Cook would be the first to tell you he is an unlikely educational leader. Though now a “20 to Watch” honoree of the National School Boards Association’s Technology Leadership Network, he was once slated for expulsion from high school. A self-described troubled student whose 10 siblings nearly all dropped out of school, he was taken under the wing of a high school coach who channeled his proclivity for fistfights into football. He found he liked it, eventually pursuing a college degree and coaching career himself following graduation and a stint in the military. As a coach, teacher, principal and now a school superintendent, his motivation has been to find ways to engage the “Roger Cooks” in his classes - students who are bored and in danger of dropping out.
Cook says, “Students today learn differently than they used to. They don’t like to sit all the time, and they learn with technology. You can’t stand and deliver and be the sage on the stage anymore. And if public education doesn’t change to accommodate this, it will die.” His own response to this evolution was development of an instructional delivery system that has drawn national attention for its innovation and success: performance-based education.
Imagine a six-spoke wheel, where each spoke is a different type of instructional format. Each fits an individual student’s preferred learning style, whether traditional lecturing, flipped classroom, virtual learning, group or project-based studies, or teacherless, self-directed learning. Performance-based education urges students to achieve based on their own academic interests, learning style and pace - and enabling it all is technology that pushes students further and facilitates their quest for knowledge through personalized, 24/7 learning.
“It’s the art of allowing students to move through their educational process at a rate commensurate with their mental ability, not their chronological age,” Cook says. “If you’re in the third grade and read at the fifth-grade level, when it comes to reading you go to fifth grade. We have fifth graders taking high school algebra for high school credit because they can.”
Students engaged in performance-based education are rigorously assessed for placement in each subject, and must be considerably self-motivated. A shuttle bus runs all day long to transport elementary school students to middle school classes and middle school students to high school classes. This leap forward means that many high school students are ready for graduation by mid-term junior year - most of whom then begin college classes while in high school. An agreement Cook established with a local college resulted in affordable tuition for higher education: $50 per hour versus $350-$400 per hour. Cook notes that many seniors graduate high school as mid-term college sophomores, and that parents saved approximately $268,000 in college tuition last year because of this arrangement.
In a long career of successes, Cook is proudest of the fact that in most of the last decade, his schools have had zero high school dropouts.
“I don’t allow it,” Cook says. “When those kids come in to see me who want to drop out, what I really see sitting across my desk are my own siblings. And I say, ‘No.’ I don’t let them do it. But I have to have a solution - an alternative to give them. We have been a proficient school district in our state and we’ve left no child behind. You know how we did it? With technology. We make it fun.”