Intentionality: The Other Digital Divide

When we hear about the digital divide, we often immediately think about mere access to technology and broadband. Undoubtedly, access remains an important concern. According to the 2012 Pew Report “Digital Differences,” only 62 percent of people in households making less than $30,000 a year used the internet, while 90 percent of those making $50,000–74,999 used it. There is, however, another less discussed digital divide—that of rigor. We know workers across many industries are facing increased pressure in the form of automation and outsourcing in sectors that their communities have long relied on. Knowing that, the most important tech-related question in education policy is not who has access to technology, but what quality of learning does the technology provide?

For the last year, the National Center for Learning Disabilities and a number of national partners have tackled this new dividethe quality divide. It often manifests in school, district, and state procurement decisions, but neither starts nor stops at those decisions. Instead, we found through research and numerous conversations that there are five different stages where we both see the divide and where state, local, and vendor stakeholders actions can help bridge it:

  • VISION: The vision grounding the ed tech investment is grounded in high expectations for knowledge, skills, and dispositions for all learners.
  • DESIGN: Disability experts and individuals with disabilities are fully included in the design of all products designed for general education populations.
  • PROCUREMENT AND PURCHASE: The needs of all learners inform decision-making.
  • USE: Practitioners are empowered to effectively use products to serve all learners.
  • CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT: There is funding to expand and sustain the benefits of the tech investment for all learners.

It’s worth highlighting the word all in these actions and closely considering what it means to achieve that goal. Inclusion is not just a word on paper, but the product of proactive and collaborative mindsets and actions by a diverse group of stakeholders. In other words, no one can do this alone. That’s why NCLD is excited to release the report, “Inclusive Technology in a 21st-Century Learning System,” and multiple companion pieces created in collaboration with a number of great partners to serve local, state, and national stakeholders. Partners include research organizations such as AIR and the Friday Institute; local decision maker organizations like AASA and ASBO; state policy maker organizations like NASDSE, SETDA, and NASBE; and national policy and advocacy thought-leader organizations like Learning Accelerator, Digital Promise, the Alliance for Excellent Education, and the Future Ready Schools initiative.

As we work with our partners, we want to ensure that we ourselves model what we advocate for. We believe it is the responsibility of many stakeholders to ensure that students with disabilities are provided access to ed tech that facilitates deeper engagement and learning. We believe that these deeper learning experiences can happen only when ed tech initiatives and products are designed with the needs of students with disabilities and other traditionally disadvantaged students considered at the outset of visioning and design, rather than retrofitted down the road. And we believe that this is not a one-time activity, but a continuous process. To that end, we are proud and grateful to our many partners who remain engaged in this conversation with us and who see the need for inclusion through a similarly proactive and comprehensive lens. Be on the lookout later this month for these publications. We invite you, the reader, to join us at that table.

Civics Education and the Preservation of Disability and Civil Rights

Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) speaks about his experiences during the Civil Rights Movement to the NCLD Young Adult Leadership Council with other advocates.

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”  

—President Franklin D. Roosevelt

When President Roosevelt made this statement to commemorate American Education Week in 1938, he had already grappled for nearly two decades with a disability that had left him paralyzed from the hips down. He spoke as someone who saw how his own education contributed both to his empowered, self-determined state and to his confidence in the longevity of the democratic principles he sought to defend.

This isn’t just a nice historical anecdote. It’s a present-day challenge to claim rights and improve opportunities for traditionally marginalized groups (racial and ethnic minorities, lower-income individuals, LGBTQ individuals, and individuals with disabilities) in our society today. Education, and specifically a strong civics education, not only safeguards our democratic institutions, but also empowers these groups to use institutional levers to advance social justice. In our democratic system, individuals do this through the learning and practice of speaking out, debating, discussing, empathizing, organizing, nonviolently protesting, serving, and, ultimately, voting.   

These civic actions have contributed to one of the least talked about but most successful civil rights movements of modern times: the disability rights movement. It was FDR’s distant cousin, President Teddy Roosevelt, who cruelly advocated for eliminating individuals with disabilities from society. The disability rights movement fought for and won a right to existence and then legal protections—including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, and other bipartisan statutes—that aimed to safeguard those rights and advance full inclusion in society. These historical gains are not and were never inevitable; they were gained through civic action.

