Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Performance-Based with Zero Dropouts

Roger Cook, Superintendent of Taylor County Schools in Kentucky, is, simply put, leadership in action.  Mr. Cook has brought dynamic change to the district, starting from day one. During his first year as Superintendent, Mr. Cook transformed Taylor County Schools into a performance-based educational system, challenged teachers and students to meet 21st century expectations with rigor and relevance, and spearheaded the effort to fund new, much-needed facilities.


As an instructional leader, Mr. Cook is, more than anything, visible.  He knows his teachers and the subjects they teach.  He uses data collected from his regular walkthroughs of district buildings to guide decision-making and resource allocation.  When he sees a need he finds the means to create solutions.  His expectation to reach proficiency and Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire (his favorite book) is now part of the district's pedagogy. 

For eight years, the district and school leadership have worked to create a culture of anytime anywhere learning and have had zero dropouts for the last six years. So we interviewed Roger Cook along with Troy Benningfield, Director of Instruction, and Susan Kilby, Assistant Superintendent to find out more about their district to share with you.

1. What is Performance-Based Education?

Performance-Based Education is a system of teaching and learning that places students in grade-level content areas based on mental capacity rather than chronological age. Our mission statement:
"Providing an Equal Opportunity for ALL Students to Reach their Maximum Potential"
2. Can you share with us what Performance-Based Education looks like?

Right now with the school year coming to a close more than one third of all our students are taking or have taken classes this year one or more grades above their chronological age. We have well over three hundred elementary students taking middle school content. We have over five hundred high school credits earned by middle school students. We have some fifth graders taking high school algebra for high school credit. We are graduating seniors from high school with enough college hours to be mid-term sophomores in college. 

3. What has happened to Taylor County Schools since Performance-Based Education was introduced?

I just found out we have been designated a "District of Innovation" by the state of Kentucky. We have hosted over forty school districts from in state and out of state this year alone. We have presented at three national conventions and have traveled to other districts teaching our concepts of Performance Based Education with Zero Dropouts. We have a one to one iPad initiative at the high school where our students are self paced at different levels of learning. 

4. Can you tell us more about your zero drop-out policy?

I have been promoting Performance Based Education for eight years but it was done in two different school districts. My first four years as superintendent was at Russellville Independent Schools in Russellville, Kentucky. This district has 33 percent minority and 78 percent free/reduced lunch. We were able to take the academics from eighth from the bottom in Kentucky to the top 30 in four years using Performance Based Education and anytime anywhere learning. The first two years at Russellville the drop-out rate was high but after beginning my zero drop-out policies the third year I has zero for my last two years in Russellville and we have had four straight years of zero drop-out in Taylor County with a total six years of zero drop-outs as superintendent.

The drop-out policy for our schools states that any student wishing to drop-out of school must come to the superintendent's office and meet with me. I listen to their reasons for wanting to drop-out and then tell them they are not allowed to do it. Our board of education policy states that no students can drop-out before the age of 18 years of age. The state has now adopted this policy into law with Senate Bill 95. I then proceed to find them an alternative they can live with and still get their diploma.

5. You mentioned your policy, but how does this look like from one student's perspective?

In the case of the student who wanted to drop-out to work on automobiles in his father's garage, I told them that I would agree to let the student work on automobiles all day but it had to be done at the area Vocational Technical Center. This is also a part of our school district. I talked with the Vo-Tech principal and, at first, he did not agree to allow the sixteen year old Sophomore to stay down in his building all day working on automobiles.

I then told the principal that the other 68 students going to his school would not be going either unless he agreed and changed his mind. The student had to be given his math as it related to an internal combustion engine, same with science and all of his subject as they related to automobiles. Reading technical manuals gave him his reading grade. This student went on to graduate this past school year with his diploma.

6. How has teaching and learning changed?

Many of our teachers flip their classrooms, video their lessons so they can be accessed anytime anywhere by students. Our students can complete lessons 24/7/365 days a year. I as a superintendent have not had a dropout for six straight years. With every student testing we are one of only twenty five school districts in the state that is proficient. 

7. How will professional development support Performance-Based Education this coming year?

All of our professional development this summer and during our Early Release Friday PD's will be utilized to develop standards based on the new core. Our report card will be standards based grading using traditional and non-traditional grading.

8. Can you tell us about your School of the Future?

Our school of the future will be designed to have 48 students in a class with two teachers. There will be four pods of twelve students initially but and students will be allowed to go to the pod of learning that best suits their learning style. Teacher directed, self paced videos, peer teaching/tutoring and project based. In time students will come to school to accomplish standards and go to the class, the teacher that best helps them accomplish the standards.

Mr. Roger Cook, Superintendent
Taylor County School District
1209 East Broadway
Campbellsville, KY 42718

Mr. Cook serves on the Governor’s Education Task Force and the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative Board of Directors.  His participation in these programs is most beneficial in ensuring that alignment of curriculum and policy benefits not only students and teachers, but also the education community at large. Notably, Mr. Cook’s commitment to provide equitable opportunities is unrivaled.  As part of their performance-based initiative, the opportunity now exists for students to finish their program of studies early and begin college course work at a greatly reduced fee at their in-house virtual learning academy.  

