Student Choice Is a Key Ingredient for a 100% Graduation Rate

By Roger Cook
Having students sit in a classroom with their feet planted firmly on the ground listening to lectures and completing worksheets 175 days a year is just not working for all of today’s students. At Taylor County Schools in central Kentucky, we follow what we call the four non-negotiables:

  1. No student is held back from learning at his or her ability level due to age.
  2. No student is allowed to drop out.
  3. No student is allowed to fail.
  4. Each student is afforded the opportunity to choose an instructional setting that best suits his or her learning style.

By tailoring the education of all 2,600 students,as opposed to using traditional methods, Taylor County Schools achieves a 100% graduation rate without a single student dropping out in seven years (going on eight). We realize this success is due to embracing an innovative, student-centered approach to teaching and learning. We dropped the cookie-cutter approach years ago, choosing not to “imprison” any of our students in a classroom setting that isn’t conducive to their education.
As one of the first five districts in Kentucky designated a District of Innovation by the state Department of Education, Taylor County’s creative approach gives us more flexibility to educate students. Our performance-based model allowed us to apply for this distinction, and in return,we are granted a waiver from the state’s seat-time requirements.
In Taylor County, we support a performance-based model, placing students in classes based on ability rather than age. We implement a Wheel of Learning approach that includes six “spokes” (options) for students to choose how they want to learn: a traditional learning approach, a virtual model, project-based learning, peer-led instruction, self-paced learning,and Cardinal Academy (for gifted/advanced students). Both our students and teachers choose which approach is right for them, and we match students to the teachers and modes of instruction they desire.
“It’s simple,” said Charles Higdon, Jr., the assistant superintendent of Taylor County Schools. “Performance-based education is looking at every individual student and asking, ‘How does that student perform best?’ and customizing their education so they can achieve success.”
Here are details of our six “spokes.”
Traditional Model: Some students and teachers still prefer the traditional approach where kids come to class each day and receive direct instruction. As long as students still desire this model of education, we’ll continue to offer it.
Virtual Learning: Students can work at their own pace using Odysseyware’s online courses. In the virtual academy, students log in to their online classes from a computer lab, and a fully certified teacher serves as an on-site guide.
Working individually, students are in control of their own education, and have the freedom to listen to music or take a walk to clear their mind if they need to. Since we opened our virtual academy, many at-risk students are now moving through the curriculum at an accelerated pace, graduating early and entering the workforce more quickly. This is an option many school districts do not offer.
Project-Based Learning (PBL): In these classrooms, units are set up based on authentic, real-world problems. At 5:15 in the video below, Taylor County science teacher Kellie Jones explains how she used to do a culminating project at the end of a unit so students could show what they learned.

Now, projects come at the beginning, giving students a reason to learn, which increases engagement levels and incorporates 21st-century skills. When students apply their knowledge in real-world settings outside of school, they see more of a value in their education, as opposed to just memorizing facts for a test.
PBL has also increased community involvement. For instance, a local business donated LEGO engineering kits to one of our elementary classes, and students worked together in groups to design factories. We also offer several mentorships and real-life experiences for our students through school-based enterprises like our student-run bank, high school gift shop, a culinary arts catering service, an aviation course where students can earn their pilot’s license, and a greenhouse run by agricultural students.  Additionally, our students have a business called tBay, our version of eBay, where students sell goods online for the public and earn a percentage.
Peer-Led Instruction: In these classrooms, students learn from each other, with the teacher acting as a facilitator. Students who  master a concept or content will help other students learn. For some, it helps to hear an explanation from one of their peers rather than a teacher. Additionally, Taylor County has a program called STARS (Students Teaching and Reaching Students) which has helped more than 250 students to successfully become mentors.
Self-Paced Learning: In this personalized, blended approach, learners access teacher-created video lessons as opposed to direct instruction. Students move through the content at their own rate, using a pacing guide that provides specific directions on how to master each standard.
In this setting, educators play a facilitator role, formatively assessing on a daily basis through various interactions including partner activities, projects, online simulations and exercises, whole-group activities, and one-on-one instruction. Students are able to access content from home and re-watch instructional videos as needed in order to learn the material. We base our self-paced approach on achievement level, not age, so students who finish grade-level content before the school year is over can move on to the next grade. (To see the Taylor County self-paced classroom in action, check out the video above from 3:00–4:30.)
Cardinal Academy: In this new high school program, students develop their own learning plan and schedule under the guidance of an academic advisor. They decide what subjects they will work on, when, and for how long, and can choose to learn off campus through internships.
At 6:50 in the video, gifted and talented coordinator Debbie Gumm explains how one student is taking all elective and CTE courses after completing his state requirements. At 10:30 in the video, Superintendent Cook breaks down how nearly 100 students come to school every day without a specific teacher or schedule. Cardinal Academy provides middle school students an opportunity to earn high school credits and work ahead in subjects they excel in.
There’s a fit for every student; we just need to guide them in finding it and embrace the fact that all students learn differently. Letting students learn at their own pace and giving them choices in how to learn empowers them to take control of their education. We live the successes of this approach every day.
For more, see:

Roger Cook is superintendent for Kentucky’s Taylor County Schools. Follow them on Twitter: @TC_Schools_KY.

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1 Comment

Khaoula Elbaida

Interesting. But to what extent can this approach be successful with adults learners of English as a second language? Any experience concerning this?

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