Empowering that action isn’t a function of groups simply getting more education and mastering literacy and mathematics, which, along with science, have come to reflect the core focus disciplines. We often hear about achievement gaps in these academic subjects. But there are other gaps as well: Individuals with disabilities—and other traditionally disadvantaged subgroups—are also significantly less likely to vote and to engage in other civic behaviors. That fact underscores the essential need for a strong civics education for its own merits. When implemented effectively, it helps individuals understand an arc of history and how to effectively and constructively leverage their power in a democratic system to, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated, bend that arc toward justice.

Effective civics education isn’t just about learning historical facts. It includes immersive and integrated experiences with explicit instruction in civics, discussion of current events, applied learning activities like service learning, democratic participation, and school governance. While these actions can have benefits for all students, they are particularly powerful for students with disabilities who need skills to advocate for themselves in school and later in life, especially after they leave K–12 education and the supports provided by their families, IDEA, and dedicated special educators and other staff.

When students with disabilities are explicitly taught and experience the skills and dispositions associated with high-quality civics education, they show greater capacity for self-advocacy and self-determination. They are more capable of taking empowered actions regarding their learning and lives. We help students with disabilities develop these capacities when we change the national conversation, speak about access to high-quality civics education as a civil rights issue, and explicitly integrate into civics education the essential skills and dispositions that traditionally disadvantaged groups need to succeed. This takes place when educators, communities, parents, and students’ peers:

  1. Explicitly teach about the disability rights movement and other civil rights movements within history courses, and support students in understanding similarities and differences between the present and past;
  2. Incorporate classroom discussions and debates about how to improve accessibility in schools and communities;
  3. Provide service learning opportunities to students with and without disabilities that leverage all students’ strengths;
  4. Ensure that civic-related extracurricular activities, such as 4-H or student council, are inviting and inclusive for all students; and
  5. Prepare students to take a leadership role in meetings where their needs and goals are being discussed, including IEP and transition meetings.

These types of inclusive school experiences don’t happen without explicit planning and implementation. When the Founding Fathers lay the groundwork for our system of public education, they ultimately established opportunities for all of us to come together as equal citizens. Because this democratic experiment is far from over—and indeed may never be over—it is more important than ever to protect and expand the civic mission of schools for all students and especially for those so often pushed to the margins of our society.  

A Tale of Two Schools: Inclusive Culture Created With Purpose

It can be difficult to educate students with disabilities in an innovative and effective way. But NCLD recently visited two very different schools that were doing just that. These schools serve two very different populations, in two different parts of the country. We found an important commonality, though: an inclusive culture that was created with purpose.

NCLD has been working to identify promising 21st-century learning practices in schools. We’re focused on how these practices serve and include students with disabilities. We’ve worked with educators, experts, and analysts across the country and have identified a number of schools doing interesting work in this area. In the past month, we visited two of these schools — Evergreen Community Charter School in Asheville, NC, and Envision Academy of Arts and Technology in Oakland, CA. Evergreen serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade, primarily from middle-income white families in a relatively rural setting. Envision serves students in grades 9–12, primarily from low-income families of color in an urban setting.

Despite their differences, both schools have a culture that draws in a particular type of educator: those who value inclusion as a pivotal component to the success of all students. This inclusive culture isn’t a matter of simple good fortune. It was a by-product of specific and proactive decisions the school made. We asked students, educators, and administrators about how these schools serve students with disabilities. And it was clear that these schools don’t consider students with disabilities as separate from other students. They are simply part of the school community.

Culture as a Decision: The Evergreen Way

At Evergreen, students with disabilities routinely outperform students with disabilities in neighboring schools on traditional academic measures. More impressively, though, is the school’s strong focus on Expeditionary Learning (EL) as a way to serve diverse learners.

