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What Lessons Does Special Education Hold for Improving Personalized Learning?

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A student at Belmont-Cragin Elementary School before the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report )

This story about IEPs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter here.

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.”


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.

“School systems and schools have struggled to deliver on the promise of special education,” said Betheny Gross, associate director of the nonprofit Center on Reinventing Public Education. “It isn’t just a matter of taking the principles of special education and doing them at scale.”

Students at CICS West Belden often work in small groups or with the help of technology prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report )

At present, roughly 7 million students, or 14 percent of public schoolchildren, are enrolled in special education nationwide. As personalized learning advocates push forward with plans to roll out their approach to many more of the nation’s schoolchildren, it’s worth considering how lessons from 45 years of educating students with disabilities might help shape this latest educational experiment.

One morning in 2019, close to 40 educators gathered in a commercial building on the Chicago riverfront that houses the offices of LEAP Innovations. LEAP is a nonprofit organization that trains schools and teachers to use personalized learning in their classrooms. The day’s professional development for these Chicago Public Schools teachers, alumni of the program, was a refresher, a way to strengthen their teaching practice, share ideas and return to the classroom newly inspired.

Chicago has embraced personalized learning in a big way. In early 2018, Chicago Public Schools and LEAP received $14 million in grants from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) to train teachers and principals on personalizing learning. (CZI is one of The Hechinger Report’s many donors.) The grant funding provided 35 city schools with two-and-a-half years of professional development and instructional coaching through LEAP, plus technology and classroom resources, via the school district’s Elevate Program, which aims to bring personalized learning to 150 Chicago schools by the end of 2021. Concurrently, a portion of the funding went to LEAP to help train principals and teachers at more than 100 Chicago-area schools on personalized learning.

After a morning of workshops on topics like helping students puzzle through problems, working in teams and designing learning goals, teachers broke for lunch that day in 2019, gathering around large tables to chat. At one table, the conversation turned to the growing pains of changing course from the traditional “sage on a stage” teaching model, where a teacher holds forth at the front of the classroom while students listen, to a student-focused, personalized model.

“We started this process five years ago and all I could think was: ‘Oh my god, this is going to be a nightmare!’ Because I thought this would mean that, on top of everything I was already doing, I’d be creating an IEP for every single student,” said Kathleen Bourret, a teacher at R.H. Lee Elementary, a Pre-K-8 school on Chicago’s southwest side. “I didn’t have the mindset to make this shift. I’ve been teaching for 30 years, and now you’re gonna make me do what?”

Bourret’s learning curve when it came to personalized learning is pretty typical for teachers, said Chris Liang-Vergara, who was then serving as LEAP’s chief of learning innovation. And it’s something the people at LEAP try to alleviate by bringing in past cohorts, like that day’s group, to mingle and continue sharing ideas and inspiration.

“It’s definitely not always rainbows and sunshine,” said Liang-Vergara. “Keeping that honest and real is important. You don’t say: ‘I’m going to do personalized learning and it’s going to be beautiful.’ There’s a real shift that happens with you as a professional, with your kids in the classroom, and that change process takes time.”

Colleen Collins, school director at CICS West Belden, works with students prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report )

The shift in mindset involves moving away from a teaching model that is centered on curriculum and meeting benchmarks toward being student-centered in ways that demand differentiated instruction based on a child’s interests, strengths, weaknesses and background. Students often work in small groups, with help from a co-teacher, or one-on-one, with lessons fitted to their skills and abilities. In theory, their progress is tracked closely, with their goals and assignments updated continually to meet their needs.

Much of this may sound familiar to teachers of special education. As part of their jobs, special education teachers assess students and develop teaching plans based on each student’s skill levels. They teach students as a class and one-on-one or in small groups. They collaborate with school-based service providers such as occupational, physical and speech therapists, in order to cull reams of information and write IEPs that, often, run more than ten double-sided pages, and ideally provide detailed documentation of a child’s strengths, weaknesses and goals.

