Promoting Effective Parent Involvement in Secondary Education and Transition
Universal Design for Learning and the Transition to a More Challenging Academic
Curriculum: Making it in Middle School and Beyond
by Beth Casper and Deborah Leuchovius
Universal design means that environments and curricula are designed,
right from the start, to be flexible and useable by students of widely varying
The transition from elementary school to the secondary system—middle
school and high school—is a traumatic time for many students and their
families. Any child can have difficulty with the transition. However, students
with disabilities who need accommodations or adapted curricula—even those
who have had successful elementary school experiences—often have more
difficulty. With an increased national focus on standards-based testing and
curriculum, students with disabilities face even greater challenges ahead. A
new approach to teaching and learning can help middle and secondary school teachers
more effectively accommodate different learning styles. This approach, referred
to as “universal design,” holds potential for easing the transition
to middle school and helping all students achieve academic success in their
secondary school years.
New Challenges for Middle School Students
The transition to middle school is a major leap for most students. Instead
of one classroom, one teacher, and individual attention, students typically
find themselves in a multi-period, multi-classroom school that feels much more
impersonal. Middle schools are usually larger than elementary schools, and students
must adjust to having numerous teachers each day instead of one primary classroom
In secondary school, teachers are responsible for teaching several classes
each day, each with a different group of students, making it harder for them
to get to know each individual. Curriculum is taught at a more rapid pace, assignments
and homework are more time-consuming and difficult, and high-stakes testing
puts increased pressure on students. It's easy to understand how students can
feel lost in the shuffle.
When students enter the demanding academic environments of middle school,
and later high school, any lack of prerequisite skills becomes more obvious.
For students with disabilities, this transition can be even more challenging.
Many students receiving special education services have been included in general
education classrooms in elementary school, but have not actually kept up with
their peers. Though present in the same classroom as their peers, many special
education students are not expected to learn the same curriculum as their peers
or do not receive the individualized support they need in order to learn more
challenging subject matter. As a result, many children with disabilities are
not entering middle school prepared for such tasks as researching and writing
longer, typed papers; listening and note-taking during hour-long lectures; remembering
up to 80 facts per test; or handling the responsibility of more homework every
The recent focus on standards-based curriculum (box
below) and testing has created a more challenging education environment
for students with disabilities. Students are asked to think and inquire more
critically about information, rather than just answering a teacher's question
with simple facts. Some students with disabilities may need more individualized
instruction, adapted goals, or alternative assessments to meet newly established
state content standards.
What are content standards?
Content standards specify what children are expected to know and be
able to do in academic subjects. Academic content standards should "contain
coherent and rigorous content and encourage the teaching of advanced skills"
(No Child Left Behind Act, 2002).
What's a curriculum?
The curriculum is the plan made for guiding learning in schools and
the implementation of those plans in the classroom (Glatthorn, 1987).
What's a standards-based curriculum?
A standards-based curriculum is one in which the plan guides the learning
of the content standards.
In general, special and general education teachers have few opportunities to
collaborate with one another or learn about including students with disabilities
in new standards-based curricula (Dailey, Zantal-Weiner, & Roach, 2000).
Nor have content standards or secondary-level curriculum materials of academic
subjects such as biology or social studies been designed with students with
disabilities in mind. Most classroom curricula rely almost exclusively on printed
text and are not easily accessible to students with sensory, physical, emotional,
or cognitive disabilities who need alternative ways of accessing and processing
In addition, teacher guides developed by textbook publishers do not typically
include suggestions for how to accommodate students with disabilities. Some
schools and teachers provide adaptations and use assistive technologies to help
students use existing materials but these adaptations can diminish the concepts
and skills of the curriculum, offering a different, diminished curriculum. At
the same time, standards-based assessments are now required in most states for
grade promotion and graduation. All of these factors combine to make it difficult
for many students with disabilities to meet higher academic standards in middle
school and eventually to graduate from high school with a standard diploma.
