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Change Every Child Needs

Every child in American public education should have an individualized education plan.


This year’s presidential election campaigns have been dominated by talk of change, but in politics talk of change is cheap. Unfortunately, for the most part it’s the same story in public education, where most talk of change—despite the best intentions—produces few meaningful results and change initiatives melt away like passing fads. In the end, everything continues on as it has in a strange kind of obstinate stability.

But there is change that every child needs. It’s simple, really, almost self-evident when you think about it: Every child in American public education should have an individualized education plan. In my opinion, IEP s are the key to education improvement and should become the focus of our reform initiatives.

Moving On or Left Behind?

Reforming the system to be based on individualized education plans for every student requires a radical departure from the standard one-to-many instructional model that for so long has dominated American education. It means a dramatic departure from grouping students by chronological age and moving virtually everyone on to the next grade or level regardless of whether or not knowledge has been gained, or skills mastered, which are prerequisite to moving on successfully.

Sooner or later virtually all students move on, ready or not.

The concept of not leaving any child behind fits well into the antiquated academic model of mass production and mass promotion. It assumes that since moving students on is of paramount importance to maintaining the system, districts will make sure no one is left behind. We may want to ensure mastery of skills or demonstrated achievement, but they are subordinate to the higher goal of students moving on.

If students don’t move on—as measured by test scores—then your school is failing. And since failing schools—like failing students—are problematic for the system, the system adjusts, not to improve student achievement but to reduce the number of failing schools, even by lowering the academic bar. The system simply doesn’t accommodate leaving students behind, so sooner or later virtually all students move on, ready or not.

Mass Customization

Moving on before you’re ready has devastating academic effects and is likely a significant cause of the unacceptable dropout rate of nearly 50 percent in the primary districts of our nation’s fifty largest metro areas, which I discussed in last month’s column. The graduation rate for these districts would likely be far higher if we had a way to individually evaluate the learning styles and needs of every student as though each was the sole focus of the system, with a resulting individualized education plan, monitored and adjusted as necessary.

That’s the key to success for homeschooled students, and it can work for students in inner-city schools too. On average, homeschooled students don’t have superqualified teachers, better resources, or better equipment, but they do have a customized curriculum that’s adjusted regularly based on assessments of individual progress.

Granted, that seems impossible to do in the typical public school setting, where one teacher is responsible for 25 students or more (sometimes many more). In fact, some may say that implementing individualized education plans for each student is not a practical goal for public education because it is cost prohibitive. But it’s only cost prohibitive if we refuse to change the structure of our present monolithic system, which enables only a few students with “special needs” to reap the benefits of individualized education plans.

Of course, the truth is that every child has special needs, interests, and abilities, and every child should have an individualized education plan. Individualized learning based on customized curriculum is the best way to move all children forward, as opposed to just having them moving on, and it’s the surest way to not leave any behind.

The question is how to implement an individualized learning model in American public education. I’m convinced that it can be done, and next month I’ll outline some specifics for how we can create a new era of education based on mass customization—that is, providing students with the benefits of individualized education plans while maintaining the economies of scale of mass production.

Daniel E. Kinnaman is publisher of District Administration