But teachers often come unprepared to do this work, and don’t get the support they need from their schools and districts, in part because special education is chronically underfunded. They may struggle to assess students’ abilities and needs, education researchers say, and turnover for special education teachers tends to be high. The paperwork involved can be overwhelming. All of this suggests that if personalized learning is to succeed, it must emphasize supporting teachers and investing in their professional development, say education experts.

“When you get a master’s degree in special education, do you come out knowing how to teach every single child with every singly kind of disability? Absolutely not,” said Megan Benay, senior national director of data systems and strategy at Great Oaks Charter Schools, a network of charter schools that focuses on preparing kids for college through personalized tutoring. “As far as I see it, the only path forward is to figure out how to invest in our people and invest in the kind of ongoing professional learning that provides practical, applicable research-infused training into the daily practice of our educators. This is hard because the reality of teaching is that you’re on every hour of the day, you’re lesson-planning, you’re calling parents, you’re writing curriculum. Oh, and then you have to figure out how to fit in eating lunch somewhere in there.”

Ace Parsi, senior consultant with Equity Journey Partners and the former director of innovation for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said that if school districts don’t invest in teachers while making the shift to personalized learning, they are bound to fail. “It’s not that educators don’t want to try personalized learning. But it’s a vulnerable feeling when you’re trying to implement this new thing and you’re like: ‘Oh my god, how do I approach this for these students, I just don’t have the skill set to do this’,” he said. “It’s really incumbent on school districts and states to create a professional learning system that meets the educators and empowers them to actually implement personalized learning for all kids.”

Stacy Stewart, principal of Belmont-Cragin Elementary School seen here before the COVID-19 pandemic, credits personalized learning for helping to improve student engagement. (Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report)

Stacy Stewart, principal of Belmont-Cragin, the school on Chicago’s northwest side that Alanni and Arianna attend, has heard teachers make comparisons between personalized learning and the IEPs that drive special education. “My teachers say: ‘It’s almost like all our students have an IEP’ — not formally, of course, but they each do have an individualized plan,” said Stewart. “It’s always evolving; it’s a very living document.”

Stewart, though, cautions against drawing too-direct parallels between IEPs and the individual learner profiles her school uses, also known as personalized learning plans. IEPs are rigid legal documents, written not for students so much as for teachers, parents and lawyers. Individual learner profiles, she said, aim to involve parents in their children’s learning but also give students more control over their own education. At her school, students lead learner meetings at least twice a year where they give a presentation to their parents about their progress, goals and challenges. That’s different from IEP meetings, which are led by adults.

Stewart embraced personalized learning even before the Chicago school district began to do so. A few years after joining Belmont-Cragin in 2010, she turned to the approach to help close achievement gaps at her school, where the student body is predominantly Hispanic and low-income, and roughly 68 percent of students are English language learners.

So far, the results are good. Between the 2015-16 and 2018-19 school years, attainment levels for third through eighth graders on the standardized Measures of Academic Progress test rose from 35 to 65 percent in reading and from 30 to 66 percent in math. Student growth in reading and math was far above average: in the 95th and 98th percentiles, respectively. Between the 2014-15 and 2017-18 school years, teacher retention grew from 60 to 90 percent.

At the school, personalized learning has many facets, some of which are reminiscent of special education. One is to involve families in their children’s learning. In special education, under legal mandates, parental input and the recommendations of educators and therapists must receive equal consideration. Stewart said she has found that parental involvement has been key to her students’ learning, because it gives teachers greater insight into their students’ needs and turns parents into partners in their children’s education. But she doesn’t limit it to scheduled meetings in an office.

One weekday morning before the pandemic shuttered school buildings, students gathered in an ageing auditorium for their daily morning assembly. One student read morning announcements in English and her partner made the same announcements in Spanish. The audience, a raucous, cheerful gathering of the entire school’s elementary-age students, plus more than a dozen parents, some with toddlers or babies scooting around nearby, greeted each announcement with cheering and hollering.

