Performance-based learning and teacher-created content are helping school districts stay on the top of their game in the Digital Content and Curriculum Achievement Awards.

Run by the Center for Digital Education, the third-annual awards program recognized 11 school districts for their work with digital content, curriculum and tools. These districts take on big initiatives that change the way learning happens and how educational resources are developed in their schools.

Two school districts stood out for their efforts to revamp their education systems and curriculum for students.

Taylor County School District

2015 Digital Content and Curriculum Honorees
State School District Size
Illinois Maine Township District 207 Small-Medium District
Michigan Saline Area Schools Small-Medium District
Connecticut Somers Public Schools Small-Medium District
Kentucky Taylor County School District Small-Medium District
Tennessee Tullahoma City Schools Small-Medium District
Maryland Baltimore County Public Schools Large District
Nevada Clark County School District Large District
Georgia Fulton County Schools Large District
Texas Houston Independent School District Large District
Texas Leander Independent School District Large District
Texas Northwest Independent School District Large District

Taylor County School District in Kentucky started a performance-based learning initiative six years ago when Roger Cook became the superintendent and has seen 100 percent of its students graduate high school since then. Instead of every student progressing through a class at the same pace, students have minimum requirements to meet but don't ever hit a ceiling.

"It's always been my mode of operation as a superintendent to let students learn at their own pace, let them move as quickly as they can and place them in classrooms based on their mental ability, not their chronological age," Cook said.

Cook's philosophy comes from his experience of being bored in school as he was forced to wait to learn something new until everyone else understood the lesson. 

The district doesn't hold anyone back, doesn't allow anyone to drop out and doesn't fail anyone, he said. What the district does do is give students six different ways they can learn:

1. Traditional: Teachers lecture as usual to a classroom of students.

2. Peer-led: Students teach each other while teachers act as classroom facilitators.

3. Project-based: Each class has real-world projects that help students apply what they learn.

4. Virtual: Students can take online courses.

5. Self-paced: Students move at their own pace through online videos that teachers create and receive help from teacher facilitators in class.

6. Cardinal Academy: About 200 students create their own learning pathway and control what they do and when. For example, they don't have to be in a classroom with teachers and can take internships off campus.

Among the district's three schools, shuttle buses run all day to take students to higher-level classes. About 250 students from the elementary school go to the middle school for classes, and middle school students earn more than 500 high school credits every year by taking courses at the high school.

"If you can imagine you're in the third grade and you can read at fifth- or sixth-grade level, I'm not going to make you sit in there and read 'Jack and Jill went up the hill,'" Cook said. "You get to go to fifth-grade and sixth-grade reading." 

Because students can advance as fast as they want to, high schoolers often finish their work by the middle of their junior year. Then they go to the district's early college program, where they can take classes at a reduced rate of $50 per hour. More than 60 seniors graduated last year as mid-term sophomores in college because of the credits they earned, saving them about $268,000 in college tuition, Cook said.

To make the transition to this model, teachers meet every Friday for two hours in personal learning communities to collaborate on assessments and digital content. The district either creates its own content like videos or buys software tools. Cook also provided financial incentives for teachers who were willing to create content and teach using different learning models. But now he's incentivizing teachers on the opposite end of the spectrum.

"I had to pay them extra to start doing some things, but after six years now, I'm actually having to pay teachers to teach traditionally because they don't want to do it anymore," Cook said. "It sounds funny, but that's the truth." 

Leander Independent School District

Going southwest a few states, the Leander Independent School District in Texas also involves its teachers in creating digital content. This year, the district piloted new content and curriculum in middle school math that matched the state's new K-12 standards. 

Teachers hadn't been using textbooks for a number of years, and instead were individually looking for education resources and mashing up online resources. When the state provided money for adopting new instructional materials last year, the district decided to pilot an open-resource, teacher-created strategy for digital content. 

A teacher came out of the classroom on special assignment for a year to act as a lead curator for the digital curriculum and worked with other teachers as well as secondary math facilitator April Chauvette on the project. Involving teachers in the curriculum rewrite was important because they were able to share feedback and ensure that what they were designing would work in the classroom.

The biggest challenge with rebuilding an entire curriculum was staying ahead of teachers' plans so they could have enough time to prepare to teach with the new material. On top of that, they were still learning the new state standards, so that also posed a challenge. 

With digital resources, students can access videos, activities and other tools when they need help understanding a concept. "We're putting the tools and resources in their hands, not waiting for it to come to them from a teacher," Chauvette said.

The teachers who really embraced this transition took the time to show students where to find the digital resources they curated and how to explore them. Combined with a mobile learning initiative throughout the district, students now have the tools to access digital content whenever they need it.

This project has proved to Leander Independent School District that crowdsourcing is a viable strategy and works better than having one person take on an initiative of this magnitude. While it would have been easier to pick a premade textbook, the district knew that wouldn't meet students' needs, so its team chose the harder route of using open resources to custom build the curriculum.

"Just because it's there doesn't mean we have to use it," Chauvette said. "We weren't afraid of the hard work and digging in to make it be really what we wanted it to be."