Category Archives: Education reform

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


Vulnerability, Education Reform, and Universal Design for Learning

i have recently completed an internship with the Department of Defense Education Activity. As a precaution, this post is my opinion alone and does not necessarily reflect that of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Defense Education Activity.    

Recently, I watched some videos of TED talks given by vulnerability and researcher Brene Brown. Dr. Brown refers to vulnerability not necessarily as a weakness, but as a source of courage.

Vulnerability utilizes very different mechanisms than other responses. It is perhaps because vulnerability involves confronting our fears and differences. Not being able to deal with vulnerability and shame in appropriate ways can be unhealthy. On the other hand, awareness of vulnerabilities and shame can be quite helpful (Brown, 2010, 2012), downloaded from, October 13, 2014).

Education reform is often driven by fear. There is usually a sense that students are somehow not performing up to par in the current system and, thus, the system must be reformed. The reform is often categorical instead of looking at individual students.

Despite its seeming connection to education reform, Universal Design for Learning is concerned with individual learners as well as systematic issues. This more individualized approach may not necessarily provide quite an easy fit for certain education reform efforts, especially with regards to standardization.

Universal Design for Learning does involve emphasis on standards to the extent that students are to get to standards utilizing various ways of knowing / learning to achieve the standard. It is oppositional to certain kinds of standardization, however, in that there is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to getting students to a place where they meet the standard.

Vulnerability impacts Universal Design for Learning in two ways. First, teachers and administrators need to be able to utilize flexibility if they are to use UDL to be most impactful. Secondly, students need to be able to be aware of their strengths and vulnerabilities in learning. Students need to have cultures that value various ways of learning (e.g. the school is aware of Multiple Intelligences, plans its lessons accordingly, and educates students on Multiple Intelligences, Gardner, 1991) and to have awareness of their strengths and weaknesses. Because students may have various ways to learn, and because student needs may vary from school to school and even within schools, it is important to not interfere with instruction as long as students are, in fact, meeting high standards.

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

Based upon what evidence?: The need for evidence-based practice in education

I recently completed an internship with the Department of Defense Education Activity. Out of an abundance of caution, this blog does not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of Defense Education Activity, or the U.S. government.

One of the legacies of education reform is the establishment of the “gold standard” of randomized controlled styles in educational research. In the United States, this “gold standard” was set in law by the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools act (the so-called “No Child Left Behind Act,” PL 107-110, 107th Congress, 2002) although it was prominently introduced by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett (1986).

Some of the best evidence on best practices in education can be gathered from empirical fields such as psychology, sociology, neuroscience, and even economics (Whitehurst, 2002). This data can be collected and used to evaluate compare, evaluate, and monitor performance (Whitehurst, 2002).

According to Whitehurst, however, scientific evidence is not a complete end-all to educational practice. Instead, it should be combined with what Whitehurst terms “professional wisdom”. Professional wisdom is knowledge collected by local educators in regards to practice with regards to local circumstances. It also allows exploration of areas not previously covered by research. However, the local wisdom of educators cannot replace empirical practice. For example, without empirical practice, it would be difficult to know which practice might work better in a given situation. It also is a way for professionals to share knowledge. Finally, evidence based practice is a way to avoid fad, fancy, and personal bias (Whitehurst, 2002).

The relevance of empirical based practice is why the No Child Left Behind Act codified empirical evidence as a way to make decisions (Whitehurst, 2002). It would not do to make decisions based on fancy, based on evidence that reflected personal bias, or even based upon a limited local experience. In order to make decisions, especially at a national level, evidence must be free of such things. Alternatively, practices might be slanted toward a particular local practice that may not work in another context. Research bias in more local practice may also reveal researcher bias, which may show the practice to actually be false. Evidence-based research, especially double-blind studies (the gold standard in education reform) can help avoid such potential pitfalls in research. This increases the quality of the research and makes it more likely that the practice will, in fact, succeed in another context.

