While there wasn’t much of anything new discussed at this work session, there was some very interesting discussion among board members about the state of public education in Alabama and what their concerns are. Those comments are best heard with your own ears, but I will give you a glimpse into their discussion to hopefully entice you to tune in for yourself.
I believe that it is very important for those of us who are affected by the policies and regulations that are created to govern public education in Alabama to understand how those who are elected to create those policies and regulations are thinking about our K-12 public education system in Alabama. The ALSDE has done a tremendously valuable service by allowing the work sessions and board meetings to be broadcast via the Internet. This gives an unprecedented look inside the workings of our state board of education to see not only WHAT rules and policies they create, but WHY they are created.
As a strong believer in the broader school community’s participation in policy- and rule-setting, along with active governance by the school community of our public schools, seeing government in action is a key to calling us to action. We have no excuse not to know what it is our leaders in education are considering. Our Superintendent, Dr. Tommy Bice, with full approval of our state board of education, is implementing changes in public education at lightning speed. We must understand how those changes affect our children, our schools, and the future of public education in Alabama.
The material discussed was basically a repeat of the September work session, with a few tweaks and changes.
Chief of Staff Dr. Craig Pouncey went over the preliminary FY14 budget numbers again, stating again that he expects there to be an additional $400+ million to be available in the Education Trust Fund and that he hopes that there will be an equitable split among higher ed and K-12 based proportionally on the number of students participating at each level.
Bice stated he wanted to be very clear that his statements about a proposed cost of living adjustment were only estimates of what a one percent increase would be, not that he only wanted employees to receive a one percent increase.
Board President Pro Tem Mrs. Ella Bell began by asking questions about transportation and reimbursable routes for school systems. Pouncey stated that the state department of education will reimburse school systems for routes that pick up students 2 miles from the school. He stated that if there is a safety issue (which as an example he gave a 4-lane highway with no sidewalks), the state could reimburse a school system for that route if the school system brings that to their attention. Bell appeared to have a particular bus route in mind and eventually told Pouncey that she would pick Pouncey up and drive him to that location for him to determine whether the bus route was safe.
“Guaranteed Graduate” has been changed to “Prepared Graduate Project”, due in part to Board member Randy McKinney’s concerns at the last work session. This program has to do with having a “shared definition” among pre-K, K-12, post secondary, higher ed and business and industry to define what that prepared graduate would look like. After a recent meeting with the various groups mentioned, Bice is encouraged that a shared definition is closer than he thought it was. He wants all areas to be aligned so that the end product is a student who is ready for college or a career.
The Comprehensive Human Capital Plan has to do with ensuring that school professionals are supported. Obviously, they want to recruit the best and brightest to the teaching profession. The deans of the colleges of education are receptive to better alignment of teacher preparation and real-world experience for teachers.
Bice hopes to reinstitute the new teacher induction and mentoring program that was one of the unfortunate victims of funding cuts over the years.
The Professional Pathways program allows for teachers who have shown leadership ability to continue on a leadership path but not necessarily to become administrators. Instead, they could become, among other paths, coaches to be used in a similar way that the Alabama Reading Initiative uses teachers as coaches. Teachers then may be able to continue in the classroom, an aspect some teachers miss when they advance into administrative roles. Bice stated that master teachers serve by helping their fellow teachers and the Pathways program is a way of allowing them to do that.
The TAPSystem program, administered by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, sounds similar in nature and is currently in place in 350 school systems across the country. I have no idea if this is similar at all to what Bice has in mind, as the details have yet to be released.
Board member Dr. Charles Elliott asked specifically what the special education requirements for teachers in teacher prep programs are. Bice responded that teachers are currently required to take only one course in special education. Elliott said that the board must insist that our teachers “come better prepared out of these institutions (teacher prep programs) to take care of students with a variety of exceptionalities”. Bice stated he is having those conversations with higher ed officials and knows that preparing teachers to teach a variety of learners is key to success in our schools.
Board member Randy McKinney (who did not seek re-election this year) expressed concerns over divisors and class sizes. He stated that he believes the board should set a policy governing the maximum class size allowable in a classroom.
SIDEBAR: Divisors and class size are not the same thing: divisors are numbers that are used to divvy up state monies; class size is the actual number of students in a classroom. Current divisors are: 14.25 in K-3, 21.85 in grades 4 to 6, 20.45 in grades 7 and 8, and 18.45 in grades 9 through 12. Here is the latest incarnation of how funds are divvied up, if you’re interested. And, if you’re really curious, dig through this to see how the Foundation Program works.
