Alabama Superintendent Dr. Bice Speaks to Hoover – January 17, 2012

Dr. Tommy Bice visited the Hoover Board of Education building on Tuesday, January 17, 2012.  State Representative Paul DeMarco, who represents portions of Hoover, invited Bice to speak to allow an opportunity for Bice to interface members of his district.  (Read The Birmingham News’ coverage here.  Shelby County Reporter’s coverage here.)  Bice was appointed Superintendent last November 10 by the State Board of Education and officially became Superintendent on January 1, 2012.  His three-year contract was approved in December 2011.

Rep. DeMarco introduced Bice to the group of 60-plus people gathered in the boardroom at the Farr Administration Building in Hoover.  Then Bice stepped to the front of the room and shared his vision for Alabama’s schools.  He had a lot to say.

He claimed he is a “relentless, unapologetic advocate for students” and much of what he shared embodied those remarks.  Bice is not in support of Governor Bentley’s proposal to unify the budget (which, since the meeting, Governor Bentley has decided not to propose during this year’s legislative session).

He then spoke of successes in Alabama, remarking that we don’t celebrate our successes nearly enough.  (I agree.) 

He spoke of the A+ College Ready initiative and the national recognition Alabama received for having the highest average gain on number of Advanced Placement (AP) exams given in the nation.  Bice said the initiative focuses on underrepresented populations.  In 2011, 5,119 qualifying scores (a “3” or better) earned college credit for Alabama’s children, saving families $9 million in college tuition.

Alabama’s  long-distance-learning ACCESS program was accessed by 14,000 students in 134 courses.  Every high school in Alabama now has an ACCESS lab.  ACCESS allows students to attend classes via video/conference taught by teachers in another district.

Bice suggested that our school community rethink school as being a “24/7” opportunity.  He said that we run into difficulty because “people want schools to be better, but not different”.  Bice appeared convicted that the way Alabama public schools deliver education needs to change.

With respect to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the accountability provisions that have put laser focus on schools where students are not making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), Bice agreed that NCLB was “much needed”, but it has had “diminishing returns”, noting that when Hoover High School was placed on the state list for school improvement, he was disappointed because he knew the high school made the list mostly because the school was large and met the minimum number of students needed to place the accountability provision onto that population.  (Here’s an excellent presentation from Hoover City Schools about AYP and the various accountability provisions within NCLB.)  He said that Hoover does so much so well, that it is disheartening to see them fall into school improvement status when other high schools do poorly with a particular population but are not subject to the same standard because the population of a group of students was small.  Bice ended that segment by stating that he and his fellow educators will “develop a plan about how to move forward in Alabama”.

Bice then turned to a soon-to-become-a-hot-topic (in my view):  aligning the K-12 curriculum with the expectations of Alabama’s post-secondary (colleges and universities, including community colleges) system.  Referencing the large number of community colleges, public universities and private colleges in Alabama (more than 60!), Bice spoke of his frustration with how the K-12 system gets blamed for first-year-freshman failures and necessary remediations at these institutions.  He agreed to better prepare incoming college students if only the colleges could agree upon some standard entrance expectations among these students.  He said he hopes to work with Alabama’s higher institutions of learning so as to hand them better-prepared students.  He said that while the assessment and accountability of what our children are taught K-12 is well-aligned, the Alabama High School Graduation Exam (AHSGE) has not proven to be a very effective tool in gauging student’s readiness for college.  Bice quoted that while 95% of students passed the math section of the AHSGE, only 29% were deemed college and career ready (presumably under standards accepted by the ACT’s College and Career Readiness indicators).

This discussion led into the next, which was brief and focused on efforts to revise Alabama’s accountability standards.  Bice shared his desire to move assessments back into the classroom and allow teachers to assess their students regularly to determine what and how to teach them.  (Much has been said about Alabama’s testing requirements….from having every student take the ACT to using end-of-course tests to replace the AHSGE which was changed again last year due to financial constraints.)

