09 April 2008

Not getting to Universal Design

Issues swirl together, and after weeks of being conscious of an ever increasing crescendo of complaints about technology in the classroom I sat talking with a group of other PhD candidates about Universal Design and Universal Access and why it does not seem important to most people, even in a college of education where everyone mouths support of the idea of education for all, in an American state where the Governor has promised to double the number of college graduates, in a nation committed to an idea called, "No Child Left Behind."

Wouldn't Universal Design - that joining together of differentiated instruction, new information and communication technologies, and learner-directed education seem the obvious solution to a diverse community with diverse starting points and diverse ongoing needs? Nothing quite matches the rhetoric of "we'll get everyone to succeed" better than an educational design which abandons the industrial model for a humanist, flexible alternative. But - UDL is not only not embraced, it is barely considered. (see Considering Universal Design, below)

"We don't get there," I say, "because we really don't want everyone to succeed. And certainly those 'in power' don't want everyone to succeed. Only when we admit that, do all the attitudes which run through American education begin to make sense."

I put it in simple micro-economic terms. "If we had the chance to triple the number of people getting PhDs when we get ours, would we really want that?" I extend it a few ways, "Do the faculty upstairs really want their kids to be competing for spots in those 'best colleges' with twice as many high school grads? If you're trying to buy a $250,000 house do you really want twice as many people able to bid on it?"

In the end I suggest that we - and I mean "we" as a system - don't want those "at the bottom" to be miserable - that makes us feel bad. But we sure don't really want them to fully succeed either. In a capitalist economy that makes them competitors, and while capitalists like competition theoretically, it is not really what any capitalist wants in their own life.

Universal Design threatens an elite

Suppose that people were allowed to truly get to where they needed to go on their own terms. If everyone could study in the way that best worked for them to assemble the knowledge and skills necessary to become a lawyer, a doctor, an architect, an accountant, even a professor - there is, of course, ample proof that there are many out there who can accomplish these things in their own way but may not - for reasons of disability or difference or temperament or family resources or societal bias or physical location or even simply attitudes - can not complete the traditional routes to those careers.

If these differing learners had real equal opportunity to succeed, life would get, at least in some ways, more difficult for those who do succeed via the traditional routes.

Now remember, almost everyone in power in the education establishment has succeeded by traditional means. They did well in school when most did not do well. (We know this, most students do not do well in school. In many American cities not even half of students can finish high school.) They went to college and graduated, a distinctly minority position. They typically have at least a Masters Degree - now we're down to less than 10% of the population. They may have a PhD - a degree that is only granted to people by those already holding this degree in the manner of a closed club or fraternity. In order to do all that the most important skills these people usually have is the ability to conform, to follow the rules, to jump through hoops.

People are interesting though. And few highly educated people want to be perceived as being successful mostly because they can conform, follow rules, and jump through hoops. So they create myths, myths which imply that these acts of conformity are both 'essential' and 'important social skills.' And, as in all myths, there might even be touches of truth behind them, but they are still myths which exist primarily to build walls which keep people out of a privileged and exclusive club.

Universal Design vs. American notions of equality

So, yes, there is no real motivation for American educators to embrace Universal Design. But worse, there is a real psychological motivation, particular to the United States, to actually oppose it. Europeans, when considering education and child development, seem to understand that different children are born to circumstances (both genetic and social) which somehow prefigure differing outcomes. I am not suggesting whether this is "good" or "bad." As with most things my guess is that it is, somehow, both. So children are "tracked" to different paths, and there is little notion that there is a "single route" - no "single path" which somehow makes sense for everyone.

Americans are typically appalled by this notion. "How can you divide kids so early?" they ask, expressing shock. Americans have been brought up in the world's most Calvinist society, one which truly believes in that "single path" to "the light." And, in order to believe in that idea Americans have constructed another idea - equality means that everyone is really starting at the same point ("anyone can grow up to be president") and that if we simply treat everyone in exactly the same way it will all work out.

