State Board of Education Work Session – March 22, 2012

Man, y’all really need to be there to understand the excitement and hope that fills the room when State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice is speaking.  Granted, I never attended work sessions under Dr. Morton (except the one before his official retirement last August), but Bice just puts one good idea on the table after the other in the work sessions I’ve made the time to attend.  I have chosen to attend the work sessions rather than the meetings, because the work sessions are where the candid discussion takes place.  Bice has taken the additional transparent step of streaming work sessions and meetings live on the internet, and anyone who wishes to hear the full conversation really should take the time to view the meetings for themselves.  Otherwise, you are welcome to read my notes.  I do not purport that I have reported every sentence, as this is not a transcript.  Rather the idea of sharing notes here is so you can know what our education officials (particularly those you have elected) consider priorities and how they view specific educational issues.  I urge you to contact your state board of education member if you would like to know more.

The meetings are scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m.  However, because the Post-Secondary meeting is held prior to this work session, sometimes the meeting gets started a little late.  The meeting started at 11:09 a.m. 

Bice began the meeting by introducing many people who have gained new or different titles under the “reorganization”.  I was unaware of the “reorganization”, having found no mention of it anywhere on their web site or in the media.  In fact, when I clicked on the “Director Listing” on the ALSDE web site, I found the old personnel information.  Here’s hoping that gets updated soon.  I took down many of the names, but missed many of the titles.  I do know that there is now a Director of the Office of Student Learning, a Director of Learning Support, a Coordinator for Prevention and Support Services, a Coordinator for ACCESS learning, and a new Director of Federal Programs.  Bice told the board that he would be distributing a new organizational chart.  I hope to post a link as soon as I find it.

At that point, before the official work on the agenda was begun, Board member Mrs. Ella Bell (I will use her full name as Mrs. Stephanie Bell is also on the board) brought up the subject of charter schools.  She went on to say that she believed that the response to charter schools is Alabama’s Torchbearer Schools.  (Her comments begin at 2:50 into the video.)  She said there has been 100% success in our Torchbearer Schools and asked Bice if the story can be told about the Torchbearer Schools and that the impact these schools had on their communities, that she would like some talking points on these schools.  Dr. Angela Mangum heads the Torchbearer program and will get the information to her.

Bice mentioned that he was at the public hearing yesterday and heard reference to Torchbearer Schools and believes that the story of the Torchbearers is “resonating”.

Board member Dr. Charles Elliott asked Bice to explain the proposed charter school legislation and what accountability there is to the state board and state department of education.

Bice explained there are two parts to the bill:  flexibility for current public schools and creation of charter schools.  If the bill passes, any school board can authorize the opening of a charter school.  In addition, if a school district has a Persistently Low-Performing school, identified on a list of such, (there are 22 of these schools, no mention of how many districts that represents….these numbers are different depending on whom you ask, but my money is on Bice having accurate numbers), and the local school board denies a charter’s application, then the charter can appeal to a state-level Council that is appointed by the Governor, Speaker, and President Pro Tem.

Bice explained that the department’s role is to set up the criteria for the charter application and to oversee aspects such as accounting. (A full list of expectations for the ALSDE in the charter schools bill can be found here.)

Elliott asked whether charters are required to follow the Alabama Course of Study (COS, which is the curriculum for Alabama’s school students, Kindergarten through 12th grade). Bice said that charters can choose to follow them or not and that curriculum decisions are independent of the state board of education.

Bice clarified that charter schools will have the same assessments that non-charter schools will have to follow.  He added that the ALSDE has worked closely with those drafting the bill.

Mrs. Ella Bell asked how the effectiveness of charter schools compares with non-charter schools.  Bice responded by saying that there is a lot of research out there, that he is doing due diligence and that it appears that charters are “just as effective or ineffective as a variety of other reforms.”  He added that you have “about a 50/50 chance” and that you have to look at charters in the context of the people they serve.  If a charter meets the needs of the community and the community is supportive, then it has a good chance of being successful.

Mrs. Ella Bell then asked if any comparisons have been done between charters and Torchbearer schools.  Bice stated that while there may be some comparability, we don’t have any Alabama data on charter schools, so we can’t make the comparison.  Bice stated there are 15 Torchbearer schools this year (the link takes you to the list of 13 schools, not 15 as Bice stated).  The ones who kicked the Torchbearers off so long ago did very much what conversion charters (when you convert a current public school to a charter) do, where you remove the staff and everyone has to re-apply and bonuses were given to move children forward achievement-wise.  Bice said that the key to that success was leadership, that you have exceptional principals in those schools.  He said that he hopes, as the conversation moves forward, that we ask if charter schools is something “that can really be of use”.

