It is completely understandable for a teacher to wince when they think about how many students these days have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). There seems to be more and more IEPs every year. While it is great that students receive the special care they need, I have some concerns that at some point, IEPs could create
issues of fairness for anyone who doesn’t have one. For logistical reasons, students who have parents that advocate for them may be receiving assistance for issues when others are not, simply because of the absence of an advocate. Recently I learned that students with IEPs may even have financial advantages over those who don’t. One can only wonder about how fair the system is for students with un-diagnosed or ill-defined learning disadvantages. So I have made it my goal to address special learning challenges in every student whenever they occur, based on content mastery.
It wasn’t long after I began teaching that I began to reflect on how I could identify and follow up on content mastery issues for individual students. While I don’t want students to become dependent on me for “force feeding,” I want to supply students with individualized tools and accountability. I normally have about 125 students. With traditional means, individualizing would be impossible. This year on my first chapter test, scores ranged from 15% to 101%. If ever there was a reason for some individualization, this would be one of them. Fortunately, I’ve been experimenting with various strategies and am optimistic I can both bring up the bottom end and challenge the high end. Here’s what I am doing:
- Because of the positives I saw when my students did math explorations occasionally in the past, two years ago I switched to a textbook that is inquiry-based. That allows time in class for students to be grouped in ways so that they challenge each other. Those who are ready to go deeper get there, and those who are not yet ready get the basics. I am able to coach seven teams far more efficiently than 28 individual students.
- I host an informational meeting for my students and their families before school begins in the fall to inform and motivate quality homework practices. Data for post-high success rates is sobering. Students who practice on research-based, interleaved homework each night have clear advantages over those that don’t. I explain where math ability comes from. I explain what quality homework practices look like and why I don’t grade it for completion. For families who are unable to attend, I send them video links.
- I seat students in teams of 3-4 with assigned roles for several weeks at a time, and usually reassign to next groups in familiar pairs. The roles feel serious because they parallel roles in real workplaces. Teammates help each other develop the ability strengthen self-advocacy and refine executive skills. Each one grows at their own rate. I coach that growth and mutual accountability as I coach understanding of content. It is one thing for a student who has a medical condition to need compassionate prodding, but it isn’t fair for a student to need constant reminders from his/her team because that student doesn’t feel like focusing or working. My students tend to respond well when they understand that paying attention can be an issue of fairness. I survey teams before changing seats to learn of students’ needs and to increase their awareness of social-emotional learning expectations.
- The ability to ask questions is empowering. Pretending to understand when one does not can be academically disastrous. Working in teams helps students develop confidence to reach out for information as they need it. In this way, they make their own “IEP.” During the first week of class, I help students learn how to email me. The assignment is to answer questions about themselves and send me a selfie for my seating chart (or a picture of something they find interesting). The point is to be equipped to send me pictures of something they struggle with so I don’t waste time answering questions about homework in class. But the side benefits are that I get to know my students and my seating chart is adorable…although it can be tricky to fit their pets in with their selfies.
- Because learning how to learn takes time, I allow test retakes during first semesters. Between tests, I identify areas of concern by leafing through homework and through quick assessments. When I see gaps, I send those students an email or assign a session in Khan Academy that automatically generates an email. In both cases, students are provided tools (video and/or text explanation) and practice problems to fix gaps. If a student does not correct their gaps before taking the unit test, then they will need to correct the gaps before retaking the test. I primarily depend on Khan reports to keep track of what each student was assigned and whether or not they tended to that gap. At the end of each quarter, those Khan assignments count as another test grade. Students who don’t have gaps don’t need the extra work and get a free 100% Khan test grade. Students who have gaps but take the time to fill them, get a 100% Khan test grade even though it cost more time.
- Some students need extended time for taking tests. Whether that need is documented in a formal IEP or not, I allow students to finish outside of class time. My professors did that for me or I would never have made it through undergrad. I make enough test versions to make cheating more challenging than to just learn the material, but I’ll admit I still have to watch rather closely to make sure students don’t take short-cuts with Apple watches or hidden phones.
Second semester, I no longer allow test retakes. By then, most students have figured out that learning math is much easier if they pay attention and practice as expected. At that point, almost all are on their way to a successful finish and have mastered some very important, generalized learning skills. If we teach students to learn from tools we provide in high school, it makes sense that they will have the confidence to look for whatever tools they need post high. Those tools will be individualized and will enable students to be efficient learners for the rest of their lives. After all, in the long run, shouldn’t we all be making our own individualized “education” plans?