Flexible Pathways: A Graduate's Musings

From the Vermont AOE website: The Flexible Pathways Initiative, created by Act 77 of 2013, encourages and supports the creativity of school districts as they develop and expand high-quality educational experiences that are an integral part of secondary education in the evolving 21st-century classroom. Flexible pathways also promote opportunities for Vermont students to achieve postsecondary readiness through high-quality educational experiences that acknowledge individual goals, learning styles, and abilities; and increase the rates of secondary school completion and postsecondary continuation in Vermont.

The 2013 passage of Act 77, Vermont’s education law requiring flexible pathways to graduation and personal learning plans (PLP) in public schools, started my journey to bring these opportunities to life for students. This experience has provided some of the most rewarding snippets of success, but has also had its share of frustration and resistance. The challenges of implementing the expectations of Act 77 has proven to be a process that is heavily dependent on the conceptual understanding of the law, openness to re-imagining learning, and consistent support of school leadership. The following thoughts are solely my opinion based on many observations, discussions and attempts to implement PLPs.

In my first meeting as a personal learning coordinator at a small, rural school in Vermont, I asked a group of eighth graders what they wanted to do when they grew up. After many responses, I asked how they thought they were going to get to all those amazing places. One student raised her hand and responded in a very impressive serious voice: “I will do whatever the school tells me I have to do”. Many nodded their heads in agreement. My thought about that response was that this is not ownership, but rather a process of putting their success (or failure) onto the school. Personal learning plans and flexible pathways have the potential to turn this around so that the new response may someday be, “With the help of my teachers and support groups, I will decide the best way for me to achieve my goals”.

My concern is this: The implementation of student PLPs is now required by law and Vermont schools will be assessed on their developmental progress by the Agency of Education, thus creating an atmosphere of compliance practices. Often PLPs are being presented as a checklist of required activities that are given no context as to their purpose. This process allows schools to “show” the state that all students have PLPs as expected by Act 77, however this in no way demonstrates that PLPs are being used and implemented in general practice for students. In addition, many schools have invested in electronic platforms to serve as PLPs, but have invested much less in the human resources and training necessary to authentically implement these plans with students and their families.  

My hope is that, when combined with the learning and assessment shift to proficiency (competency) based systems, the PLP has the true opportunity to become a living document and flexible pathways will be fully acknowledged. This requires the conceptual understanding that student learning can take place anywhere, anytime and do most anything. I think that one of the most important aspects of this transition is recognizing the many ways a student can demonstrate academic readiness for either college or career -- the determination of proficiency remains the same regardless of the student pathway. It is as important for a student to clearly communicate or persevere, solving unique problems whether directly entering the workforce or pursuing post-secondary education/training.  

I have often heard the statement that mid-high school students have no idea what they want to do, thus the PLP/flexible pathway process is irrelevant. Admittedly, I have witnessed several students that had the opportunity to pursue a pathway to find that it is exactly NOT what they want to do. However, I would argue that this becomes some of the best preparation for them and their future. The additional benefit of this process is that the students were able to continue moving toward completing graduation requirements, despite what could be perceived as a “failure”. I have heard the term “failing forward”, which I think best represents this process. .

My experience has also shown the power of shifting the responsibility of success solely from the teacher to the student. When a student develops their own personal learning plan and identifies the pathway they would like to pursue (with adult/parent advisor/partnership), they learn quite quickly the intrapersonal skills necessary for success. Executive skills, such as time management, problem solving, self-discipline and responsibility, are almost immediately exposed and challenged. Some students are prepared, but many are not. This issue of cognitive development circles back around to the investment in human resources; the adults that are needed to guide and redirect students when they struggle the most. However, when asked to reflect on the pathway experience, many of the students I have worked with acknowledge the “how” and “why” of their personal failings, but also create plans and goals to address these issues on their own. This level of ownership and personal learning extends far beyond many traditional classroom experiences.

As I have worked over this school year to identify pathway options and build personal learning plans, I have reflected considerably on how this work differs from being in a traditional classroom. I think, along with most teachers I have known, that I tried to put the needs of my students first and engage with them on a social/emotional level while providing content instruction. However, working on a personal learning plan has taken this to an entirely different level. During classroom instruction the goal was really quite simple; teach my content, assess that content, and make sure that I complete the “x” amount of curriculum material. Diving head first into developing PLPs also requires diving head first into the student’s life -- in and out of school. I have had to confront issues, especially emotional issues, that often never made it openly into my classroom. (The issues were there, but I often did not have to deal with them directly -- it was just bad behavior or a student not interested in learning and easily dismissed as their issue and not mine.)  The act of learning about the student in order to write a plan that meets their needs has been emotionally draining.

With all of that said, I have come to believe that until educators take the time to learn about our students, to understand the challenges they face every day, we cannot truly write any sort of personal learning plan. I think this is the crucial, yet extremely difficult, work of forwarding this educational shift. I believe this also supports my concern above that the work of PLPs has fallen to guidance offices or individuals -- it cannot be done well in this scenario. To put this in “teacher speak,” my colleague and I have twenty students in our program; essentially that is twenty preps that need to be consistently reviewed, possibly changed or redesigned, and assessed in some manner. Needless to say, I leave work each day exhausted, but in the very best way because I know that I am trying to meet each one of my students exactly where they are and hopefully giving them, perhaps for the first time, an opportunity to succeed and experience learning in a whole new way; their way.

Ultimately I see my experience with personal learning plans and flexible pathways as a giant leap out of the box. This work challenges many long-held educational misconceptions/stereotypes, such as socioeconomic status, past behavioral challenges and career potential. The PLP and flexible pathway concept focuses on the knowledge and skills that the student finds valuable, which in turn allows them to focus more on learning rather than what course they need to take next.  

Commentary by Jeremy White

Jeremy White is the Flexible Pathways teacher at The Lyndon Institute.  He is graduate of UVEI’s Principal Intern Class of 2016.