Since the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
(IDEA) in 1997, school districts have been responsible for providing access
to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities. By promoting
access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities, the
law aims to improve learning, increase graduation rates, and better prepare
students with disabilities for postsecondary education, employment, and a fulfilling
adult life. Universal design is a strategy that can help secondary school teachers
teach standards-based general education curricula to students with disabilities
more efficiently and effectively.
Universal Design and the Transition to Middle School
The use of universal design principles in middle school and high school settings
has great potential to benefit both students and teachers. It is an approach
that makes it easier for teachers to accommodate different learning styles.
Alternatives are built into the curriculum instead of developed or added on
by teachers after students falter. The approach allows students with a broad
range of abilities to learn and succeed—without placing an extra burden
on teachers to adapt or create new materials for students in each of their classes.
Universal design is a generic term describing design that is intended to “simplify
life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment
more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost”
(Center for Universal Design, 1997). The basic idea behind universal design
is that environments and products should be designed, right from the start,
to meet the needs of all users rather than just an "average" user.
In architecture, universal design has become well accepted. It is now routine
to include ramps, curb cuts, and automatic doors in new construction because
it is more efficient to design structures that are usable by as many people
as possible from the beginning instead of adapting a building for diverse users
The concept has also been applied in fields other than architecture. For example,
television captioning was first only available to those who purchased expensive
decoder boxes. Later, decoder chips were built into all televisions, making
captions universally available. Although designed for individuals with hearing
impairments, captioning has proved to be popular with many users such as patrons
of noisy restaurants, airports, and health clubs; English language learners;
parents with reading-ready children who watch TV; and couples who have a TV
set in their bedrooms yet want to go to sleep at different times.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a term used by the Center for Applied
Special Technology (CAST) to describe its work on curriculum design and access
to curricula. Just as universal designs in architecture benefit all users, UDL
benefits all students. The aim is to create curricula that are flexible enough
to challenge the most gifted students, students struggling below grade level,
and everyone in between. It does this by providing students with alternative
ways to explore content, using multiple approaches at various levels of complexity.
The goal is to meet each student at his or her current ability level, allowing
him or her to advance to more challenging content at an individual pace. Because
flexibility is built into the curriculum and the environment, UDL helps each
student to participate and succeed even when a teacher is less familiar with
the individual needs of each student.
Universal Design and Students with Disabilities
For students with disabilities, this approach has great potential. Students
with disabilities, whether sensory, physical, emotional, or cognitive, may need
alternative ways of accessing and processing information. UDL is a strategy
schools can use to provide students with disabilities with access to more challenging
course content; meet the legal requirements of IDEA; master state content standards;
and develop the academic, study, and interpersonal skills needed to succeed
in postsecondary education and employment.
How does is it work? Universally designed instructional materials and activities
present students with a range of options for learning. Alternative activities
allow individuals with wide differences in their abilities—to see, hear,
speak, move, read, write, understand English, pay attention, organize, engage,
or remember—to achieve learning goals. Information is presented to students
through multiple means such as audio, video, text, speech, Braille, photographs,
or images. Likewise, UDL allows students to use multiple means to express what
they know through writing, speaking, drawing, or video recording.
Advances in technology have made some universal design strategies much easier
to implement. Teachers have access to computers, software, assistive technology,
and other tools that can adapt the curriculum to suit a child's learning style.
For example, textbooks and other reading materials can be made available in
a digital format that includes audio, captions, and audio descriptions of visual
images and charts.
However, UDL is not only about including technology in the classroom. During
the last 20 years researchers have identified a number of effective strategies
that teachers can use to help all students in their classroom. The Institute
for Academic Access, for example, provides information in its online library
about strategies that teachers can use to help students of diverse abilities
improve important academic skills such as understanding concepts, organizing
information, and detecting and correcting errors in their written work.