Bice said his stance on it “has been the same” since the conversation began three years ago (his remarks begin at 12:34 in the video).  He said, “If I was sitting in Alex City as the superintendent, and I wanted to make the very best decision I could make for the children we serve in Alex City, I would want, at my disposal, any and every possible proven solution, and then that would be between me, my board, my community and the needs of my children to decide which of those variety of things would be appropriate.  So I’m not fearful of charter in that respect at all.”

Mrs. Ella Bell responded by saying she wasn’t fearful, but she is concerned about the track record of charters. She would want the legislature to put in place the Torchbearer Model of Excellence, as it is proven at 100%.  She acknowledged it will cause them to “make changes in the way we do business” but that was okay.  She claimed that we have the model of excellence in the Torchbearer schools and we don’t need to go anywhere else for a model.

Bice stated that one of the reasons the model has not “been leveraged more broadly across the state” (15:00 and forward) is that there had to be “bold decisions”, political will, backing to make decisions that weren’t popular, lawsuits, but it was all for what’s right for children.  (The transformation process was very difficult for George Hall.) He stated he supports Mrs. Ella Bell’s thoughts, and that as long as we are “making decisions that are right for children”, if you have to “go through a little fire to get to the other side”, that’s “perfectly okay”.

Mrs. Ella Bell added that she wanted to “state publicly” that she will support any entity that pushes the Torchbearer model because they are proven.  And that she would like the rest of the board to consider taking the same position.

Board member Mrs. Betty Peters then stated that she “found it very disturbing” that when the state was sold on Common Core State Standards the idea that children from one end of the country to the other would be learning the same curriculum was why Alabama joined in, and that now, if charters don’t have to follow these standards, “isn’t that kind of funny thinking”?

Bice responded that charter schools can choose to be aligned.  And he added that there is a lot to be worked out with the charter schools bill.

Peters asked to be informed about the next meetings of the legislature.

Peters asked if pre-K is now in the domain of the ALSDE.  Bice said, “No”.  He said that while the ALSDE talks a lot about pre-K, there is no state funding for pre-K and that it is not part of the allotment from the state, so there will be no funding coming from the local system or the state for pre-K.  Peters asked why pre-K is in the bill, and Bice responded that charters can serve pre-K, but that doesn’t mean the ALSDE will fund it.  Charters will be allowed to seek funding for pre-K through their own sources.

Mrs. Ella Bell asked if schools could charge tuition.  Bice said, “No”.  He added there are checks and balances to keep charters from becoming exclusionary.

Peters then said that it looked like charters did not have to provide teachers and staff with insurance.  Bice agreed that yes, that is what the bill states.  One of the draws of charter schools is that they can set their own salary schedule, and choose whether to participate in insurance or not.  Bice said that he visited a KIPP Academy in Georgia and that school didn’t provide insurance to its teachers, but that teachers chose to work there because they enjoyed the work.

Peters asked whether workmen’s compensation was offered, and Bice said he didn’t know.  [One thing to note here is that in Section 14(f), the current bill does say that charters “are subject to the same civil rights and health and safety requirements applicable to other public schools in the state, except as otherwise specifically provided in this act” and nothing is mentioned about workmen’s compensation.]  Bice reminded that it is the employee’s choice to work for the charter or not.

Peters asked if services can be contracted out to for-profit entities.  Bice said that in the current bill, yes.  Peters then stated, “oooh, well I’m against it now”.

Bice clarified to say that the authorizer must be a not-for-profit, non-religious entity, but that they then can set up a contract with a for-profit entity.

Board member Mrs. Stephanie Bell then asked if a model was used for the proposed legislation.  Bice responded that yes, they looked at Maine’s bill as a model and that a lot of work went into this with a lot of different groups.

[For a look at different state’s charter laws, check this out from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.  It is a state-by-state comparison and ranking of charter school laws.  Maine’s law ranks #1 in the country.]

Mrs. Ella Bell then asked Bice where Alabama stood in national rankings, reminding everyone that in 2001 when she joined the board, Alabama was near the bottom.  Bice responded that in the latest Quality Counts rankings, Alabama was 32nd, having fallen from 25th last year due to lower state funding.

