Personalizing Learning in Public Education

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about New Jersey’s pilot program for Personalized Student Learning Plans, defined in the New Jersey Administrative Code as “a formalized plan and process that involved students setting learning goals based on personal, academic, and career interests, beginning in the middle school grades and continuing throughout high school with the support of adult mentors that include teachers, counselors, and parents” (NJAC 6A:8).

The original plan was for PSLPs to be piloted in sixteen school districts throughout NJ over 2009-2010 and 2010-2011, but I’ve since learned that the pilot program has been extended through the end of the 2011-2012 school year.  In August 2010, the state released its initial findings (PDF), which I’ll summarize here.

The 2009-2010 Evaluation Report (linked above) cites eleven major findings from last school year and six major lessons to take into the current one.  I’ll just highlight a few:


  • Buy-in and support are crucial: Findings 6, 7, and 9 all address the significance of not only teacher buy-in, but also demonstrable support beyond “lip service” from principals (or, I imagine, any school administrator) to the success of a local PSLP program.  The report noted that the schools that most effectively implemented the PSLP program all had strong training programs for staff and students, adequate resources, and regular opportunities to meet, voice concerns, and collectively problem-solve.  One example that pops up a few times in the findings is an aspect of personalized education to which I alluded in this post from February – the flexibility of the school schedule.  Principals who were perceived to be supportive were also those who allowed for flexibility in both the school schedule and staff scheduling.  It makes sense; if we are going to truly personalize learning experiences, it has to be in for a penny, in for a pound; no half-stepping here.
  • Technology is key: Hate to say “I told you so”, but Finding #2 noted that the vast majority of schools in the pilot program used some sort of web-based program as part of the PSLP process.  If this is the direction in which NJ schools are heading, for better or for worse, teachers and other school staff are going to need to get comfortable utilizing online tools.
  • We need a point man: Or woman!  From the report: “School representatives reported that PSLP programs require substantial coordination and planning, and agreed that without someone acting as the central coordinator in each school, PSLPs would be difficult to implement.”  The report stated that of the 16 pilot schools, only three used teachers as their PSLP coordinators (administrators and guidance counselors seemed to be the positions of choice for this job).  I’m of two minds about this: on one hand, it doesn’t make sense to me to burden the teachers – who are already adjusting to entirely new professional environment with trying to meet the individualized needs of all these students – with this additional paperwork.  On the other hand, as the ones with the most daily contact with the students, they’re the ones who know them, their goals, and their progress best.  Maybe the paperwork needs to be handled by an admin or support personnel with regular input from the teachers.  Which, of course, means building regular meeting times into the weekly schedule (see first bulletpoint above).
  • Despite challenges, initial reports are favorable: Findings 10 & 11 indicated that a significant majority of polled staff members felt that the first year of the PSLP pilot program had a positive impact on students, and that they would recommend the PSLP process to colleagues in other districts.  The Evaluation Report acknowledges that a single year is not enough time to gauge all the potential pros and cons of this program, but upwards of seventy percent of educators polled felt that the program had a positive impact on student-teacher interactions, help-seeking behaviors, motivation, and engagement, among other things.  Seventy-three percent of teachers and one hundred percent of program coordinators polled said they would recommend PSLPs to other schools in their districts.


No need to bulletpoint here; I think it’s sufficient to say that the lessons primarily drive home the absolute necessity of staff training prior to the start of the PSLP implementation as well as having principals who walk the walk in terms of supporting the initiative by providing more than just verbal support for the program.  No big surprises here.

Looking Ahead

Despite this report being published in August 2010, I wasn’t aware of its existence until midway through the current school year.  Now that I know the state is publishing these, I’ll be keeping an eye on the PSLP site toward the end of summer to see what more the 2010-2011 Evaluation Report has to say.  I am concerned about the logistical headaches a poorly implemented PSLP could create, but I am more hopeful about the potential for good this could hold if done right.

If you’ve read the document (go do it; it’s only 5 1/2 pages), what about the findings/lessons stand out to you?  Has your school or state implemented something similar?  Is NJ on the right track with this project?

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