The EL model encourages students to master content in a nontraditional way: by completing a cross-subject “expedition” project that culminates in weeks of work on a specific topic. Evergreen is led by Susan Mertz, Ph.D., who said on our visit that they “don’t lower expectations for students with disabilities. … We simply make it accessible to them. … We change the modes of instruction as opposed to changing what we expect of kids.” Evergreen does this by explicitly focusing on including all students in the EL process through rotations of roles within student teams, and by implementing the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Culture as a Decision: The Envision Way

Similarly, Envision isn’t shy about embracing a culture of social justice, inclusion, and respect for students and educators. This is apparent the moment you walk into the school. Decorations lining the walls include quotes by civil rights heroes and copies of college acceptance letters. Time is set aside for teacher-led, collaborative professional development to ensure that teachers’ voices are valued. The school’s pedagogical philosophy relies strongly on using the city of Oakland and the learning opportunities it affords as an extension of the classroom. With these elements as part of the learning experience, it’s no surprise that students select projects relating to social issues in their community, that teachers feel empowered, and that almost all graduating students are accepted to college. (The great majority of those are first-generation college students!)

It’s easy to focus on specific initiatives that seem promising. But it’s also important to examine and recognize the cultural elements that empower those initiatives to work effectively. These schools have worked hard to develop a culture of inclusion and community. Culture is not some intangible factor that is either there or not there — it is the quality of the soil through which initiatives grow, and its quality is determined by explicit decisions that create a school’s culture. This discovery is perhaps our biggest takeaway and our biggest hope, as we know that those decisions can be replicated elsewhere to create inclusive and thriving school cultures.

The Skills We Neglect and Why We Can’t Afford To

Photo Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

High school students often have skewed visions of what college demands. I still vividly remember visiting my friend, Nick, after my first semester of college. Nick, who was a high school senior at the time, had a burning question he’d clearly been wrestling with — a problem that he seemed to feel would sink him in college: “How were you able to pay for and do laundry?” he nervously asked. (We’ll leave for a different blog post the embarrassing fact that neither Nick nor I had done our own laundry in high school.) Seeing his anxiety, I didn’t know how to break it to my friend that finding three quarters for the machine and learning to separate whites from colors were not the biggest issues I was facing. No, the biggest challenge I had was explaining to my microeconomics professor why I was struggling and that I needed help.

This week, we are proud to share two briefs for higher ed faculty and administrators, in partnership with the American Council on Education and the American Association of University Administrators. These resources are aimed at addressing the skills and capacities that would have helped me navigate challenges with my professor (but perhaps not my laundry).

With the emphasis on GPAs, SATs, ACTs, and applications during the senior year of high school, we often forget that the transition from high school to postsecondary life is an enormous leap and rite of passage for young adults — it’s beyond just academics. Students need to quickly begin making independent decisions for themselves in new ways, budgeting their time, balancing social and academic lives with greater independence, and taking greater responsibility for their futures. Self-advocacy skills (the skills to know yourself and your rights, and the ability to communicate on your own behalf) and self-determination (the capacity to be the primary agent in one’s learning and life) aren’t simply nice skills to have: They become the oxygen necessary to survive and thrive.

While it’s a big leap for any student, the shift to higher education is even greater for students with disabilities — regardless of their academic capacity. Many students with disabilities will have their first experience of approaching a faculty member to ask for accommodations (something their parents and IEP teams may have previously determined for them). They may also find other challenges, depending on whether their disabilities pose barriers to their understanding, their access to buildings, or their access to course materials. It’s no surprise that students with disabilities who have greater self-advocacy skills and capacity for self-determination do better in college than their peers: They have higher GPAs and are more likely to progress.  

For any of us, self-advocacy skills and self-determination reflect an empowered response to a state of vulnerability or a power imbalance. When any of us make a claim for work-life balance, ask for time off to care for a sick parent or child, or advocate for a promotion or higher pay, we continue to exercise these essential skills and capacities. These skills and capacities are essential to future success, and their existence goes beyond mere academic competencies. Thus, advancing self-advocacy skills and self-determination must become an explicit goal across our higher education systems, from students who have to set their own goals in developing these skills and capacities to faculty and administrators who create the environments in which those skills and capacities are developed. Here we identify a role for each: students, faculty, and administrators.  