This is not simply the lunatic ravings of a Clarence Thomas or a George W. Bush. Sure, they will sound ridiculous making the argument that the child of a single-mother McDonald's minimum-wage minority group employee who lives in a 1979 Chevy Van has the same opportunities as the child of a Harvard-graduate bank president from Connecticut, but even "liberal" Americans, from Ted Kennedy to Hillary Clinton to most university faculty truly appear to believe the same thing. For example, No Child Left Behind is frequently bashed for excessive testing, but remember, both Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton voted for a law which presumes:

that (a) all children learn at the same rate and learn all things at the same ages, and
that (b) the only form of acceptable research in education is research which treats education as an industrial process.

Also consider that university education faculties across the US have embraced these ideas, and fight for grants for studies which will encourage these beliefs. And finally - walk into any university classroom, read any university syllabus, hell, read any graduate school guidebook, and you will see as little understanding of the idea of differentiated instruction as you will see in a KIPP boot-camp school or a New York City School System elementary reading lesson. In other words - none.

An inability to accept...

So, if you suggest to those who hold the power in education in America that it may not matter...
  • whether students read via ink-on-paper, or audio-book, or digital text
  • whether students take notes on paper, or computer, or mobile phone
  • whether students come to class, or view a video of the class, or listen to a podcast of the class, or just read the material on their own
  • whether they take the class at all if the can demonstrate the skills and/or knowledge
  • whether they can express their thoughts via pen, or keyboard, or speech recognition
  • whether they use APA or MLA citations or simply offer "livelinks" (hyperlinks) to the source of the data
two things are immediately threatened. First, the rules and traditions of the club, which are both methods of controlling entry and establishing elite identity. Second, the very notions of equality and fairness which see differentiation as 'cheating' and 'unfair advantage.'

Models of Fairness

I do not want to suggest that simply because this is so ingrained that is thus fully "unconscious." I do not believe that it is. I see it as a set of choices, because Americans have many models of fairness that they routinely adopt as long as all involved are already part of an elite.

Sailboat racing, for example, uses a complex handicapping system which allows 20 foot boats to race against 100 foot yachts. Golfers use handicaps as well. "Legacy" admissions to Ivy League schools allow access to the benefits of elite education to the occasionally lazy, irresponsible child (the current US president, among many others). Wealthy parents hire tutors and 'packagers' to help their children get into college. They buy their children fancy computers which check their spelling and help them make creative videos. They fill their homes with all the things that give their children "advantages." American sports leagues even hold "drafts" which help unsuccessful teams compete (as opposed to European leagues where unsuccessful teams are tossed into lower levels of competition). But in every one of these cases those who benefit from these "assistive technologies" are those who have already secured their spots among the elite. When equivalent systems are suggested for those from "outside," be it screen readers in the classroom, affirmative action (reverse discrimination), or a path to credentials which does not conform to "the rules" - these are derided as "unfair," "un-American," even as truly dangerous - "a lowering of standards," or - to use the ultimate attack - "socialism."

So the system of power resists. It fights. It shifts its arguments as often as Dick Cheney on Iraq but it stands its ground despite it all. Laptops in the classroom are "distracting," yeah, that's why we're against them, they're "distracting." It isn't that we want to limit success to those just like "us." Of course not. Mobile phones "allow for cheating." It's not that new communications technology might support the success of different learners, surely not, we just need to maintain our "standards." On-line publishing allows for "plagiarism." Really, we're not trying to protect our jobs and our control of information, it's a "legal matter." Videotaping the class promotes "laziness." We're not against different ways to learn, but we're "the experts," these are "time-proven" educational methods. Alternative paths to credentials and certifications? "It's possible," we suggest, "as long as we stay in control and maintain the standards."

And thus the elites will of course embrace sending rich kids with no training out to teach poor kids but will attack the idea of one-to-one computing or mobile learning. And thus most of the students who are allowed college entrance-exam accommodations are wealthy, white, suburbanites.

In the end Universal Design is not difficult, nor expensive, nor do we lack examples of how to do it. But it is not really something which our society wants to do. And so we do not do it.

- Ira Socol

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Paul Hamilton said...

Ira, this is one of the most insightful blog posts I've read anywhere. We educators are indeed part of an elite who stand to lose power, prestige, and economic clout if we were to successfully address the learning needs of ALL learners in our classrooms.

