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Common Core Update

Special education tactics aide Common Core success

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) addresses students’ individual learning needs to reach standards

A curriculum framework initially developed for special education students is gaining traction in general ed classrooms nationwide during Common Core implementation.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach created by a nonprofit that addresses students’ individual learning needs to reach standards. Teachers allow students multiple ways of accessing information and demonstrating understanding for each lesson or assignment in order to differentiate learning. The Common Core expects students to demonstrate mastery in multiple ways.

As of 2012, more than 150 districts reported using federal funding for UDL activities, according to the Center for Applied Special Technology, the nonprofit organization that developed UDL.

“When one is planning for a learning experience, be it a lesson or unit or meeting, one expects there will be a range of variability in the backgrounds, cultural experiences, content knowledge and engagement of your students,” says Grace Meo, senior director of professional learning services at the Center for Applied Special Technology. “We need to recognize the variability of all learners.”

The goal of a UDL and Common Core-aligned lesson may be for students to express understanding of different types of characters in a novel. The goal’s terminology—“express”—is important because students choose a method that is most in line with their learning style, Meo says.

For example, the teacher provides multiple ways for students to access the text, such as through a traditional, audio or digital version. To demonstrate understanding, one student might write a paper on the subject, while another might reenact a scene demonstrating the differences between the protagonist and antagonist. Another student could create a PowerPoint presentation.

In Sweetwater Union High School District in southern California, UDL has helped general ed teachers implement the Common Core and better recognize the needs of special ed students, says Christine Fax-Huckaby, a special education academic support teacher. The urban district of 40,000 serves some 4,000 special needs students. Many students are also ELL, as the district is 7 miles from the Mexican border.

“The biggest disservice we do to our special ed students is spoon-feeding them information, so they don’t get the ‘aha!’ moment of figuring it out on their own,” Fax-Huckaby says.

General and special education teachers in the district now work together to design lessons for all students using UDL. “General ed teachers are looking at documents and performance tasks, and are automatically thinking about what they should look like for kids with special needs,” Fax-Huckaby says. “And if it works for kids with special needs, it will work for all kids.”

Chunking information, presenting lessons in different modes and giving fewer written directions are among the strategies that serve all students, Fax-Huckaby says. “Even if you don’t have an IEP, it’s just good teaching,” she adds.