Bice then turned his focus on “human capital”….our teachers.  Bice shared that he was one of a 10-member team in the nation that visited Finland to see first-hand how that country educates its children.  He learned that Finland has no national accountability standards, but does have rigorous assessments within schools themselves.  He learned that there are stringent requirements for students who wish to become teachers and that every teacher must have a Master’s degree in order to teach.  In addition, Finland has a very strong mentoring and induction program that allows young teachers to have the support they need to stay in the profession and have success in the early years.  He stressed that Finland stresses the importance of having great teachers in every classroom and puts their money into recruitment, support and continued development of teachers.  Here are more of Bice’s thoughts on that subject as he shared them with the AEA.

The “circle of care” was the next topic of discussion.  Bice shared his concern that too many children lack having their basic needs met, including food, shelter and safety needs.  Bice would like to see a circle of care develop in communities to support children using community resources already in place.  It is difficult for children to learn when they are hungry or tired or stressed. He mentioned that he met with newly-appointed Department of Mental Health Commissioner Zelia Baugh to further develop this concept.

Bice spoke of supporting an environment where school systems are allowed to be creative.  He sees Charter Schools as one of many options.  One question he is asked repeatedly about Charter Schools is if Charter Schools are allowed flexibility, why can’t traditional public schools be offered the same flexibility? In response to these inquiries, the state board of education passed the Innovation School System resolution, allowing schools to better tailor their offerings and focus to their local population and local needs.  Florence City and Lawrence County are currently the only two systems that operate under this resolution.

The last topic Bice addressed was Preschool (Pre-K).  According to Bice, most of the children who need Pre-K the most don’t have access to it.  By the time children arrive at Kindergarten, the achievement gap is already present.  (Alabama’s Pre-K initiative has been nationally-recognized for its successes.  Funding continues to be challenging.)  He would like to see Alabama’s Pre-K Initiative developed and strengthened.

On to Questions and Answers with The Interested Audience (my favorite part).

Number of School Systems in Alabama.  Why are there 132 school systems in Alabama?  Wouldn’t it be better to have fewer?
Bice:  Local communities make their own decisions about their children’s education.  Currently, Chickasaw, Satsuma and Alabaster are in the process of forming their own school systems.  In order for a community to form their own school system, they have to “own it” and recognize all of the costs and responsibilities involved in forming their own system.  It requires large amounts of money because necessities such as a central office are not paid for by the state.  Instead, the local community has to be prepared to foot the bill.

Governor Bentley’s Education Policy Advisor.  What is her role?  Alabama has not had an Education Policy Advisor to the Governor in quite a while (if ever).
Bice:  He has met with Ms. Schultz and has found they agree on many things.  He is comfortable working with her and sees her involvement as a good thing.

The  Role of Counselors. What is the role of a school counselor?
Bice:  He would like to see counselors get back to their original roles, instead of that of testing coordinator.  He hopes to see that role become better defined and aligned.

Size of High Schools.  Specifically, a parent was concerned about the size of her child’s high school, Spain Park High in Hoover.  She asked why the state department allows high schools to grow so large.
Bice:  The size of a high school is determined by the local board of education.  The state does not provide any guidance to local districts on the size of their schools.  [Hoover schools’ Superintendent Andy Craig  stepped in to provide some reasoning behind the size of Spain Park High School and how those decisions are made.]  Bice reiterated that the local board is responsible for those types of decisions.

Alabama’s Education System.  Are you satisfied with how Alabama is delivering education?
Bice:  He didn’t want to say “the system isn’t working”, but there are many children who aren’t having success.  He would like to see the delivery of education be a more “strategic, thoughtful plan”.  He wants to place the focus on every child graduating from high school into a future of their choosing.  He would like to see Alabama “repurpose monies when things are not working”.

Teacher Evaluations.  What is in store?
Bice:  He would like to see teacher evaluations be used to improve the practice of teachers.  Bice did not elaborate on possible changes.

My apologies for not including every question, but my notes were not sufficient to trigger my memory of accurately portraying the question and Dr. Bice’s answer.  I’ll try to do better.

Overall View of the Meeting.….It was a privilege to hear Dr. Bice’s agenda straight from Dr. Bice.  Interpretations are unreliable (kind of like my interpretations here).  I have had the good fortune to have met Dr. Bice on previous occasions and found him to be a straight-talker, a quality I appreciate in a governmental leader.  I encourage you to find your way to some meeting where he is and introduce yourself.  Let him know what’s on your mind.  He does not sit in an Ivory Tower and can be reached by phone or e-mail.

Respectfully submitted……..


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