Voices in Education

Delivering on the Promise of Personalized Learning Plans
Education policy is typically a blunt instrument, poorly suited to the highly nuanced, relational work performed in schools. Yet, it’s the relational work that lies at the heart of many reform initiatives. So, my colleagues and I welcomed with great excitement the news in 2013 that Vermont’s legislature had mandated personal learning plans (PLPs) for all students in grades 7-12.

We immediately saw rich opportunities to institutionalize in schools a focus on three critical components of effective education: knowing students well, cultivating their identities, and engaging their families. Each of these is important in order to provide learning opportunities students find personally meaningful. We were confident that with these aims PLPs could yield benefits far beyond those imagined in the legislation. After five years of seeing PLPs in action, I am all the more confident that PLPs can be a policy driver for some of the greatest reform challenges our nation faces. However, I’m concerned that the opportunity could be missed.

My colleagues and I at the University of Vermont have partnered with dozens of teachers around the state using PLPs to improve students’ experiences in school. Through their PLP work, these teachers initiated rich conversations about identity, guiding students through explorations of self, family, and community. Teachers appreciated how PLPs fostered deeper relationships with students and contributed to a safer and healthier learning community. They leveraged their new knowledge of students to inform more self-directed, project-based, and service-learning opportunities, which were responsive to students’ individual—and collective—needs and interests. They helped students compile authentic evidence of personally meaningful growth. And at student-led PLP conferences, families gained new understanding of their child’s development as a person and learner, encountered vivid representations of what personalized learning looks like, and helped shape goals for the next steps in their child’s learning journey.

These separate practices are well-established in the literature on effective teaching, particularly in the middle grades.1 But rarely are they implemented systematically. In most cases, the practices are implemented in individual classrooms, teams, or occasionally schools. What’s remarkable is that Vermont’s PLP mandate drove full faculties and school districts across the state to dive into these practices. And with PLP mandates common across the United States, other states could do the same.

Thirty-one state legislatures require their schools to develop and maintain PLPs or individual learning plans (ILPs) in order to promote better postsecondary outcomes for their students, sometimes as part of frameworks for personalized learning.2 Ten additional states recommend the practice. Nearly all PLPs require students to describe who they are as a person and learner, establish plans for learning based on postsecondary aspirations, and track their educational progress. PLP work typically begins in the middle grades and is continuously revised through high school graduation in collaboration with students, educators, and families.

The expectations for these state plans are lofty, to say the least. Drawing from their comprehensive review of state plans for PLPs, Solberg and colleagues found an emphasis on self-exploration so students can “identify strengths, skills, interests and values”3 and “demonstrate knowledge of their culture and environment.”4 Massachusetts aimed to help students demonstrate “attitudes, behaviors, knowledge and skills that promote identity formation, personal responsibility, and self-direction, . . . foster respect for diversity and work to eliminate stereotyping (at home, school, work, and in the community),” and “promote participation, positive behavior and regard within diverse groups.”5 These themes of discovering and responding to a deeper understanding of students resonate with broader efforts to provide high quality learning experiences to all students, such as efforts to promote deeper and culturally responsive learning.

In their recent review of the science of learning and development, Darling-Hammond and colleagues call for “safe, personalized learning communities where students feel they belong and teachers engage in practices that help them know their students well so that they can respond to children’s specific needs, interests, readiness for learning, and opportunities for growth.”6 Noguera and colleagues note that schools focused on deeper learning “need to balance high expectations for all students with a sensitivity to individual real-life challenges, so they can provide strong support based on their relationships with and knowledge of each student.”7

Similarly, advocates of culturally relevant pedagogy want teachers to “build on the knowledges and cultural assets students bring with them into the classroom.”8 Culturally responsive pedagogy provides learning experiences “directly relevant to, and reflective of, students’ home lives and cultural experiences out of school,”9 in which they “feel visible, heard, and valued,” and in which their “ethnic or racial identity, cultural pride, and heritage are sustained and regularly affirmed.”10 Culturally sustaining pedagogy11 centers “the dynamic practices and selves of students and communities of color in a critical, additive, and expansive vision of schooling,”12 one that embraces the constant flow and change of students’ identities in our interconnected world.13

In spite of these common interests, I’ve found scant reference to how PLP policies can help drive deeper and more culturally responsive teaching practices. Noguera and colleagues observed that in “a growing number of schools, educators argue that the only way to ensure that every student has the opportunity to engage in deeper learning is to provide everyone . . . with a personalized learning plan and to train all teachers to modify and adapt their instructional strategies in response to students’ particular learning needs.”14 However, they don’t refer to PLP policies that could help mobilize and sustain systemic implementation.

