry. If we have systems in place where we know students well through data, have systems in place to collaborate about how to address what we learn from data and access to materials that support our plans, we can be better positioned to engage students in the kind of work that CCSS asks us to do. Some students may need to hear a text aloud; some students may need extra language support, while some students may need a graphic to help them learn. All students need to learn how to organize content so they can learn content. We also need to become more culturally competent so we can capitalize on students’ diverse backgrounds to help motivate and sustain students in scholarship and help them find intrinsic motivation for learning. Classrooms need to be noisier with less teacher talk and more co-construction of knowledge with students. We need to move away from our current, antiquated education delivery model that has not kept up with the times and clearly is not working for large percent of our students as seen in the ever present achievement gap and declining graduation rates. We need to invite all students to the table of scholarship and figure out how to keep them there.

Leave a Reply