Though ARI was funded at a high of $64 million in FY08, that funding dropped to $40.8 million for FY17.
As a result, Interim State Superintendent Dr. Philip Cleveland found himself in the unenviable position of implementing a plan to re-focus ARI funding in a way that most impacts results.
Last week, Cleveland came under fire by local superintendents and members of the state board of education about the plan to restructure how ARI funds would be distributed.
Many questioned the timing of those changes, saying it is too late in the school year to make the necessary personnel changes.
Up until now, funds have been distributed equally across the state regardless of student need or proficiency levels.
Under “ARI 2.0”, funds will be distributed based on test results of third-grade reading proficiency. Schools will be designated either Tier I (more than 35%) or Tier II (35% or lower). Only schools with a third grade are eligible to receive ARI funds.
Tier II schools receive $76,000 for each school. Tier I schools receive $18,296. All ARI schools received $55,000 during the current year.
As an added commitment, Tier II schools will now be asked to agree, in writing, to work with the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) to aggressively improve achievement as measured by the ACT Aspire.
Tier I schools stood to lose a large amount of money and would either have to use local money or cut those reading coach positions.
Cleveland said 412 schools are in Tier I. This memo from May 6 breaks down the number of schools in Tier I and Tier II in each school district. 290 schools are in Tier I.
Scroll to the bottom to view third grade reading proficiency rates from ACT Aspire results for 2013-2014 and 2014-2015.
Schools with a third grade were the only ones considered for ARI funding. Across the state, more than 750 reading coaches were working in schools during the 2015-2016 school year according to data from the ALSDE. It’s unclear how many were funded with local money as opposed to state ARI funds.
After a significant outcry from superintendents, Cleveland notified districts on Monday that the ALSDE would provide the funding to fill in that gap during this transition year. Cleveland said the additional funding came from dropping a number of state-level ARI support positions for districts.
Caroline Novak, president of the A+ Education Partnership and an early supporter of the ARI, said she was disheartened by the drop in funding at the state, and that the opportunity to save the funding has passed. Few stepped up during the legislative session to tell legislators what a difference it had made for the children in their districts, she said.
A+ authored this paper in 2011 encouraging lawmakers to continue to fund ARI, suggesting that ARI may already have been eyed by lawmakers as a pot of money that could be re-distributed during the financial crisis that began in 2008. Funding for ARI dropped around $2 million from FY11 to FY12.
The ARI began in 1998 with a focus on improving reading in Alabama’s schools by improving teacher skills to teach reading. Over the years, some say it lost its focus, and it’s time to get back to the original plan.
ARI has been the focus of national attention for obtaining measurable results, and this EducationWeek article from 2015 outlines the why and how as well as the results over the years. It was one of the early data-driven initiatives, monitoring student improvement over time. It was also one of the first to utilize instructional coaches to “teach the teachers”.
Though difficult to statistically connect, anecdotally many attribute Alabama’s improvement in National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores from 2003 to 2011 to the work of ARI.
Insiders say legislators have been questioning the need for ARI for many years, with some wondering why teachers had to be taught how to teach reading if they learned that in college.
ARI builds capacity within a school and a district, Novak said. That is the engine for school improvement.
In 2013, then-state superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice recommended re-purposing $10 million in ARI funds for a program aimed at laying new professional pathways for teachers who want to continue to climb a career ladder but want to continue to work in the classroom. Professional pathways was not a new idea, as it had been recommended to then-Governor Bob Riley in 2009 as a part of the work done by the Governor’s Commission on Quality Teaching.
However, the legislature apparently interpreted that to mean the money was no longer needed for ARI and instead took that $10 million away from the ALSDE altogether.
Cleveland said he is hopeful ARI funding will continue, and his goal is to be able to show the legislature both the need for the funding and the results of the investment.
This year’s cut could have been much worse, as Governor Bentley initially recommended cutting funding in half, which amounted to a $23 million cut.
At last week’s state board of education work session, Cleveland said the ALSDE worked closely with state lawmakers to “salvage” the whole $40 million and make sure they understood how important the program is. However, Cleveland made it clear that ARI must be re-worked to focus on results or funding for the entire initiative might be taken away.
When board members asked why ARI was targeted for that huge cut, School Superintendents of Alabama (SSA) Executive Director Dr. Eric Mackey suggested the Governor was likely looking for money for Medicaid. Mackey added he had received more calls from superintendents about this issue than any issue in his entire six years with SSA.
Board Vice President Jeff Newman (R-District 7) said he had heard from 18 superintendents and wanted Cleveland to reconsider distributing the money equally across school districts, rather than based on results of student proficiency.
Cleveland disagreed strongly, saying, “If we don’t distribute the funds where the problems are and hold people accountable and help them, then I feel we are subject to more than a $7.4 million cut”.
“The way we’ve been using the money has been called into question, because the law specifically says the money must be used to improve reading,” Cleveland told board members.
Board member Matthew Brown (R-District 1) said he received a call from a school board member in his district who felt ARI funding “had become almost a complete waste”.
Brown said, “if everybody can work hard, show the legislature we’re gonna really make this program work and not spread the money around to other areas, we have the opportunity to potentially help this program grow.”
A number of board members told Cleveland they worried that lowering funding for ARI when proficiency increases amounts to punishing schools for doing well.
When asked what Cleveland would say to those districts who have been successful and thus may receive less funding, he said those districts should be congratulated and will serve an important purpose in helping other schools and districts improve reading across the state.
“They’re doing a great job and should continue that work. We’re going to support them however we can, and we need to look at other funding sources,” Cleveland said, adding ARI is initiative funding, and local superintendents should not rely on it because “initiative funding can be here today and gone tomorrow.”
Some advocates for recent dyslexia training and improvements to instruction were worried the cuts would impact hard-won efforts to recognize dyslexia. Cleveland dismissed their concerns, saying that rather than do less, “We’re gonna do more, because research shows us that the training that teachers get to teach students with dyslexia improves reading for all students.”
Focusing on schools that have students that are struggling the most, Cleveland said, “At the end of the day, we’ve got to improve reading scores. Children are not reading at the level at which they must to be competitive in the workforce, to be ready for college entry without remediation. We have to own it and do something about it.”
ACT Aspire Results
The map below is set to show only schools where 35% or fewer of third-grade students are proficient in reading. Click here to open it in a separate window.