Students. Students must recognize that skills in the areas of self-advocacy and self-determination are as important as anything they will learn in their coursework — or maybe even more important. Developing these skills will allow them to get more out of their coursework. So they must learn to approach challenges with a growth mindset, framing setbacks and obstacles as learning opportunities.  

Faculty. Faculty must come to see the advancement of their discipline as being incumbent on mentoring and supporting students as they develop these skills. There are countless examples of leaders with disabilities in nearly every discipline demonstrating these skills and capacities and, in the process, contributing new perspectives that help to address entrenched problems.  

Administrators. Administrators must recognize that the success of their students in exercising self-advocacy skills and of their faculty in supporting them isn’t just the purview of those individuals, but a function of the environment they help establish. Indeed, even the best intentions and efforts among students and faculty could fail in the face of department- and institution-wide cultures that don’t effectively support student needs.  

The last several decades have seen great advances in access to our institutions of higher education for racial minorities, disabled students, and other traditionally disadvantaged groups.  This progress has neither been inevitable nor linear—it’s been borne of specific choices and initiatives of groups and individuals who have embraced self-advocacy skills and self-determination on behalf of themselves and their communities. It is in this spirit that we invite students, faculty, and university administrators to take up this new torch for expanding opportunity and access at our institutions of higher education.

Does Our Conception of Disability Rights Need a Reboot?

Photo Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

Is our vision of educating students with disabilities aligned with the demands of the 21st century? The answer to that all-important civil rights question changes with time. A satisfactory answer when IDEA was first authorized in 1975 (as the “Education for All Handicapped Children Act”) would certainly not be sufficient today. Nobody would disagree that a lot has changed — both in our conception of disabilities and in the demands for success in the 21st century.

Acknowledging a need to evolve with the times — to give our conception a reboot — doesn’t diminish the significance of past victories. The passage of the original education civil rights law in 1975 was monumental in its time. The protections it afforded students with disabilities and their families are still essential today. Before its passage, the great majority of children with disabilities would either be educated in totally separate corners of schools or would simply not have their disabilities identified and addressed at all. The social and legal expectation IDEA ushered in by demanding that all students have access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) ensured — and still ensures — that significantly more students are seen and effectively served. These principles deserve protection.

Considering these ideals raises important questions about the meaning of fundamental principles like FAPE and LRE in a modern context. In the coming months, NCLD and partners will seek answers to questions like:

  • What must change in a world where economic sectors continue to evolve from an emphasis on manufacturing to one focused on idea generation?
  • How can schools focus on the transferable skills employers and postsecondary faculty emphasize, like critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration? It is much easier to create an IEP goal of “Johnny will be able to decode 36 of 40 multisyllabic words” than to say that “Johnny will demonstrate a growth mindset when facing challenging text and will reflect on his experience.” But the latter may serve Johnny best in the long term.
  • How can we adjust to the fact that many jobs that don’t require these new skills are either being outsourced or automated?

These are not easy questions to answer, but they are the very issues of interest for NCLD’s latest Innovation project. To date, we have explored these questions with some great partners — networks of schools like Big Picture Learning, Brooklyn Lab, EL Education, High Tech High, and New Tech Network. We’ve discussed what these networks that are committed to 21st-century learning environments do to engage their students with disabilities. We’ve delved more deeply with educators at schools within these networks, and we’ve relied on some renowned experts and practitioners to provide guidance. We believe some of these ideas hold promise, such as:

  • Incorporating instruction on self-advocacy and self-determination into the general education curriculum
  • Providing opportunities and support for students to participate in and lead their own IEP and transition meetings
  • Facilitating collaboration among special and general educators around more engaging, interdisciplinary, and project-based instruction
  • Using the IEP as a tool to capture students’ progress in the development of social and emotional skills
  • Fostering inclusion and growth mindsets in all students

We will be digging deeper into these practices and looking at outcome data. Our goal is to identify areas where more research is needed and to provide a set of recommendations to help improve these practices, moving closer to an education system in which 21st-century skills are part of every student’s development. We are bullish in our belief that students with disabilities must be included in a vision of 21st-century learning. We invite your considerations, ideas, constructive pushback, and partnerships in making that vision a reality for all our kids.

