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Within Reach: Providing Universal Access to the Four Pillars of Literacy

reviewed by Cynthia Cohen

coverTitle: Within Reach: Providing Universal Access to the Four Pillars of Literacy
Author(s): Hoaihuong "Orletta" Nguyen & Jeanne Sesky
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1681238195, Pages: 174, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

While there are many laudable social justice ambitions in the recently published Within Reach: Providing Universal Access to the Four Pillars of Literacy, the efforts of the two authors, Hoaihuong “Orletta” Nguyen and Jeanne Sesky, fall short of these praiseworthy goals. This is due to the way the authors arbitrarily define their key terms of “inclusivity,” “teacher leadership,” and “social justice.” Despite their aims to be inclusive of oftentimes marginalized groups, Nguyen and Sesky exclude gifted students, who represent another marginalized group, solely because these students, in failing to maximize their academic potential, are not technically failing. What is “inclusive” about dismissing the learning needs of marginalized gifted students? Despite arguing for teacher leadership, Nguyen and Sesky are similarly blasé about the documented impracticalities for teachers of differentiating classrooms. In addition, Nguyen and Sesky’s goal of achieving social justice involves further differentiating classrooms using a form of personal learning (Universal Design for Learning) that is inwardly navel-gazing rather than outwardly working towards social involvement and democratic participation. This highly differentiated pedagogy has antisocial consequences and threatens to balkanize classrooms and isolate students in educational echo chambers. Where is the “social” in this attempt to achieve “social justice”? Given these arbitrary definitions, the authors’ arguments in Within Reach are ultimately not persuasive.

The authors divide their book into three parts. In the first section, the authors review foundational concepts of equity and marginalization. Nguyen and Sesky argue that educators must work harder to put the CCSS curriculum “within reach” of historically struggling groups of learners by using UDL professional development for elementary and secondary teachers. In the lengthy second section, which is the strongest and most well-researched section of the three, they discuss the practical implementation of UDL that will successfully increase school equity. In the brief third section, Nguyen and Sesky look more broadly at how school development of broad-based teacher leadership can lead to the systemic changes that will enable school sustainability. These topics are suitable for audiences including inservice and preservice teachers seeking to understand and apply UDL theories to assist diverse students in their classrooms; school administrators and superintendents seeking to advance teacher leadership and increase equity in their schools; and education scholars researching the effectiveness of these UDL methods in enabling diverse student achievement and creating school equity. The authors conclude each chapter with unit reflection questions and with resources for further consideration. These additions make this book particularly useful for classroom use.

A major weakness of their study is that the authors are biased in their uses of reductive key definitions. From the beginning pages, Nguyen and Sesky make apparent their exclusive focus: they write that they are solely focused on assisting failing students who are from minority backgrounds, of lower socioeconomic status, or who are struggling with second language acquisition or disabilities. This ironically exclusive approach to a problem of inclusivity ignores the marginalized and misunderstood student group of gifted students. Nguyen and Sesky argue that the solution for the failures of diverse learners is to increase classroom differentiation following the principles of UDL. This pedagogy seems praiseworthy in its efforts to further engage, promote agency, and encourage ownership by individual student learners.

The strongest parts of this book lie in the second section where the authors make pedagogical recommendations for implementation of UDL. In the second section, the authors broaden their narrow concerns, such as when they write about the importance of classroom discussion: “Another component to effective academic conversation is to make sure that all students talk, not just a few.” (p. 42). In addition, the authors point to several research-approved methods for teaching CCSS writing skills: increasing self-regulation, increasing formative feedback, increasing metacognition, and using rubrics differently. Self-regulated writers are more self-aware of the limits of their researched knowledge and of their writing processes. In addition, the authors find that guided feedback is particularly helpful. In order to self-regulate and to apply formative feedback, students need metacognitive awareness and knowledge. Unfortunately, this section about the importance of metacognition for writers is quite short, but the authors mention several relevant studies. Finally, the authors recommend revamping rubrics to be used as formative feedback rather than as summative tools. All four methods discussed in this chapter are significant factors in improving student writing.

In the too brief third section, the authors look towards restructuring schools along egalitarian lines that involve institutional changes that arise from the bottom-up and not solely from the top-down. Nguyen and Sesky consider three leadership theories: transformational, parallel, and distributed leadership. They argue that teachers themselves should be self-aware regarding their leadership theories. They also identify three tiers of school leadership: principal leadership, formal teacher leadership, and informal teacher leadership. The authors recommend that principals should envision multiple layers of school leadership with informal teacher leadership as a target.

