Technology's Role in Closing the Achievement Gap

A Q&A with Philip D. Lanoue, Ph.D., superintendent, Clarke County School District, Athens, GA.

Under Lanoue's leadership, a high-poverty system has received numerous state recognitions as a model technology district. A former principal and teacher, Lanoue assumed leadership of the Clarke County School District in 2009, and, under his leadership, Clarke County was recognized by the state of Georgia as being the leading large district in closing the achievement gap. For his efforts, Lanoue was named one of the nation's top 50 educational innovators in digital learning by Converge magazine and was named 2015 AASA National Superintendent of the Year.

My Top 3 Digital Learning Tools that Redefine Learning Environments

1) Progress-Monitoring Based on Practice
I anticipate that new technology tools and analytics will allow us to better assess student achievement using practice rather than tests. We have worked for the last three years with Triumph Learning to develop new tools where student growth is determined in the student workspace, and where teachers can have immediate student performance information in real time.
2) Tools that Allow Students to "Share Space"
We utilize Google Apps for Education, which has tremendous potential in providing a platform for students to share learning space. Using Google tools, students can collaborate, as wells as share work for review and feedback with each other and with their teachers. Technology can have a reputation as creating isolation, but in our district we have seen the opposite.
3) Access to Information and Resources  
Full access to resources and information will help level the playing field for all students. Students and teachers must have access to resources and communication streams that extend beyond school buildings and bell schedules. We are working closely with community partners to have increased connectivity at non-profits, community centers and businesses so that our students have an abundance of sites to access their education.

THE Journal: What part has technology played in your vision for the district?
Philip D. Lanoue: Well, let me give you the big picture. Clark County is a district of about 13,000 students, and for counties between 70,000 and 225,000, we are the third-most impoverished in the country. We're about 84 percent free and reduced lunch, and certainly 6-7 years ago we had some major performance issues. But we started an aggressive tech initiative four years ago, in collaboration with the State of Georgia, and offered to be a model technology district looking at everything from furniture to changing instructional design. We modeled 1:1 initiatives for about a year and a half, much of it sparked by the fact that we were building new schools and wanted them to reflect a different learning environment. This year, students are taking home devices in grades 3-10, with accounts stored in the cloud. We're also a full Google platform, which is pretty exciting. We've added short-arm interactive projectors that act like a smart board, but untether our teachers and kids, which has created a lot of flexible spaces. Our goal is totally change our instructional design. What's most exciting for me is that we've taken a district with high poverty, closed the technology gap and changed outcomes.

THE Journal: How does technology help to close the achievement gap?
Lanoue: It's equalized access to information for kids. It's also allowed them to collaborate differently. Our kids now use these tools to be better stewards of their own education – they share with each other, develop tools with each other. Technology has brought an incredible opportunity and strength to collaboration among students, and I think that's contrary to what some people think. It also allows our kids to not think of education and learning as occurring only within the school walls. I think that's the big culture shift, is that student learning is now 24/7. The level of engagement is so different now. It's remarkable. When you come to our classrooms you can feel learning occurring as soon as you walk through the door.

Philip D. Lanoue

THE Journal: When you look around the country and see what's being done with technology, where do you see untapped potential?
Lanoue: Here's what I would say: If you're going to use technology to do what you're currently doing more efficiently, don't bother. Those who do the same work as before, but just using digital tools, are missing an incredible opportunity. People will say, "Well we've got books on devices." But it's still a book. You use it the same way. What you really have to do is break away from some of the thinking that you had. You have to change your instructional model.

THE Journal: So for you, the idea is to use technology to transform the way learning occurs?
Lanoue: Right. The way we think of it is we're trying to work with kids on how to seek answers to problems, and to use technology tools to help them do that – whereas in my day, if you didn't know it, you hadn't studied hard enough. We're changing how students approach their work, and the digital tools allow them to access information that better supports them in solving more complex problems. If you're not solving problems all the time – if you're using tools for just knowledge-base things – I think you've missed the boat.

THE Journal: By its nature, technology changes rapidly. Where is it going in your district?
Lanoue: Yeah, by the time you go through the planning process and implement something new, something else has come along. I think you have to look at the broader picture. I would hope that our kids acquire essential skills around valid content and source materials – to learn how to use it to articulate either solutions to a problem, or to put this information together in a way that creates new content, or content in a different way. That's going to be the power of where we're going. I also see tremendous power in student collaboration. Students are becoming more astute at working in teams and solving problems collectively. That is counter to what many people think when they think of digital tools.


About the Author

Dan Gordon is a freelance writer based in Agoura Hills, CA.