What lessons does special education IEPs hold for personalized learning?

On a shelf in her Chicago classroom, third grader Arianna has a thick binder that details her achievements, strengths and goals as a student, along with some revealing information about her personality. It describes her love of guitar and singing and notes that she wants to advance to a higher level in reading and grasp math concepts more quickly. Her sister, Alanni, an eighth grader, has a binder too. It discusses her grades and standardized test scores, as well as her academic goals: to speak up more frequently in math class and read texts more closely.

The binders resemble, to a degree, the individualized education programs, or IEPs, that are at the heart of education for students with disabilities. But Arianna and Alanni aren’t special education students. Every child at their pre-K-8 school, Belmont-Cragin, has one of these so-called individual learner profiles. The profiles are part of the school’s embrace of personalized learning, which centers on the belief that a teacher lecturing at the front of a classroom is a bad fit for today’s students. Instead, the thinking goes, students must be encouraged to learn at their own pace, with lessons tailored to their specific aptitudes and needs, often with the aid of technology.

Personalized learning has, in recent years, become one of the most talked-about trends in education. Fueled by donations from Silicon Valley philanthropists, the instructional approach has spread to classrooms around the country and more than 40 states are exploring it in some form. As education leaders cast about for solutions to the performance gaps exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, some are hitting upon the idea that more personalized methods could help schools better serve students who’ve had wildly different experiences with education this year. In the process, they are finding inspiration in special education, which, since the 1975 passage of what’s now known as the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, has promised students with disabilities special services and accommodations to help them learn at their full potential.

“Can you imagine the power of an individualized education plan for every student?” Richard Carranza, New York City’s education chancellor, said recently in discussing his agency’s plans for new tools to help students recover the learning they’ve lost during school closures. “Just think about identifying the explicit skills that students need to work on and the plan that we have to help them achieve a mastery of that explicit skill.”

A student at Belmont-Cragin Elementary School. Credit: Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report

But there are plenty of reasons to be cautious. If anything, special education demonstrates the vast challenges of individualizing education. Tailoring learning to students’ exact needs takes significant resources, teacher training and, ideally, close collaboration with families — something many schools struggle to pull off. While there are limits to comparisons between the two educational approaches — special education is legally mandated and personalized learning is a loosely defined pedagogical philosophy that takes many forms — some of the cracks that have appeared in personalized learning are not unlike those facing special education. Both types of education, for example, require significant resources and trained staff — but often don’t get either. Schools introducing personalized learning have faced criticism for relying on technology to help kids learn at different paces within the same classroom as districts avoid having to drastically scale up their staff; staff shortages have long been endemic in special education. Meanwhile, for all the hype around personalized learning, evidence of its success remains scant.  

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