I probably shouldn't be surprised that after 10 days, this is the first comment here. I hope you don't feel too much like a "voice crying in the wilderness". The odds are stacked mightily against widespread adoption of universal design and real universal access, but it's essential to soldier on. The battles have to be fought because this war is definitely worth winning.

Anonymous said...

Paul sent me the link to your post. Thank you, THANK YOU for writing it.

I will be sharing your post with the teachers I am working with in New Jersey on Universal Design for Learning and will encourage them to also leave comments.

Lisa Thumann
Senior Specialist in Technology Education
Rutgers University
Center for Mathematics, Science and Computer Education

Visit us on the web at http://cmsce.rutgers.edu

Bill Gaskins said...

Dear Lisa,
Bravo! This is the most interesting blog about what is really wrong with education in this country. It is is unfair. The kids in my 90% poverty school has not chance to my own two middle class kids who use assistive technology every day- not for school mainly, but for real learning and figuring things out. My 8 and 12 year old know that Wikipedia and google are full of answers and they can make movies and write well because of their parent and grammar and spell check. I look forward to visiting your blog more often.


Anonymous said...

I agree.

Since we know that those who are in power don't want the "system" to change...the push for change must come from those who are being oppressed by the system. How do we take this first step?


Anonymous said...


I was amazed with the section that mentioned that European Countries can recognize the use of Universal Design and the states shy away from it. It seems they have the mentality that if it is not broke don't fix it. But they are not looking close enough, because where I stand it needs to be fixed. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Using sailboat racing as an analagy to handicapping was very dear to me as I used to race on a 30' out of RYC in Perth Amboy, NJ.
As a teacher of self contained classroom, my students have various handicaps which lead to differentiated instruction. We need to be able to use assistive technology to help all students.
Pushing for change must come from the people in the classroom, as I have approached different poloticians running for office, and generally, they do not have a clue about NCLB.
Thank you

Anonymous said...

Great focus on education and the early imprints that are created at that time in life. I understand just how long these imprints last; as a middle age adult, I look forward every day and have those imprints wanting to contradict any vision that I am stepping into. As I look at the future of UD, I also see an economic concern that will be a crises if we wait. Simply put, past cultures that didn't have the means to support their less abled populations devised methods to abandon (or eat) them. If we won't create an environment of UD where all people are better able to care for themselves, we will see quite some hardship. I am very much supporting taking action now. I invite you to have a look at my blog and website and to look at ways to impact this great country in partnership. Thanks for your energy and enthusiasm. - Konrad

Anonymous said...

It is shocking to realize how politics in America can influence the degree at which students are successful in school, and which is most important in life. I genuinely believe that every student deserves the opportunity to be successful, and if UDL can help us bridge the gap, government should be more serious about. Instead of being so concerned about testing students, they should put more resources to implement UDL nationwide.

Anonymous said...

Sure there are legacies at the Ivy leagues- those colleges depend on that alumnae money in part to fund all the full/partial scholarships that the other kids get. When I went to Yale it was 40% of students receiving financial aid.

Sally Shaywitz out of Yale University,an expert on dyslexia, talks of colleges beginning to accept the use of assistive technologies for dyslexics as they better understand the disability itself.

I'm an ESL/ELL teacher and pre-NCLB our students were just passed from grade to grade. Now we have gotten more ELL teachers and more grant money to bring their achievement up. Hallelujah!

I grant that the standards we are expected to eventually reach under NCLB are unrealistic for certain kids, but I understand the thinking behind it. It used to be that ELLs and Learning Disabled students weren't required to be grouped in with other students when accountability testing first was being implemented. Districts with large numbers of poorly performing students put them into the LD category so these students wouldn't be counted (dragging down the reputation of the district). We can still see this today in the use of the SRA to graduate large numbers of students (sometimes up to 20% in a single district). The SRA was originally developed for use by the small minority of students who have test-taking anxiety. Now the SRA gives an easy diploma and keeps local and state graduation rates high. NCLB has given more resources to my students- it has made them matter in a way they didn't before.

