The UDL Guidelines have a new home! Check 'em out at!
The current UDL Center site will be taken down on August 31, 2018. Please update your links accordingly. A brand new UDL Center will launch after August 31. Follow us on social media to find out more.


Be the change

collage of students, administrators and teachers

UDL Implementation: A Tale of Four Districts


UDL Implementation: A Tale of Four Districts is the story of four school districts taking the journey into the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) implementation process. Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Indiana, Cecil County Public Schools in Maryland and Chelmsford Public Schools in Massachusetts participated in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded project to explore and pilot processes and tools developed to support UDL Implementation within their own unique districts. The story is told primarily through the voices of the dedicated educator leaders from these districts and the UDL facilitators who supported them. During the one-year grant, the districts worked with CAST, Inc. to develop and implement an effective and sustainable district plan to support the integration of Universal Design for Learning.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

For those who are unfamiliar with Universal Design for Learning (UDL), it is a set of principles and guidelines that serve as a framework for curriculum design and educational decision-making. These principles provide a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work--not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted to address the variability of all learners. To learn more about Universal Design for Learning visit the National Center on UDL or watch this video: UDL at a Glance.

UDL Guidelines

Learn more about the UDL Guidelines.

What is the UDL Implementation process?

UDL implementation is a process of change that tends to occur in a recursive, continuously improving cycle of learning and progressing. The process is designed in a UDL way, uniquely customized to support change in each district. Researchers at CAST believed that by integrating systems change research with the UDL principles they could provide school staff with a customized, cascading, series of professional learning opportunities, professional coaching, facilitation, supports, resources and tools needed to assist districts throughout the UDL implementation. This is an important distinction that makes UDL implementation different from other initiatives that attempt to hold participants to a specific, regimented implementation approach. The UDL implementation process isn’t a set of protocols that everyone does in exactly the same way. The four participating districts were as varied and complex as the students in their classrooms, so each district’s approach to UDL implementation was different. Each district identified the structures within their system and anticipated different paths and plans for scaffolds and supports that would meet the needs of their own unique system to move forward toward scaling and optimizing UDL implementation.

Even though five phases of UDL implementation have been identified, it is also recognized that each school, district or higher education institution will approach the UDL implementation process in a unique manner.

The five phases within an integrated dynamic process of UDL implementation, adapted from Fixsen, Naoom, Blase’, Friedman, and Wallace (2005), are: (1) Explore, (2) Prepare, (3) Integrate, (4) Scale, and (5) Optimize. These are not rigid stages but instead are fluid and recursive in nature. The UDL Principles are purposefully infused throughout the process. For example, each phase includes three focused goal areas aligned with the three UDL principles.

Implementation phases may exist as discretely separate, sequential periods of focus for some schools or districts or they may overlap or repeat in an iterative manner.

The graphic below offers another way of thinking about the UDL implementation process that highlights its iterative, continuously improving aspects.

Implementation Process Diagram

The Plan

Each district started at a different place in the process, one had been exploring, planning and integrating UDL practices for several years while another was just starting to explore the possibilities of using UDL as a framework to guide curriculum development. Yet the goal for all four districts was to develop and implement an effective and sustainable plan for integrating UDL systemically into its district. One of the first things any district needs to do when investigating UDL as a framework is to consider what their needs are. Then, they determine if using the UDL framework can address those needs.

The work included building block activities such as, identifying district goals that align with UDL Implementation, assessing knowledge, practice and beliefs, working with a UDL facilitator to develop Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) that would support teachers’ use of the UDL instructional practices, collaboration in planning curriculum and instruction, and incorporating professional coaching specifically related to applying UDL to instructional strategies.

UDL ExchangeCAST developed tools and services to support UDL Implementation at the district level including, professional development, interest and self-assessment surveys, technical assistance, a UDL Implementation Strategy Guide and a UDL facilitator’s guide. Enabling resources included a web-based tool, UDL Exchange, which assists educators in applying UDL to lesson planning and supports sharing of lesson plans, resources and collections of information.

Critical Elements of UDL Implementation

Through our work with these four districts, we learned that the following elements are critically important to successful implementation of the UDL framework as a process of change:

  • a top-down and bottom-up approach encourages meaningful systemic change in both decision-making and classroom practices
  • customized decision-making tools inform school and district leadership
  • UDL facilitators guide and help to sustain key systems level changes
  • a collaborative team approach builds educator expertise in lesson planning and instruction
  • on-line, virtual and blended tools and resources offer just-in-time  learning support   

Many successful strategies were apparent across the four districts, including:

  • UDL is the district-wide framework, is embraced by stakeholders at all levels, and helps inform decisions. It is not viewed as just another initiative.
  • Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), led by motivated teachers or coaches, are supported by school and district administration and provided the time and resources to build UDL expertise, share their lessons and reflect on their work together.
  • An embedded UDL Facilitator supports and mentors educators, defines resources, and guides the building of UDL expertise in the district community.
  • UDL is modeled at all levels including during educator professional development.
  • Classroom teachers form a solid foundation for grassroots implementation.
  • UDL-infused instruction focuses on the success of all students and offers an opportunity for building collaborative relationships within districts centered on learning.

These stories are not intended to prescribe. Rather, they are designed to showcase the work of four districts moving through the UDL Implementation process. These stories inform others of the experiences of these four districts as they grappled with issues of school improvement, curriculum redesign and systemic change. They may also serve as an impetus for individuals at all levels to examine district or school readiness for UDL implementation. While these stories and examples are limited to the districts featured, it should be noted that these districts share many of the same demographics and characteristics of districts across the country.

Whether your school or district is considering UDL implementation for the first time or has been engaged in UDL implementation for a period of time, we hope these stories can serve as useful exemplars.

To find out more about UDL Implementation watch UDL Implementation, a part of the UDL Series.

UDL Implementation: Case Stories

Baltimore County Public Schools Case Story
Baltimore County Public Schools

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation Case Story
Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation

Cecil County Public Schools Case Story
Cecil County Public Schools

Chelmsford Case Story
Chelmsford Public Schools

Video Highlights View all video highlights

William Burke
Implementing with a UDL Coach

Nicole Norris
Tips from a Baltimore County principal

Mike Hodnicki
Changing district mindsets

Kristen Rodriguez
Impact of UDL

Published as:

Ganley, P. & Ralabate, P. (2013). UDL Implementation: A Tale of Four Districts. National Center on Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved [date] from [insert full URL]..


Last Updated: 06/11/2014

Select this then click anywhere on the page to start reading text Play Pause Stop