3 Lessons the Phoenix Children’s Museum Taught Me About Personalized Learning

Have you ever had issues you faced in your professional life come crashing directly against your personal beliefs? There are many examples of this throughout history: pacifists who were thrust into carrying out wars and tech executives who wrestled with their lives growing increasingly impersonal. While my profession may be less glamorous—not to say that non-profit education policy analyst doesn’t raise an eyebrow or two at parties—I recently experienced this myself: embracing a fully self-directed learning experience for my toddler at the Phoenix Children’s Museum.

Friends who know me well enough know that If (emphasis intentionally added) I’m going to pay for a vacation, I want to optimize all the coolest things possible about a given experience and make sure I get those down in a very detailed plan. It’s a combination of my undergraduate economics major (i.e. optimization) converging with my overall cheapness. And so, when the well meaning attendant at the front desk told me there wasn’t a map for the museum and that they encouraged kids to just explore what seemed interesting to them, my facial expression must’ve surely conveyed the low number of stars this experience would get on Yelp when I got home.

I was soon pleasantly surprised. My three-year old daughter, Ella, led me to the “Make a Mess” where the title said it all. As Ella (and I) wrote letters with paint on the ground and splattered paint on the wall, she commented that it was starting to look like a Jackson Pollock (she’s by no means artistically brilliant… we had just read this book recently). The attendant at the station yelled with delight, “YES!” Later Ella explored, scooped, and created dirt structures outside in the garden and started asking me questions about rocks, dirt, and plant life, in essence mimicking the scientific method without ever having learned it. And then, still later in the day, my wife and I caught her putting prices on items and weighing amounts at the pretend grocery store as she played with another child that she had just met. I consider myself a good parent, but I’d be hard pressed to identify a day in Ella’s life where she had explored so many concepts—literacy, math, science, arts, etc.—in such a short time and in such a deep, integrated, and memorable way.

On that flight home later in the week, I began to reflect on four lessons the experience reinforced about what I knew about educational best practice and what it could mean in terms of policy:

Lesson 1: Setting up educational  environments is as important as anything else we do. We often measure education by the time it takes to teach  a young person. Aligning education to the 21st century requires us to shift our focus to setting up learning environments where students can drive their own learning. We may think this will unleash chaos, but, if done thoughtfully, the emphasis on student agency can actually unleash more transformative learning experiences for all our students. Policies that incentivizes a stronger focus on frameworks like universal design for learning and/or facilitates different options for students to demonstrate mastery through opportunities that meet a high standard of rigor can help students claim a deeper mastery of learning.

Lesson 2: Educational technology’s role is debatable while human interaction is indispensable. In many reform circles, we often conflate technology and innovation. This misses the fact that organizations like the Phoenix Children’s Museum and many high performing schools use little to no technology in the actual delivery of learning. The reality is that innovation is not about products—innovation is about pedagogy. When it comes to educational innovation, every issue doesn’t have to have a technological answer, but everything must—at the least—integrate a human answer. For example, even if you are to invest in an effective tech platform, that platform must be coupled with training for educators to use it to strengthen their relationship with their students. This means that, rather than seeing technology as a replacement for this investment, policy makers must make strategic investments in educators as professionals and in strong professional learning systems.    

Lesson 3: Have an effective plan to communicate what you are doing. Despite my persistent advocacy for self-directed learning, I could still be disappointed when told that there was no map. Only later did I recognize that not having a map was part of the museum’s educational philosophy and that there were clear benefits to it. In my case, it was a four-hour visit to a museum. But in the case of many parents, the innovative approach being implemented reflects  a year or multiple years in their child’s life. This is to say that in both policy and practice, we may often lose supporters because we don’t take the time to effectively communicate to families what we are doing and why we are doing it.