Biesta (2007) criticizes the idea of evidence-based practice as being non-causal and insufficient to cover what actually goes on in education. Relatedly, Biesta draws on the work of John Dewey to suggest that evidence-based strategies draw on deliberative judgments about education that may not actually achieve educationally desirable results. Finally, Biesta criticizes evidence-based strategies for focusing too much on the technical side of education instead of the cultural end of education. This, Biesta believes, is not compatible with democratic education. Biesta’s work seems to idealize a particular brand of education while promoting alternative sociological practices and educational theories. Since Biesta leans so heavily on what might be “educationally desirable results”, it is obvious that there is a bias toward particular ways of educating students. Apparently, Dewey’s models for democratic education produce, for Biesta, “educationally desirable results.” If a practice, however, does produce “educationally desirable results”, it should be able to be proved. Moreover, Biesta is contradictory on this particular point. Appealing to particular theories of education is, in fact, making deliberative judgments about educational quality. The idealized point of evidence based practices is to avoid deliberative judgment. Instead of refuting evidence based practice, Biesta’s argument comes across as more of a criticism of how evidence based practice actually plays out and an appeal to the democratic education ideas of Dewey. In terms of Biesta’s comments with regards to the cultural end of education, certain variables can tell us more about the sociological end of education. However, it is very difficult to universalize about cultural norms, which is why non-evidence based practices cannot be relied upon to produce practices. This does not necessarily mean they do not have worth, but rather that they cannot be extrapolated to the larger population.

Larry Cuban (2014, found at, downloaded October 4, 2014) also opposes evidence-based practice. For Cuban, evidence-based practice is identified too strongly with political choices.  Educational reformers, especially within the political sphere, seize upon even small differences to account for a particular political agenda. Additionally, sociological elements found from more qualitative studies might be better at explaining conditions (Cuban, 2014). Cuban’s analysis does point to some issues with how evidence-based practice is utilized, but he does not necessarily refute the need for evidence-based practice. He instead points to the misuse of evidence-based practice to support particular political views. While his point with regards to qualitative research is well taken, Cuban conveniently ignores the benefits of evidence-based practice while promoting qualitative practice. He also fails to account for the downsides of evidence-based practice.

Evidence-based practices can be a significant way to improve educational practices. Unlike more qualitative accounts such as case studies and anecdotes, these studies do a better job at predicting which studies actually work. As opponents like Biesta and Cuban point out, evidence-based practice does not always work as well as it is idealized especially with regards to political decision making. Moreover, it may not account for certain sociological factors.

However, evidence-based practice does provide, in an idealized state, does offer several advantages in policy making and to local educators. The issues presented by opponents have more to do with how evidence-based practice is used in reality, the need for greater sociological context, and particular visions of education. The former two objections are issues more rooted in practice / technical issues and the latter issue is more political / theoretical. The latter issue is more political / theoretical in nature than it is evidence to actually disprove evidence-based practice.  Truth does not change just because one’s personal politics / theoretical beliefs do not align with the evidence. Evidence-based practice may need to be perfected, but it does provide an opportunity to key insights in education that can lead to better policy and better teaching.

UDL and Education Reform: A Primer

I recently left an internship with the U.S. Department of Defense Educational Activity. Just to be on the safe side, this post does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the Department of Defense Educational Activity, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government. Opinions expressed here are my own and I am solely responsible for this content.


Education is often in a state of reform especially as society changes over time. In the United States, educational reform has taken its most recent turn in the Common Core Curriculum. Currently, 43 states, the District of Columbia, and several U.S. territories participate in the Common Core Curriculum. The Common Core is a set of standards developed utilizing expert opinions about what students should know after each grade level (CCSs, 2014).

These standards reflect a “college and career ready” approach, indicating that students, upon graduation from high school (secondary school) will either be ready for postsecondary schoolwork without remediation or will be able to successfully complete vocational training and be able to carry out the career of their choice within skilled trades (CCSS, 2014).

These standards currently fall into two categories. The first category is standards for mathematics. The second standard is language arts. Language arts, it should be noted, has under the Common Core become an expanded category. Traditionally, the subject of language arts has been thought to encompass writing, reading, and the study of literature. The most significant change in this subject, under Common Core, is that literature has become an expanded category. Now, non-fiction literature, including historical documents and technical literature have an expanded presence in the standards especially in the later grades. These two areas were chosen because they are deemed to be building blocks for skills needed in a variety of areas that can be spread throughout the grade levels. For example, mathematics complements sciences. Eventually, there will be more standards for other subjects. Some states, in fact, are currently going about creating College and Career Ready standards in subjects such as science and the arts (CCSS, 2014).

