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ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

2016 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

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Connecting Teachers, Students, and Standards

by Deborah L. Voltz, Michele Jean Sims and Betty Nelson

Table of Contents

Introduction: Teaching in Diverse, Standards-Based Classrooms

Today's schools are becoming increasingly diverse. Many teachers find that their classrooms are populated by English language learners, gifted students, students with disabilities, and students who are culturally diverse. Nearly half of all students in U.S. public schools (42 percent) are students of color, approximately 20 percent of students speak a language other than English at home, and approximately 14 percent of students have an identified disability (U.S. Department of Education, 2007a). Approximately half of the students who have an identified disability spend 80 percent of their school day in general education classrooms (U.S. Department of Education, 2007b). To add to this diversity, approximately 12 percent of students in public schools are labeled as gifted and talented (Friend, 2007). Like their peers with disabilities, gifted and talented students also are integrated into general education classrooms. All of these differences make teaching more interesting and exciting as well as more complex.

Educational Trends That Affect Teaching

Standards-Based Reform

Despite a wide range of student differences—or perhaps because of it— there is an increased emphasis to have all students reach the same academic goals and standards. Some education experts have referred to this movement as "standards-based reform." Many advocates of standards-based reform have argued that expectations for students have been too low, especially for students with disabilities and students from minority groups and lower socioeconomic classes. This perception has led to the idea that whatever standards or educational goals are set should be uniformly applied to the vast majority of students and particular attention should be given to historically underperforming groups. This shift in thinking has been a challenge for educators. Despite the challenges with standard-based reform, this movement holds many promises, such as

  • Helping educators focus on critical knowledge and skills.
  • Enhancing the coherence and continuity of instruction by eliminating what some educators have viewed as a chaotic patchwork of curricula that may vary from teacher to teacher or from school to school.
  • Addressing the soft bigotry associated with lower expectations for poor and minority students.
  • Serving as a catalyst to promote collaboration between teachers in general education, special education, ESL, and bilingual education. Standards-based reform also helps educators share responsibility and accountability for the progress of all students, including students with disabilities and students from diverse backgrounds.


As attention increases to ensure that all learners reach common standards, there is also more attention focused on integrating students with disabilities into general education classrooms. Some experts have referred to this movement as "inclusion." It is important to note, however, that the physical placement of students with disabilities in general education classes is not an end in and of itself, but rather a means to an end. The power of inclusion lies in how educators respond to individual differences. While standards-based reform calls for convergence in terms of learning outcomes, inclusion calls for divergence in terms of the strategies used in teaching. When inclusion is considered alongside standards-based reform, it would appear that teachers are being called upon to produce greater similarity in learning outcomes despite greater diversity in student populations. For teachers who are attempting to manage the tension between standards-based reform and inclusion, there are still many challenges. Inclusion provides many opportunities for educators, such as

  • Enhancing access to general education curriculum for students with disabilities. Greater academic gains have been associated with general education placement for students with disabilities (Waldron & McLeskey, 1998). This enhanced access to a general education curriculum should include Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles and materials for students with difficulties reading and understanding print that meet the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS). This support is particularly important in a standards-based context because most students with disabilities will be held to the same educational standards as their peers without disabilities.
  • Providing greater opportunities for students with disabilities to learn socially appropriate behaviors through interaction with their peers without disabilities. For example, when segregated in separate settings, students who have emotional or behavioral disorders are exposed only to other students who have similar disorders. This practice limits their opportunities to see appropriate behaviors and diminishes their inclination to conform to these behaviors through the dynamics of peer pressure.
  • Preparing students with and without disabilities for the real world. As adults, students will be exposed to a wide range of human variance, including individuals with disabilities. By providing opportunities for all students to have interactions with students with disabilities during their educational experience, the groundwork will be laid for these students to embrace all individuals with disabilities throughout their lives.