Pouncey said the state has not set a maximum class size restriction for schools. He said that if the state imposed a maximum class size limit, but didn’t fund the units, that would, in effect, be forcing the local districts to spend local money they probably don’t have.
McKinney stated that he does not believe that the state has considered the “damage” caused when class sizes get too large.
Pouncey reminded everyone that more than 1,300 teaching positions have been lost in the last couple of years. He added that there is a “significant flaw” in the Foundation Program (the formula/calculations/rules used to divvy up state funding to local school systems) in the way that it funds teacher units in middle schools. McKinney and Pouncey tossed around the phrase “38 to 40 students in a middle school classroom” as evidence of the flaw that should be addressed.
McKinney re-iterated that he believes the board should pass a policy to set a maximum class size.
Elliott offered his thoughts: “The price that we pay for [legislators being able to craft a balanced budget] is the fact that we don’t have enough teachers to take care of our needs in our classrooms.”
McKinney then expressed his concern over the proper assignment of state-funded teacher units, stating that if teacher units are being assigned to coaches instead of being used to positively support academics, the state board needs to look at that.
Board Vice President Stephanie Bell stated that she was part of the board when the board last addressed divisors with the legislature, and she believes it should be addressed with the legislature again. Pouncey stated that the last time the board addressed class size was in 1998, done by resolution. These are the class sizes suggested by the board at that time. He suggested that the board look at the recent research on class size and recommend to the governor a proper set of divisors to determine funding.
[Here’s some recent research from the Southern Regional Educational Board about class sizes. Here’s the most recent document I could find about class size policies across the country. That last document has Alabama’s information wrong, though, because it’s not a “hard cap”, just a suggested one.]
Board member Dr. Yvette Richardson asked Bice and Pouncey to make certain that superintendents are hiring teachers for classrooms first, not coaches who can teach.
Pouncey said that the Foundation Program does not dictate teacher type (e.g., English teacher, band teacher, special education), and that while the state department of education does recommend a certain number of teachers for special education, they do not hold districts to that number because populations vary from district to district.
Pouncey said that in the past couple of years, the legislature saw the divisors as a means by which to balance appropriations based on anticipated revenues. For example, increase a divisor by 1, and you save $100 million. The legislature saw raising the divisors as a very simplistic way to balance the budget.
McKinney stated the board should set a policy for maximum class sizes. Elliott added that the allotments for special education teachers are less than what schools need as it is expensive to educate children with special needs.
Pouncey stated that Plan 2020 includes taking a look at funding school districts based in part on their needs should they have higher than normal special populations. He believes the system should be aligned toward adequacy and not just equity.
Mrs. Ella Bell shared her thoughts on what is going on in the classroom. She used her grandson’s experience to illustrate this. She said there are children who are discipline problems that interfere with the quality of education in the classroom. She stated that “we have mastered the art of educating the bright child”, but are not doing that for the masses of children. She asked Bice how best to address this problem. Bice indicated they will consider the alternatives and bring something back to the board for their consideration.
Next up was mention of a method to recognize systems that are successful, allowing them flexibility in budgeting and spending the funds allotted to them. The recognition program is one that used to be available, but funding dried up. The ALSDE is charged with determining a grading and recognition system for schools due to the law that the Alabama legislature passed in the 2012 session. That grading and recognition system is also part of the state’s ESEA Flexibility Waiver Request.
The Healthy Kids and Families initiative involves taking the different agencies that serve children and asking the governor to task the ALSDE and these agencies to come together and work to serve children, similar to a model for service delivery that UCLA uses. Folks from UCLA will be coming to Alabama on November 16 to discuss how to bring their model to Alabama.
Next up, funding for Arts Education. Bice feels strongly about providing $5 million for Arts Education. This would be a grant-type program where schools would have to work with other arts agencies in their communities. Bice also wants to add arts back to the teacher prep programs in the state.
Mrs. Ella Bell asked about funding for gifted students. Bice said that there is a specific line item that provides $1 million for gifted education. Bice added he believes it is “not enough”. Bell asked if funding could be increased to match the Arts funding. Bice and Pouncey agreed that could be considered.
Board member Betty Peters asked Bice to “put a star” by the item that will push arts preparation in teacher prep programs. She asked if that is something the board could push, and Bice said yes, that the board sets that expectation because they approve the teacher prep programs. Elliott stated that there are dollars that are out there already that could be accessed by local school systems with Arts Councils and other agencies that are available to help our schools. Coordinating those efforts is a challenge, though.