In the end, there is something deeper to the act of learning than what we may see on the surface. As parents, students, concerned citizens, practitioners, and/or policy makers we must take thoughtful, creative actions to transform learning. Those actions often imply providing learners greater agency in ways that make us as adults feel more vulnerable. Yet, in the end, if done well, taking those actions will ensure our education system effectively prepares students for the challenges and opportunities they’ll face in college, career, and civic life.

Assessments Under ESSA: Implications & Considerations for High School Students with Disabilities

Equal access and opportunity in education for students with disabilities is the foundation of our civil rights and special education laws. And as laws and policies continually change, these are the principles against which we measure them.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – signed into law in December 2015 – created many new opportunities for schools to rethink and improve learning experiences for students. One important change the law made was to allow students in high school to take college entrance exams – like the SAT or the ACT – in place of their state’s assessments.

The idea to use one test for two purposes – for college admissions and state accountability requirements – seems like it would be beneficial to students. But this presents some key issues for students with disabilities, who often have difficulty getting the accommodations they need for college admissions tests. And even when students do get accommodations, their scores are sometimes invalidated by the testing company.

So before states or districts choose to use the SAT and ACT in place of their state assessment, there are key considerations policymakers and school leaders must consider. NCLD and the Center of Assessment partnered to explore these issues and create a resource to help states and districts make the right decisions for students with disabilities.

Read High School Assessments for Students With Disabilities in the Era of the Every Student Succeeds Act to learn more about the steps that state and local policymakers and parents can take to ensure students with disabilities can fully participate in these new tests.

Personalized Learning — Part 1: The Basics

What is Personalized Learning?

Personalized learning is an approach to education that many districts and states are exploring – some with the help of numerous grants available for this work, and all through hard work and innovation.

Personalized learning is defined as:

Students’ learning experiences – what they learn, and how, when, and where they learn it – are tailored to their individual needs, skills, and interests, and enable them to take ownership of their learning.

Although where, how, and when they learn might vary according to their needs, students also develop deep connections to each other, their teachers, and other adults.

How Does Personalized Learning Work?

You’d be hard pressed to find two schools where personalized learning looks the same. There are four well-defined and widely-used models where learning is personalized for students.

  1. Some schools create learner profiles for their students. With a learner profile, teachers have an up-to-date record for each child that provides details about each student’s strengths, needs, motivations, progress, and goals. Learner profiles allow teachers to deeply understand their students and make decisions to positively impact student learning.
  2. In schools that use personal learning paths, all students are held to high expectations, but how the students reach those goals will vary. Each student’s path is determined by and adapted to fit the student’s progress and goals. Students often have a choice in their learning and multiple options to complete a task.
  3. Competency-based progressions use continual assessment to monitor progress, allowing students to move on when they’ve mastered a skill or content. Students can earn credit for a course quickly, saving time to focus on work that is challenging for them. This model serves gifted students well, while adapting to meet the needs of students who struggle with learning. In competency-based models, students have a strong sense of ownership over their work and are able to communicate where they are in their learning, what their goals are, and how they will achieve them.
  4. Many schools that are personalizing learning also find the use of flexible learning environments to be critical. This model changes the physical space in which students are learning. Flexible learning environments respond to students’ needs throughout the school day by altering staffing plans, space, and time so that students can achieve their goals. Schools may provide small group instruction, tutoring, or online classes as part of a flexible learning environment.

Though the specific type of personalized learning may vary, all models share some important things. Most importantly, schools that use personalized learning place the student at the center of learning. Learning is tailored to the strengths and challenges of each student. Where personalized learning is successful, students have the flexibility to move quickly through content they understand and focus more closely in areas they struggle. Students also get to know themselves as a learner and are able to advocate for the ways they learn best.

Join us in our work!

In the past month, NCLD’s policy team has visited a few schools that have done it right. Follow this multi-part series to learn more about the amazing things happening for the students at the Brooklyn Lab Innovation Charter School in New York City, E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, DC, and Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, DC, and the work that NCLD is doing to bring together experts and explore the world of personalized learning for students with disabilities.


Next in the series: Personalized Learning — Part 2: Three Ways the Brooklyn Lab Charter School is Personalizing Learning for All Students