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Personalized Learning Plans – The next big thing

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Teachers in the Alternative School Region (what we used to call disciplinary schools) are struggling with a new District initiative, Personalized Learning Plans.

The idea is that some goals are identified for each student along with an action plan, an indication of the resources required, and a way of measuring progress. The student, parent, and teacher all sign off on the plan. The goals are expected to reference assessment data like benchmarks and PSSA results. The Personalized Learning Plan would be reviewed every 30 days. This initiative is a pilot project for now with the expectation that it will be used with all 9th graders next year.

As is so often the case, the problem here is not with the concept. Differentiating or individualizing instruction is clearly important, and good teachers do this routinely. But they do it within the constraints imposed by the number of courses and students that they teach. The realities of large classes of diverse learners make it tough.

Smaller classes and more preparatory time are needed to move forward on this front. Instead this project calls for more paper work…lots more. Instead of allowing the teachers the autonomy of figuring out how they can better individualize instruction, we have the requirement that they fill out upwards of a hundred forms a month.

Then there is the form itself. Besides the page pictured here there are two additional pages requiring data about the student, almost all of which is recorded elsewhere. CSAP, special ed. documentation, PSSA, and benchmarks scores are to be attached or recorded.

Teachers are asked to figure out how their expectation links to Imagine 2014. Who, besides an administrator who wants to impress Arlene Ackerman, really cares? They are asked to describe goals, action steps, etc. in tiny little boxes and were told in staff development that the forms would be monitored so that teachers just didn’t give “boilerplate” answers. Teachers were told that every form had to be different, according to several participants.

Let’s play out this process with a real world example. Johnny in my fifth period English class writes without any understanding of paragraphs. He either runs ideas together or arbitrarily breaks up their flow. So I give him, along with some other students who share this problem, some assignments that address this need. I review with them the purpose of a paragraph. I give them a structured writing assignment in which they are given the first word of each paragraph, like first, next, then, finally. I cut and paste text so that paragraphs run together and have them separate them by identifying topic sentences. Finally, I have them rewrite an earlier assignment with an eye to fixing the problems with paragraphs.

Filling out this form would serve whom? For the teacher it’s a hindrance. It takes valuable time. A plan like the one described here could be implemented without writing it down. Time needs to be spent instead on actual instruction-related activity. The only people served by this plan are administrators and the accountability police who can show their superiors reams of forms as evidence that individualized instruction is going on.

Ok, but how could teachers be held accountable for individualizing instruction? If teachers are reviewing student work and focusing on individual students in collaborative meetings, then there is an organic way to talk about differentiating instruction. Coaches and administrators should be looking at how this process is working and offering some leadership on how to improve it rather than monitoring form completion.

A good idea that is incorporated in the Personalized Learning Plan is the notion of a contract where all parties, teacher, student, and parent commit to specific goals. But here too the bureaucratic mentality undermines the positive purpose. For some highly motivated students this exercise is unnecessary. In some cases getting parent buy-in will be very important, in other cases less so, and in a few cases unobtainable or irrelevant. Again we have a one-size-fits-all, centrally mandated, prescription being substituted for the judgment and common sense of classroom teachers.