Follow along. The page should refresh itself when new information is added.
Work session starts at 4:30 p.m. Meeting starts at 5:30 p.m.
Here we go again. I will attempt some combination of live-blogging and live-tweeting….
The Special Education Advisory Panel (SEAP) meets on Wednesday, June 18, from 9:30 a.m. to not later than 3:00 p.m. in Montgomery.
The public is allowed to comment from 12 noon to 1:00 p.m.
There was an opportunity to register to participate via WebEx (online), but that deadline was June 6, 2014. Apologies for not getting this notice online sooner. All notices are shared through the COSEPTA Connections Facebook page.
Meeting is held here. All are welcome.
Here is the official notice:
Here are the Bylaws governing the SEAP.
I will live-blog from the meeting.
Rather than live-tweet, here’s the live blog. Meeting starts at 8:30 a.m. The live broadcast can be seen here.
This is an experiment. Can I live-blog (as opposed live-tweeting) a meeting? Going to try it with a new tool, 24Liveblog. Let’s see how it goes. Work Session starts at 4:00 p.m. CDT, Meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. CDT.
We have a new State Board of Education (SBOE) leader: Dr. Charles Elliott. Elliott’s technical title is Vice President, as Governor Bentley serves as President. Bentley rarely attends, which means Elliott serves as President in Bentley’s absence. Ella Bell was re-elected to the President Pro Tem position.
Here is the Storify version (all tweets sent from the meeting).
Both the meeting and work session were filled with discussions of rules that must be approved to administer the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA), the Educational Intervention Act, the new High School Diploma requirements, and changes to areas of Special Education.
In addition, an overview of the accountability portion of Plan 2020, how student achievement will be measured and how schools will be held accountable for student achievement, was shared at the work session.
The first item of real discussion pertained to a textbook that was recommended for adoption for English Language Arts, specifically for Kindergarten through 1st grade. Board member Betty Peters questioned whether content was age- and ability-appropriate. That is not my area of expertise, but the ensuing discussion highlighted (at least for me) how few members of the public really take the time to review the textbooks that are being used in Alabama’s public schools prior to their adoption.
Textbook adoption is done at the state level, but also at the local district level. Every board of education adopts textbooks for purchase and use. The public is given the opportunity to review any proposed textbooks and give input to school officials about them. I can honestly say that I have never once reviewed a textbook prior to its adoption by my local school district. I knew when the opportunities were provided, and simply chose not to take the time to review the proposed textbooks.
And while I know my own reasons for not doing so (mostly that I didn’t feel I was qualified to review and comment), I encourage you to find out when your local boards of education are adopting textbooks and make the effort to poke around in a few to see what they cover. Your local board should announce the intent to adopt textbooks in their board meeting agendas.
A Resolution to change some passing scores for the Praxis (teacher certification tests) and add some tests was approved. Board member Ella Bell asked if there was evidence of correlation between scores on the Praxis and effectiveness in the classroom. Here’s an interesting look at what scores different states consider passing on various Praxis exams, current as of May 2013. Not every state uses every test, but it’s interesting to view Alabama’s passing scores compared to other states.
Calhoun County’s Innovation/Flexibility Plan Waiver Request was up next. Here are the main points of their request. To get the full picture of what their request entailed, you really need to view their presentation at the Work Session on June 27. Their presentation is a little more than 25 minutes long. The Request was approved.
Next up were many of the rules I mentioned. These rules were all approved as Emergency Rules. Rules can be approved temporarily (on an Emergency basis, hence the name) while new rules are going through the full adoption process.
Rules pertaining to flexibility for students in failing schools – Approved. No surprises.
Rules pertaining to Educational Intervention – Approved. Short and sweet.
Rules pertaining to how state monies are divvied up for FY14 - Approved. This is done every year at this time, updating the language to include the budget approved by the legislature and any changes to the Foundation Program that may have occurred. No surprises.