As a growing number of Vermont teachers are demonstrating, PLPs are a rare legislated mandate that can institutionalize the practice of knowing students well, cultivating their identities, and engaging their families. If embraced, PLPs will invite whole faculties to grapple with designing new systems, norms, and routines with equity in mind. For instance, how should identity be defined, explored, and expressed? Who should be involved in these conversations? Who should collaborate with students in the creation, sharing, and ongoing development of their PLPs?

PLPs are a readymade, and in many contexts, mandated focal point for full faculties to know their students well and grapple with the implications for their practice. As Gay notes, “Two of the most common and recurrent forms of resistance to culturally responsive teaching manifest as doubts about its validity and as anxieties about anticipated difficulties with its implementation.”15 Gay concludes, “the viability and validity of culturally responsive teaching increase when connections between it and other routine responsibilities and functions of teaching are made explicit.”16 The same could be said about any complex challenge to prevailing teaching practices.

PLP mandates present an opportunity for faculties to work collectively to apply complex principles like personalization, deeper learning, and cultural responsiveness to the purpose, design and day-to-day routines of PLP implementation. And it’s hard for me to imagine a better justification than to know our students well. In Vermont, we’ve made important headway by leveraging mandated PLPs for systemic improvements in how teachers know and relate to their students. There’s plenty more work to be done in Vermont and across the country. With too few policy levers to support our highest aspirations for schooling, my hope is that we can make the most of the ones we have.


1 Association for Middle Level Education, This We Believe in Action: Implementing Successful
Middle Level Schools. (Westerville, OH: Association for Middle Level Education, 2012).

2 Office of Disability Employment Policy. Individual Learning Plans Across the US (Washington, DC: United States Department of Labor, 2016), https://www.dol.gov/odep/ilp/map/.

3 Scott Solberg et al., Promoting Quality Individualized Learning Plans Throughout the Lifespan: A Revised and Updated “ILP How to Guide 2.0.” (National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth, 2018), 135, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED594125.pdf.

4 Solberg et al., Promoting Quality Individualized Learning Plans Throughout the Lifespan:119.

5 Solberg et al., Promoting Quality Individualized Learning Plans Throughout the Lifespan:117-38.

6 Linda Darling-Hammond et al., “Implications for Educational Practice of the Science of Learning and Development.” Applied Developmental Science (2019), 6, https://doi.org/DOI:10.1080/10888691.2018.1537791.

7 Pedro Noguera, Linda Darling-Hammond, Diane Friedlaender, Equal Opportunity for Deeper Learning, Students at the Center: Deeper Learning Research Series (Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future, 2015), 12, https://jfforg-prod-prime.s3.amazonaws.com/media/documents/Equal-Opportunity-for-Deeper-Learning-100115a.pdf.

8 Brittany Aronson and Judson Laughter, “The Theory and Practice of Culturally Relevant Education: A Synthesis of Research Across Content Areas.” Review of Educational Research 86, no.1, (March 2016): 167, https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654315582066.

9 Gloria Ladson-Billings, “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.” American Educational 32, no. 3 (1995): 465–91.

10 Chezare A. Warren, “Empathy, Teacher Dispositions, and Preparation for Culturally Responsive Pedagogy.” Journal of Teacher Education 69, no. 2 (2018): 171, https://doi.org/10.1177/0022487117712487.

11 Django Paris,“Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy: A Needed Change in Stance, Terminology, and Practice.” Educational Researcher 41, no 3 (April 1, 2012): 93-97, https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X12441244.

12 H. Samy Alim and Django Paris, “What Is Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy and Why Does It Matter?” in Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World, eds. Django Paris and H. Samy Alim (New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2017), 3.

13 Alastair Pennycook, Global Englishes and Transcultural Flows. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006).

14 Noguera, Darling-Hammond, and Friedlaender, Equal Opportunity for Deeper Learning, 12.

15 Geneva Gay, “Teaching To and Through Cultural Diversity.” Curriculum Inquiry 43, no. 1 (2013): 56, https://doi.org/10.1111/curi.12002.

16 Gay, “Teaching To and Through Cultural Diversity,” 67.

About the Author: John M. Downes is director of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. He is co-author with Penny A. Bishop and Katy Farber of Personalized Learning in the Middle Grades: A Guide for Classroom Teachers and School Leaders (Harvard Education Press, 2019).