Cultural and Linguistic Diversity

Of course, disability status reflects only one aspect of human diversity. Factors such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, and language also contribute to the classroom mosaic and may influence the cultural characteristics that students bring. Given the pervasive manner in which culture influences thought and behavior, it is not hard to imagine that it plays a significant role in the learning process. In fact, almost every aspect of the teaching and learning process is culturally influenced, such as attitudes about what is important to learn and decisions about how learning is best accomplished and assessed. While student diversity provides a rich educational resource, it also adds to the complexity of teaching in a standards-based context. Nevertheless, there are many opportunities that cultural diversity provides, such as

  • Providing opportunities for all students to learn from other students who are different. Cultural diversity gives students a chance to learn about different languages, customs, and worldviews.
  • Reducing ignorance that comes from lack of exposure. Oftentimes, when students only interact with persons who share the same background, they become blind to other ways of seeing and doing things. This cultural isolation frequently works to their disadvantage.
  • Providing opportunities for all students to develop cross-cultural competence. Through everyday activities in diverse school settings, students are challenged to find ways of interacting effectively with students who are culturally different. In so doing, they develop important skills in cross-cultural competence.
  • Preparing students for the real world. Similar to inclusion, giving students opportunities to interact with diverse individuals in their school experiences better prepares them to do so as adults in the workplace.

Integrating standards-based reform, including students with disabilities, and teaching more students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds combine to create the perfect educational storm. How do all of these trends fit together? In some regards, these trends may seem to reflect incompatible ideas. On one hand, these movements were created to provide the same standards for all learners; but each reform mandates respect for each student's individual differences. The next section addresses these tensions.

Can Inclusion Really Work in Diverse, Standards-Based Classrooms?

Despite the fact that it is not always possible to get all students to exactly the same point in the curriculum at exactly the same time, it is feasible to move most students through the curriculum toward established standards. Although the concepts of inclusion and teaching for cultural and linguistic diversity often seem to conflict with standards-based reform, these ideas actually work together.

As is shown in Figure I.1, the overarching goals of standards-based reform, inclusion, and teaching for cultural and linguistic diversity are the same—to enhance the educational outcomes for all students. For example, standards-based reform emphasizes the need to support all students in reaching rigorous standards. Students with disabilities and students with culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds have historically been among the most vulnerable to diminished educational outcomes as a result of low expectations. The reality is that the vast majority of students with disabilities and students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds do not have severe cognitive deficits. These students have the ability to succeed academically in the inclusive classroom. While raising standards is not the same thing as raising expectations, some educators feel that the accountability assessments associated with standards-based reform will force the issue of higher expectations. It is possible that we will have to change our behaviors and adjust our attitudes and expectations. For example, a teacher may not initially believe in a student's ability to meet a certain standard; however, that teacher will still earnestly work with that student because he or she will encounter that same standard on an accountability assessment in the future. Despite the teacher's initial doubts, the student may master the standard in question. This student's achievement will make it possible for that teacher to see potential in other students with similar characteristics. Without the standards and accountability assessment processes, this teacher may never have given this student the opportunity to master the standard in question. The core idea of not underestimating students' abilities is implicit in standards-based reform and holds particular importance in the education of diverse students.

Figure I.1. Current Movements in Education

Standards-Based Reform


Education for Diversity

Overarching Goal

  • Enhance educational outcomes for all students

  • Enhance educational outcomes for all students

  • Enhance educational outcomes for all students

Basic Tenet

  • Educational outcomes can be enhanced by setting rigorous standards, teaching to those standards, and assessing progress toward accomplishing those standards

  • Educational outcomes can be enhanced by maximizing opportunities for students with and without disabilities to be educated together

  • Educational outcomes can be enhanced by embracing student diversity

Associated Instructional Practices

  • Curriculum is aligned with standards
  • Uses large-scale assessments

  • Differentiated instruction
  • Universal design

  • Multicultural education
  • Sheltered instruction

The metaphor of all boats rising or sinking together is often used when describing approaches to standards-based reform, such as the No Child Left Behind Act. For example, in order for a school to achieve adequate yearly progress (AYP), all student subgroups, including English language learners, students with disabilities, and students from minority groups, must make adequate yearly progress. The progress of the group as a whole cannot mask the lack of development of designated subgroups. To extend the nautical metaphor, we can't ignore a hole in our neighbor's end of the boat and still expect to have our end remain dry. Special education students and other historically marginalized groups cannot be sent to the trailer and be forgotten.