All of the rules pertaining to Private School Licensure were removed from the agenda by State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice. Bice said he wanted to wait until after meeting with private school administrators before he brought those to the board for approval. Bice plans to meet on two separate days, July 11 and 12, with private school administrators. The second meeting is a repeat of the first, and the first meeting is scheduled to be broadcast live on ustream on the ALSDE’s channel. Not sure what time the meeting will start.
Much was said about the opportunity to “partner” with private schools. Bice reminded the Board that they are responsible for oversight of public, private, and church schools in the state. The licensing process is nothing new, but needs to be updated, according to Bice.
Toward the end of the Meeting, Board member Stephanie Bell asked about an article from The Tuscaloosa News published that morning that quoted a Tuscaloosa County school official saying that the district would purchase iPads rather than offer children the opportunity to transfer out of a “failing” school in the district.
The official stated that they would use the money that would have been spent busing students from the “failing” school to other schools on iPads instead. “The state allows us that option of not accepting students into our other schools. We feel like this will better serve the students,” the official said.
Bell asked Bice if a district could choose not to allow students to transfer. Bice said no, that the parent has the choice to transfer the student.
But it does create a dilemma if school officials make the deliberate choice not to allow students in the “failing” school to transfer to other schools in the district.
Bice promised to look into it. The meeting adjourned at 11:08 (by my watch). They took a brief recess and began the work session at 11:20 a.m.
Bice stated that another agency needed to use the auditorium at 1, so the work session must conclude by 12:30 p.m. He urged all presenters to be brief.
The Plan 2020 accountability model overview was just that: brief. It was a whole lot of information to digest, presented very quickly. Feel free to look through the presentation for more details. Here is the video of just the presentation and discussion regarding the accountability model under the waiver.
The main focus of the presentation was to discuss the various labels now given under the waiver: Priority, Focus, and Reward. These labels were dictated by the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE). The USDOE did not dictate what measures should be used to place these labels on schools, though. The ALSDE was allowed to make that determination.
Priority Schools are those schools that are the lowest performing schools in the state.
Focus Schools are schools with large gaps between subgroups of children as measured by the ARMT (soon to be the ACT Aspire), the AAA (test for children with severe cognitive disabilities) and the graduation rate.
Priority and Focus Schools will be given support at the district and state level, differentiated based on what is needed, as determined by school, district, and state folks. These determinations last at least three years. The waiver sets forth the process by which schools “exit” the status of Priority or Focus.
Reward Schools are those schools that are showing great success. They are akin to our Torchbearer Schools. For 2013, 2014, and 2015, Torchbearer Schools will continue to be named using criteria already set.
Beginning in 2016, the criteria will change to include not only Title I schools, but all schools that meet the criteria.
During the discussion of the School Performance Index (SPI), Bice stated that the end number translates nicely into a “grade” for the school. The Legislative Grading Systemwill be implemented in the fall of 2016.
Board member Stephanie Bell asked Bice about the Grading System and what kind of progress is being made. Here is the video of that discussion. Bice said that the internal committee has done their work and that it is now time to share this with parents to determine what information will be helpful to them. (Yay! Stay tuned for your opportunity to share your thoughts!)
Bice then addressed what he termed “a bit of misinformation” about Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) being set by race and other demographic characteristics. (Here is my take on it.)
You really just need to hear Bice say it for himself. So here is his minute and a half explanation of what those different AMOs are all about as he views it.
The expectations for all children are the same, he said. “100% proficiency.” But setting these achievement measures differently “forces us to own” the gap and accelerate the achievement of children who are farther behind at a faster pace.
Here is the summary of the differences between the old way (AYP) and the new accountability model:
That last line about school choice and “SES” (Supplementary Educational Services) being replaced means that the students who have chosen to transfer to schools that have not “failed AYP” from schools that have “failed AYP” will no longer be given that option. It is unclear what will happen to students who have transferred…will they be sent back to their zoned school or will they be allowed to continue their education where they are?
The next few items pertained to proposed changes to the Alabama Administrative Code (AAC).
Here is the presentation regarding the changes needed to address the new Alabama High School Diploma, which is in effect with this year’s entering 9th graders. (Here’s some background information on the new diploma changes.)
