It might be simpler to post what didn’t change in 2012. Students, teachers, principals, curriculum….all have had major changes this year. Many more changes are in the works, but have not yet been approved and/or implemented. And while I know that many of these changes have been years in the making, it certainly appears that the catalyst behind these changes is our “new” state superintendent of education, Dr. Tommy Bice, and the team he has assembled to support his efforts.
Bice took the reins as superintendent in January and immediately went to work collborating with the State Board of Education (SBOE) to reorganize, repurpose, and refocus energies in areas where needs have been identified. He has been the public face and driving force behind many of the efforts about which you will read in this post. I saw him stand at the podium at a public hearing on Charter Schools in the Education Ways and Means Committee of the Alabama House of Representatives last spring and tell the committee, “I believe in children”. It appears he is telling the truth.
The children of Alabama need a strong leader who places children at the heart of every decision the ALSDE makes. Bice just may be that leader. So far, so good.
I can certainly say that under his leadership, the list of changes to the status quo continues to grow. You will, no doubt, agree with me by the time you are through reading this….
For organizational purposes, I broke down the changes into headings, but obviously they all intersect.
ALSDE Reorganization and Coordination with Other State Departments
One of Bice’s first big moves was to reorganize the ALSDE. The chart tells the story.
Another big move Bice made was to organize our now-134 school districts into 11 regions (which correlate with the current 11 Regional Inservice Centers), and assign personnel from within the various ALSDE departments to those 11 regions, which allows for a more personal support mechanism from the ALSDE to school districts. An update on how this is working will be presented at January’s SBOE work session.
Bice has not only talked the talk, but walked the walk when it comes to better-coordinated efforts between the ALSDE and other state agencies and departments. He has stepped up enforcement of having school district representatives sit on Workforce Development Councils. He has personally pushed the development of a Pre-K through 20 (that’s edu-speak for all levels of education in the state of Alabama and often abbreviated “PK-20”) coordination of effort to ensure seamless transition from one level of schooling to another. He states he has received tremendous cooperation from the 2- and 4-year colleges and universities in the state.
Bice talked of “wrap around services” for children in K-12 schools, which include not only learning a prescribed curriculum, but also the services of social workers and support for children’s medical and mental health needs. That hasn’t yet happened, but Bice mentions it frequently in his discussion of Big Picture Ideas for our schools.
Increased Transparency at the ALSDE
Bice appears to be serious about opening up communication among stakeholders and increasing transparency of what the ALSDE is doing. For starters, in February, the ALSDE began broadcasting all of its SBOE work sessions and meetings via UStream. They are slowly but surely working to organize their web site better, and now have links to almost all of their public reports, except the financial reports, together on one page. All memoranda sent to county and city superintendents are publicly shared at this link, accessible from their home page.
The Alabama Education News has been published twice each month since February of 2012. It is full of interesting information about our K-12 system in Alabama and has a letter from Bice at the opening of each issue. While it is aimed at educators, it is worth your while to take a look at…really.
All teachers are now expected to utilize EDUCATEAlabama as their evaluation tool. While this tool has been around in some form or another for the past few years, the 2011-2012 school year marked the first year for tenured teachers to be evaluated using this tool. It is designed to allow teachers to evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses and then develop professional development goals to strengthen their weaker areas. It is developed in coordination with administrators. Local school districts can opt out if they win approval from the ALSDE to use their own teacher evaluation system.
Teacher preparation programs have come under increasing scrutiny this year. Bice is now working closely with the deans of colleges of education in Alabama to ensure teachers are being properly prepared during their time in college to teach in Alabama’s classrooms. The SBOE has to put their stamp of approval on every teacher prep program, so Bice and the SBOE can have much influence in this area. It appears they may be more likely to use that influence under Bice’s leadership.
The SBOE and Bice hope to implement a “Human Capital Comprehensive Plan“ which includes, among other ideas, a Teach for Alabama (no doubt a play on Teach for America) component where the best and brightest would be recruited by our colleges of education. Read the info at the link for more information.
The Alabama legislature clarified that gifts could be given to teachers as long as the individual gift did not exceed $25, or up to $50 in a calendar year.
