Personalized Learning: Policy Insights from Four States

This Policy Brief describes findings from a case study of four states using individualized learning plans as a strategic education policy to personalize student’s educational experience in an effort to raise their academic achievement and better prepare them for post-secondary education and employment.

States across the nation continue to confront unprecedented economic challenges. In this fiscal environment, policymakers are increasingly seeking strategic education policy options that will produce better educated students prepared for a rapidly changing workforce. This state-level policy analysis case study, drawn from 22 states presently using individualized learning plans (ILPs), offers a glimpse of four states' progress in implementing student-centered learning innovations. Student-centered innovations, such as policies and practices in support of individualized learning plans, are cited increasingly as central to:  (a) raising student achievement (National Research Council, 1999; National Research Council, 2004), and (b) more powerful than other innovations (including curriculum innovations designed to improve cognitive outcomes) in increasing student learning (Cornelius-White, 2007; Lapan, Gysbers, & Kason, 2007).

As illustrated in Table 1, each of the four states (Louisiana, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Washington) launched ILP initiatives with the over-riding purpose of redesigning high schools to address a rapidly emerging 21st century challenge: youth are exiting high school unprepared for post-secondary education and employment. State policymakers envisioned personal or individualized learning plans, and the processes used to implement them, as helping to:

  1. Motivate all students to complete their diplomas regardless of the challenging circumstances that many must overcome;
  2. Provide students with tools and resources for planning their futures;
  3. Improve the relevance and rigor of the curriculum in schools;
  4. Make the senior year more meaningful; and
  5. Connect parents and students in new ways.

The emergence of state ILP initiatives is a direct response to the following principle of effective intervention:  as the diversity and complexity of students' educational needs expand and/or change, routine or conventional teaching and student support practices are conversely less likely to be effective, and, in turn, requiring increased levels of personalization in education and transition settings. (see Eight Elements of High School Improvement:  A Mapping Framework [National High School Center, 2008],  Breaking Ranks II:  Strategies for Leading High School Reform [National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2004]).

The goal of this four-state case study was twofold. First, to determine to what extent states are leveraging federal and state resources to align their ILP initiatives with other policies aimed at fostering education innovation and economic recovery. The second goal was to develop recommendations for how states could make intergovernmental investments to strengthen their performance outcomes in education and workforce development.


Major Findings

Limited Evidence Exists Documenting ILP Implementation Efforts. To date, only limited evidence is available documenting the implementation and effectiveness of the four state ILP initiatives. In Washington, longitudinal data collected in one of the early-adopting school districts revealed that the High School and Beyond planning curriculum (which helps students reflect on their performance and then plan for the future) improved their academic performance and documented subsequent student enrollment in more challenging courses. In post-high school interviews, graduates attributed these results to discussions with their advisers.

Few States Leverage Federal Funds to Expand ILP Investment. The state-level case studies revealed that just two of the four states are using federal funds to leverage and expand the investment in individualized learning plans. In Louisiana, funds from the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 are used to support a state-wide team of Individual Graduation Plan (IGP) consultants who work closely with local school districts to provide professional development and technical assistance. Similarly, in New Mexico, Perkins funds have been used to support a series of regional Next Steps Plan workshops for school districts.

Longitudinal Student Data Systems Offer Opportunity to Track Long-Term Outcomes. In two states, Washington and South Carolina, longitudinal student data systems are available or in the process of being created to link students' school, post-secondary, and post-high school employment records. When ILP implementation data records/systems are added (which document student's post-high school plans, course completion data, and artifacts from students' portfolios) to these systems, it will be feasible to assess the impact of robust and intensive ILPs on graduate's success in settings beyond high school.

State ILP Implementation Disconnected From Other Employment and Education Efforts. Moreover, state ILP initiatives were not cited frequently in state plans for using federal funds. Providing access to individualized learning and graduation planning experiences could potentially strengthen the performance outcomes for four additional federal programs:  workforce training (Workforce Investment Act, Title I Youth Programs), successful closures for rehabilitation clients (The Rehabilitation Act), programs and outcomes for students with disabilities (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Part B), or low-income students (Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Title I). Several of the ILP performance indicators are well aligned with federal program indicators (e.g., raising graduation rates, reducing high school dropouts, improving parental involvement, and ensuring students are successfully placed in postsecondary education and/or employment) (See Table 2).