Then, a proposed new chapter in the AAC for treatment facilities. This is being added in an effort to enhance the education standards and expectations for facilities that serve children with certain special needs. These facilities (approximately 90 facilities across the state) will be required to obtain an educational endorsement from the ALSDE before being able to obtain state education funding for children in their facilities. If adopted, the requirement will go into effect August 1, 2014.
The work session adjourned at 12:15 p.m.
The next Board meeting is August 8. The next Board work session is August 22.
School starts for most (if not all) districts on August 19.
Here are the materials shared with the public, minus the resolutions. No proposed rules (items 10 through 17 on the agenda) were shared.
Here is the Storify version of the work session, which is a compilation of any information I shared during the work session via Twitter, plus information tweeted out by others. I must admit that there are just times when I simply cannot get all of it written up in a timely manner. Storify hits the high points.
The next meeting is a combined work session and board meeting and is set for July 9.
If you have any questions, please contact me at asc(at)alabamaschoolconnection.org, or comment on the ASC facebook page.
This work session lasted an hour and 40 minutes. A lot of information and opinions were shared. If you want to see the whole thing, here’s
the full video on UStream the full video on the ALSDE site. I have created highlights of certain important pieces of the video, and you can access them at the UStream link Highlights are gone…sorry.
I tweet live from the work sessions (@alschoolconnect). I then compile all tweets from myself and others who tweet live into the Storify version, complete with links to highlights and articles that were written about goings-on at the session. Storify is the quick version for those of you who don’t wish to read all 3,300 of these words.
Here are the presentation materials, complete with agenda.
At this work session, in addition to hearing about the School Finance study underway, the State Board of Education (SBOE), State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice, and Chief of Staff Dr. Craig Pouncey were extremely candid about their thoughts and concerns about the recently-concluded 2013 Legislative Session and what impact the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) may have on Plan 2020, the ALSDE’s strategic plan to improve student outcomes.
School Finance Study
Bice began the work session by letting the SBOE know about a study that is underway by Colorado-based consultants Augenblick, Palaich and Associates Inc. to determine whether there is a better way for Alabama to fund its public schools. Evan Belanger does a great job with his article about the study, so read it for the details. The ALSDE is spending $338,950 for the study.
Augenblick, the spokesman, spoke about the “strange way of doing things” where funding public education is concerned: a state department of education and a state legislature sets performance objectives for districts without ever knowing what it will cost to actually meet those performance objectives. While he termed it “strange”, he said it is a common practice across the country.
These consultants have done studies in many states. Some states have implemented the recommendations of the group, while others did not. Here’s a link to reports published by the consultant group on their web site. They recommended the current system used by Maryland, which takes into account additional struggles faced by school districts in educating struggling learners. If you’d like to learn more about the Bridges to Excellence program utilized by Maryland, click here. Here’s a fact sheet on the authorizing legislation, passed in 2002. It gives you a flavor of how Maryland funds their schools.
Augenblick stated that finding the information about how Alabama’s systems fund their schools has been very difficult. There is no web site to go to, nor any book available for them “to understand what the wealth of different communities is and what the tax effort they’re making is” toward funding their school systems. He said the information is typically available in other states, but not in Alabama. He called ours a “complex tax system”.
[It is certainly fair to say that Alabama public education offers little in the way of available data. It was interesting to hear Augenblick say so.]
The study and recommendation process is expected to take a year and a half. Ultimately, the Alabama legislature will have to approve any changes to the funding mechanism and will be included in discussions regarding the development of the recommendation.
This study and review is extremely important to the future of public education in Alabama. While there is no indication that parents, families, or students will be given an opportunity to provide input, if you are given an opportunity to be interviewed or provide input to this consultant group, please make the time to do so. We must be vigilant and keep our eyes and ears open about this study.