Principals are now being evaluated with the LEADAlabama evaluation tool this school year. The tool allows for self-evaluation (similar to the teachers’ EDUCATEAlabama tool), but also allows for the teachers within the principal’s school to anonymously complete a Val-Ed survey regarding the principal’s leadership. One-third of principals in Alabama will utilize the survey component each year, which amounts to surveys being conducted once every three years for each principal. The state is footing the cost of the survey tool. There was some discussion of using student test results as part of the LEADAlabama tool in the future, but that will not happen this year.
Bice has stated that he would like to see school counselors returned to their “proper role” of guidance counseling and the SBOE has had much discussion about counselors this year. Bice admits that too many of them end up serving as pseudo-assistant principals, involved in test administration and other administrative duties. While nothing has been officially “approved” at the SBOE level, enforcement and support for counselors is anticipated for the new year.
The School Board Governance Improvement Act was passed in 2012, which mandates minimum training for school board members and requires each local Board of Education to adopt a board member Code of Conduct by April 1, 2013. The Act has many other provisions including the ability for a majority of a board to “sanction” a member. For a full list of resources, click here to go to the Alabama Association of School Boards resource page.
Gosh, that’s a big word. Much has changed, or has been proposed to change, in this area. We have all been used to Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), but that may be going away. There are three pieces to the proposed accountability system.
A law was passed requiring the use of a (1) school performance and grading system (using letter grades A – F) by the 2013-2014 school year. The design was supposed to be ready on December 31, 2012. Haven’t seen it yet, but hope to see it soon.
A (2) School Performance Index (SPI) and a District Performance Index (DPI), which reflects Plan 2020’s way to measure progress, is outlined in the Flexibility Waiver Request (more on the waiver request below) submitted to the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) in early September.
(3) Plan 2020 was approved by the SBOE, outlining how progress will be measured, what tests will be used, how students, teachers, leaders and districts will be supported.
The image below represents these three pieces and how they fit together. The top row is reflective of the law, the middle oval is the SPI/DPI and the bottom row shows the Plan 2020 components.
You will notice right away that there is more to the proposed plan than the current AYP calculation. The current AYP calculation looks at (1) graduation exam passage rate, (2) percent of students scoring at Level III or above on the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test (ARMT), and (3) participation rate in the ARMT. Alabama’s current AYP calculation is the epitome of the much-maligned “high-stakes testing” loathed by opponents of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
The proposed accountability plan looks not only at achievement (test scores) but also at growth of individual students, gap among subgroups (race, ethnicity, disability, and poverty status) and uses many assessments to calculate the SPI and DPI. Bice believes this will result in a calculation better and more fairly reflective of the school’s and district’s efforts. He frequently points to the “Local Indicator from District/School” as a uniquely-Alabama component. That indicator allows schools and districts to include a measure of their own, based on some particular effort, e.g., agriculture, fine arts, in which their school or district is engaged.
The Annual Measurable Objective (AMO) freeze was granted by the USDOE, which allowed Alabama to use the same AMOs from the 2010-2011 school year for the 2011-2012 school year when calculating AYP. AMOs are the benchmark achievement scores that reflect what percentage of the students must score proficient. Those same 2010-2011 AMOs will be used for this spring’s testing results as well.
The Flexibility Waiver Request
The two pieces mentioned above, the grading Law and Plan 2020, became a part of the ALSDE’s ESEA Flexibility Waiver request, filed with the USDOE on September 6, 2012. Click the link for details about the waiver request. This request is seeking a waiver from the accountability provisions of NCLB: the AYP calculation. No word yet from the USDOE regarding the waiver request. 34 states and Washington, D.C. have received approval to use their own accountability system.
Assessment and Testing
Testing changes are here. Here’s a graph of the changes and the expected timeline:
The Alabama High School Graduation Exam (AHSGE) is being phased out and will be replaced by End-of-Course (EOC) tests this school year for 9th and 10th graders in some subjects. The 11th and 12th graders still will take the AHSGE for the 2012-2013 school year, and the 12th graders in 2013-2014 will take the AHSGE. After that, the AHSGE will no longer be given.
Sidebar, lesson learned: It was disheartening to hear Bice’s admission that the AHSGE was too low of a bar for Alabama’s students, but that it was added to the AYP measure in 2004 because they needed a test score to add to the AYP calculation under NCLB. One thing I learned from his admission is that if any of these new tests seem to set a low bar, we must tackle the issue at the time instead of waiting for education officials to find a new test. Ten years of that low bar have gone by. How many children were subject to that low bar? I suppose it’s water under the bridge, but we must learn lessons from these journeys.