Mrs. Ella Bell then asked why the legislature, “in its infinite wisdom would want to do this to our schools….except for some economic benefit, why would they dare to move like this?”  Bice responded that he couldn’t answer that.

Bice told the board that, as an example of the accomplishments Alabama is making, the report from America’s Promise identified Alabama as the 4th in the nation in making progress in reducing the high school dropout rate.  He added that we have some very positive things to build on and leverage, but we need to be equally willing to talk about the things we don’t do well, like achievement gaps.  [Go to this link for specific data about achievement gaps.]

Mrs. Ella Bell asked for talking points about what we’re doing well.  Bice said he would provide those, and he will also provide talking points on those things we’re not doing well and what we plan to do about it.

Mrs. Ella Bell stated that she believes that while the items on the agenda are important, there is no conversation more important than this one about charter schools.  She reminded Bice that each of them was elected by at least 100,000 people, and some by more than that number.  She stated that shows that they have the support of people who believe they are doing a “fairly decent job” of supporting the children.  She said they have each, in their tenure, moved education forward and that it is absolutely urgent that they get these points to share.  She stated she and other board members need to speak with authority about this issue and that she wanted to be prepared to write editorials and share this information as the debate moves forward.

Bice shared that he was encouraged by the response he has gotten by sharing Alabama’s story through Plan 2020 and felt that we are “at a tipping point” and should be proud of how we have moved and continue to move Alabama forward in education.

Mrs. Stephanie Bell agreed with Bice and shared that as she speaks with civic groups groups and shares the exceptional progress that Alabama has made, people are surprised because they have not heard it from other sources and we need to “get that message out there”.

Elliott then stated that he respectfully disagreed with Mrs. Ella Bell, that he felt the most important issue in the legislature right now is the General Fund deficit.  And yet the legislature is spending time on bills such as the one to keep bus drivers from talking on cell phones.  He made clear that he supports that legislation, but if the legislature was serious about our children, “rather than nibbling around the edges”, the legislature would take on the big issue of how to adequately fund services.  “They’re majoring in minors over there,” he added.

Mrs. Ella Bell wants to know how the board should be involved.  Bice assured the board he would get them a schedule of legislative events about the charter schools bill.

They started on the work outlined on the agenda.

Bice stated that there is a “groundswell of excitement” when he shares our successes and admissions of things that the board needs to work on.  And that they are going to do something about it.

Bice has found data for every area they’ve identified in Plan 2020.  Bice used the example that they can now identify the 15% of our schools and school systems that account for 98% of our dropouts.  That allows them to “repurpose” what they’re doing and support those schools and systems in a very focused way.

Bice continued.  This is a “real shift” for the department.  “We will now be able to differentiate and customize our support to all 132 school systems.  This means the people in this building are going to have to be nimble.”  He added that “what you were doing in this position five years ago may not be what you are going to be doing tomorrow because the needs of the children aren’t what they were five years ago.”

The ALSDE brought in the U.S. Education Delivery Institute (EDI) to help the ALSDE determine how well they are supporting local school systems and doing what they’re supposed to be doing.  The EDI interviewed their “customers”, including higher ed, post-secondary, teachers, principals…a “variety of folks that we serve” and got feedback about how they are doing their job and how they can do things better.  There was no charge for this service.  EDI is a non-profit and works to help state departments of education to “work smarter”.  EDI will issue a report and Bice will share it with the board.

He asked that the board engage in the work of Plan 2020 and take ownership.  He asked for each of the four areas, for two board members to take ownership in each area.  Specifically, he asked Stephanie Bell and Dr. Yvette Richardson to own Learners; Ella Bell and Dr. Elliott to own Support Systems; Betty Peters and Mary Scott Hunter to own Professionals; Randy McKinney and Gary Warren to own Schools and Systems.  While the board owns all of it, he asked for their specific guidance and ownership in these specific areas in order to hold him and others accountable.

Bice then said he has found a tool to keep this process transparent.  He said he is a firm believer that you have to “own it, name it and measure it on an ongoing basis”.  He showed the board a tool by eBOARD Solutions that will allow the board, the public, whomever, to track progress on Plan 2020 specific to actions and board meetings.  (You really ought to watch the presentation on ustream about this.  It starts at 40:24.)  Board members will receive iPads loaded with the software and it will help the board transform into a paperless system.  It will allow for total transparency (music to my ears!) in board and department work.  (You REALLY ought to watch the presentation….)