ACT College and Career Readiness Campaign National Student Readiness Award
Not on the agenda, but Bice announced an Alabama high school senior won the inaugural ACT College and Career Readiness Campaign National Student Readiness Award. From the press release: ACT established this campaign to create awareness around the goal of college and career readiness for all and to recognize exemplary efforts across states in advancing this goal. Six states participated in this first year of the campaign: Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
A good “first” for Alabama.
2013 Legislative Recap
The simplest way to share what was said is to share Bice’s 9-minute remarks about the session from the video. Here it is:
Bice spoke of how many different entities, including business and industry, higher ed and post secondary, and others had challenged the ALSDE to produce a high school graduate that “looks different”, which ultimately resulted in the SBOE approving Plan 2020 in mid-2012.
Regarding the budget the ALSDE prepared, Bice said their plan was to do something different with their budget this year, to change direction and put forth a budget that was based on identified needs so they could tell the legislature why they wanted this funding.
Many conversations were had between November (when they had their budget ready) and when the session started in February, and Bice felt confident he had much support for the budget he submitted.
The first indication of “wow, where is this gonna go” was when so few legislators showed up for the Joint Legislative Hearing on February 6 where he presented the ALSDE’s budget request and plan for why they were asking for money in the configuration in which they asked. He felt that the ALSDE staff and SBOE had worked hard to prepare their budget request.
“We weren’t asking for new money,” Bice continued, rather they were re-purposing money that had been spent in other areas and now would be used in a way to “move public education in this state forward”. Only one of those budget priorities got any funding, and monies were lost in some areas. “It was not a good budget year for us,” Bice continued.
Bice said he felt he and his staff spent the majority of the session “defending our work, defending misuse of data, defending our standards, defending misuse of appropriation of funds, which all are unfounded”, dealing with that instead of their plan for public education, which Bice termed “regretful”.
The big bill, of course, is HB84, the Alabama Accountability Act, which will be discussed shortly. The bill for which Bice termed them “very fortunate” is the passage of the Career Tech bond issue, also to be discussed shortly.
Other bills that passed had to do with School Safety. The Charles J. “Chuck” Poland Act was passed, named in honor of the bus driver in Dale County who was murdered while protecting the students on his bus from an intruder earlier this year. That law defines Criminal Trespass on a bus more clearly and could result in jail time for someone who stops or delays a bus in an unauthorized manner.
The School Intervention bill (SB60) passed on the last day of the legislative session, which clarifies the state board’s authority to intervene when “things aren’t going well”. It streamlined the process so time is not wasted in court affirming that the state Constitution gives the SBOE the right to intervene in a school system.
Pouncey’s Budget Presentation
Chief of Staff Dr. Craig Pouncey opened his remarks with: “My observation, having been here for 10 years, is that, at the end of the day, it appears things were already predetermined before anyone had an opportunity to engage in the political process of budgeting of resources in this state.”
Here is the 32-minute presentation and discussion of the results of budgetary debate and passage:
Pouncey indicated they had tried to regain some of the money that has been lost over the past three years. The Senate restored $12 million to OCE (Other Current Expense, which is an additional amount given to school districts above the Foundation Program dollars which helps pay some operational costs); the ALSDE had asked for $19 million.
Due to changes in the divisors (which determine how many teachers per how many students will be funded by the state), since 2010, about 1300 teachers have been lost, and the ALSDE hoped to get 250 of those positions back to reduce class sizes in middle school, cossting $19.1 million. The legislature provided “zero”.
The legislature did fund $304 million of the $323 million requested to help with transportation costs.
Textbooks are still funded at $31.55 per student, or $23.1 million, which is the same amount provided last budget year. The ALSDE had requested $55.4 million.
While the ALSDE suggested the need for a pay raise for teachers, they did not request a specific percentage pay raise. The legislature appropriated funds for a 2% teacher pay raise, costing $64 million.
Before you go further, you might wish to refresh your memory on how the state board had decided to repurpose some monies to focus efforts in a different direction. Here are the notes from the September 27, 2012, board work session.
