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One Size Doesn't Fit All

An individual learning plan for every student? These districts are making it happen, and so can you.
Here's how. 

August 2009

Three years ago, Principal Jane Wallace had what she thought was a lightbulb moment about how she could raise the math achievement of her elementary students.

“I was due for a great idea,” laughs Wallace, principal of Jefferson Elementary School in York, South Carolina. She decided to use students’ math test data to completely regroup her learners. This would allow her to keep students with like scores together, no matter their grade level. (The experiment included second graders to fifth graders.) It was untraditional, but the payoff, obviously, was that a teacher could zero in on each group’s specific needs, allowing for more personalized instruction.

Wallace already knew that each classroom contained “a broad spectrum of learners. Some students were a couple of grade levels behind, others could probably teach the class,” she says. Using a 45-minute block during the day, she executed her plan, even teaching a group herself. After watching closely for results, she graded her own experiment: F.

“It wasn’t a disaster,” she says, but she quickly learned that it wasn’t developmentally appropriate to group students from ages 7 to 11 together, regardless of their ability to solve long division. To put it simply: “You can’t ignore the social aspect.”

Wallace refined her idea, limiting the groups to students over two grade levels instead of four. While she hasn’t given the revised project a letter grade yet, the results already show her revision is working better. “Scores still aren’t where I want them,” she says, but students are “making wonderful gains.”

With data-driven decision-making leading many educators to consider what it would take to create individual learning plans for each student, Wallace’s example holds three important lessons.

First, mounting any type of radical plan such as Jefferson’s is a monumental undertaking. Even if schools don’t eliminate the classroom walls and regroup students, changing the teaching culture to incorporate individual learning plans (ILPs) is difficult. Second, to make any such plan work, the data on each student needs to be current, specific, and easily refreshed. Otherwise, it’s “garbage in, garbage out.” (In Jefferson’s experiment, students were regrouped for each math strand. A student could be in a below-grade-level group for multiplication, then paired with above-grade-level peers for fractions.)

Next, data needs to be refreshed frequently to incorporate learning gains and move students forward when appropriate. And lastly, there has to be support at every level. Mistakes will occur, and belief in the system has to include teachers, administrators, students, and parents to keep going forward when the inevitable obstacles arise.

Defining the Plan
the idea of individual learning plans has been around since 1975. The data-driven nature of today’s schools has strengthened the Northwest Evaluation Association’s stance on such plans, says Ginger Hopkins, vice president of partner relations. NWEA creates assessments that not only tell teachers what students know, but show what they should learn next.

There’s no textbook answer for what these plans (ILPs or personal learning plans, PLPs) should include. One way to try to define individual learning plans is to articulate what they are not. They do not imitate IEPs for nonhandicapped students. In fact, the best ones go beyond IEPs and are used as a significant piece of the IEP puzzle, says Alice Farling, the former assistant superintendent for Fairfax County Public Schools in Falls Church, Virginia. Nor are they simply a way for high school students to create a career path for themselves, adds Farling, now a senior consultant for the district.

Most ILPs include input from the student, his or her parents, teachers, and administrators. By discussing the student’s goals, the team creates a path encompassing traditional courses, independent study, and any other alternatives, such as online classes, that may be offered.

In many cases, these plans are a work in progress. When Principal Peter Evans arrived at Vermont’s Montpelier High School seven years ago, he did so because of the school’s reputation for work with personal learning plans. While the school had “made a name for themselves” with PLPs, Evans found the program to be ineffective, with little buy-in from
students and teachers.

He decided early on, “We need to stop saying we’re doing them and learn what needs to be put in place structurally. We worked four years to do that.”

 
Montpelier’s False Start
Evans says his realization came as “a real shock,” but drove him and others at the school to start from scratch. The old program had assigned each teacher at the 400-student school about 12 students to oversee. Personal meetings were set up but routinely skipped by students. Investigating why, Evans learned students felt the plans contained no real choices. Evans agreed, saying that the old plan was “very prescriptive.”

The Montpelier staff worked on “one really important question,” Evans says. “What are the big ideas, the core learning pieces we want every student to have before they graduate?” From this work, the staff came up with a set of learning
objectives “to allow our students to create a plan that doesn’t dictate what courses they take but what they learn.”