Mr. Cook is focusing on the future economic stability of the Taylor County community. Despite the recent defeat of a nickel levy at the polls, he has not stopped in his efforts to create an optimum learning environment. He has worked diligently to find ways to replace our buildings, one of which was built in 1939.  He has included all stakeholders in the process. He will not stop the fight for new facilities and the district is confident he will find a solution to our urgent needs. 

In all, Mr. Cook is a visionary.  He clearly understands that success breeds success.  He isn’t afraid to ask for help from other districts or expose our strengths and weaknesses so that we can target areas for improvement. Mr. Cook isn’t interested in settling for good schools.  He wants this district to succeed beyond all measure and serve as a model for others.  Mr. Cook has led the Taylor County School District to become the only performance-based campus Pre-K thru 12, in the state.  The district is now at the forefront of finding better ways to implement the rigorous curriculum expected with the adoption of common core state standards. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Brain Science Behind Learning

Students at the Center and the Jobs for the Future created this infographic: Brainy Approaches to Learning about the brain science behind learning. It is used to illustrate the research from the report "Mind, Brain and Research" that answers the questions:
  • What does brain research tell us about how we learn and how learning, in turn, shapes the architecture of the brain?
  • What is the connection between the stress of poverty and the impact of emotions on learning?
We divided the infographic in separate sections to explain in more detail how brain science behind learning supports the concept of Personalized Learning. When you review this and understand that each brain is unique and changes as it learns, personalizing learning makes sense.

The brain changes when you learn. This is called "neuroplasticity" which means that our brains continually change and grow as we learn new things. This means when you learn something new, your brain makes new connections. The cognitive neuroscience and brain imaging technology have discovered how malleable the brain is and has refuted the idea that a person's mind is fixed or static. In fact, it is dynamic and responsive to experiences throughout their life. 
[Source: “Expanding Our ‘Frames’ of Mind for Education and the Arts” by Jennifer Groff in Harvard Educational Review, Spring 2013 (Vol. 83, #1, p. 15-39),www.harvardeducationalreview.org]

You learn when your brain is active. Your brain is even active when you reflect on your learning. It is all about experiencing learning in an active role. It is about how we help learners develop questions about the information they read or hear; an inquiring mind that wonders, discovers, questions and expands their thinking. An active mind that has a growth mindset is one that knows how to learn, unlearn and relearn.

Learning happens all the time not just in school. All of us started out as learners or we would not have walked and talked. It is in our DNA. You are having experiences all day long when you plan, when you read, when you are in a conversation with someone. With the advent of mobile devices as a standard tool, learning can and should take place, anytime and anywhere. Accessibility for all learners will be instrumental for this to happen.

The principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) provides a lens for teachers to understand how learners learn best; their strengths, challenges, aptitudes, interests and yes, their passions. With this understanding, teachers are better informed in how to universally- design their instruction that can reduce barriers to learning as well as optimize the levels of support and challenge to meet the needs and interests of all learners in the classroom. 
(Universal Design for Learning is a registered trademark of CAST-www.cast.org)

It is all about the learner and learner-centered approaches. Here is just a glimpse of what that could look like and mean. Understanding how each learner is motivated and engaged is central in designing learner-centered environments. The essential elements in creating learning environments that provide motivation and engagement is to give the learner voice and choice in the learning so that they have a stake in what they learn and how they learn. In this new learning environment, the role of the teacher and learner changes. The teacher's role changes to one as a co-designer, facilitator and partner in learning. For the learner, they learn how to co-design lessons and assessments and ultimately direct their own learning, always reflecting on their learning to demonstrate mastery.

We want to thank Jobs for the Future and Students at the Center for giving us permission to share this infographic and the work they are doing on student-centered learning. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

RtI in a Personalized Learning Environment

What is RtI?

Response to Intervention (RtI) is multi-level instruction aimed at all students and is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Learning outcomes cover all required standards, yet the focus is on what is wrong with the child and weaknesses instead of their strengths. Teachers tend to spend more time trying to be compliant filling out forms than working with at-risk students. RtI is classified in three tiers. In all tiers, the teacher provides interventions and is responsible for the learning. Learn more about RtI from the National Center for Response to Intervention

RtI for All Learners

Instead of waiting until a learner fails, you can target each learner's specific learning needs when they need it as they need it. In fact, in a Personalized Learning Environment, learners own and drive their learning by designing their learning goals with their teacher. The teacher uses interventions based on the learning goals right from the beginning of the learning process. The teacher designs learning strategies identified through the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) lens so interventions that may be needed can be identified earlier. When teachers understand each learner using their UDL lens and their strengths, interests, passions, standards, then learners take responsibility for their learning so they can acquire the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in their future. Teachers and learners work together so learners receive additional support before they fail. Failure is no longer an option under a Personalized Learning Environment.

Jim Rickabaugh, Director of the Institute @ CESA #1 wrote in his post Finding Coherence with RtI and Personalized Learning:
"An educational system that is designed to support personalized learning is structured differently from the current system. Instruction is designed to wrap around the learner at all times. The framework of a personalized learning approach enables educators to position intervention to occur as soon as the learner needs it. As a result, success is designed in from the beginning and learners are less likely to experience the loss of confidence that too often accompanies repeated failure to learn in the current system. Much remediation today must address the confusion and misconceptions learners may have from “first learning.” If students are able to learn constantly in a way that best fits them, “first learning” is less likely to become a significant barrier." 

 RtI easily fits under the umbrella of Personalized Learning.