Something you need to understand before you continue reading is that there is very little discretion in the way the ALSDE and the school districts are allowed to spend the money given to them by Alabama’s taxpayers. The way the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget is designed is that almost all monies appropriated are earmarked, line by line, as to HOW the money must be spent. Earmarks can be very frustrating when folks identify the need to change how the money is being spent. That is the frustration you hear in Pouncey’s and Bice’s voices. They had good ideas on how to repurpose monies in this budget, but the legislature did not go along with their ideas.
The Human Capital Plan would have utilized $10 million repurposed from the Alabama Reading Initiative. The legislature not only didn’t allow them to repurpose it, they took the $10 million away.
The Career Tech bond issue had started as a $30 million request, initially begun by former state board member Gary Warren. It was passed as a $50 million bond issue. Pouncey said it will be “very beneficial” to career tech programs across the state. Board members asked why the amount was increased. Pouncey said the legislators wanted to broaden the focus of the program.
The state board requested $5 million to reward schools that are performing at a high level and/or showing improvement, but “zero” was allocated.
The $5 million Healthy Kids and Families initiative was zero-funded. Pouncey said everybody thought it was a great idea and really liked it, but “zero” dollars were appropriated.
The SBOE requested $5 million for Arts Education, yet only $1 million was appropriated. That $1 million is restricted for use only to fund field trips to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Previously there had been $600,000 in the budget to be doled out in $50,000 grants for school systems to use to fund art programs. Because the $1 million is restricted, those grants are no longer available.
While not a part of the ALSDE budget, pre-Kindergarten was funded at $9 million, which is more than the $5 million that the ALSDE had suggested.
Bice, referring to the monies they had hoped to repurpose to the Human Capital, State Reward, and Healthy Kids initiatives, said the state board had “basically lost it twice: we didn’t get it for what we asked it for and we lost it from where we were going to take it from”.
Board member Ella Bell expressed her profound confusion as to how the state legislature made the decisions that it made on funding. Much discussion was generated regarding why the Career Tech bond issue had been so successful and these initiatives had not. Consensus was reached that the SBOE should communicate clearer with the legislature all through the year about their needs, and communicate in terms that are familiar to the legislature in order to better “sell” their initiatives.
There were a number of strong statements about this year’s legislative session by various board members. One to note is board member Dr. Charles Elliott’s, who stated, “Let’s face it: the actions and the behavior of the state legislature are disingenuous at best. The protests are that they are concerned about Alabama’s failing schools, yet they are complicit in the formation of our struggling schools.”
The state board requested $4,080,709,221 and received $3,917,365,550.
Board member Mary Scott Hunter said she is concerned that the SBOE may seem ungrateful for the $90 million bottom-line increase from last year’s funding. However, she stressed that the legislature needs to understand that the funding was “not in the right places”.
Bice countered that the increase was $95 million and was earmarked for the Foundation Program for the 2% raise, and that the real story was in the $5 million overall loss to the ALSDE.
Bice, in “cutting to the chase”, stated that when you have to set aside $70 million for an Act that you’re not sure how much it’s gonna cost (the AAA), then “something had to move to zero”. He mentioned, too, that while the $5 million allocation for liability insurance is in their budget, it’s not something “there for children”. [So that makes $10 million less for the ALSDE overall, if my calculations are correct.]
Bice added, “If you really pull out the things that actually go to children in moving education forward in the state, there’s very little there [in the budget allocation]. There’s actually negative there.”
Pouncey told the board that the $200 million to go to paying back the Rainy Day Fund is necessary, and that in FY15 there will be another $200 million or so to finish paying it back. So next year is not expected to be any better. Bice added, “It could be worse.”
Bice concluded there is no “real consequence” from the legislature’s appropriations this year, because “when August comes” they will still open schools and educate children. He said that at some point, though, there becomes a point of diminishing returns and that they are “real close”. That when something as fundamental as providing wrap-around services for children can’t get funded, “we’re in a bad place”. Their agenda will stay the same, but they must work to get their agenda funded.
[This is where we come in, too, parents and families. We must talk with our state legislators about what we expect in the way of funding for our public schools. Keep reading, keep learning, so we can speak their language.]