And as for 'society' not wanting to help diverse learners use technology in the classroom- our district has not seen any negative reactions that I know of to the grant we received for doing just that. We rise or fall as a nation. All must succeed to their god-given potential.

irasocol said...

anonymous (directly above):

I think you are missing a key component. you are not discussing universal design, you are discussing prescriptive solutions, handed out by those in power, to those deemed "unable to help themselves." That is not creating independence, and it will never help the mass of students who get much less out of school than they need, because the idea of diagnosis means that people must be treated as categories, not individuals, and that certain people will always fall not-quite-over-the-line and will thus not get help.

So Yale, and every other university, will give AT to "dyslexics" who can afford to be diagnosed, but won't let students choose the medium of information exchange most useful for them.

One other note - all evidence beginning to finally arrive at the end of this NCLB decade indicates that the drop out rate among "Special Needs" and "non-conforming" students has skyrocketed. Yes, schools are paying attention - and they're dumping kids out of school if they might otherwise bring test scores down.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

What do you mean 'dumping kids out of school'? Not letting them graduate? In NJ the crux of the NJEA's argument that teachers are doing a good job, and (thus entitled to a good salary and good benefits) is NJ's high graduation rate. So I can't buy what you are saying.

And I was responding to a major thesis of your post which is that the elites and society are purposely trying to keep kids who learn differently down because these elites/society (you bounce between the two terms) are afraid of competition from them. That's absurd.

I do believe that NCLB has created pressure on districts who used to let students who weren't being reached just slide along with greater failure and frustration every year. Our district has seen more grant money because of NCLB, but I have also seen state test tutoring only offered to students who are on the borderline of passing the test, and so who have a real chance to bring up test scores, while students who are in the most crisis, and probably don
't have a good chance of bringing up test scores, are not offered that same tutoring. So there have definitely been bad side effects, but in my district I see the good out-weighing the bad.

On another note, do you know of any websites that teach dyslexics to read without them having to pay? I have developed my own way, and I will be posting it free on youtube, but I'm wondering if anything else like Orton-Gillingham or the Wilson Method is out there for free.

irasocol said...


I'm not an expert on New Jersey and I've never been much of a fan of the NEA nor any of its affiliates - which too often resist the professionalization of teaching. And, sure New Jersey seems to be "above average" - that is, in last report, only 61% of New Jersey 8th Graders fail to demonstrate themselves as proficient readers, only 34% of African-American students drop out of high school and 40% of Latinos drop out (in self-report, other studies show these rates much higher).

Anyway, you may think my thesis is absurd, but then, I'll ask you: What is your explanation for the motivation to not solve these problems? Americans really, really care but are completely incompetent?

You've revealed the answer yourself in your third paragraph - "society" (as run by its elites) divide those struggling into 2 groups, those who "might be useful" and those who are assumed will never be. On this I'll recommend Peter Hoeg's brilliant novel "Borderliners" (it isn't necessarily just an American thing) - the original Danish title of which is, "Those Who Might be Useful."

On teaching reading - Don't know. My expertise lies in offering students access to content. I will say that people from Freedom Scientific have demonstrated a really effective use of SQR3 strategies combined with the kind of high-level literacy supports provided by products such as their WYNN software (as well as Kurzweil3000 and Read-and-Write), and I have seen dramatic results from this. I've also seen that in about 50% of students I work with, extensive use of text-to-speech systems - those with word-as-it-is-read highlighting - significantly improves reading (seemingly by improving sight-word recognition, and with the best software - WYNN, etc - which 'sub-highlights' sentences, improving an understanding of the grammar of English). But in the other half of students these systems remain pure accommodation, and have little remedial impact.

But then, I think of "teaching reading" as something very different than Orton-Gillingham folks do. They see reading as a decoding skill set - fair enough. I see reading as a comprehension and analytical art, and I'm not so desperate to have everyone base their reading in alphabetical code-breaking. It is a nice trick to know, but after a certain point, I'm not going to waste student time on decoding. There are more important things to learn.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

I don't see society as purposely trying to keep spec ed students down- I do think it is a matter of incompetence. We used to have really good jobs in this country for people who were not book smart. We're just catching up to the reality in America where young people are going to be highly educated or else be relegated to a Wal-Mart job.