Bice hopes to place $5 million of new state funding into Pre-K efforts. Mrs. Ella Bell emphasized the need for real collaboration among agencies such as HeadStart and the ALSDE. Bice said that all parties are at the table of this discussion. He mentioned that the Alabama School Readiness Alliance (ASRA) is doing good work in this area.
Regarding the category of “Educational Funding” Bice hopes that the state board will create a commission to study the current funding model in Alabama and see if there is a better way to fund areas of high needs.
In addition, Bice hopes to increase funding for the Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) by $10 million, ACCESS learning by $5 million, Advanced Placement (AP) initiative by $3 million and Career and Technical Education (CTE) by $3 million.
At 49 minutes, 40 seconds into the work session, Mrs. Ella Bell began to share her concerns about education in Alabama. She began by saying she is in “an absolute quandary” about the quality of traditional education for the masses of students. She said she is getting “more and more disgusted by the day” by what she sees in traditional educational programming.
Bice said he sees it differently, as he is in one school every week, on purpose, to ensure he stays grounded. He sees the progress that schools are making.
Mrs. Bell appeared to be concerned with the one school that she is in on a regular basis (perhaps her grandson’s, as she mentions it from time to time as well as later in this work session).
Elliott shared that yes, he is disappointed as well, but he has talked with educators that are exceptional, who are doing so much with so little, particularly in the rural schools. He said these schools are “remarkably underresourced”, but he remains hopeful. The “resources are inadequate” that the state is providing in order to help children who have so far to go. He believes the opportunity exists to do really great things.
Bice said he is pleased that this year, the state board, unlike in years past, is going to the governor on the front end and asking for what they need to properly resource our schools. He called it a “bold step” for the board to lead in that way.
McKinney then stepped up on what he termed his “soapbox”. He said he believed that there are two ends of the spectrum and have done a great disservice. One the one end, people who want more funding paint things as dire, disgusting, disappointing, and awful. On the other end of the spectrum they talk about waste, abuse, etc. He believes the truth is somewhere in between the two ends of the spectrum. Somewhere in between the two extremes is where education does occur.
He said they need to correct the things they don’t do so well, but that they also need to talk about the positive things that are going well. He believes in putting a quality teacher in every classroom, and that’s when education can occur at a quality level. He agrees that it’s not happening in every school. “We have for years allowed teachers to remain in classrooms that are not quality teachers. Until we get a quality teacher in every classroom, we are not going to accomplish what we want to accomplish.”
Teacher prep programs must produce quality teachers, and superintendents must manage their personnel properly without the political aspect, and “they have to work bad teachers out of the system”. Teaching is a privilege, and “most teachers accept that privilege with glowing reviews”. If a student gets a bad teacher two times in a row, that student is “pretty well lost”. He believes that putting a quality teacher in every classroom, ensuring resources are properly allocated and used, and “we have a higher level of expectation of what we’re going to get for the input we have”. More money would help, but many schools are very successful and are high-performing.
We can’t keep using the crutch of not having enough money as being the reason that we’re not as good as we could be, he added.
Mrs. Ella Bell stated that she uses Calhoun Community College as the standard for a two-year college. Beginning around 57 minutes, she shares that she “had no business ever seeing [George Hall Elementary in Mobile] with my own eyes”. She said she told her grandson’s principal, “I’m not asking you for a Forest Avenue, but I am asking you for a George Hall”.
She added that her grandson’s school “has no business not being a George Hall. I detest the fact that someone tries to make me think that it has to be anything less. I mean I detest it to the point where if I had plenty of money, I’d have the best lawyers suing them right now….because I think it’s a disgrace…to even know that that school exists in Mobile and everything is like it is in Montgomery County. I really do. I really do….this is because I think and I believe that the great state of Alabama has the blessings of having citizens and children and natural resources that could virtually make us the very best state in the nation. And I resent the fact that there are people who are holding us back.”
Check out this link if you want to hear her words for yourself. This nearly-3-minute highlight only contains Mrs. Ella Bell’s plea for all schools to be George Halls. [I appreciate her sense of urgency.]
Pouncey and Bice then asked the board to send any further input about these issues to them as soon as possible as they will be combining all that has been discussed to share with the legislature.
The remainder of the agenda regarded resolutions that will be considered at the regular meeting, and adopting code changes related to the FY13 apportionment of funds.
The board meets on November 8 in a Regular Meeting, to be followed by a Work Session. It is the only time they will meet in November. There will be only one meeting in December as well, on December 13.