The limited pattern of alignment and interaction with federal programs suggests other factors are at work in the state policy context. State leaders may be interested in establishing a state-centered program independent of federal support, one that demonstrates that state, not federal leaders can address important or unique public policy problems in education. Home grown state education policies can be an authentic expression of special or unique citizen priorities in a nation with wide variation in cultural and educational diversity. Others factors, such as strong histories of local control of education, may also complicate the state-federal alignment question for state leaders.

The absence of intergovernmental alignment or integration on education matters is not surprising. Historically, some analysts note that states have been laboratories for innovation in a number of policy arenas, including education and employment training. Using a bottom-up view of federal policy innovation, new legislation is adopted once a significant portion of states report beneficial outcomes from a particular set of policy initiatives. With more than 20 states adopting ILP policies by 2008, the importance of addressing career and college readiness for all students was well documented on the emerging national landscape for state policy reforms. As noted in Table 2, the ILP policies in Louisiana and New Mexico are aligned with the IEP transition plan requirements. In these states -- all students, not just students with disabilities -- are developing postsecondary plans to enter college and the job market immediately following high school.

Two noteworthy observations can be made about the four selected ILP policy states. First, while the state policies and programs are tailored to address a variety of high school reform needs, all four states use ILP policy outcome indicators that are closely aligned with the federal K-16 data system frameworks found in the America Competes Act of 2007 and other federal laws. Clearly, states that are advancing ILP policies for high school students are well positioned to use K-16 longitudinal data systems to document the influence of individualized learning plans on postsecondary education participation and employment outcomes. When combined with individual and school level measures of ILP robustness, education leaders possess an evidence-based tool for improving the quality of individual-centered learning innovations, and tracking the effects on post high school outcomes for all students, including those who often encounter barriers and challenges. Second, while the need for using integrated K-16 data systems to track student and program success is obvious; in each state the capacity for data integration, analysis, and generating accountability reports and continuous improvement recommendations is both underdeveloped and uneven.  

In his seminal analysis of the state role in education policy, Elmore (1982, p. 142) argues that "… increasing state influence in education requires more federal intervention, not less. Decreasing federal expenditures on education, granting increased discretion to states in the management of federal programs, displacing federal policy objectives with state objectives--all the mechanisms that are thought to enhance state influence relative to the federal government and localities, in fact, probably have the opposite effect given the present range of variability among states."   More than 25 years later efforts to bolster state capacity to improve education attainment are being led by significant federal investments (e.g., The Race to the Top initiative, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and the America Competes Act). However, in this cycle of intergovernmental education policy investments, two notable changes are present. Performance accountability requirements are more prominent in all federal programs than at any time in the nation's history. Equally important, the federal and state education investments are strategically aligned with common indicators of success, which feature the use of K-16 and longitudinal data systems to inform practices and policies that will increase high school graduation rates and expand the postsecondary education attainment of all learners.



To advance state capacity for achieving the ILP policy outcomes in the midst of challenging economic contexts, state leaders should consider implementing the following strategies:  

  1. Develop strategically aligned state plans for employment and training (WIA), special education (IDEA), career and technical education (Perkins Act), and education of poor youth (ESEA, NCLB).By aligning state plans, local recipients will be encouraged to expand the pool of available funds so that students' individualized learning plans can support student's integrated service strategy (WIA) or individualized education program (IDEA). In other sections of state plans, federal funds could be designated for a variety of important state-level activities supporting ILP state policy initiatives, including professional and curriculum development focused on secondary-postsecondary programs of study, implementation and impact performance indicator systems, and comprehensive guidance counseling and academic advisory systems. Given the growing federal interest in performance accountability, state leaders should anticipate that upcoming re-authorizations of the Workforce Investment Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and other education and workforce policies will require detailed alignment and coordination strategies for federal investments at the state level.
  2. Use future federal competitions and support from philanthropic organizations to expand state-wide, student-centered learning innovation initiatives, such as ILP policies.Discretionary competitions such as Department of Education's Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation or the Next Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC) funded by the Gates and Hewlett Packard Foundations are vehicles for developing state-level ILP policy implementation efforts. Launched in 2010, the NGLC is a collaborative, multi-year initiative focused on developing technology-enabled approaches to dramatically improve college readiness, especially for low-income young adults.
  3. Continue to develop systems of ILP implementation indicators that are connected to students’ data records.State leaders and technical assistance organizations must assist school teams in measuring students' involvement in key ILP practices, such as student-led conferences, technical skills assessments, and the quality of culminating high school graduation portfolios and projects. Data systems capable of tracking the number of student-led conferences and the outcomes of the conferences, for example, are an essential ingredient for determining how the ILP process contributes to post-school outcomes. Once refined and stable, these ILP implementation indicators can be added to states' K-16 student data systems.  
  4. Support state and local district participation in longitudinal research studies to examine the factors associated with robust implementation of ILPs and students’ post-high school outcomes.As noted herein, the state-level K-16 student data systems and workforce quality data systems provide an invaluable resource for documenting the impact of the ILPs, and related innovations such as internships and technical skills assessments, on the economic and social benefits that graduates acquire from ILP-intensive schools. Longitudinal studies that include graduates' employment and earnings data can help high school teachers and counselors, for example, identify local, high-wage industry internships as part of their ILP in the junior or senior year.
  5. All states pursuing or considering ILP policy initiatives should capitalize on the benchmarking, resource mapping and policy alignment opportunities available through national associations and organizations. Organizations such as the Council of Chief State School Officers, the American Diploma Project, the Education Commission of the States, and the Federal Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs, see:, offer opportunities for state and local teams to acquire resources that could enhance the development and implementation of ILP policies and practices.


