Voices in Education

Universal Design for Learning and Improving Education for Incarcerated Youth
Incarcerated youth have the right to a high-quality education. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can serve as a powerful mechanism to actualize this right.

On any given day, more than 81,000 youth are confined to residential facilities in the juvenile justice system. These youth are disproportionately students of color (particularly African American males), students from low-income backgrounds, and students with disabilities. The education provided to these youth while they are incarcerated is critical to their subsequent reintegration into school and the community. Moreover, these youth have the right to a quality education, grounded in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the federal civil rights laws.

Unfortunately, the education that is typically provided to incarcerated youth is far from the quality to which they are entitled. Curriculum is often not aligned with grade-level standards, instruction tends to focus on the drilling of low-level skills rather than the teaching of higher-order comprehension, and required special education services are not available. Radical change is needed to transform the learning environments of juvenile justice classrooms.

UDL has the potential to bring about fundamental improvements in the education provided to incarcerated youth. This framework grew out of the concept of “universal design” in architecture and builds on advances in technology and the learning sciences. UDL guides the development of flexible curriculum and instruction to address student variability and to reduce barriers to learning. Rather than viewing deficits as intrinsic to individual students, UDL considers static learning environments to be the problem. UDL has three guiding principles—multiple means of representation, multiple means of student expression, and multiple means of student engagement—all of which help create a responsive learning environment that allows for alternative routes to success.

Curricular and instructional strategies based on these UDL principles can address the wide variability among students in juvenile justice classrooms, who can range significantly in age, grade level, and academic achievement. The UDL framework can also deal with behavioral issues by addressing underlying learning challenges and promoting increased engagement. Ultimately, UDL can support the development of independence, motivation, and self-efficacy for a population that has internalized years of negative learning experiences.

UDL offers a promising approach to help incarcerated youth extricate themselves from the school-to-prison pipeline by providing them the high-quality education to which they are entitled by law. Given the cost of the incarceration of these youth and the loss of their productive contribution to society, how can we afford to continue to neglect the educational needs of this population?

For more on this topic, check out “Applying Universal Design for Learning to the Education of Youth in Detention and Juvenile Corrections Facilities,” by Joanne Karger, David Rose, and Kathleen Boundy, in the Harvard Educational Review publication Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline.

About the Author: Joanne Karger is a research scientist and policy analyst at CAST. She is a contributor to Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline edited by Sofía Bahena, North Cooc, Rachel Currie-Rubin, Paul Kuttner, and Monica Ng (Harvard Education Press, 2012).