Formative assessments were made available to school districts at no cost to them at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year. These assessments can be given via computer at various intervals during the school year. Formative assessments are designed to “inform instruction”, which is a fancy way of saying that they are expected to aid teachers in developing their lesson plans by figuring out where individual students stand in their learning. No update has been made public regarding how many school districts have voluntarily participated or what feedback has been received about whether the assessments have been helpful.
Graduation Rate Calculation
The way the high school graduation rate is calculated is now the same for every state: a student who starts school in the 9th grade and graduates 4 years later (this is called a “four-year cohort”) is considered a high school graduate. Alabama has a 72% graduation rate.
The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) released all 50 states’ graduation rates in late November, showing that Alabama had the 40th highest graduation rate. There are plans to calculate a 5-year cohort for the 2011-2012 school year.
In crafting the new guidelines, the USDOE refused to consider Alabama’s Occupational Diploma (AOD) recipients as high school graduates. The AOD can be sought by students who have disabilities. These students no longer count as high school graduates. Which leads to the next discussion…..
Nothing has yet changed about Alabama’s diploma options, but this one is on the table to be changed very soon, possibly even at the January SBOE meeting, which is why it’s being mentioned here. The discussion centers around having ONE Alabama diploma and allowing local school districts to add their own “endorsements”, e.g., agriculture, fine arts, to their diploma if they have developed a special set of criteria for that endorsement.
Presumably, this would include students who are currently on the AOD track. One problem that has yet to be addressed is that once students with disabilities receive a regular diploma, they are no longer eligible to receive services from the public schools. Many students with severe cognitive impairments receive services until age 21. It is unclear how this will affect those students. Hope to get some answers at January’s SBOE work session.
School Calendar Changes
The Flexible School Calendar Act of 2012 mandated a start and end date for the school calendar. It also allowed for a 1,080-hour school year as opposed to mandating a 180-day school year. As a result, all school systems in Alabama started school on August 20 (the earliest day allowed) and will end their school years on either May 23 or 24, 2013. For a full list of school calendars and days open, click here. Also as a result, not all school systems kept a 180-day calendar. A bill has already been pre-filed in the Alabama Senate to allow school systems to opt out of the “flexible calendar”. Given that the bill will expire after the first three months of the 2013-2014 school year, there may not be much resistance to the “opt out” provision in the legislature. But stay tuned.
Common Core State Standards Implementation
The focus at the ALSDE is firmly on College- and Career-Ready Standards (CCRS), of which the Common Core State Standards are a part. The CCRS paradigm has taken over the nation and is now thought to be the way to ensure all children succeed, either at the next level (college) or in their career choice.
The Common Core State Standards in Math were implemented for use this school year (2012-2013). There are indications that it has been a bumpy process in some districts. To aid in implementation, the ALSDE purchased the Alabama Insight tool to support teachers and districts in implementing these standards. [Click here to read more about the Alabama Insight tool.] The English Language Arts (ELA) standards will be implemented during the 2013-2014 school year.
Career and Technical Education (CTE)
There has been a renewed focus on Career and Technical Education (CTE), welcomed by all on the SBOE. There has been much discussion and many presentations at SBOE work sessions this year, including work to issue proceeds from $30 million in bonds to schools and districts through an application process to cover new CTE equipment and curricular material. The bond sale will be taken up in the 2013 Regular Session of the Alabama legislature (which begins February 5, 2013).
The SBOE is also considering alternate pathways to allow teachers to become certified to teach CTE. I never realized how complicated the teacher certification process was until I listened to these discussions.
Crystal Richardson served as interim head of special education when Dr. Mabrey Whetstone retired, and was permanently appointed to that position this year. Because special education is a federally-funded program, I only mention it here to say that in September, the First Annual Special Education Forum was held in Birmingham where more than 130 parents and educators came together to discuss concerns about special education in Alabama. Bice was the featured speaker and promised to hold regular meetings such as that one to build stronger partnerships among families and educators in special education.