Although the Common Core has proved to be a controversial issue domestically (e.g.. Oklahoma has pulled out of Common Core and Louisiana is considering it while other states never joined and with one state, Minnesota, declining to participate in mathematics standards and with opposition from various conservative and liberal factions), it does lay groundwork to increase expectations of all student groups, including students with disabilities and students who do not speak English as their first language.

One of the suggested ways to do this is through “instructional supports for learning” (CCSS, 2014) “Instructional supports” are parallel to the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) (CCSS, 2014). However, the National Universal Design for Learning Center points out that Universal Design for Learning actually goes beyond the implementation suggestions laid out by Common Core. Rather, the National UDL Center suggests that UDL actually extends to all learners.

Universal Design for Learning is a set of instructional strategies, supports, and evaluations that are designed to enable all learners to meet goals. Education reformers often support their argument by defining UDL’s codification under the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-135, 110th Congress), 2008. This definition calls for flexibility in presenting information to students and in ways of having them demonstrate mastery of material and reducing barriers to instruction and providing appropriate accommodations to students who need them. It is emphasized that UDL is an evidence-based strategy (P..l. 110-135, 110th U.S. Congress). Evidence-based strategies are those driven by “hard” data (i.e. studies incorporating scientific method and quantitative evidence).

UDL’s roots are rooted in psychology and neuroscience 9e.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). These studies were made possible by examining how brain pathways work. Further evidence established pathways for learning (Tootell, Rappas, Kwong, Malach, Bor Brady, Rosen, & Belliveau 1995; Wallis & Bulthoff, 1999). Because tasks are individuated within the brain, people do not process information in exactly the same way (Schlaug, Jancke, Huang, & Steinmetz, 1995).

Learning has been revealed to be 1) modular, 2) distributed, 3) parallel. And 4) heterarchical (Meyer & Rose, 2005). Learning takes place as various modules in the brain interact (Gevins & Smith, 2000; Habib, McIntosh, & Tulving, 2000; Rypma & D’Esposito, 1999). Additional theoretical support for this way of understanding learning pathways comes from Howard Gardner’s (Gardner, 1983, 1999) work on multiple intelligences which indicates that there are various kinds of intelligences that a person may possess. According to Gardner, individuals will learn better if information is presented a variety of ways because such instruction accounts for a greater number of “kinds” of learners. For example, some individuals may learn best verbally, some through kinetic movement or by doing, some visually, some through auditory means, and so forth.

UDL best supports curriculum in three ways. First, it utilizes multiple means of representation across learning styles. Secondly, it allows students to express themselves in multiple ways while holding to standards. Finally, it allows for multiple means of engagement through a variety of means (Meyer & Rose, 2005).

Another way that UDL impacts curriculum is through deemphasizing (although not necessarily waiving) certain presentational elements (e.g. books and lectures) in favor of other kinds of learning practices. These practices contain built-in models of performance, opportunities for supported practice, immediate feedback, and communities of practices (Dalton, Pisha, Coyne, Eagleton, & Dreycher, 2001).

Feedback, in form of assessment, can be an important issue in UDL and is of particular concern in the age of education reform. UDL principles indicate that there should be some level of flexibility built into assessments. UDL’s emphasis on technology, however, can actually provide for a greater level of deeper assessment than traditional exams, however, as students can be evaluated through a variety of conditions which goes beyond what traditional exams can measure (Meyer & Rose, 2005; Russell & Haney, 1997, 2000).

Of course, individuals with the most severe cognitive disabilities may need alternative assessment in order to meet goals. One way, currently being led by a collaborative group of academic, non-profit, and corporate researchers, hosted by the University of Kansas, is working on one particularly UDL based alternative assessment called the Dynamic Learning Maps Assessment. This assessment recognizes that learning pathways, especially within this group, are not linear (Dynamic Learning Maps, 2011-2014). An example of a learning map can be seen here (

Now that we have a primer in UDL and educational reforms, we can discuss more substantial issues in UDL and education reform. This content will be coming in the following weeks. Until that time, please use the comment tool for your questions, opinions, and feedback.

Andrew Bennett