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What Will It Really Take to Realize the Dream

• Karla Phillips

It took completing my daughter’s first Individual Education Plan (IEP) to really begin to wrap my head around what personalized education truly means or what it might really take to help all children reach their potential.

Our schools are traditionally based on age-dependent cohorts, regardless of students’ unique strengths, talents and learning styles. Students who need support are “remediated”; students who are excelling are “enriched.” Students with special needs are “evaluated” and “accommodated.” All are identified as outliers from some perceived norm.

Unfortunately, our schools have historically not been very student centered and certainly not designed to support the goal of college and career readiness for ALL.

Our conventional, one-size-fits-“all” system of education cannot meet the individual needs of every student and equip them for success in the 21st century.

But don’t we believe that all children are different and have unique gifts and strengths?

This year our country celebrates two important anniversaries.

In April of 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was enacted to minimize the achievement gap, stress equal access to education and establish school accountability. Yet here we are 50 years later, and the achievement gap is still embarrassingly, and devastatingly, wide.

Fast forward 10 years to 1975, when President Gerald Ford signed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide “a free and appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs…”

After 40 years, the shift from compliance to achievement has finally begun in earnest. But what will it really take to truly meet all students’ unique needs? We talk about individual plans, alternate and performance-based assessments with identification of student strengths, but does this jargon describe the unfulfilled vision of special education or does it characterize the future of competency-based education?

America has spent 40 years working to individualize education, and what lessons have we learned? What have we learned to enable a true shift to a student-centered personalized system of education?

If goals, progressions and assessments become individualized, how do we truly measure growth in a way that ensures sufficient pace? What is the right mix of personalization and standardization?

The growing chorus of concern over equity in competency-based learning and personalized learning sounds oddly familiar to concerns over equity in special education. How do we personalize education without falling into the temptation of “setting more realistic expectations”?

What can we learn from the alternate assessment consortiums about learning progressions and performance tasks? This may sound like inside baseball, but these questions and concerns characterize the heart of competency-based education.

This year, let’s celebrate and honor the anniversaries of these landmark pieces of legislation by committing to finally realize the dream of a great education for ALL students.

Read more about ExcelinEd’s efforts to support an ESEA reauthorization that works for all kids.

About the author

Karla Phillips

Karla is Policy Director for Next Generation Learning at ExcelinEd. Previously, she served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Programs at the Arizona Department of Education. Karla also served as the Education Policy Advisor for Governor Brewer and as the Vice-Chair of Arizona’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council. Her experience includes serving as Director of State Government Relations for Arizona State University (ASU) and as a senior policy advisor for Arizona’s House of Representatives. Karla received her B.A. from Indiana University and an M.P.A from Arizona State University.