Going forward, all of the board’s actions will be connected to the metric in the software.  It allows them to measure how much of their time is spent on “the main thing”.

Next up, Career Technical Education (CTE).  Bice said that the Governor appointed him to be a part of the groups working at the state level with CTE.  Bice wants to ensure that the Workforce Development Councils across the state have K-12 representation at those meetings and is working out a way to make that happen.  Superintendents have been ex-officio members of those councils.

Bice is ensuring that students have a 4-year plan (presumably at the high school level) in place and that the path includes CTE and is looking at “revamping the whole guidance and counseling piece”.  He said they believe that we have “models we can take to scale”.

Bice mentioned meeting with the president of Kuder, a career planning system that they’ve worked with for the past three years.  We’ve used it for K-12, but it could be used by pre-K, post-secondary and other entities.  He wants us all to work together, perhaps in public-private partnerships so that we have a career planning process that we “don’t own in isolation”.

Bice mentioned that he is looking forward to working with Susan Price, the interim chancellor of the 2-year system.  They are looking at ways they can share space, people, and resources, to ensure that services are not duplicated.  They are working on a common definition of what a graduate is, so students can have a seamless K-12 to secondary experience.

Bice wants to appoint CTE representatives to the COS revision and textbook committee and will present an emergency rule to allow for those appointments.  He said we have missed good opportunities by not having CTE representatives as a part of these committees and is excited to add these representatives to the table.

Peters asked whether the meetings for COS and textbook adoptions could be moved to the summer to allow for the teachers not to have to be taken out of class, since these are often the very best teachers.  Bice is open to consideration. Peters mentioned that the problem may be that the legislature has to approve the committees and the legislature isn’t in session in the summer.  Bice will work on it.

Next up, CTE teacher certification.  Click this link to view the presentation.  It is best for you to read it yourself, but basically it allows for new pathways for potential teachers to become certified to teach career tech.  Bice said that superintendents have had concerns about these pathways and wanted a path for a renewable certificate at an earlier phase.

While not discussed, here is the document made available at the work session regarding proposed changes to the Teacher Education Chapter of the Alabama Administrative Code.  Bice described it as “cleanup”.

Names of those recommended for the Textbook committee for English/Language Arts were in the agenda.

Three people resigned from the Science COS committee, and substitutes’ names were in the agenda.  Just prior to the work session’s end (but I’m including it here for sake of clarification), McKinney asked if the reason for the resignations were personal or were they in disagreement over the curriculum.  Bice assured McKinney the reasons were personal and had nothing to do with the curriculum.

Teacher prep program for Spring Hill College will be recommended for approval.

Bice then encouraged the board to look for exemplary achievements in the schools and districts they represent and bring those forward to him for recognition at the state level.

Dr. Elliott then described the resolution commending St. Clair County High School for winning three national Quill and Scroll International Honor Society placements for High School Journalists in the 2011 Yearbook Excellence Contest. He expressed his admiration for the yearbook sponsor at St. Clair County High School.

While not on the agenda, Bice reminded the board that they had asked him to draw up a resolution asking the U.S. Department of Education to reconsider allowing those who earn an Alabama Occupational Diploma (AOD) to be counted as high school graduates.  Currently, those graduates who earn an AOD are not counted as holding a valid document of high school completion because the diploma does not allow them to enroll in colleges.  Bice said he is meeting with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Monday and while there wasn’t time to prepare and vote on the resolution, he has drafted a letter to Duncan.  The full text of the letter appears at 1:29:40 in the video.

Bice shared two stories of students who, because of the way the U.S. Department of Education requires calculation of the 4-year graduation rate, will not be counted as such.  One young man was in a car accident and missed a year of school but is on track to graduate as the valedictorian of his school, yet he will not be counted in the 4-year graduation rate of the school.  Additionally, when a child dies, if a school system does not obtain a death certificate to document the child’s death, the deceased child is counted as a dropout.  Bice felt strongly that these two examples were evidence of the need to reconsider how the graduation rate is calculated.

The work session adjourned at 12:42 p.m.

The next Board Meeting will be held on April 12, 2012.  The next Board work session will be held on April 26, 2012.

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