Category Archives: CCSS

Neurological Myths, UDL, and Common Core State Standards

A recent study, reported in the journal Nature, of neurological myths and teaching practice has cast some doubt on certain elements that are linked to Universal Design for Learning (Howard-Jones, 2014, downloaded October 28, 2014).. In turn, this study, if true, would seem to cut into certain assumptions that the Common Core State Standards make about students with disabilities

For example, one of the myths the researcher, Paul Howard-Jones, lists is the idea of preferred learning styles (Perry, 21 October 2014, downloaded from Preferred learning styles stem from the theories of Howard Gardner (1983, 1999). Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligences state that students have different abilities and, thus, should be taught in differentiated ways that accommodate the student’s needs. However, Howard-Jones lists these as one of the myths of education finding no real evidence of this study. In fact, Howard-Jones claims studies have shown that students actually may learn better in ways that may be oppositional to their learning preferences.

Interestingly enough, however, proponents of Universal Design for Learning (e.g. Meyer & Rose, 2005) have claimed that Gardner’s theories actually can be scientifically supported through neuroscience. For example, they cite work in psychology and neuroscience to support their work, specifically talking about brain pathways (e.g. Gevins & Smith, 2000; Habib, McIntosh, &Tolving, 2000; Kent, 1998; Nichelli, Graggman, Pietrini, Clark, Lee, & Milletich, 1995; Petersen, van Mier, Fiez, & Raichle, 1998; Rypma &D’Esposito, 1998; Tootell, Reppas, Kwong, Malach, Born, Brady, 1995; Wallis & Bulthoff, 1999; Xiong, Rao, Jerabek, Zamarripa, Woldorff, & Lancaster, 2000). It would seem that the notion of brain pathways may be established, but the tie to Gardner’s theories related to learning have not been fully established and, in fact, be contradicted by other research.

Since Gardner’s theories have played an important role in differential instruction, however, this study, should it have impact, would somewhat undermine some of the suggestions the CCSS make concerning students with disabilities, specifically those standards that help students with “severe disabilities” meet these standards or equivalent standards. However, since there has been certain scientific support via the brain pathways research, the potential for learning is still there. The fact that multiple intelligences may be a myth does not necessarily completely deter UDL because there is alternative scientific evidence.

This new study does, however, point to a potential weakness in how students with disabilities would fare under the study. Since CCSS was not researched per se, but rather based on so-called “international benchmarks” and supposed expert consultation (CCSS, 2014), it is not surprising, perhaps, that a potential weakness may be exposed. Even though the goal is laudable, and perhaps still doable, it may weaken the effectiveness of the argument.  In order to help students with disabilities to succeed, policy must be driven by real evidence-based practices, not extrapolations or theories, but actual evidence based on scientific merit, preferably the gold-standard double blind trial, which was derived from the pharmaceutical industry.

I do not believe this study completely derails Universal Design for Learning, but it may impact its marketing. Moreover, it exposes a potential weakness in the recommended practices toward students with disabilities (another thing CCSS gets wrong since UDL is supposed to be for everyone [National Center on Universal Design, 2011]). Proponents of Universal Design for Learning, specifically differentiated instruction, will have to think carefully, and perhaps more carefully examine, in a way devoid of ideology, whether differentiated instruction still holds a place in Universal Design for Learning. Until such time as that occurs, policymakers and educators need to be skeptical of what strategies actually work. More scientific, less ideologically driven, practice of what actually works and has been tested in the classroom needs to hold precedence. It remains to be seen how this study, or subsequent studies and shifts, will actually impact UDL or CCSS, if at all, but it does bring to light a potential flaw that may need to be corrected.

A question of language and capabilities

In a recent op-ed piece, former Baltimore school board member and president of Baltimore Special Education Advocacy Coalition Kalman Hettleman (7 October, 2014,, downloaded on October 24, 2014) notes that the issue that many people have with including students with disabilities into educational reform efforts such as Common Core has to do with the vagueness of language often utilized in such efforts.

For example, Hettleman notes that although the term “most severe cognitive disorders” is utilized to create alternative standards for students with such disabilities, there is very little guidance from policymakers as to what exactly this entails (Hettleman, 7 October, 2014,, downloaded on October 24, 2014). While Hettleman does not fully address this, it has to do with the social construction of disability well discussed in more social models of disability (e.g. Wendell, 1996; Liachowitz, 1988; Oliver, 1990; Charlton, 2000; Goodley, 2001). Socially, there is an assumption of what disability is, but there is not a well-defined notion of what severe cognitive impairment actually looks like, hence an open-ended and controversial policy.

This particular change is not well-defined. It is possible that there is intent that the policy remains open so that societal values can decide what “severe cognitive disability is” for itself. That would allow for different interpretations at various historical moments (with the assumption that the policy will endure) and, perhaps, for more local interpretations of disability.

However, as Hettleman notes (7 October, 2014,, downloaded on October 24, 2014), it is also important to interrogate the assumptions that are being made about the capabilities of people with various kinds of disabilities. For example, certain kinds of supports, such as communication access, screen readers, and less technical solutions such as differential instruction, have assisted individuals, previously not thought to be intellectually capable, to achieve academic competence.