Also most people don't understand that we don't all process information the same way- the public is still caught up in the 'they're just lazy kids and/or the product of bad parenting', so the public doesn't care if the kids sink instead of swim because they feel its the kids' own fault anyway.

In Taiwan where my husband is from the dividing into groups is even more ruthless. When he was going to school, kids' destinies were set at 14. If you didn't pass a test you were kicked out of school and went to work. My husband has an LD, but LD's at that time (my husband is 45) were not even recognized in Taiwan. Maybe it's still that way. The Taiwan government wasn't purposely trying to keep a group of students down, they simply wanted the best students to invest time and money in. They thought the rest were just lazy trouble makers. And my husband was a troublemaker, but then again he also has Tourette's.

I remember once my husband saw a PBS documentary on autism and how one woman (who was always carrying around spoons) found a way to communicate with her family. It was about how she reached out to other autistics so they could all hep each other and make their lives better. My husband is always criticizing America, but the way that woman was struggling to reach her potential, how her family supported her, how she was helping strangers, was something he thought rare and wonderful. Something that he thought wouldn't happen in Taiwan. He thought it revealed something great about America. You need to travel more, Ira.

irasocol said...


Your husband's story is unfortunate, but would not be unknown in the US at all - the mechanics would just be more subtle. Huge numbers of students with 'invisible' disabilities are forced out of US schools every year, and unlike in the classic European model, there is nowhere for them to really go. This trend has accelerated under NCLB because of testing pressures for this group. So, while I know almost nothing about Taiwan schools (except that told to me by my friends from there) so I won't comment directly, I'll say two things: First - the US neither takes the Brit/German model of extensive and well-supported special schools, nor the Full Inclusion model, and it thus leaves kids (and teachers) caught in a twilight zone. Second - comparing a system to something much worse is an old political excuse for bad behavior. Robert Mugabe may not be Saddam Hussein but that does not excuse Robert Mugabe. The US voting system may be better than Russia's, but that does not excuse what's wrong about the way America conducts its own elections. If I were to accept your argument (not the assumptive slur about travel, but your point), then US schools need not try to improve at all as long as any nation on earth has a worse education system. But I can't accept that. Under that theory only one place (the worst) would ever be expected to get better, and that's no path for human progress.

- Ira Socol

Unknown said...

Jeri sent me this on the new computer SHE just set up for me!!! Excellent. As an erstwhile children's librarian, I can't agree with you more. I work in an incredibly wealthy, privileged suburb in Westchester county, where I give our old, used, out-of-date volumes to those communities which can't afford to buy what "we" can afford to throw away.
Ray Messing

Anonymous said...

To Ira- I was going to cut and paste to reference your specific quotes, but it got too complicated for me. My main point is that I don't believe there is a vast conspiracy perpatrated by 'society' or the 'elites' to hold down students who don't learn in traditional ways. I think you do believe in this conspiracy. You also assume that based on my Taiwan example I don't want the USeducational system to improve. It seems you are predisposed to thinking the worst of people. Anyway, I believe in UDL, so to the extent that you draw more people into that, you are a positive force despite your prejudices and assumptions.

irasocol said...


I know you don't see a conspiracy. I don't see one either the way you define that word. I believe that there are cultural assumptions which support certain conclusions, and so I don't think - as I think I've said here - that there is any incentive for most of those in education to create real change. I think if there was incentive, we'd see change. Because I am that kind of optimist, I think that when people want change it happens.

Amari said...

All very true, but you didn't mention one thing. Kids wouldn't have to go to all of these schools using oppressive "education" if not for forceful legislation telling them it's mandatory.

They could study at their own pace, their own time, with their own mentors, the only problem being money (which is certainly not helped by today's regime-like schooling). But the law says they have too under punishment to them and their kids in many states. Homeschoolers evade this as well as several notable schools with no enforced teaching, but for most of America and perhaps the western world, laws exist to *make* children of the none elite compelled to attend these degratory lower-class marking procedures. This isn't right, and instead of letting the government and those in power to decide who study in what method, it should be a free endeavor. That way no one can mark our children as failures.