Table 1 - Key Features of Individualized Learning Plan Policies in Four States


Date of ILP Implement-ation

Grade ILP Begins

State Level Oversight

Federal and State Funding

Support and Training

Connection to Special Education

Louisiana – Individual Graduation Plan (IGP)



Completion of plans is monitored during Perkins compliance monitoring; data used to create annual legislative reports.

Funding provided for state level assistance and LAePortal;  Funding sources include federal Perkins CTE grant, state high school redesign funds, and funds from an off-shore oil settlement.

Initial training for implementation, now training on updates and changes.

Students with an IEP who are on a diploma track are required to have an IGP.

New Mexico – Next Step Plan (NSP)



Schools submit completed plans to state on an annual basis for randomly selected review; review reported to legislature.

Non-funded state mandate.

Used Perkins funding to conduct initial training including introduction to NSP, Career Clusters and using the state suggested template.

IEPs serve as the  NSP for students with disabilities.

South Carolina – Individual Graduation Plan (IGP)



Schools submit accountability reports to state twice a year; reports used gauge the degree to which career awareness and development activities  have been implemented into the school environments.

State fully funds online career information system and 5 state-level FTEs. State also provides funds to districts to support the hiring of career specialists in the majority of middle and high schools.

Regional workshops for counselors and/or career specialists held two to three times a year; training also provided via educational television, the annual Education and Business Summit, and other venues.

Each student must have an IGP, regardless of disability status.

Washington – High School and Beyond Plan (HSB)



Implementation and oversight of HSB is under local control; schools elect to participate in the  Navigation 101 grant curriculum.

State grants startup costs to schools who chose to participate in HSB curriculum program (Navigation101); curriculum not required.

Navigation training and technical assistance available for participants; districts provide all training for HSB implementation.

Each student must have an HSB plan, regardless of disability status.


























Table 2 - State-Level Individualized Learning Plan Policy Measures*

Performance Measures or Indicators

Louisiana (Career Options Act)

New Mexico (NM Senate Bill 0561, 2008)

South Carolina (Education and Economic Development Act)

Washington (High School and Beyond Plan Guidelines) 

High school graduation/ diploma

Graduation requirements for the career major shall consist of requirements mandated by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for all high school students.

At the end of grades eight through eleven, each student shall prepare an interim next-step plan that sets forth the coursework for the grades remaining until high school graduation.

An IGP must include core academic subjects, which must include, but are not limited to, English, math, science, and social studies to ensure that requirements for graduation will be met.

Graduation requirements consist of a High School and Beyond Plan and specific course requirements as mandated by the State Board of Education.

Dropout rates

Design teams shall evaluate the success of their programs based on tracking the number of dropouts in career major programs.

Students who do not meet or exceed expectations will be given individual attention and assistance through extended learning programs and individualized tutoring.

The [school] report card must contain other criteria including, but not limited to, information on promotion and retention ratios, disciplinary climate, dropout ratios, and dropout reduction data.


School districts shall be required to report annually to the superintendent of public instruction dropout rates of students in each of the grades seven through twelve. (SB 2423, 2009)

Attainment of work readiness or occupational/technical  skills

Louisiana's high schools shall consist of an academic major college preparatory courses and a career major comprised of challenging academic courses and modern vocational studies.

The department shall establish a procedure for students to be awarded credit through completion of specified career technical education courses for certain graduation requirements.