Before the pandemic, students at Belmont-Cragin often lead morning assemblies, part of an effort by the school to give young people more control over their own learning. (Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report)

Stewart and her team began encouraging parents to join the morning assemblies a few years ago. Her colleagues also started “bring your parent to school” days in which parents were invited into the classroom to see how their kids learned; they created a parent leadership team and trained parent mentors who visited students in classrooms. Before the pandemic, Belmont-Cragin also sent teachers out on “empathy walks,” when they spent an entire day joining students at their homes early in the morning, and traveling with them to school and then back home again to see how evenings unfolded. This was important, Stewart explained, because it helped teachers get a stronger sense of what motivated students and thus, how to better guide them into meaningful learning.

Even the classrooms at Belmont-Cragin are personalized to students’ needs. Some have gentler lighting — twinkling holiday lights in lieu of flickering overhead lights. Seating options range from bean bags to structured armchairs; students can choose to study alone in quiet workspaces near a lava lamp or a bubbling fish tank, or in groups at clusters of desks and tables.

Gross, of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said one way in which special education goes awry is by becoming too compliance-oriented, with teachers struggling simply to fulfill the system’s legal and paperwork requirements. “The compliance requirements are intense and numerous and it’s very easy to fall into a compliance mindset,” she said. The schools that succeed in educating kids with disabilities are engaged not simply in following the legal rules but in finding the best way to serve each student; that same spirit will be key to tackling personalized learning, she said.

Meanwhile, educators around the country are finding that it’s virtually impossible to do personalized instruction without relying heavily on technology — for good or ill. Otherwise, the burden of having kids learning at different paces within one classroom is too great. “I find it difficult to find a district doing personalized learning where tech is not the top two or three things they’re doing,” said Sean J. Smith, professor of special education at the University of Kansas.

“Ideally every student would have a teacher, but that’s simply not a possibility,” said John Pane, a senior scientist at the research organization RAND who has studied personalized learning. “It would be way too costly.” And that’s where tech tools come in, by making it easier for kids to learn at different paces, and focus on different goals, within a single class.

CICS West Belden uses Summit, an online learning platform that has drawn criticism from some parents who worry about excessive screen time. (Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report )

CICS West Belden, a pre-K-8 school not far from Stewart’s elementary that is part of the Chicago International Charter School network, began rethinking its teaching model some six years ago. The school started with an initial push into blended learning, a teaching approach that aims to integrate online with traditional face-to-face learning, said Colleen Collins, the school director. Since then, Collins and her teachers — after receiving several grants, including a $100,000 technology planning grant and a Breakthrough Schools Next Generation Learning Challenges personalized learning grant — began working with LEAP to start personalized learning for each grade level.

In an eighth grade science class well before the pandemic hit, students were grouped at a variety of workstations. Some were seated on stools around tall desks, some worked at regular-height tables with traditional classroom chairs, others were on their feet working at standing desks. Each student was bent over a Dell Chromebook using Summit Learning software, a widely used online learning platform developed by the charter network Summit Public Schools with help from Facebook software engineers.

Students David Diaz and Emani Torres had been using Summit software at CICS West Belden since sixth grade. They sat side-by-side at a two-person desk facing a bulletin board on the far side of the classroom, each working through different lessons at their own pace. A small yellow rubber duck sat on the desk between them, a stress-buster toy for whenever students need to work out some energy by squeezing something cute. Torres and Diaz described their feelings about using Summit learning software as a sort of love-hate relationship.

“I like working independently and I can really go above and beyond,” said Diaz, his eyes glued to his laptop where an article titled “Creating Dramatic Tension” filled the screen.

Torres, on the other hand, said she misses a more traditional way of learning. “This is stressful, honestly. It’s so many deadlines and a lot more work,” she said, biting her lower lip. “But, I guess it does keep you engaged.”

