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Is Equity the Antithesis of Diversity? (or Why Everyone Needs an IEP)

Deb Vaughn

Deb Vaughn

While facilitating a panel recently, the need for one-on-one attention to help students achieve their personal goals came up.

This got me thinking about IEP’s (Individualized Education Programs). An IEP is developed to meet the unique educational needs of an individual student who may have a disability.

Here’s my thought: Don’t we all need an IEP?

I don’t mean to downplay the critical importance of IEP’s for students with disabilities (in fact, IEP’s are mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act), but to acknowledge that what works for one student, regardless of their disability status, may not work for the next.

We all have unique educational needs.

As an adult, I fill out a yearly self-evaluation, detailing my goals for the next year and my plan to achieve them. I work closely with my supervisor to make sure I include her feedback, but my self-knowledge is the driving factor in developing the plan. Together, we create an IEP for my professional development. At the end of the year, I identify areas that need continued improvement and go forward from there.

Isn’t this the kind of reflective goal-setting that encourages students to take responsibility for their education?

But our over-taxed education system may be eliminating the very diversity that we pride ourselves on. Well-intentioned efforts to provide equitable levels of education for every student (clearly a worthy and appropriate goal), instead of raising the bar to assure all students have the same high-quality level of education, may have created a very low common denominator.

What if students were asked to take a more active role in directing their own education?

What if we asked students: “What is important to you right now? What do you need to learn? How can we help you accomplish that?”

Oregon is taking a first step towards this goal. In the last legislative session, HB-2220 passed, offering schools the flexibility of more proficiency-based choices. Instead of focusing entirely on standardized tests, schools now have the option of allowing students to demonstrate their mastery of a subject in a variety of different ways. Students are invited to take responsibility for their own learning style.

What we seem to forget in our age of high-stakes testing is that there is no one right answer. We keep trying to determine whether A, B, or C is the “right” choice, but the reality is, we all have to write our own answers.

What would education look like if we really embraced diversity and started first with the individual student?

Would the additional cost of that one-on-one time pay off in the long run with more effective classroom teams? (Students with similar IEP’s could be grouped together in learning teams, or intentionally mixed with contrasting learners to help each other).

And now you’re asking: “What does this have to do with arts education?”

For starters, in my field (theatre) it isn’t just about the actors or the light board operator or the box office manager: it takes many unique individuals, each bringing their personal skills to the production. All of the arts offer multiple in-roads to a given subject, subverting “cookie-cutter curriculum” and opening paths to diverse learning styles.

Just like an IEP, the arts allow each of us to work in the medium that best suits our needs rather than forcing us into box A, B or C.  The arts allow students to explore, experiment and discover what works—to find their own learning style.

The arts require students to express their individuality, increase motivation and heighten engagement: all things we claim to value in education.

So, what’s your IEP?

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