The events that finally proved to Evans the school’s new method was a success was seeing one of his students collaborate with state government. Under Evans’s plan, a formerly disengaged student undertook a service-learning project to clean local rivers during his junior and senior years. When the student noticed many car tires being dumped, he thought about how to prevent this. His project segued into an independent study that ended with him working with the Vermont legislature to craft a bill that would create a deposit to be paid when buying new tires (that could be redeemed when they were recycled).

As the bill was being debated in the state, Evans got a call from a lobbyist for New England tire dealers. He asked the principal what this 17-year-old student was up to and did he know how this would affect tire sales in the area. (Despite being up for consideration three times, the bill still has not become law, Evans adds.)

One more piece of the story cements the importance of Montpelier’s work. With a vast majority of students heading to competitive colleges, a big fear was how these curricular changes might affect college admissions. The student who completed the service learning/independent study/legislative work had barely attended regular classes for his last two years, yet his college application list included Brown, Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard, and others. He got acceptance letters from each school, finally deciding to attend Brown.

Evans admits this is just one example, but says that because the student was able to “create a different kind of path through high school, it strengthened our requirements about outcomes.” In this case, the student achieved the school’s goal of essential learning, achieved his goal of doing meaningful work and getting accepted at a top college, and showed the administrators and teachers that a plan many were skeptical about could work.

Evans says parents have been supportive of the change because they see their children coming home enthusiastic and engaged. It also helps that U.S. News and World Report again recently named Montpelier in the top three percent of high schools in the country.

“We spend more time on how will we know students have learned, rather than telling them exactly how to learn it,” Evans says. “A critical element of our work has been to say: These are the important things to learn. How they get there is really up to them.”

Overcoming Apprehensions
inviting student input, listening to their advice, and allowing them to be a resource in planning all engage students and encourage their best efforts, says Evans and other administrators who have started similar programs.

But pleasing students is addressing just one demographic. Getting teachers to buy in is an even taller task.

“There’s fear from teachers,” says Fairfax County’s Farling. “They wonder, ‘How can we fit this in?’ There’s so much curriculum to teach, and testing requires that you stay on track.”

One of the ways to alleviate these concerns is to start slowly targeting schools that want to be early adopters, Farling says. Fairfax worked on its plan for about 18 months before rolling it out for ninth graders at 4 of its 27 high schools this year. The program will progress with the students, encompassing another grade each year. Fairfax will spread the program to the entire district in four years.

Evans says when he discovered Montpelier’s program wasn’t working, “a good number” of teachers were hopeful the experiment was over. He admits one of the main fears some teachers have is about the trend of students completing their work outside the traditional classrooms. “We’ve had some pretty open discussions—that it’s not about protecting the way we’ve always done it, but focusing on student needs and how teachers can best meet them.”

Poway’s Powerful Model
Linda Foote, the instructional technology specialist at California’s Poway Unified School District in San Diego County, says she originally saw that ILPs would work when teachers took action after district students performed terribly on a fourth-grade writing strand in response to literature. The “horrified” teachers banded together and made a commitment to emphasize this area. When all the students moved into the above-goal level the next year, the cause and effect was clear.

Using that knowledge, Foote set out to create a program that would make it easy for teachers to see where students were and where they should go. Poway’s ideas took off serendipitously. When tech giant Gateway moved its headquarters to California, Foote found some programmers attending the same church she does. One weekend, she asked if they could work on a program that would show teachers where each student stood for each curriculum strand. By the end of the weekend, the first template was complete. “It was the first time we could see where all our kids were,” she says.

Foote and others worked on how to best serve the outliers in each class, those either far ahead or far behind the average. Poway, which also uses NWEA’s assessments, was able to create a system that could tell in a mouse click what skills an individual was ready to learn.

For “any school that looks at data, ILPs will work more quickly,” Foote says. Teachers have told her they’ve never had this clear a road map, that before they were forced to guess what each student needed. “This is the first time teachers can look directly at test results and ask the right questions.”

So is all the work worth it? Absolutely, say its practitioners.

One set of parents e-mailed Fairfax officials to say that because of the plans, their high school student talked to them about his goals and concerns. They were grateful to the school for laying the groundwork for the conversation. “Students leave our schools with more than academic skills,” says Farling. “We know these other life skills are important, too. As a staff, we couldn’t be happier.”

“I think it was very much worth all the skinned knees, so to speak,” says Jefferson’s Wallace. “I can see the growth in our teachers and how they view their responsibility. They have a very different approach than they did three years ago.”

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