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Changing Classes

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Alex, a 10th-grader at Carrick High School, isn't necessarily a bad student. His grades in most subjects have hovered around average or better.

There's only one problem: "He just can't understand math," says his mother, Lynn Benson.

In his elementary and middle-school years, Alex's math grades repeatedly sunk below average. But since high school, they've become much worse -- after two full years at Carrick, he's flunked every semester of math.

Even standardized tests have ranked his math results as "Below Basic." That designation reflects a need for additional instruction. But Benson says her son hasn't benefited from the district's remedial programs, which include after-school tutoring and special math labs. And the classroom just doesn't allow for the hands-on attention that might help most.

"I would say, 'Alex, raise your hand, tell the teacher,'" Benson recalls. "And he would say, 'Mom, he can't stand here beside me the whole class.'"

Indeed, few districts, especially urban districts like Pittsburgh Public Schools, could afford to offer every student one-on-one instruction.

But according to some education experts, it wouldn't be too far-fetched for the school to offer personalized instruction for students like Alex. Districts have long offered "Individualized Education Programs" (IEPs) for students with disabilities. But across the country, watered-down versions of the program -- which address the specific learning needs of individual kids -- are becoming increasingly popular for mainstream students as well. And now Benson and other local parents say Pittsburgh should give it a try.

"They should get together with the kids that keep failing and try to come up with a plan," Benson says.

"It would be cool to have IEPs for everybody," agrees Stephanie Tecza, the parent of two in the district, one of whom is enrolled in special education. She's also a former candidate for school board -- Heather Arnet beat her in last year's election -- who ran largely on the basis of her concern about special education. "Everybody could benefit from something that is individualized."

But, she adds, "It would be just too ideal, wouldn't it?"

IEP-like programs "are definitely an emerging trend in secondary-school reform," says Lyndsay Pinkus, policy and advocacy associate for the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes high school reform. "It is a great tool.

"Good teaching in good schools is personalized."

In theory, mainstream IEPs -- also commonly referred to as "graduation plans" or "personal education plans" -- are similar to IEPs offered to special-needs students. But in implementation they're "completely different," Pinkus says.

IEPs were born with the passage of the updated Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2004. Students with autism, emotional disorders and other learning disabilities are closely monitored with progress reports and frequent conferences between parents, teachers, doctors and other professionals the individual child needs. They are legally binding agreements, requiring districts to provide resources for each child and include parents in making decisions with education and medical personnel. Not surprisingly, the programs are complicated and require significant amounts of paperwork, money and staff time.

IEPs for mainstream students, however, are less rigorous and burdensome for districts, Pinkus says. She says they're simply a means to facilitate a "student-led, student-engaged process." The programs are guides to help students be more proactive in their education, helping them address their academic stumbling blocks.

For example, Pinkus says, Granger High School, in Washington state, was experiencing dismal test scores and a mere 50 percent graduation rate in 2001. To address the problem, she says, the principal set up a system where each certified school member -- teacher, administrator or counselor -- is responsible for advising 20 students. They meet four days a week for 30 minutes, developing individual learning plans for each student and providing daily support in various subjects.

Student achievement, she says, has risen steadily since the program began: Just two years after the personalized plans were implemented, test scores had improved by about 40 percentage points. And now, more than 90 percent of the students graduate.

Currently, 19 states require some sort of individual learning plans for struggling students, according to the Education Commission of the States. Pennsylvania isn't one of them.

Most states with the requirement demand more personalized learning for at-risk students. In Delaware, for example, ninth-graders who score below proficient on state reading or math exams must be given a personal learning plan. The same goes for students in grade 8-12 in Washington state.

While individual schools like Granger have reported success with personal education plans, the reform is often implemented alongside a variety of changes. As a result, there are no studies that can quantify the impact of the approach. Still, some educators are happy with the results they've seen.

"The process is great," says Carolyn O'Keeffe, director of secondary education for Washington's Northshore School District, another district experimenting with modified IEPs. "It helps us put a focus on the individual students."

Since Pennsylvania doesn't mandate personalized education plans, it's up to individual districts to decide whether to implement them. But don't expect the Pittsburgh School District to adopt such programs in the near future.

"It would be very difficult" to adapt IEPs to struggling mainstream students, says Dr. Linda Lane, the Pittsburgh district's deputy superintendent for instruction, assessment and accountability. "It would be pretty tough to support."

But, she adds, that doesn't mean the district isn't tracking the needs of individual students. Lane says the district closely monitors student performance on the 4Sight Benchmark Assessments, standardized exams in reading and math similar to the state-mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exam.

Students take the 4Sight tests several times during the school year, and Lane says the results "tell us areas in which kids don't understand. It guides the teaching of teachers."

Lane says the 4Sight exams are important because waiting until the end of the year, when students take the PSSA exam, is too late.

According to 2007 PSSA test scores, roughly 35 percent of the district's 11th graders scored "Below Basic" in math. To combat such poor results on the PSSAs, Lane says the district devises specific lesson plans for students who perform poorly on the 4Sight tests. That way, the district can save students from falling into the "Below Basic" category come PSSA time.

"It's not exactly the IEP model, but it is a way of addressing learning needs of kids," she says. "It's about teaching the things they tell us they don't know."

Lane says the district also offers special learning labs. In addition to students taking, say, Algebra 1, a struggling child might also be placed in an Algebra 1 lab, where difficult concepts are reviewed and explained more clearly.

Even so, Lane acknowledges, "I wouldn't pretend that that's enough for everybody."

Indeed, students like Alex continue to slip through the cracks. After failing in the regular math class, Alex also failed his algebra labs in ninth and 10th grade. He'll be attending summer school to take another shot at the course.

"It's frustrating," says his mother. "The district should try to do more for the kids that are struggling. I don't know if [an IEP] would help, but it would be worth the try."

The same could be said for the district as a whole, contend some reformers. Although Lane says creating personalized instruction plans would drain resources, Pinkus, of the Alliance for Excellent Education, says that's not necessarily true. Hawaii, she points out, just recently implemented Personal Transition Plans for every student in the state. The plans require each high schooler to create a career portfolio, a professional resume and a post-secondary plan to earn his or her diploma. That way, students can personalize their education without much cost to districts.

"They don't have to be a burden," Pinkus says of the individualized plans. "There are many ways to organize a school in a more personalized way."

Tecza, who says her own special-needs daughter benefited greatly from an IEP, says that mainstream kids like Alex could benefit from it, too.

"I think it's a great idea," Tecza says. "[Students] could have more buy-in into their education. ... That's one voice we're not hearing -- the voice of kids."

ILLUSTRATION BY JAN MARIE DESCARTES
  • Illustration by Jan Marie Descartes

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