The Alabama Accountability Act Discussion
Bice’s comments on the AAA were succinct and to the point. Here are his 15-minute remarks below.
Bice’s big concern is how to define the failing school. The definition they’ve ended up with is “just as problematic and just as flawed as the first one was”. He indicated that he “might end up in jail” because he refuses to release a list that includes a school that shouldn’t be on the list.
He gave specific examples of how a school could have originally been low-performing in the first three years of the six-year-period in which calculations are made, but has shown significant improvement in the past three years. He said that school shouldn’t end up on the list. He called the formula “absolutely incorrect” and said he was willing to “go to the sword on” this (Elliott added he would join him).
The list will be available by June 13, the date of the next board meeting. First he will meet with superintendents and board members to let them know they’re on the list. Bice stated the list should have come first before the law was passed. He added that legislators wanted to see the list before they could move forward, but Bice countered that if the law was the right thing to do for children, it shouldn’t matter which schools were on the list.
Bice believes the list should be adjusted for growth and not just be a simple “bottom 6%”. He indicated that they tried to get the legislature to define the schools that need improvement in the same manner that the ALSDE does in Plan 2020, to no avail. Bice indicated that he will produce a list that accommodates for growth. He said he expects to be challenged on it, but he believes the list must accommodate for growth.
Bice made it clear that while he respects families who have chosen to place their children in private schools, the AAA’s fallacy is that private schools are somehow inherently better. He said there is no indication that a student’s achievement in a private school will be any better than in the public school.
Bice plans to identify these schools with a spotlight, rather than a hammer. He wants to continue working with the schools and show how the SBOE’s strategies will work to turn around underperforming schools.
He stated he had been contacted twice by the Department of Justice, and that the passage of HB658 with its directive that no public school can be forced to take a student likely put a target on the AAA. Here’s Kim Chandler’s story on this.
In addressing the underlying reason for the passage of the AAA, Bice remarked, “Do we want schoolchildren in underperforming schools to have better opportunities? Absolutely we do. The fact that anybody would think we don’t is just asinine to me. And we’re gonna make sure that occurs. You’ve set forth a plan to make sure that happens.”
The Educational Intervention and Accountability Act
Here is the full discussion:
Pouncey stated under the old law, there were three distinct paths to intervention and it would take a minimum of three years to get changes made. Those three paths were either: (1) Instructional and academic, (2) School safety or discipline, or (3) Financial. The new law gives the SBOE a “more immediate opportunity to make an impact to make change faster” and could mean change could be made in a year and a half.
Referring to how the prior law defined three paths and how they are actually all interconnected, Pouncey said, “If you’ve got problems academically, you’re not using your resources right.” [This is my favorite quote of the day, though there were many from which to choose.]
When asked by Hunter if Bice anticipated a more liberal use of this law, Bice said yes and no. Bice said, “Most people want to improve. They really do. Sometimes politics, especially at the school board level, sometimes get in the way.” He added, “Where politics are rich, some of the decisions that need to be made to move that system forward are real hard for the folks that live with them, go to church with them, work with them every day to make. Let us come in [through the provisions in the Act] and make the heavy lift decisions on the front end” to get the ship righted and build district capacity to move forward.
The Flexibility portion of the AAA
Bice mentioned that he was remiss in not talking more about the Flexibility portion of the AAA. He said they will be looking to school systems to “recreate innovative and creative ways to do school”. He called this “the good part of that bill”. Here are his remarks about the Flexibility portion:
Elliott said he doesn’t understand who is behind the scenes driving the AAA. “There are powerful entities driving these issues in school reform, but their ideas of school reform are different than ours”, he said. Elliott hopes to find out who these groups are and build bridges with them to work on a common agenda. Bice stated that he has requested a meeting with the head of “one of the organizations who doesn’t currently reside in Alabama” and he would fill the SBOE in later on the results.
