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N. Dakota Considers Tailor-Made Instruction for All Pupils

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Education officials in North Dakota are considering a proposal to "take advantage of the small, rural character of the state's schools" by providing each of the state's 104,000 public-school students with individualized instruction programs.

North Dakota appears to be the first state in the nation attempting to tailor instruction to the specialized needs of all of its students, according to Chris Pipho, deputy director of information at the Education Commission of the States. At present, the only public-school students in the nation who are required to have such individualized treatment are the handicapped youths who come under the aegis of the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which mandates an "individualized education program" for each student.

According to Joseph Crawford, state superintendent of public instruction, the decision to develop individualized learning plans for all of the state's students--and to have them in place by 1983--came partly as a result of "a growing concern among parents of 'ordinary kids,' who felt that their children were being left behind and left unnoticed while 'special interest' children received special attention."

Well-Suited to Plan

Mr. Crawford said state education officials realized that a small state like North Dakota, where the average pupil-to-teacher ratio is 14 to 1, would be especially well-suited to a plan that would ensure that each child in the public schools received special attention.

"We've also taken our cue from the growing popularity of private schools, which also have small pupil-to-teacher ratios and have offered individualized instruction for years," he explained. "Some people think that they have to pay a lot of money for that kind of service. But every parent in the state pays quite a bit for public education, too.

"We can't afford to maintain an attitude of asking citizens for money, then asking them to leave us alone," he added. "Otherwise, we will continue to lose ground to the private schools."

Under the proposal, Mr. Crawford said, all students from kindergarten to grade 12 would be tested and assessed as handicapped children are.

'Strong Points and Weak Points'

"Naturally, the vast majority of these students aren't handicapped, but all of them do have strong points and weak points," he said. "All we hope to do is focus in on the student's weaknesses and help him overcome them, and at the same time focus in on his strengths and help him to maximize those."

Early last January, state education-department officials sponsored a conference for teachers and administrators from some of the state's smallest school districts, areas where the individualized-instruction project will probably be field tested during the upcoming school year.

"At that meeting we found out that some of the smallest schools have been following an approach of this sort for years and years," Mr. Crawford said.

"I guess you could say that our primary objective is to formalize this type of activity, rather than see it happen on a hit-or-miss basis."

"The program will be evaluated by state education department officials after field testing," he continued. It will be put into effect after that.

Cost Uncertain

The state superintendent said local school board members, administrators, and teachers have responded positively to the prospect of statewide individualized instruction. A representative of the North Dakota Education Association said, however, that he was "painfully aware that the project could be very expensive."

"I'm sure that an approach of this nature would be fruitful," said Adrian Dunn, executive director of the North Dakota teachers' union. ''It would be great--if it can get public support."

According to Mr. Crawford, however, the cost of the program would not be prohibitive. "We're dealing with very small schools in a small state," he explained. "Additionally, it seems that some of these schools have been following a policy of this sort informally for a long time. Implementation shouldn't be much of a problem at all.

"It's funny, but for years we were told that being small, isolated, and rural was disadvantageous," he continued. "We were always the tail dragged along by the dog--the dog being states with large, urban districts. But it's obvious that it would be next to impossible for a large state to implement a plan of this nature," Mr. Crawford said. "I guess it's about time for the tail to start wagging the dog."

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