Districts Nationwide Embrace Individualized Learning Plans To Help All Students Become College and Career Ready

To enjoy success in the future, high school graduates will need some postsecondary education for emerging jobs and additional learning and training to advance in their careers. The implementation of the Common Core State Standards is helping districts transform instruction and make learning more relevant to young people. Districts are using these and other efforts as a vehicle to help students develop intellectual and practical skills; cultivate integrative, experiential, and applied knowledge; and to take greater personal responsibility for their own learning.

One such effort to promote college and career readiness—introducing personalized learning strategies such as Individualized Learning Plans (ILPs) to ensure successful student transitions to the world beyond high school—has gained nearly as much momentum as the Common Core  in recent years.

In 2005, 21 states encouraged the use of ILPs; today, 37 states and the District of Columbia perceive ILPs as an anchor strategy to their college and career readiness efforts. These plans, known by different names in each state, are typically required of all students, including students with disabilities and other special populations.

ILPs are different from, but closely related and complementary to, the transition plan that students receiving special education services are federally required to incorporate into their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). When implemented as a whole-school program, ILPs engage all youth in becoming career-ready by helping them determine their secondary and postsecondary plans to help them achieve their self-defined career goals. Families report that this process results in students taking ownership and becoming more engaged in their courses. For students with disabilities, ILPs enable youth to become more assertive in guiding their IEP meetings to ensure that the transition activities help them develop the college readiness and employability skills that are aligned to their career and life goals.

Based upon our several years of research, the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth (NCWD/Youth) defines a quality ILP as:

  • A document consisting of: (a) course-taking and postsecondary plans aligned to career goals; and (b) documentation of the range of college and career readiness skills that the student has developed.
  • A process that enhances the relevance of school and out-of-school learning opportunities, and provides the student access to career development opportunities that incorporate self-exploration, career exploration, and career planning and management skill-building activities.

Students typically develop ILPs beginning around eighth grade and regularly revise them with adult mentors (teachers, counselors, parents, and other family members) throughout high school to reflect their shifting interests, needs, and learning experiences inside and outside of school.

Promising Early Results

Early analysis of data from districts, students, and parents indicate that ILPs have strong benefits for young people and families. District officials have reported that ILPs show promise in increasing enrollments in Advanced Placement courses and applications to college, and in encouraging students with disabilities to obtain a standard high school diploma and consider college as an option. Research also shows that students who are more engaged in ILP activities report stronger goal-setting skills, increased motivation to attend school, and increased academic self-efficacy which leads to better academic achievement, stress and health management, and readiness to engage in career decision-making.

Bolstering Student Engagement

One of the reasons ILPs work effectively is because students, not adults, take charge of the process. Some schools make annual student-led parent-teacher conferences a part of the ILP process which requires students to describe their career and life goals in relation to the evidence they have generated from self-exploration and career exploration activities. They also articulate how their in- and out-of-school experiences are helping them achieve these goals. Because students are given the opportunity to own their career exploration and preparation path, they are more likely to seek out community service and work-based learning experiences that align with their self-defined interests and goals. In addition, they develop the ability to describe job qualifications and postsecondary pathways, and to determine how to gain access to available resources to help with college planning, tuition assistance information, and applications.

Promising ILP Implementation Practices

In interviews with district and school officials, NCWD/Youth and its partners have identified a number of exemplary ILP implementation strategies and promising practices that school leaders say have been successful. These include:

  • Employing a whole-school approach in implementing ILPs by involving all school personnel in the process and providing support and professional development for educators. This is critical to ensure that ILPs are implemented with fidelity and that everyone involved understands the process. Showing all school personnel the value of ILPs and helping them to understand their distinct roles in supporting student success can make them more likely to become engaged in the process. It also communicates the importance of all educators sharing in the responsibility of ensuring ILPs are implemented effectively for all students. Additionally, providing teachers with advisory time during the school day to meet with students and curricula with grade-level expectations for building college and career readiness competencies promotes school-wide buy-in that allows for a more effective and sustainable rollout of ILPs.
  • Encouraging parents and families to participate in ILPs at school and at home. In addition to holding annual parent-teacher conferences where students discuss their career goals and plans, some school districts also host multiple “back-to-school night” events throughout the school year to allow families the opportunity to speak with teachers and counselors and view student work to better understand how students’ in-school experiences align with their career and life goals. Many web-based career information systems and ePortfolios are also accessible at home, so families can review ILP activities and assignments and college and career planning resources together.
  • Integrating special education teachers, students with IEPs, and other students with disabilities into the ILP process. Because ILPs can be used by all students to guide their academic and career planning, special education teachers have found that ILPs can effectively support the development of transition plans that are part of IEPs. ILPs have also enabled students with disabilities and their families to engage in transition planning earlier and to be better prepared to participate in the planning process. Special education teachers can also share with school counselors and general education teachers promising practices and successful strategies that have increased student participation in IEP meetings to engage young people in the ILP process.

Breaking Barriers within Schools and with the Community

Implementing ILPs requires districts to break down traditional barriers within schools and between schools and their communities. Central district offices must work to foster collaborative cross-department relationships within schools and new connections between educators and community stakeholders, such as local business leaders and community colleges.

Creating cross-department conversations—for instance, between school counselors and career and technical education teachers—not only breaks down silos but also allows educators to share expertise and leverage resources to support ILP implementation, student career exploration opportunities, and preparation for postsecondary education. ILPs also provide a context for establishing work-based learning opportunities and can create access to mentorship opportunities for students within the community. As one official noted, “we are establishing relationships with local businesses and local service providers and frequently learn about employment positions available to students.”

Districts also have had to work closely with state departments of education to take advantage of new online career information systems and ePortfolio tools and data. In addition to providing accountability information to districts about how and how well schools and educators are implementing ILPs, these systems can also include student work examples and data, as well as career and college planning resources and tools that can be helpful in exploring and preparing for post-high school options. Often, these tools can also be accessed by student and families online from home making it easier for families to support their students’ college and career preparations.

If we are serious about ensuring college and career readiness opportunity for all students, we need to focus more efforts on enabling educators, students, and their families to become more engaged in transition readiness efforts well before they graduate. Properly designed and implemented, ILPs help students and their families strive to get the most out of their educational opportunities and successfully launch into a postsecondary training and education program and the world of work.

For more information about how ILPs work and can help your district, go to www.ncwd-youth.info/ilp.

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