Helping the Greatest Number of Students

A teacher’s perspective on edtech that works for everyone. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Erin Redden

CREDIT Caddo Parish LA.pngMy school district, in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, might be a lot like yours. We have strengths and we have challenges with academics.

Students in some of our schools have fallen way behind. They’re not reading, writing or doing math on grade level. They struggle to complete simple assignments. They don’t do their homework.

Students in other schools are way ahead—but their achievement poses its own challenges. They might not be learning or doing their homework either, not because they can’t, but because they’re bored, or not getting assignments that continue to motivate them to new heights.

Given our size and diversity, we decided to evaluate individual schools to understand students’ unique needs and teachers’ unique requirements for flexibility in an adaptive learning program.

And the teachers who face the daunting task of meeting the differing needs of Caddo’s more than 37,000 students? Normally, they’d be at their wits’ end trying to figure out which student needs what kind of help. But they’re not, thanks to edtech software we bought three years ago. I’m sharing our experience in the hopes that other schools that face similar challenges can learn from us and help their students and teachers, too.

It started in 2014 when we had to develop a new RTI (Response to Intervention) plan. We knew going in that one of our biggest challenges would be to streamline reliable diagnostic methods and ongoing assessments so we could help the greatest number of students.

We’re the third largest school district in Louisiana. Given our size and diversity, we decided to evaluate individual schools to understand students’ unique needs and teachers’ unique requirements for flexibility in an adaptive learning program.

What became clear was that we needed to offer our students a program that met their challenges academically and instructionally but in a user-friendly platform. The tool could not be mundane, tedious or boring, either.

We also realized that our students fell into three very different groups: those who were gifted, those that could be performing on or above grade level were they not missing certain skills, and those requiring special education.

Historically, our parish “cut and pasted” elements of many different tech tools to get the job done. But this hodgepodge created more barriers than benefits. Some of the software we used ended up being too easy, so students didn’t progress. Some of the software just wasn’t user-friendly, discouraging students and teachers alike. Much of it wasn’t adaptive, which prevented students from learning, regardless of grade level, achievement or learning style.

Meanwhile, using many different programs cost the district a significant amount of money while putting an undue burden on teachers to figure out what piece of software would best help a particular student. For example, at Caddo Middle Magnet there are 72 teachers teaching more than 1,300 students. Our teachers needed one solution that could help struggling learners while providing enrichment for higher achievers.

Enter a comprehensive software package that motivates students to achieve while giving teachers the flexibility they need to meet the needs of all learners.

For example, in order for our RTI program to implement successful tiered instruction and intervention, it needed reliable diagnostic tools. Our solution provided tools with diagnostic tests that quickly assess student proficiency in each standard of the Common Core. This function helped our teachers conquer one of their biggest challenges: identifying individual student learning gaps and assigning appropriate lessons to fill those gaps. For Robin DeBusk, the principal of Caddo Middle Magnet, that efficiency continues to be invaluable, not just because it benefits students but because it gives teachers the flexibility they need to help each and every student.

A lot of software might be particularly good for struggling students but not that helpful for gifted kids. The fact that this tool helps even a magnet school excel is not lost on any of us.

‘Two years ago we had an ELA teacher who taught gifted 7th grade writing. The students were still missing some of the basic skills. She used it to practice grammar skills and the students’ proficiency went way up! As an A school you usually don’t see great growth, but we continue to have growth because we continue to fix the basic skills.”

At Claiborne Elementary, teachers use it differently than they do at Caddo Middle Magnet. “Our students start with one beginning assessment,” reports Shannella Gaines, 3rd grade math teacher. The software “then allows students to work where they need to work. It takes the guesswork out of the equation for the teacher. And that means the teachers provide better instruction but with far less hassle or angst.”

Keeping parents informed and involved is always important, so it was another plus to discover that these tools streamlined that process, too, starting with kindergarten and following students all the way to the 8th grade.

As for teachers, the variety of students that come to us makes it almost impossible to teach on grade level every day. A tool like this gives them the ability to help students no matter what grade level they are performing at by finding and fixing missing skills.

This capacity—to diagnose where students are; provide the tools they need to learn given their unique learning style; and empower teachers to do the best possible job while reducing their sense of being overwhelmed—is why such a tech tool has become indispensable to Caddo Parish.

I’m happy to share additional experiences with teachers or administrators from other districts—edtech is terrific when it works. In our case, it really does.

Erin Redden is the Director of Accountability and Instructional Support for Caddo Parish Schools.

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