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Helping Struggling Students: Lawmakers Say Some Plans Are Inefficient

students with laptops in classroom
Flickr/Creative Commons

Some North Carolina lawmakers are trying to pass a bill they say will help ease the burdensome paperwork teachers face. They want to get rid of “personal education plans," documents teachers are required to fill out to help students who are at-risk of failing.  

Many teachers and advocates see them as inefficient, raising questions about how to adequately support struggling students.

Holly Jordan, an English teacher at Hillside High School in Durham, currently has about six personal education plans from her classes, which are largely for advanced students. In the past, up to half of her students required PEPs.

She says the process of filling out online documents that list the academic weaknesses of her students and what interventions are needed can feel redundant.

“Do I think it’s important for teachers to be accountable for making sure all students are succeeding? Absolutely.” Jordan said. “I just don’t think PEPs are an effective way to do it.”

When she pulled up the PEP of one of her students, it noted that she contacted the student’s parents. But the section for strategies and interventions was empty.

“To be perfectly honest, the parts of the PEP I knew they were looking for was the contact log and the initial targeted skills,” she said.

The reality, she explained, is that every week she pulls this student aside to talk about her schedule, academics and what she can do differently.

“That in of itself is an intervention. So I’m doing those interventions, I just didn’t click the button,” Jordan said.

'Not asking for an elimination of services'

Personal education plans were created in the early 2000s to make sure all students stay on track. It’s important to note that these are separate from Individualized Education Plans, which are for students with disabilities and are federally mandated.

Carol Vandenberg, executive director of Professional Educators of North Carolina, said her group requested the bill to repeal PEPs. 

“We’re asking for elimination of redundant paperwork, we’re not asking for an elimination of services for students. We’re not asking for an elimination of limited accountability,” she said.

Credit Reema Khrais
Holly Jordan teaches English at Hillside High School in Durham.

Vandenberg’s group conducted a survey that showed more than 80 percent of teachers expressing support for eliminating or replacing PEPs to reduce paperwork. She said teachers already spend time evaluating students and figuring out ways to help them.

“For instance, (the teacher) may write these things in a lesson plan; she may write these things down in a report card,” Vandenberg explained.

Teachers have become more critical of PEPs in the last few years as more education reforms have been introduced, she noted. Between Race to the Top, new teacher evaluation instruments, new computer systems, Common Core, Read To Achieve, teachers “were dealing with a lot. It was a policy whiplash for them really,” she said.

Ensuring Students Are Helped Via Law

Lissa Harris, who heads the group "Parents Supporting Parents" in Guilford County, said she “couldn’t believe it” when she first heard about the bills to eliminate PEPs. “I had to take a second glance, as if I read something wrong.”

Her daughter had personal education plans when she was younger. Harris said they’re important because they require parents to be involved in their student’s development.

“If there’s nothing documenting it, we don’t know what plans work,” she said. “We don’t know what interventions, best strategies work. If we don’t document it, it doesn’t allow a level of accountability.”

Harris and others argue the state should have something in law to ensure teachers are helping struggling students and that they have the resources to do it.

“What are we going to do for at-risk students? If it’s not going to be PEPs, it has to be something,” said Matt Ellinwood, an attorney with the advocacy group North Carolina Justice Center.

According to Ellinwood, the state should provide funding to accompany PEPs or any other system that supports individualized help. Low-wealth school districts have more difficulty offering interventions to help students, he said.  

“There is the idealized system of supports that should exist then there’s the reality,” he noted. “Every teacher would love to give a PEP that gave tutoring, mentoring and extra supports, but if it’s not available what do you do?”

That difficult question is one Jordan faces. The high school teacher said public schools need money for more counselors, nurses and social workers.

“We need people because we need smaller class sizes,” she said. “If I have a class where half of my students have PEPs, that means nine have PEPs, rather than 15 or 16. That makes a significant difference."

The House and Senate bills to repeal the requirement of personal education plans do not touch on the topic of money. But they do have the backing of both Republicans and Democrats. It’s a kind of bipartisan support that can be rare with state education issues. 

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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