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Universal Design for Learning: The next big thing in school reform?

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. has seen an 11-percent increase in the number of students with disabilities passing standardized tests since implementing UDL two years ago.

As educators brace for new reforms, what will these changes look like? How will assessments and curriculum differ from previous versions? How can all students get the best education possible? The answer, some experts believe, lies partially in Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a framework that’s quickly gaining momentum across the U.S.

A new report indicates that many states and school districts have implemented UDL with support from Race to the Top monies or federal stimulus funds as they move forward with their education reform efforts. The report was discussed during a May 15 webinar held by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) and the National Center on Universal Design for Learning.

UDL, according to CAST, is an educational framework based on research in the learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, that guides the development of flexible learning environments that can accommodate individual learning differences.

Recognizing that the way each student learns can be unique, the UDL framework, first defined by CAST in the 1990s, calls for creating curriculum that provides:

  • Multiple means of representation to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge;
  • Multiple means of expression to give learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know; and
  • Multiple means of engagement to tap into learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn.

“Across the country, many educators, school districts, and states have discovered that UDL is not only a great way to improve daily classroom instruction while personalizing learning for each student, but also an effective way to implement Common Core State Standards, Race to the Top-funded initiatives, and other education reforms,” said the National Center on UDL in a statement.

According to the new two-part study, conducted with the support of the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation and titled “Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Initiatives on the Move,” all states now have UDL initiatives, and more than 150 school districts report using federal funding for UDL activities.

At the federal level, UDL has been incorporated into the Higher Education Opportunity Act, the National Educational Technology Plan, Race to the Top (RTTT), the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), and legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The report—described as the first comprehensive examination of UDL implementation at the state and local school district levels—examined the ways in which state and local policies and initiatives address UDL, and whether RTTT and ARRA funds have been effective in supporting UDL initiatives at the state and district levels.

The conclusion: UDL is “becoming more widely accepted as an educational framework within the national policy landscape,” said the report.

“We know that students have a wide range of strengths and needs, but when they are given a variety of flexible ways to meet high expectations, they can,” said David Rose, founder and CEO of CAST, one of two independent research teams that conducted the study, along with Thomas Hehir and Associates. “This report reaffirms the growing recognition among educators, school officials, and policy makers that the UDL approach can guide them in using new technologies and innovative methods to help all students reach their full potential.”

Specific findings of the report include:

  • All 50 states plus D.C. reference UDL in their preK-12 or postsecondary activities, and a growing number of school districts and states are infusing UDL principles into all of their instructional practices and their Common Core State Standards implementation work.
  • Education leaders from states that mentioned UDL in their RTTT applications reported a high familiarity with UDL principles; perceived a strong connection between UDL and the use of technology, teaching 21st-century skills, and standards-based education initiatives; and reported using RTTT funds for a wide variety of activities that support UDL implementation.
  • Local leaders also reported familiarity with UDL principles and said their ARRA funds had been used to purchase computers and curricular materials, support professional development for general and special-education teachers, and purchase technology for UDL implementation.

Despite the growing implementation of UDL, the study also revealed there is still much work to be done to spread the word about what UDL is, how it differs from other general education initiatives such as differentiated instruction and Response to Intervention, and how it can benefit students, educators, and schools. In addition, several obstacles to effective implementation of UDL by districts were identified, including insufficient staffing, time for implementation, and funding for the purchase of technology.

“Many state and local personnel, as well as educators on the ground, have yet to be provided the necessary information to fully understand the UDL approach and its enormous advantages, or the guidance and training to implement it effectively,” said Ricki Sabia, associate director of the National Down Syndrome Society Policy Center and chair of the National UDL Task Force. “Educators and policy makers in Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Kentucky, Ohio, and other states are leading the way in demonstrating that UDL can actually make schools and districts smarter and more efficient about what technology they purchase and how they use it in the classroom.”

Maryland has begun an initiative to fully implement UDL as a teaching and learning framework.

The effort includes ongoing UDL professional development (both face-to-face and online), UDL guidelines and principles incorporated into Requests for Proposals from the Maryland State Department of Education for vendors and resources, the integration of UDL principles in Maryland’s Common Core state curriculum, a proposed code of Maryland regulations for UDL, and the ongoing development of web-based resources for UDL.

For more information on Maryland’s implementation of UDL, visit: for UDL in the classroom. for an interactive activity. for tips on how to implement in the curriculum. for webinars on UDL and technology. for UDL and professional development. for UDL and college and career readiness. for best practices on UDL implementation at the school and district level.

According to George Van Horn, director of special education for the Bartholomew Special Services Cooperative of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Columbus, Ind., UDL shows real results.

Already, his district—after adopting UDL as a framework for all teaching and learning—has had an 11-percent increase in the number of students with disabilities passing standardized tests since implementation began roughly two years ago. There’s also been a 60-percent increase in fluency scores for English language learners.

“We say that UDL creates a framework that other district initiatives can hang from,” said Van Horn.

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