Nguyen and Sesky call for teacher leadership in schools because teachers, who are at the classroom frontlines, have more data-driven opinions than administrators. However, in this study, the authors ignore inconvenient teacher opinions. Take, for example, teachers’ skepticism towards the classroom differentiation expected by UDL methods. Numerous teachers have criticized expectations for heavy amounts of classroom differentiation. Gail Post (2015) writes about the increased pressures placed on teachers by the need to differentiate: “How can a teacher differentiate instruction every day for every topic? How is that even possible? This is a recipe for burn-out, hopelessness and resentment.” Greg Ashman (2017) writes of the impracticality and inefficiencies faced by the teacher with ongoing classroom differentiation: “In a sixty minute lesson with a class divided into five groups, the teacher is able to spend a maximum of twelve minutes with each group. And that’s before you take out all the time spent just managing the arrangement.” So it is not clear that Nguyen and Sesky fully listen to the data-driven opinions of these teachers any more than top-down decision-making administrators.

Most problematically, Nguyen and Sesky identify this monograph as a call for pedagogies aimed at promoting social justice. The authors borrow a definition of social justice education as demonstrating the three goals of (a) increasing social responsibility; (b) improving student empowerment; and (c) creating an equitable distribution of resources. Yet over-personalization of the classroom certainly fails in the first two of these social justice educational goals.

First, how can a highly individually differentiated learning system teach students about social systems and social groups? A highly personalized learning system teaches individual students to look inside themselves, to become self-reflective, and to develop intrapersonal learning skills, but it doesn’t provide students with social and interpersonal experiences to collaborate in groups or to participate in their democratic political systems. In addition, UDL is a pedagogy that adopts online learning for its delivery of personalized instruction. Research on online learning has similarly demonstrated that online students develop a weaker sense of school affiliation and school belonging than face-to-face students who study alongside their classmates. Students studying in UDL classrooms are more likely to develop weaker, not stronger, senses of community identity and social responsibility. For students to even conceptualize and value equity, they need to empathize with others, but solo learning does not develop the socioemotional skills that students gain when working with their classmates.

Second, will these UDL classroom technologies that differentiate each lesson to the exact interests and learning preferences of each student exacerbate the echo chambers arising in American culture? Personalized learning pedagogies like UDL enable students to lock themselves away in comfortable educational echo chambers. Students can opt to remain what Pink Floyd would call “comfortably numb” rather than becoming conscious of their confirmation biases. Recent academic research has documented (Bishop, 2008; Sunstein, 2009; Singer, 2011; Pariser, 2012; Hosanager, 2014) that students are selectively acknowledging only certain ideas and certain information, and the result is that students need not grapple with opposing viewpoints or inconvenient facts. Teachers should be helping their students to get beyond these imprisoning echo chambers, but Nguyen and Sesky are advising them to do the opposite by embracing UDL pedagogies.

While Nguyen and Sesky identify a serious problem in the American educational system in Within Reach, their inconsistent definitions misstate the scope of this educational problem: there are many marginalized student groups, and student underachievement is as real a problem as outright student failure. Their proposal of wider adoption of UDL pedagogies and of the creation of teacher-leaders seems persuasive as a partial solution, but differentiating classrooms with UDL pedagogies promises to further complicate teacher planning and to exacerbate the polarization resulting from educational echo chambers. If citizens cannot count on elementary and secondary schools to successfully establish common ground between students with different academic abilities, social classes, genders, religions, ethnicities, and educational ambitions, then to which cultural institutions can they turn to establish a sense of national belonging?





Ashman, G. (2017, May 16). Where is the evidence to support differentiation? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2017/05/16/where-is-the-evidence-to-support-differentiation/


Bishop, B. (2008). The big sort: Why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart. Wilmington, MA: Mariner Books.


Hosanager, K., Fleder, D., Lee, D., & Buja, A. (2014). Will the global village fracture into tribes? Management Science, 60(4), 805–823.


Post, G. (2015, April 15). Why differentiated instruction fails gifted children [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://giftedchallenges.blogspot.com/2015/04/why-differentiated-instruction-fails.html


Pariser, E. (2012). The filter bubble: How the new personalized web is changing what we read and how we think. New York, NY: Penguin Books.


Singer, N. (2011, May 28). The trouble with the echo chamber online. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/technology/29stream.html


Sunstein, C. (2009). Republic.com 2.0. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22357, Date Accessed: 5/27/2018 5:13:05 PM

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