Straightforward teaching strategies that can make information accessible to
students with learning or cognitive disabilities include summarizing big ideas,
repetition, practice, explicitly stating goals, and giving explicit instructions.
Teachers can remove supports as students become more proficient. Universal design
also incorporates simple physical accommodations such as making sure that every
student has a clear sight line to the teacher and the blackboard; that equipment
used for learning should be easily adapted for left- or right-handed use; and
that materials should have clearly labeled instructions with symbols as well
Examples of Universal Design for Learning
- If a student learns best through listening, he or she can use a computer
to read stories and information aloud, or to pronounce new words.
- If a student learns more easily with large print, curriculum materials
can easily be provided in this format.
- If a student can explain things best by using word processing software
and a keyboard rather than using pencil and paper, then that will be
the method of choice.
- If a student struggles to identify the most important points or organize
information, he or she can use a computer program that helps students
learn by doing.
Source: The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST)
While such techniques are neither esoteric nor difficult to implement, universal
design is a new concept for many educators as well as parents. Parents may know
about universal design before teachers at their child’s school. Parents
know that it is hard to watch their son or daughter struggle in school when
he or she is capable of learning more challenging material if given more individualized
instruction. By educating teachers and staff as well as school board members
and administrators about the concept of universal design, parents can help shape
the future of inclusive secondary education.
What can parents do to help implement UDL approaches
in the classrooms?
Ask teachers if they are familiar with the concept of universal
design for learning or if they are currently using universally designed
curriculum in their classroom.
See that related goals are incorporated into a student's IEP so that
he or she can learn the same content as their peers. For instance:
Discuss how members of the IEP or transition planning team can help
general educators understand and implement these concepts in the classroom.
Advocate with local school boards and state departments of education
for policies that require newly purchased textbooks and curricula
to be fully accessible to students with disabilities by incorporating
Universal Design for Learning: Education Policy for
the 21st Century
The U.S. Department of Education has taken an important step toward
guaranteeing that students with disabilities have equal access to textbooks.
It has sponsored the development of voluntary guidelines, called a national
file format, for textbook publishers to convert printed materials into
electronic files. Several states led the way by enacting legislation requiring
that newly purchased textbooks be universally designed. Right now, however,
each state has differing requirements for textbook publishers—some
want electronic files in HTML and others want it in Microsoft Word. A
national file format will make it easier for textbook publishers to produce,
and more students to access, universally designed curriculum materials.
Information on state legislation relating to accessible instructional
materials can accessed from http://nimas.cast.org/index.html.
Bremer, C. D., Clapper, A. T., Hitchcock, C., Hall, T., & Kachgal, M.
design: A strategy to support students’ access to the general education
curriculum. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on
Secondary Education and Transition. Retrieved March 23, 2005, from http://www.ncset.org/publications/viewdesc.asp?id=707
Center for Universal Design (1997). What is universal design? Retrieved October 12, 2004, from http://www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/univ_design/ud.htm
Council for Exceptional Children (1998). A
curriculum every student can use: Design principles for student access.
Educational Resources Information Center/Office of Special Education Programs
Topical Brief. Reston, VA: Author. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED423654).
Retrieved March 23, 2005, from http://www.cec.sped.org/osep/udesign.html
Dailey, D., Zantal-Wiener, K., & Roach, V. (2000). Reforming
high school learning: The effect of the standards movement on secondary students
with disabilities. Alexandria, VA: Center for Policy Research on the Impact
of General and Special Education Reform. Retrieved on Apri115, 2003, from http://www.nasbe.org/Educational_Issues/Reports/reforming_hs_learning.pdf
Glatthorn, A. (1987). Curriculum renewal. Alexandria, VA: Association for
Supervision and Curriculum Development.
No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, § 115 Stat. 1425
Resources on UDL:
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This report was supported in whole or in part by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, (Cooperative Agreement No. H326J000005). The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, and no official endorsement by the Department should be inferred.
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