Bice has pledged a renewed focus on arts education, and has showed his commitment by requesting a $5 million allotment in the FY14 (October 1, 2013, to September 30, 2014) Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget to be considered by the legislature in their 2013 Regular Session. These funds would be distributed through an application process for schools and districts.
The FY13 ETF budget included an allotment of $1,000,000 to support the education of all gifted students in Alabama. (Psst: January is Gifted Education Month and the Alabama Association for Gifted Children has some great ideas for activities for the month!)
Looking Forward to 2013
I know of at least one item that will be on the SBOE agenda before too long: the creation of what A+ Education Partnership terms the “Education Investment Council“ (EIC). A+ Policy Director Thomas Rains, Jr., wrote this piece for al.com in late December, after which the Montgomery Advertiser followed with their own editorial. Look for the EIC to become a reality in 2013.
The Flexibility Waiver Request will receive a ruling from the USDOE in the next month or so. Typically, the waiver requests take from 3 to 6 months to receive a ruling, and four months have passed already. Receiving this waiver will set Alabama on a new course for assessment and accountability. Stay tuned.
The Alabama Children’s Movement was formed by VOICES for Alabama Children in November at its regional meetings. The Movement, coupled with the Education Investment Council proposed by A+, has the potential to move children’s education issues to the forefront of policymaking. Call me naive, but I am hopeful.
Look for the push for teachers’ raises as well. It has been many years since teachers in Alabama received a raise, and Bice has requested a cost-of-living increase for teachers in the FY14 budget for the ALSDE, stating that each one-percent of a raise for state-funded teacher units will cost the state $35.5 million. The Alabama Education Association (AEA) is pushing for a 10% increase over the next two years.
The Education Article of the Alabama Constitution will be up for a rewrite in 2013. The Constitutional Revision Commission will take up the Education Article, which we know has taxation implications. It promises to be contentious and difficult. The Article could be rewritten and presented to the legislature as early as 2014. All meetings of the Commission are public and their web site has a huge amount of information and transcripts of meetings.
What’s Missing from This List and from the Discussion
Two things are noticeably absent from the state-level discussion and action: how to improve and increase family engagement (which we KNOW has a positive impact on student achievement) and how to impact and decrease bullying among school-aged children. Both of these issues necessarily involve us, our children’s families, and yet neither have taken center-stage just yet. I mention them here only to remind us all that both of these issues have a place at the table. Keeping my fingers crossed. And my fingers typing.
Wrapping It Up
As you can see, Bice and the SBOE have been very busy this year. As such, it seems like a good time to be paying attention to Alabama’s K-12 public schools. While I am encouraged by the path our state education leaders have taken this year, it will require vigilance on our part to ensure that direction remains the best for the children of our school community.
Please share this information far and wide. Share it with friends and teachers and others interested in Alabama’s school community. The more folks that are informed, the more folks available to engage in the discussion. We need a vibrant dialogue (which includes dissent and agreement) and that dialogue MUST include voices of families and students who are on the receiving end of our public education. It will take all of us to improve the futures of Alabama’s 740,000+ schoolchildren.
There are many seats at the table of the education of our children. Parents and families need to take our rightful seat, but we can only do that if we know what is currently going on in our schools. I hope this information is useful in that regard.
Happy New Year to the families of Alabama’s schoolchildren and to all of those who have the capacity to positively impact our children’s futures. While much has been accomplished, much remains to be done.
Please contribute your voice here or on our facebook page.
Acronyms (in order of appearance)
ALSDE – Alabama State Department of Education
SBOE – State Board of Education
PK-20 – Pre-Kindergarten through grade 20 (4-year post-graduate degree)
AYP – Adequate Yearly Progress
SPI – School Performance Index
DPI – District Performance Index
USDOE – United States Department of Education
ARMT – Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test
NCLB – No Child Left Behind
AMO – Annual Measurable Objectives
ESEA – Elementary and Secondary Education Act
AHSGE – Alabama High School Graduation Exam
EOC – End-of-Course Tests
ACT – American College Testing, a college entrance exam
AOD – Alabama Occupational Diploma
CCRS – College- and Career-Ready Standards
ELA – English and Language Arts
CTE – Career and Technical Education
ETF – Education Trust Fund
FY – Fiscal Year – October 1 to September 30
EIC – Education Investment Council
AEA – Alabama Education Association