Hunter mentioned U.S. Representative Martha Roby’s Defending State Authority Over Education Act that “prohibits the federal government from making special funding grants and coveted regulation waivers contingent on whether a state is using certain curriculum or assessment policies”. Hunter said Roby’s bill “hit the target” and appreciated her initiative in introducing the bill.
Bice then mentioned the resolutions that the SBOE will be considering at the next meeting on June 13, 2013.
The meeting ended at 12:09 p.m.
I don’t usually write about local meetings, I know. But this school stuff is personal for me, and my visit to my local school board meeting reopened old wounds, reminding me of the important battles I have lost throughout years of advocacy and how difficult it is for members of the school community to affect meaningful change in a school system.
And how important it is to not give up trying.
Hoover City is my local school system. It is to this system of schools that my property value and community’s culture are inextricably intertwined.
My school system has an excellent reputation in the state of Alabama and beyond. It is not my intent to bash my local school system in writing this. Test score data is only one indicator of student achievement. But when this system broke off from the county schools in 1988, the talk was of being the best school system academically in the state. Evidence suggests that goal has become too elusive.
You know how I encourage y’all to take the test data and start a conversation with your school leaders? Well, that’s what I did in 2004. Back then, we used the Stanford Achievement Test, 10th edition (SAT-10) to measure student achievement on an annual basis. (We no longer use the SAT-10. Now we use only the state-developed, state-course-of-study-aligned ARMT+.)
Sure, I know that a great school is more than the sum total of better-than-average test scores. I also know that measures of student achievement, albeit imperfect, are necessary when we spend nearly $8 billion of the public’s money on public education in Alabama. Yes, we need better measures of student achievement. But for a long time now, test scores are the only objective measures we have had.
Back then, in 2004, I was alarmed at how low our school’s SAT-10 test scores were, not just from “I thought they would be higher” prideful view, but how low they were compared to other elementary schools in the system. I reached out to the principal, who tried hard to blame the kids and tell me that test scores really didn’t matter. I reached out to parent leaders at our school district PTO council, who laughed it off and said it didn’t matter, that our scores were low because of a “demographic shift”. I was told by the superintendent to only be concerned with my children’s scores, that they, the professionals, the experts, would handle other people’s children.
Those answers didn’t sit well with me. I did my best to call attention to the decline in test scores, holding neighborhood meetings to spread the news, seeking support for after-school tutoring programs from school and district officials (we didn’t have any money, I was told). With the principal’s permission, I helped develop a parent-staffed in-school tutoring program for students on both ends of the achievement spectrum, to give our teachers additional help on a twice-weekly basis. I begged for summer school programs and aides and learned how to read school district budgets in my search for any small amount of funding that could be sent our way.
See, this was the elementary school I had attended from first through seventh grade, and I refused to allow school and district leaders to ignore the increasing academic needs of the children zoned to attend my neighborhood school.
The district’s answer to declining test scores was to rezone children in apartment-based homes, spreading them out, blaming the transient nature of apartment-based families for the low test scores that besieged our formerly pristine school system achievement record.
I fought alongside our teachers for resources for struggling students. To improve student achievement. And I know now that I lost that battle. So did too many children.
I recognized early on that what people think is happening in their local schools and what actually is happening can be two very different realities. Most folks felt like their children were getting an excellent education at our elementary school. I was rebuffed by many parents for pointing out our low achievement on standardized tests.
As the years passed, I found that too many of the children who were in our elementary school in 2004 were surpassed academically when student populations combined with the two other elementary schools at the middle school level. They were further surpassed when the two middle schools combined at Hoover High School. I didn’t see our elementary school’s faces in the Honor Society tappings nor the excellent-score-on-the-tests celebrations nor the Award Ceremonies.
So did those test scores actually tell us something after all?
Nearly a decade later, my neighborhood elementary school’s overall achievement on standardized tests has continued to trail those of other elementary schools in my system, and still it appears that no effective plan is in place to positively impact student achievement. Our neighborhood elementary school has the highest percentage population of children in poverty (as measured by free and reduced lunch qualifications) in our system, 49.3%. And because of that there is still the tendency to blame the children and their families for not caring about their children’s education, though that tired refrain has been disproven time and again.