The goal of helping all students meet rigorous standards can only be attained by attending to the needs of the most vulnerable students—students with disabilities and students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. The ideas embodied in movements such as inclusion and teaching for cultural and linguistic diversity provide this needed attention. Additionally, while standards-based reform is largely silent on the issue of instructional methodology, the inclusion and teaching for cultural and linguistic diversity movements infuse instructional approaches that maximize opportunities for all students to learn from their diverse peers. These approaches include differentiated instruction, universal design, sheltered instruction, and multicultural education.

Instructional Approaches That Support Inclusion in Diverse, Standards-Based Classrooms

Differentiated Instruction

Without the supporting pedagogy, inclusion in diverse, standards-based classrooms could not be successful. Differentiated instruction is an example of a supporting instructional approach that embraces the needs of academically diverse populations of students, in particular students who are gifted or who have disabilities. Differentiated instruction involves creating multiple paths to learning for diverse students (Tomlinson, 1999). Instruction can be differentiated in a variety of ways, such as tailoring content to an individual student's needs, modifying instructional methods to address student learning characteristics more appropriately, or adjusting learning products or assignments based on a student's skill and ability levels.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal design is an instructional approach that gives particular attention to students who have physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities. Like differentiated instruction, universal design embraces the idea that instruction should be designed from the beginning with students' diverse needs in mind. Universal design supports the thought that educators should not have to retrofit lessons for students with exceptional needs after those lessons have already been created. According to Orkwis (1999), "Universal design implies a design of instructional materials and activities that allows learning goals to be attainable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember" (p. 1). With universal design, it is important that learning activities provide multiple means of representation or modes of presentation (i.e., auditory, visual, and varying levels of complexity). Learning activities also must allow students to respond in various modes and should be designed to engage learners with varying interests and aptitudes. Often, educators use assistive technology to implement universal design to make instruction accessible for a broader array of students. Assistive technology refers to "any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with a disability" (U.S. Department of Education, 2004, 20 U.S.C. 1401 (a) (25)). Hence, low-tech devices such as pencil grips may be considered assistive technology as well as high-tech devices such as screen readers or electronic books. The principles of universal design are important to engineering classrooms that support diverse learners, including those students with physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities (see Chapter 2 for an in-depth discussion on UDL).

Sheltered Instruction

Like differentiated instruction and universal design, sheltered instruction also embraces the needs of diverse learners, specifically English language learners. Echevarria, Vogt, and Short (2004) define sheltered instruction by using the following eight broad elements: (1) preparation, (2) building background, (3) comprehensible input, (4) strategies, (5) interaction, (6) practice and application, (7) lesson delivery, and (8) review and assessment. The preparation element suggests that teachers first identify lesson objectives aligned with state and local standards. The building background element requires that teachers link new content to students' background experiences and helps students focus on unfamiliar vocabulary. With the comprehensible input element, as the name implies, teachers use controlled vocabulary, sentence structure, and visuals and gestures to facilitate students' comprehension. The strategies element refers to teaching students different approaches for organizing and retaining information associated with effective learning. The interaction element shows teachers how to structure opportunities for students to interact with their peers in the learning process. The interaction phase leads to the practice and application element, which requires teachers to provide frequent opportunities for students to practice new language skills in context. The lesson delivery element illustrates how teachers can appropriately pace the lesson and provide for active engagement. The review and assessment element focuses on establishing standards and including language-based and content-based evaluations. All of these elements are important in designing classroom instruction that embraces the needs of English language learners.

Multicultural Education

Multicultural education is another approach that is important in today's diverse, standards-based classrooms. As the name implies, multicultural education addresses the needs of culturally diverse populations of students. Banks (2001) defined this approach with the following five major dimensions: (1) content integration, (2) the knowledge construction process, (3) bias reduction, (4) empowering school culture, and (5) equity pedagogy. Content integration implies that curricula should include content about diverse populations and present information from diverse points of view. The knowledge construction process focuses on the extent to which teachers explore the influences of culture with students. This process includes exploring how knowledge is constructed and how attitudes are formed in regards to what constitutes valuable or important knowledge. Bias reduction refers to activities that are designed to examine and reduce bias in attitudes. Building an empowering school culture eradicates systemic factors such as the negative effects of tracking practices on diverse groups of students. Equity pedagogy helps teachers use instructional strategies that embrace the learning characteristics and cognitive styles of diverse populations. Multicultural education supports educators in enhancing the educational experiences of all learners, including students from culturally diverse backgrounds.