Alanni, the eighth grader at Belmont-Cragin, which also uses Summit and other online platforms, said she tired of all the time spent in front of a computer. “I do prefer working on paper just because it really hurts my eyes and it makes you sleepy and less motivated when you are on the computer for such a long time,” she said. Alanni said teachers would sometimes accommodate her by printing out lesson plans from the computer program and allowing her to complete the lessons offline.

In recent years, Summit has drawn protests from parents and students in places like Kansas, New York City and Connecticut who worry about excessive screen time, among other concerns. It remains to be seen how much the pandemic and remote learning will influence students’ and educators’ appetite for screen time and new tech tools that might help students who’ve fallen behind catch up. Smith and other researchers say tech can be good or bad, depending on how schools choose to use it. Technology should supplement, not supplant, the teacher, he said.

At CICS West Belden, director Collins said the school never introduces students to new concepts through technology. “The best experience a child will have each day is the interaction with their teachers in small groups tailored to who they are,” she said. “Tech makes a lot of personalized learning possible, it helps us keep a close eye on progress, but it shouldn’t be the main experience students have each day.”

Meanwhile, despite the parallels between personalized learning and special education, educators are still trying to unravel how the new approach can effectively serve students with disabilities. The hope is that individualizing education across the board would bring big benefits for students served by special education. By helping educators recognize that there is no such thing as an “average” or “typical” student, and that brain differences are normal, personalized learning could de-stigmatize, and improve, education for students with disabilities, education experts say.

“It’s a reframing that the general inclusion movement for students with disabilities has been trying to accomplish for some time now,” said Laura Stelitano, an associate policy researcher at RAND. “But simply saying that all students with disabilities need to be included is a little different from saying all students have unique ways of learning and that learning needs to be tailored. It maybe takes inclusion a step forward.”

At some schools, this appears to be happening. Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School, which serves middle school and high school students in New York, has embraced personalized learning. At the same time, it is gaining a reputation for serving kids with disabilities well — unusual among charter schools, which are frequently criticized for pushing out students with complex learning needs.

“As somebody whose own profile as a learner was pretty darn jagged, I’m a big believer that we need to design and run schools in a way that leverages what special education has to offer,” said Eric Tucker, the Brooklyn school’s co-founder. “That means thinking through how we process information, how we learn, how we fill in language acquisition and processing gaps, while pushing for a level of rigor and inclusion for all young people that reflects what they’re really capable of.”

At the school, for example, every student, regardless of academic standing, receives small-group instruction for two hours a day. This has the dual benefit of helping students who are behind without making it obvious to their peers, while also enabling teachers to help high-achieving students go farther and deeper into the curriculum. It’s a leveler, of sorts, and a confidence-builder for children with disabilities who’ve traditionally been either pulled out of the classroom for special services or received “push-in” support in the classroom from therapists and special education teachers, according to Tucker.

And yet personalized learning has a long way to go when it comes to living up to the promise of improving education for kids with disabilities. Parsi, the consultant who formerly worked for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said that children with disabilities have often been overlooked as states implement personalized learning. When the NCLD examined how personalized learning was being developed in three states — Colorado, North Carolina and New Hampshire — researchers found that “there was a lot of retrofitting happening,” he said. “They would say, ‘We’re doing personalized learning for all,’ and then they would implement it in a most generic way. And then they would realize, ‘Oh my god, our kids with disabilities aren’t doing any better, they’re actually struggling more.’”

Parsi said that goes back to the idea that schools and school systems aren’t spending enough time ensuring that general education teachers have the skills to meet students’ individual needs, including the kids with disabilities. Meanwhile, he added, “The special educators don’t get training to do this type of more personalized, deeper approach to learning. And the two don’t collaborate.”

It’s concerning, to be sure. Still, advocates for personalized learning and researchers hope that the best models will proliferate, and that the personalized approach could ultimately avoid some of the pitfalls of special education while lifting learning for all. “If we have a system that is set up to individualize [education] for all students, we’re more likely to get quality special education,” said Stelitano of RAND. “The system just requires the right resources and the right training for teachers.”

Caroline Preston contributed reporting.


This story about IEPs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter here.

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