My father is a woodworker—his Red Sox ballcap smelling of sawdust and polyurethane. With a pencil tucked over his ear, he makes the process of building cabinets, stained-glass windows, and tree forts look like something anyone could do. To turn his sketches into reality, he couples his knowledge and skills with a workshop filled with tools such as bench grinders, tile cutters, pipe clamps, hammers, and nails.
My dad’s craft serves as a helpful analogy for teachers and teaching. Our goal as school leaders is to hire effective educators with the skills to design lessons and learning environments that meet the needs of students academically, socially, emotionally, behaviorally, culturally, and linguistically. Yet, too often, schools and districts send teachers into classrooms without the proper tools and expect them to make something out of nothing.
Educators need high-quality curriculum to support teaching and learning. If our schools and districts don’t provide the professional support and tools for teachers to do their jobs, they will face significant challenges that will result in lower feelings of efficacy and more frustration, which ultimately will impact student learning.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning by recognizing and eliminating barriers that prevent success. Many educators believe it is a framework focused solely on students, but it is equally applicable to the adults we serve. We, as school leaders, must recognize that our teachers face barriers that prevent them from meeting the needs of learners. When we can identify those barriers, we can work toward eliminating them. One critical driver of student success is access to an evidence-based curriculum. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires all schools to “use methods and instructional strategies that strengthen the academic program in the school, increase the amount and quality of learning time, and help provide an enriched and accelerated curriculum.”
The UDL framework defines curriculum as a combination of goals, methods, materials, and assessments. In their book Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice, Anne Meyer, David H. Rose, and David Gordon note, “This definition of curriculum is broader than a traditional one, which treats curriculum as a sequence of content elements conveyed by a particular set of instructional materials. We emphasize the interconnectedness of these four components and emphasize the importance of goals and assessment in designing effective curriculum.”
You have an incredible opportunity as an instructional leader to help teachers create firm goals for student learning and equip them with high-quality instructional practices, materials, and authentic assessments. In our book, UDL Playbook for School and District Leaders, Mike Woodlock and I unpack the core components of curriculum and provide concrete strategies that leaders can use to create action steps that better prepare the educators we serve. A few of the strategies are discussed in the sections that follow.
When crafting universally designed systems, educators must be clear about what learners should know or be able to do. As a school leader, you can support this work by ensuring there is a clear scope and sequence, essential or power standards, and/or a universally designed syllabus in each course. Consider reserving time in PLCs, professional development, or faculty meetings to provide teams of teachers the opportunity to unpack their standards and identify the most important content and skills students must acquire. UDL is all about “firm goals, flexible means,” so having clear goals aligned to grade-level standards is critical.
Teachers need ongoing professional development to build a skill set of inclusive practices. Without a framework like UDL, educators may follow a curriculum as designed instead of examining it through a critical lens that challenges and supports all students. Educators need to consistently ask themselves, “If I were to have a truly inclusive class, and if I wanted all students to meet or exceed this standard, and I were to teach this lesson as designed, what are the possible barriers?”
If your colleagues struggle to answer this question, commit to ongoing professional development that models UDL. Some educators will have strong background knowledge, understand acronyms and vocabulary, and will be able to organize their learning. Others will need options and choices to build an understanding of concepts, activate background knowledge, and will need time to explore resources and ask questions.
Also, consistently measure the impact of professional development by surveying teachers on their level of preparedness, facilitating listening sessions, and observing the impact of professional learning on classroom practice. Create a Likert scale and anonymously ask teachers to rate their level of agreement with the following statements:
- I feel prepared to design a learning environment that values social-emotional learning and well-being as much as academic excellence.
- I feel prepared to design learning environments that foster cultural competency and incorporate culturally responsive teaching.
- I feel prepared to support all students in learning grade-level standards, even if they do not speak English.
- I feel prepared to support all students in learning grade-level standards, even if they have significant support needs or are significantly behind their peers.
- I feel prepared to support all students in learning grade-level standards, even if they have significant behavioral challenges.
Teachers need high-quality instructional materials aligned to firm goals that are flexible enough to meet the needs of an inclusive classroom. This makes it necessary to think differently about curriculum review and adoption. Before making any changes to the curriculum, it is important to create a review committee that can identify values and critical considerations to guide the review and/or adoption process. Once the committee has identified what they need from curriculum materials, they can create a rubric to review programs based on the critical considerations they selected. For example, the committee may note the following considerations, which would drive the review and help the team determine if barriers exist and if new instructional materials, or supplemental materials, are necessary.
- The content aligns with grade-level state standards.
- There are multiple/varied instructional activities focused on student self-differentiation.
- The assessment package provides multiple means of expression.
In UDL, assessments must authentically align to standards. In each unit of instruction, it is critical that teachers review firm goals and create or revise assessments that measure what students know and can do before instruction (diagnostic), during instruction (formative), or after instruction (summative). In universally designed classrooms, there should be more focus on diagnostic and formative assessments than summative assessments, as they provide opportunities for targeted instruction, feedback, and revision.
Teachers can use their standards and review current assessments while asking the question, “What are other possible ways I could measure if students know or can do what the standards require?” For example, when sharing their understanding of a concept, perhaps students could write an essay, create an infographic with a written explanation, or create a video response.
Working with teachers to critically examine their curriculum helps to drive professional development and curriculum adoption. A curriculum is an incredible resource, but we cannot simply adopt a curriculum and ask teachers to read a script. We must empower them to be expert teachers who inspire, empower, and engage the students in their classrooms. You cannot simply hand someone a floor plan and ask them to build a house. But if you hire a skilled carpenter (teacher), listen to and support them, and provide them with all the tools they need along with a plan, then together we can build new and better systems that support all students and those who serve them.
Katie Novak, EdD, is the founder of Novak Educational Consulting and a graduate instructor at the University of Pennsylvania. A former assistant superintendent of schools in Groton-Dunstable, MA, she is the author of several books including UDL Playbook for School and District Leaders, which she co-authored with Mike Woodlock.