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The Individual Academic Plan

What would happen in your district if every student had an IEP?

What if every student in a district had an Individual Education Plan, the document that guides each special education student's years in school. What if there was something-call it an Individual Academic Plan-that outlined in detail what each student knows, how he or she learns, the student's goals and what the school will do to help him or her achieve those goals? What if public education was that personalized for everyone?

This is the point where district officials flip the page with a derisive snort, appalled at the idea of expanding one of their bigger bureaucratic headaches systemwide. IEPs have gotten a bad reputation for several reasons, but at the heart of it all is the simple fact that they are legal documents, required by federal law to ensure that special needs students are given the help they need. Districts can, and do, get sued by parents if creating the IEP is mishandled.

With that kind of pressure hanging over their heads, some teachers and counselors focus more on crossing every T in these complex documents than on creating a rigorous plan. In the worst case, goals get watered down, parents are seen as an adversaries rather than partners in the process and a lot of time is spent filling out forms that are rarely or never actually referenced during the student's time in the classroom.

"There's been some reduction in the paperwork this year, but they're still very complicated, so much so that it gets away from the real objectives," says Kathleen Whitbread, an assistant professor of pediatrics and associate director at the University of Connecticut's A. J. Pappanikou Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research and Service. "Some families go to a training to prepare to participate. Of course, that's beyond the grasp of most typical families, so they often get dragged through without really participating at all."

Still, the idea at the core of an IEP-a school should know more about a student as an individual learner-remains appealing. A special education student's IEP has three basic parts: an assessment of the child's knowledge as compared to his or her peers, a set of personalized goals for the year and specific activities to move toward those goals, and a way (or ways) of monitoring that progress to know if it's all working. "When used as intended, an IEP works great," Whitbread says. "It's a way to make sure that all students can access learning at the school."

In Action

Each of the 650 students at Whetstone Elementary school in Montgomery County, Maryland, has a data notebook, with information about how many math facts he or she knows and how well he or she did on the last weekly spelling test. The notebooks are part of the school's Academic Improvement Plan program, a real-world example of how an IAP works. Whetstone is at the forefront of the IAP movement-few schools have a plan in place for every student-but with more available data on student performance and computer systems to organize and store plans, more and more schools and districts are trying a version of an IAP.

At the start of the school year, Whetstone's teachers meet with parents to review the results of last year's state assessment tests and go over a plan to help each student reach his or her best potential-be it to catch up with the rest of the class or continue to excel beyond grade level. "We drill down to what are the root causes for how they're doing and what they need," says principal Aara Davis. "Is it motivation? We have counseling groups and friendship groups where we have lunch with students every day-if they feel more connected they'll work harder. Is it decoding skills? Foundation skills? Would it help if they go out of the classroom for part of the day for academic support?"

Davis has used the Academic Improvement Plans to help change Whetstone's culture over the four years she has been principal, asking teachers to be aware of the different learning styles of each student, adding more academic and other supports, and focusing on academic achievement while still keeping some fun activities like Thanksgiving sing-alongs. And it's worked. Three years ago, the school was in the 50-60 percent range in the Maryland State Assessment tests. It's risen by 30 points since. "Because of our laser focus," Davis says, "we're knocking on the door of 90 percent."

Montgomery County Schools is asking all its principals to institute Academic Improvement Plans, but not for each and every student. "At one school it can be for 100 kids, and for another it'll be five. Some schools look at children who are not at grade level, others based on recommendations from teachers," says Adrian Tally, a community superintendent with the district. "It can be for students who are excelling to ensure they have the most rigorous program as possible."

Why It Works

Tally notes that for Montgomery County Schools, part of the success of IAPs hinges on regularly returning to the document to see how a student is progressing at least once a quarter. "Without data points during the year, there's no way to know if you're reaching your goals," he says. When done right, advocates say that the benefits of an IAP are clear.

Makes differentiated learning real. Research shows that students can learn in many different ways, a fact that is often obvious with a child with special needs but may be obscured for "normal" students. Done right, IAPs are a way to make differentiated learning a reality in every classroom. "Each teacher needs to look at each student, what are their goals and what supports do they need," says Whitbread, who has walked the walk in one of her college-level classes. She met with each student before the course began to build an IAP, and used that information to incorporate a mix of teaching styles and alternative assessments in the course.

Involves more stakeholders in a student's success. One of the hidden benefits of an IAP is its role as a convener: Creating an IAP and reviewing the goals and strategies brings together students, teachers, parents and even counselors. Not only do parents often get a role for at-home learning that is much more specific than "help him with his homework," an IAP can serve as a clearer signal about a student's performance than a typical parent/teacher conference.

When done right, one benefit of an IAP is clear: It makes differentiated learning real.

"It's an early-detection warning system for parents, clearly explaining that there's a risk factor that their child might not be keeping pace. But it also says, 'Here's the things we'll do and the things you can do.' If the student is not meeting the goals, then at least it's not a surprise at the end of the year if that student is considered for retention," explains Mark Jewell, the chief academic officer for the Federal Way Public Schools in suburban Seattle.

Engages students in their own learning. At Whetstone, students are very aware of how well they're performing. They have weekly or monthly meetings with their teachers about their data notebook, depending on the subject. "It's about giving kids power to know where they are. We feel like that gives them motivation to do better, to know what that target is and feel good when they reach that goal," Davis says.

Makes school more personalized. "Part of what we talk about in high school reform is a movement toward individuality and how to keep students engaged. It has to be more personalized," says Lyndsay Pinkus, a policy and advocacy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education. With a focus on each student's individual needs, strengths and goals, an IAP is a perfect vehicle for recasting the high school experience to better serve each student. "It's about changing the culture in a school," Pinkus says.

Gives students a clearer path to success. Certainly, with today's focus on assessment, it can be hard to imagine that students aren't aware of how they're performing. But 90 percent of students in the 10th grade plan to go to college, while only two-thirds graduate on time, and of those that do, only 40 percent graduate college-ready. "The expectations gap is really powerful. Kids can get to a certain point and still not know they're going to spend their first year [in college] doing remedial courses. Especially in a low-income area, a high-performing student might not know what they need to do to be ready for college," Pinkus says.

When It Doesn't

Even without the legal worries about an Individual Education Plan, some of the negatives of the IEP experience can remain. The most obvious is the time and resources it takes to build a individual profile for each student. "You have to train and build capacity for teachers to do this, and that doesn't happen overnight," Tally says. "Principals try to find time for teachers to do the plans during the specials-our art, music, PE-and in planning time."

As important is making the IAP actually useful, as Whitbread says often doesn't happen with an IEP. "One big problem is when goals aren't measurable, something like 'He should be better at reading' or 'Johnny should be invested in his learning.' The school says he's doing better, but parents feel like they don't know if there really is any change, and it can build up a lot of resentment. I've seen kids with the same goal for six years, and that's not okay," she says.

For Michael J. Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the biggest concern about IAPs is that they'll slowly morph into a tracking system, where kids having trouble meeting standards won't be given extra resources to catch up, but will be moved into a less rigorous set of courses instead. "If the analogy is backpacking, the Individual Academic Plan is like a GPS tool that helps you figure out the best way for each student to get to the top of the summit. But that's different than saying, 'You shouldn't try to get to the top of that summit,'" he says. "But if that's not the case, and if there's a lot of freedom to think about how to engage students best, that's when individualized plans can make a lot of sense."

Carl Vogel is a Chicago-based freelance writer.