A Stake in the Ground: Don’t trust the headlines

U.S. Jones Elementary School Principal Dr. Tony Speegle, Alabama State Department of Education Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice, Demopolis City Schools Superintendent Dr. Al Griffin and Demopolis High School Principal Leon Clark.

The face of public education in Alabama is changing. At least,  that was the crux of the message delivered by Alabama State Department of Education Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice last week when he addressed members of the Demopolis Rotary Club at the group’s weekly meeting.

Bice, who stepped into his current role Jan. 1, has spent much of the last 11 months evaluating the state of the state’s public education system.

While he found a number of areas that need considerable and immediate reform, Bice also discovered that the state has made tremendous advances in a number of categories.

“Public education in Alabama doesn’t always get a lot of credit for some of the work we do. Regretfully, it takes people from outside the state of Alabama to point out some of those things,” Bice said. “The things where we are doing well is Alabama ranks first in the nation – not 50th, not 49th, not 30th, not 25th but first in the nation – in fourth grade reading gains of any state in the nation from 2003 to 2011. That is a huge accomplishment that our teachers in our schools have done and has set us on a trajectory to do something extremely important for those students once they leave fourth grade. That’s on a test that is given in every state in the nation, the only test that’s given in every state in the nation.”

In addition to the success of its elementary school readers, the state education system has also set a new benchmark in its graduation rate. Frequently thought of as having a less-than-stellar graduation rate, Alabama has – according to Bice – improved markedly in terms of producing graduates.

“Alabama’s graduation rate right now is 72 percent. And while that may not sound great, it’s actually the highest it has ever been since records have been kept in the state of Alabama,” Bice said. “It’s the first time that it has ever been measured the same in all 50 states, which means that a student enters as a ninth grader and if they don’t graduate in four years, they don’t count as a graduate, regardless of what their status is.”

Alabama schools have also garnered accolades in two other key areas: declining dropout rate and increasing advanced placement enrollment.

America’s Promise Alliance, an organization headed up by former general Colin Powell, recently recognized Alabama schools for dramatic improvements in annual dropout rate.

“They look for states that are doing groundbreaking work in shifting the dropout rate to a higher graduation rate. Recently Alabama was spotlighted as one of 12 states in the nation showing the most positive change in turning dropout around and making higher graduation rates,” Bice said. “Within that 12, (Alabama) was ranked third in the nation for having the highest percentage gained in graduation rate over the last four years. Our folks are doing some unbelievable things.”

Bice indicated that the state’s success in turning dropouts into graduates is intricately related to shifting state policies that allow schools more autonomy in the way they serve their respective communities.

“We’re giving some flexibility back to local school systems to be innovative and creative rather than trying to regulate 134 schools systems and 1,500 schools as if they are all the same,” Bice said.

In addition to the acknowledgment from America’s Promise, Alabama schools also rank tops in the country in terms of an increased number of students enrolling in advanced placement courses.

“Alabama, three weeks ago, was recognized as leading the nation, No. 1 in the nation, in the percentage gained of students enrolling in advanced placement and achieving qualifying scores on an advanced placement test,” Bice said.

Alabama’s successes in that area, according to Bice, are connected to a shift in the way schools are promoting advanced placement courses across demographic lines.

“We right now have about 20,000 students that are involved in that program, children of color and children of poverty that would have never been placed in an advanced placement course because, regretfully, when we looked four years ago at what that population looked like, it looked very middle class and very white because only those children who had parents who were educated were pushing their children to go into those rigorous courses,” Bice said. “So we knew that there were children who did not have parents to push them that could do that same level of work. Over this four-year period of time, we’ve seen a 200 percent increase in the number of minority and poverty students and a 300 percent increase in children of color and poverty students getting qualifying scores.”

Bice noted that the success of Alabama students on advanced placement tests last year saved Alabama families approximately $17 million in college tuition.

“So when you hear that public education in Alabama hasn’t been doing well, I would say maybe the right headline hasn’t been in the paper,” Bice said. “There are some exceptional things going on.”

Still, while the state has experienced marked gains in some areas, Bice’s battle is only just beginning. The majority of his address focused on the failures of the state’s public education system and what will be done to alter the paradigm.

“That’s exactly why I wanted to be state superintendent. I wanted to see how can we take a state bureaucracy and turn into something that actually serves children and doesn’t serve itself,” Bice said of the need to change the culture of the state’s education system. “Just to show how serious we are about turning the ship around and making it something you’ll all be proud of is, we totally reorganized the department to be more efficient. We’ve taken 26 disparate pieces of work and condensed them into four to make sure that, on a daily basis, we’re able to serve the 740,000 students that today are in public schools. The 1,500 schools that we have in Alabama and the 134 school systems that we have. It’s a huge operation with almost 90,000 employees when you take into account teachers, aides, bus drivers, lunchroom workers. So it’s a massive body of work, but it’s one that, for far too many years, we’ve allowed the system to drive the product rather than letting the product drive our decision-making. And we’ve put a stake in the ground to make sure that we change that.”

This is part one of a five-part series on the changing face of Alabama’s education system. The series is taken from an address state superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice gave to the Demopolis Rotary Club last week. Stories will be posted at noon each day.