It is because of these battles that I encourage parents and families to seek the details about their school districts, not just by looking at test scores, but by learning how to read a school district budget, how to read financial statements and check registers, and learning what you should expect from a school board member, among other things. We parents and families have to be informed so that we can engage.
So, back to the meeting. After a couple of blows in the past couple of weeks, and little community reaction, I decided to take my own advice and take test data from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) to share with my local school board members to re-start that old conversation from 2004.
I compiled this packet of information, taking just a representative sample of the schools that appeared to suffer the greatest decline from then till now. The meeting was packed, standing-room-only. I cynically wondered which coach was about to be fired, because that was about the only reason I ever saw parents and families pack a school board meeting anymore.
As I approached the podium, ten years of effort flashed through my mind, and I wondered why I was there, addressing our five-member, City-Council-appointed board, when their efforts over the past ten years resulted in no improvement in student achievement.
Why would anything be different now?
I began my remarks by asking for their help…that we must refocus our efforts on student achievement because too many of our children are not even scoring at state levels. Boom. Deja vu all over again.
The President of the board acknowledged my concerns; the Vice President acknowledged my concerns. Boom. Deja vu all over again.
I made two requests: (1) please ask PARCA to dissect and analyze their academic and financial data as they have for other school systems across the state (check out Dothan’s progress…very impressive) and (2) please attend an Alabama Association of School Board (AASB) training being held this Saturday entitled “Governing for Higher Student Achievement”, sponsored by the Birmingham Business Alliance and the Birmingham Education Foundation.
While I was received warmly, the board did not respond to the two requests. I stepped away from the podium feeling defeated, unconvinced that any plan will be put in place to focus on improving student achievement, even though two new Central Office academic-officer administrators had just been hired moments before I stepped up to speak.
What was best about last night’s meeting was what happened next. I learned why the school board meeting was packed, standing-room-only, with citizens. It had nothing to do with anybody’s job being on the line.
These dozens of citizens, from another of Hoover’s elementary schools, are deeply concerned about the level of student achievement at their neighborhood school. This is an organized group, with a spokesperson and everything!
They expressed worry over too many families moving their children to private schools and too many children from the more-transient apartment communities placing too much of a load on their teachers and their classrooms. They asked for a plan…specifically what would school leaders do to improve student achievement…because they needed to make plans, too (presumably whether or not to re-enroll their children in Hoover schools).
Here they were…just when I had given up hope that the citizens in my community would ever express concern over student achievement again! In the crowd of parents, I even saw an old school-warrior friend of mine who had conducted her own battles with school leaders through the years. This was her neighborhood back on the front lines.
And then, in all of the excitement, it struck me: why are we still having the same discussion that first began more than ten years ago? Seeing the agony and concern on these parents’ faces took me back to the days when I was a young mother and had to make the tough decisions about whether my youngest child would be able to reach his potential in my neighborhood elementary school.
My heart breaks for these parents, these families who so badly want to be a part of a great public school system. They believe in the idea of neighborhood schools and recognize their impact on their surrounding communities. And sadly, they are getting the tired assurances that the experts have it all under control and change is coming….just hang on. Trust us, they say. Boom. Deja vu all over again.
Even in the face of these deja vu moments, though, their endeavor is a beacon of hope. Hope of parent and family engagement in the care and keeping of our school system. My sincere thanks to those parents and community members for that glimmer of hope.
In a late-night phone call with a friend after the meeting, I was asked my thoughts on the following questions: is it that school leaders don’t want to do anything to improve student achievement? Or is it that school leaders don’t know what to do to improve student achievement?
I didn’t have an answer.
As I put this post together, I remembered this quote from Ron Edmunds, posted as the last slide in State Superintendent Dr. Bice’s Plan 2020 presentation and often recited by Bice:
“We can whenever we choose successfully teach all children whose schooling is of importance to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”
So how do we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far?
Any and all thoughts are appreciated. Please post here or on the facebook page.