This Guide has been prepared under the aegis of a cooperative agreement between the U.S.  Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth (NCWD/Youth) housed at the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL).  Three authors have contributed to the development of this Guide. Ms. Joan Wills, a Senior Fellow at IEL has oversight responsibilities for the work, Dr. V. Scott Solberg from Boston University’s School of Education has the lead responsibility for conducting a series of research studies centered on the effects of schools instituting individualized learning plans (ILPs), and Mr. David Osman is a consultant with deep experience in preparing career development materials for the federal government.

A total of 35 states currently mandate some form of individualized learning plans (ILPs).  Each state uses a different name for these plans, but this Guide uses the generic term ILP.  The growing use of ILPs also comes at a time when almost all 50 states have adopted dual educational goals – that all high school students graduate both college and career ready.  This agreement was reached in a historic summit in 2005 where a bi-partisan gathering of governors and business leaders agreed that academic and career readiness would serve as the aim for all high schools.   

According to the National Governors Association, college and career readiness refers to a student who graduates from high school with the skills and academic record needed to be able to successfully a postsecondary education or work training experience that leads to occupations offering livable wages.i  The Association for Career and Technical Education refers to “college ready” as consisting of strong academic foundation skills and defines “career ready” as the ability to apply those academic skills as well as 21st Century employability skills and technical skills.ii  More recently, the Career Readiness Partner Council defined career readiness in terms of students possessing the awareness, skills, and dispositions needed to be able to “effectively navigate pathways that connect education and employment to achieve a fulfilling, financially-secure and successful career.”iii 

The Guide began as a result of a multiyear initiative that focused on exploring how students in 14 schools in four states – Louisiana, New Mexico, South Carolina and Washington– are using and benefiting from their ILPs.  NCWD/Youth’s research indicates that engaging in ILPs  provides access to quality career guidance activities and connects both college and career readiness goals by helping students create secondary and postsecondary course plans that allow them to pursue their career and life goals.  The evidence indicates that students who become more competent in self-exploration, career exploration, and career planning and management are more motivated to attend school, become confident learners, actively set goals, and record better grades.iv  In other words, efforts to prepare students to become career ready results in the social, emotional, and academic skills needed to become college ready.v

NCWD/Youth’s research substantiates the critical need for this dual goal – more than half of the 1,650 high school students surveyed could not describe the nature of the career or educational pathways needed to pursue their career interests.vi While many of these students may possess the academic skills to be successful, it is not likely that they are prepared to effectively engage in the career navigation strategies needed to successfully manage the uncertainties of their future training and educational pathways beyond high school.vii

NCWD/Youth’s research also indicates strong support for ILPs from parents, teachers, and students.  Findings from 53 focus group interviews with 272 parents, teachers, and students indicate that all three parties perceived that engaging in ILP activities resulted in students:  (a) being more strategic in selecting a program of course studies that aligned with self-defined career and life goals, which indicates that they perceive the relevance of education to their future aspirations; (b) selecting more rigorous courses that will be more attractive to college admissions officers; and, (c) establishing better communication and relational connections between their school and home.viii  The central challenge that parents, students, and teachers reported in these focus groups was difficulty of gaining buy-in for engaging in ILPs by all teachers. 

A subsequent report based on surveys and focus groups of parents and teachers indicated that ILPs are perceived in many schools as being limited to a “graduation plan” and this purpose must be re-visioned in order to support student post-school transitions.ix For example, some states refer to it as a success plan or a high school and beyond plan.

Based upon its research investigating the nature and use of ILPs in states across the United States, NCWD/Youth has merged the commonalities to provide the following working definition of a quality ILP:

A quality individualized learning plan is

  • A document consisting of a student’s: (a) course taking and post-secondary plans aligned to career goals; and, (b) documentation of the range of college and career readiness skills he/she has developed. 
  • A process that enhances a student’s understanding of the relevance of school courses as well as 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 activities.x

A lack of a whole-school buy-in for engaging in ILPs is another critical factor that study respondents reported has limited the potential impact of ILPs. In many of the schools studied, ILPs were relegated to one or two specialists who were responsible for implementation. The schools that participated in NCWD/Youth’s research attribute the challenge in gaining whole-school buy-in for implementing ILPs to a need for ILP curricula and implementation guidelines.  This Guide was developed in response to requests for assistance in this area. 

It is recognized that state requirements vary with respect to when students begin to develop ILPs with some beginning in elementary and middle school.  This Guide centers on the high school years because NCWD/Youth’s overall project focused on investigating how and whether ILPs serve as an effective workforce development strategy that prepares youth to make effective post-school college and career transitions.  This Guide will remain a work in progress as additions and deletions occur to reflect the latest ILP implementation resources identified.  A key goal of the Guide is to help schools develop a bridge between college and career readiness efforts through the use of ILPs and help youth achieve prosperous and productive lives.xi

This Guide is intended to be as relevant as possible to a range of educators including school counselors, career and technical education educators and supervisors, special education educators and supervisors, and regular education teachers.

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i National Governors Association. (2010). Center on Best Practices Issue Brief: Setting statewide college and career ready goals. Available at: www.nga.org/center.

ii Association for Career and Technical Education. (2010). What is career ready?” Available at: https://www.acteonline.org/uploadedFiles/Publications_and_Online_Media/files/Career_Readiness_Paper.pdf.

iii Career Readiness Partner Council. (2012). Building blocks for change: What it means to be career ready. Available at: www.CareerReadyNow.org.  

iv Solberg, V. S., Howard, K. A., Gresham, S. L., & Carter, E. (2012). Quality learning experiences, self-determination, and academic success: A path analytic study among youth with disabilities. Career Development & Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 35 (2), 85-96.

v Solberg, V. S., Gresham, S., Phelps, L. A., Durham, J., & Haakenson, K. (2010). Impact of exposure to quality learning experiences on career development.  In V. S. Solberg (Symposium Chair), Study of context in career development research with youth populations.  Paper presented at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, San Diego, CA.

vi Solberg, V. S., Gresham, S., Phelps, L. A. & Budge, S. (2012). Identifying indecisive decision-making patterns and their impact on career development and workforce readiness.  Paper presented at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Denver, CO. 

vii The Center for American Progress has proposed the concept of “career navigation” as a national agenda. For more details see: http://www.americanprogress.org//issues/2010/03/career_navigation_learners.html.

viii Budge, S. L., Solberg, V. S., Phelps, L. A., Haakenson, K. & Durham, J.  (2010). Promising practices for implementing individualized learning plans: Perspectives of teachers, parents, and students.  Paper presented at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Denver, CO.

ix Altarum Institute. (2011). Parent and educator perspectives on ILPs: Final recommendations from a four state report.  Report available from Altarum.

x Solberg, V. S., Phelps, L. A., Haakenson, K. A., Durham, J. F. & Timmons, J. (2012).  The nature and use of individualized learning plans as a career intervention strategy.  Journal of Career Development, 39 (6), 500-514.

xi Symonds, W. C., Schwartz, R. B., & Ferguson, R. (2011). Pathways to prosperity: Meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21st century. Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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