School districts shall organize high school curricula around a minimum of three [career] clusters of study and cluster majors. The curricula must be designed to provide a well-rounded education for students by fostering artistic creativity, critical thinking, and self-discipline through the teaching of academic content, knowledge, and skills that students will use in the workplace, further education, and life.


A student’s plan should include the classes needed in preparation for a 2- to 4-year college, vocational or technical school, certificate program or the workforce.

Placement and retention in postsecondary education, advanced training, military service, employment, or qualified apprenticeships

Such a [career] major shall be linked to postsecondary options and shall prepare students to pursue either a degree or  certification from a postsecondary institution, an industry based training or certification, an apprenticeship, the military, or immediate entrance into a career field.

The department shall establish a readiness assessment system to measure the readiness of every New Mexico high school student for success in higher education or a career no later than the 2008-2009 school year.

High school students must be provided guidance and curricula that will enable them to complete successfully their individual graduation plans, preparing them for a seamless transition to relevant employment, further training, or postsecondary study.

The High School and Beyond Plan gets all students thinking about their future and how to get the most out of high school, so that they’re ready to pursue their adult lives, no matter what direction they plan to take.

Parental involvement

Each student, with the assistance of his parent or other legal guardian and school guidance personnel, shall be allowed to choose the high school curriculum framework and related graduation requirements that best meets his postsecondary goals.


Shall be filed with the principal of the student's high school and shall be signed by the student, the student's parent and the student's guidance counselor or other school official charged with coursework planning for the student.

This system must promote the involvement and cooperative effort of parents, teachers, and school counselors in assisting students in making these choices, in setting career goals, and in developing individual graduation plans to achieve these goals.


Post high school transition goals and plans

Each student's individual graduation plan shall include the recommended sequence of courses for successful completion of his chosen major that aligns with postsecondary education, training, and the workforce.

“Final next-step plan" means a next-step plan that shows that the student has committed or intends to commit in the near future to a four-year college or university, a two-year college, a trade or vocational program, an internship or apprenticeship, military service or a job.

An individual graduation plan is a student specific educational plan detailing the courses necessary for the student to prepare for graduation and to successfully transition into the workforce or postsecondary education.

A student’s plan should include the classes needed in preparation for a 2- to 4-year college, vocational or technical school, certificate program or the workforce.

* As of March 1, 2011 the state policy information presented in Tables 1 and 2 was accurate. Readers are reminded that state policies, as well as the supporting initiatives, often change based on economic factors, educational performance, and myriad other conditions at the state and local level. State officials were given the opportunity to review and comment on the contents of this paper.





Cornelius-White, Jeffrey. (2007). Learner centered teacher-student relationships are effective: a meta-analysis. Review of Education Research. 77(1), 113-143.

Elmore, R.F. (1984). The political economy of state influence.  Education and Urban Society (16)2, 125-144.

Lapan, R., Gysbers, N., & Kayson, M. (2007). Missourischool counselors benefit all students: How implementing comprehensive guidance programs improves academic achievement for all Missouri students. Retrieved June 22, 2010 from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Web site:

National Association of Secondary School Principals. (2004). Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform. Reston, Va.: Author

National High School Center. (2008). Eight Elements of High School Improvement: A Mapping Framework. Washington, DC.: American Institutes for Research. Retrieved July 28, 2010 from

National Research Council. (1999).  How People Learn:  Brain, Mind, Experience and School.Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C.:  The National Academies Press.

National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. (2004). Engaging Schools:  Fostering High School Students' Motivation to Learn.  Committee on Increasing High School Students' Engagement and Motivation to Learn.  Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education.  Washington, D.C.:   The National Academies Press. 


The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth (NCWD-Youth) is composed of partners with expertise in disability, education, employment and workforce development issues. NCWD-Youth, housed at the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, D.C., is supported by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). NCWD-Youth is charged with assisting state and local workforce development systems to integrate youth with disabilities into their service strategies.

This Policy Brief was written by L. Allen Phelps, Julie Durham and Joan Wills.

To obtain this publication in an alternate format, please contact NCWD-Youth at 877.871.0744 toll free or e-mail All publications will be posted on the NCWD-Youth website at Please visit our website to sign up to be notified of future publications.

This document was developed by NCWD-Youth under a grant/contract/cooperative agreement from ODEP (Number #OD-16519-07-75-4-11). The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Department of Labor. Nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply the endorsement by the U.S Department of Labor. Individuals may produce any part of this document. Please credit the source and support of federal funds.

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