It would seem, therefore, that given the right classroom techniques and other supports may be useful at narrowing the classification of “severely cognitive impaired.” It is, however, important that policymakers, if they make such decisions, narrowly tailor situations, perhaps through interpretive guidance, to decrease the possibility of possible discrimination. It may also be appropriate to allow for “escapes” should a student demonstrate progress they were not previously thought capable of in the past. Such protections would be in better keeping with the protections and capabilities that is currently being promoted in U.S. educational policy.

Andrew Bennett

What is developmentally appropriate?: The CCSS, early childhood education, and UDL

i recently completed an internship with the Department of Defense Education Activity. This blog is my opinion and does not necessarily reflect that of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Defense Education Activity. 

The first is more or less an excerpted article by retired education professor Joseph Ricciotti written for major newspapers in Connecticut (Ricciotti, 2014, downloaded from on October 6, 2014). Ricciotti insists that the CCSS does not treat teachers or students with dignity. Among his assertions are that the CCSS is developmentally inappropriate. For example, Ricciotti cites Angie Sullivan, a kindergarten teacher, complaining about how her students are required to write opinion based essays. Sullivan states that the third grade curriculum has essentially been pushed down to kindergarten (Ricciotti, 2014, cited by Ravitch, 2014, downloaded from

Sullivan is a kindergarten in Nevada and is an anti-Common Core leader in that state. Sullivan cites her concern as being mainly concerned with the appropriateness of the CCSS / Nevada standards (Ravitch, 2014, downloaded October 6, 2014 from

Sullivan goes on to cite a letter of objections put forward by the Alliance for Childhood (2010, March 2, downloaded October 6, 2014 from   The Alliance for Childhood objected to the Common Core based upon four objections. First, the new standards, they believe, will force out play-based instruction for long, didactic instruction, which the Alliance for Childhood believes is inappropriate for young children. Secondly, the Alliance believes that the standards will lead to inappropriate standardized testing. Third, the Alliance believes that the combination of testing and didactic instruction will push out other important learning which children, at this age, need in order to be successful. Finally, the Alliance believes that there is not strong enough evidence from top-performing countries to establish nationwide standards in this area.

The objections of Ricciotti, Sullivan, the Alliance for Childhood, and, presumably, Ravitch related to the developmental appropriateness of CCSS largely turn on cultural arguments. It is most likely true that many American children would not be prepared to meet the standards today. This is because U.S. society has not previously believed that it was developmentally appropriate for young children to undertake such endeavors. However, various societies, whether they are actually formally educating children or not, do have various expectations for children and later as adolescents that differ from society to society (for example, see Berger & Lueckmann, 1966, Lesko, 2001, Rosemund, 2014).  Our understanding of developmental appropriateness, therefore, is mostly culturally based. Even when compared to other countries, the assumption made by the Alliance for Children is somewhat muted because they more or less assume that early learning can only happen in school or school-like settings. There may be alternative explanations such as learning happening from family sources or other informal means of education.

Not only is “developmentally appropriate” a cultural issue, but it is also sometimes central to arguments concerning children with disabilities. For example, who should determine the developmental appropriateness of an intellectually impaired or autistic child? Should professional determination that an education program is inappropriate be the sole determiner of the child’s readiness to pursue education? The field of disability studies has troubled the notion of professional judgment in making assumptions about people with disabilities (e.g. Barnes, Mercer, & Shakespeare, 1999; Campbell & Oliver, 1996; Charlton, 1988). Professionalization has often poised troublesome burdens on people with disabilities especially when it comes to their competency. Professional judgment that insists a certain disabled child is unready for academic concerns can hinder such things as literate and mathematical development. The assumption that the child cannot reach a goal automatically disqualifies the student from reaching the goal. The same issues seem to be in play in the objections raised above.

That being said, it is also important to be cautious about the goals students can reach and to allow those ideas to happen or par with developmentally appropriate milestones as marked by scientific study (developmental psychology, for example). Students must be supported in an environment conducive to how they might learn best and be exposed to a variety of means in order to learn.

Although Universal Design for Learning is incorporated into CCSS as a way to allow students with disabilities to meet the standards (CCSS, 2010), it is appropriate to question whether Universal Design for Learning might be better utilized among a larger audience as intended (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2011). UDL can be of use, therefore, in helping a wide variety of students meet goal-based standards, not just students with disabilities. In order to be more fully incorporated, however, a key element of flexibility needs to be incorporated. It is upon this point that opponents of CCSS may have their strongest argument for restricting the ways in which students can learn would hinder the ability of educators to be flexible.

Educators might be better off utilizing the flexibility argument and utilizing any evidence-based research (beyond arguments rooted more in culture) that shows how certain ideas in the CCSS are unworkable from an instructional point of view. However, it is also important that these educators are not dismissing the possibilities or importance of the standards merely because it is new or different. While the CCSS may not be the most flexible document, subsequent reform efforts may find it useful to incorporate flexibility while maintaining and, if applicable, raising standards.

Andrew Bennett