Together, differentiated instruction, sheltered instruction, universal design, and multicultural education address the broad array of students in today's classrooms. By using these approaches, teachers have the pedagogical tools they need to teach standards in diverse, inclusive classrooms.

MMECCA: A Framework for Success

As you read the descriptions of the instructional approaches, you probably noticed that there was some similarity in the strategies used for each. For example, encouraging teachers to vary how they present content to students is a common theme for all of the instructional approaches. This overlap suggests that teachers need not have a separate repertoire of strategies for each aspect of student diversity. Rather, it may be more helpful to consider implications of student diversity on the critical elements of instruction. Combining instruction with an awareness of student diversity is the theme of this book. The following chapters will focus on the MMECCA framework which is composed of six critical elements of instruction that must be addressed to appropriately respond to student diversity in standards-based classrooms. As shown in Figure I.2, the MMECCA framework helps to integrate the four instructional approaches associated with teaching diverse populations that were discussed in the previous section. This MMECCA framework is composed of the following elements:

  • Methods of Instruction. This element shows the strategies and techniques that are employed during instruction. This is the "how" through which instruction is accomplished.
  • Materials of Instruction. This element pertains to the tangible items that are used to support instruction. This is the "with what" through which instruction is accomplished.
  • Environment of Instruction. This element focuses on the physical environment of the classroom, behavior management, and general classroom ethos. This is the "where" of instruction or the instructional context in which learning will occur.
  • Content of Instruction. This element details what is being taught to students. It addresses curricular issues related to what students should know and be able to do. This is the "what" of the learning process or the knowledge, facts, and understandings that are the essence of teaching and learning.
  • Collaboration for Instruction. This element pertains to how educators should work together in delivering instruction to diverse populations. It includes educational practices such as collaborative problem solving and co-teaching. This element also addresses how educators and parents should work together. This is the "it takes a village" element of instruction.
  • Assessment in Instruction. Finally, this element focuses on the assessment process that begins and ends the instructional cycle. It includes informal, teacher-made assessments, as well as large-scale standardized tests. This is the "how do we know what students need and what they know?" element of the instructional process.

Figure I.2. Elements of Instruction in Inclusive, Standards-Based Classrooms

This framework has been field tested in 50 diverse, standards-based classrooms. Participating teachers were trained to use the MMECCA framework during a three-month period. They developed lessons using this framework, taught the lessons, and then evaluated the outcomes. Participating teachers reported that using the MMECCA framework enhanced their ability to design lessons that met the educational needs of their diverse students. For example, one teacher said, "Learning about the MMECCA framework in-depth has really helped me in working with special needs students." Student work samples taken from the lessons were evaluated based on how they mastered the standards targeted in the lesson. These student work samples and the teachers' reflections supported the teachers' reported growth in the area of teaching in inclusive, standards-based classrooms (Voltz, 2006).

The remaining chapters of this book will address each element of the MMECCA framework in-depth. Suggestions on integrating these ideas into your instruction will be provided in each chapter. We will follow elementary, middle, and high school teachers as they examine these six elements of their instruction. Through the lens of the instructional models associated with inclusion and teaching for cultural and linguistic diversity, each of the elements from the MMECCA framework will be explored and concrete strategies and illustrative examples will be provided to show how inclusion in diverse, standard-based classrooms can work for YOU!

Resources for MMECCA Framework


Banks, J. A., & Banks, C. M. (2009). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley.

Conklin, W., & Frei, S. (2007). Differentiating the curriculum for gifted learners. Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Education.

Council for Exceptional Children. (2005). Universal design for learning. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Echevarria, J., & Graves, A. (2010). Sheltered content instruction: Teaching English language learners with diverse abilities. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Gregory, G. H., & Chapman, C. M. (2006). Differentiated instructional strategies: One size doesn't fit all. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Rose, D. H., & Mayer, R. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal design for learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tomlinson, C. (2004). How to differentiate instruction in mixed ability classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


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