A Stake in the Ground: Removing the disconnects

During his address to the Demopolis Rotary Club last week, Alabama State Department of Education Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice observed that there exists a gulf between public education and industry within the state. After only 11 months on the job, Bice is well aware that bridging that divide is paramount to the success of Alabama’s public education system and to the state as a whole.

“I never thought when I took this job last January that I would spend more time with business and industry than I would with education, but that’s where I’ve spent the majority of my time because when we looked at our data, the thing we realized was the huge disconnect from what we were producing as a graduate and what business and industry was expecting,” Bice said during his address. “(We) began to really listen to business and industry in what are those skills, what is the knowledge, what are those things you need to have a successful employee, whether it is straight out of high school, whether it is from two years of technical school, whether it is four years of college, whatever.”

In asking questions and conducting research, Bice and his staff came face to face with an uncomfortable truth of which he had already been suspicious.

“As a result of that, we realized just how disconnected we were because of No Child Left Behind and Adequate Yearly Progress,” Bice said, referencing government-mandated educational standards that have done little but fail Alabama’s students. “We’ve been shooting toward an end game that was imposed on us from Washington that hasn’t been connected at all with what business and industry needs. Ten years ago when it was put in place, it was the right thing. But it should have changed years before now. We in Alabama have made the decision we’re changing anyway.”

Key in the ALSDE’s decision to change its standards is the redefining of a high school graduate within the State of Alabama. Rather than having a test-centric education as so many of their predecessors have achieved, future graduates from state school systems will be equipped with a more societally friendly education.

“(Since) February of last year, we have come forward with a new definition of a graduate. Our goal is that every child graduate, but most importantly is that they’re prepared,” Bice said. “What we mean by prepared is that there should be no reason for a graduate in the State of Alabama to have to take a remedial course in a two-year or a four-year college. And if they do, somebody at the K-12 level needs to be responsible for that.”

In his numerous discussions with business and industry leaders, Bice has discovered that many Alabama graduates have largely been unable to apply the knowledge that accompanies their education. Those same leaders have expressed their desire to see a shift in that trend.

“That they can take math and science and know how to collaborate with a group of coworkers and solve problems that may not have an obvious answer. How to critically think in a situation where they may have never been placed before,” Bice said of the skills Alabama graduates must receive in order to be effective in the workplace. “What I heard from business and industry is that it really doesn’t matter if they know math and science if they can’t do anything with it. Regretfully, for a decade, we’ve been preparing them to take a test rather than preparing them for you. We’ve put a stake in the ground that that will no longer be the case.”

The initiative is known as Plan 2020, carrying with it an eight-year window in which to get public education products – Alabama’s graduates – in line with what the world of business and industry needs.

“We call it Plan 2020 because our goal is that by 2020, we’ll have 90 percent graduation rate and every one of those graduates will have the skills – not only academic – but those essential skills to be a quality employee, a quality citizen and not have to have a need for remediation,” Bice said. “We’ve put new standards in place for our academic expectations. This year, they’re in mathematics. Our expectation for students in math are now much, much higher than they’ve ever been before.”

Bice said implementing Plan 2020 begins with helping teachers to find a new way to challenge students as they attempt to help pupils find a new form of collaborative problem solving skills previously foreign in most academic environments.

“That sounds like a huge stretch, but the mathematics stayed the same. The thinking changed; the thinking of the teacher, the thinking of the student,” Bice said. “I’ve worked in a lot of school systems in the State of Alabama and have absolutely no doubt that our students can make this shift to a different way of learning. Our biggest challenge is for the adults in the equation to teach differently.”

But Plan 2020 will not find success if Bice and his staff are unable to rectify the other significant disconnect within the state. That disconnect has left Alabama’s K12 system on an island unto itself in relation to the other arms of that state’s public education system.

“The other thing we want to make sure we’re doing is that we’re efficient in this new work. We have K12 education in the state of Alabama. We have our community college system in the state of Alabama. We have higher education system in the state and we have business and industry who, at the end of that continuum, ultimately is the customer,” Bice said. “I found it awfully surprising when I took this position a year ago that the head of K12, which is now me, the head of postsecondary, the head of the colleges in the state of Alabama and business and industry had never sat down together to talk about how can we work together to solve this problem. But we have now.”

The product of those discussions, aside from the redefinition of a graduate and the alteration of the way in which education will be implemented, is a renewed focus on consolidating resources and maximizing opportunities.

“We’ve come to agreement that if we align our resources and stop duplicating resources, we have more than enough resources to do the work we’re asking to do, Bice said. “We’ve started a process, specifically in career and technical education, which is going to have a predominant place in our plan as we move forward. If we can identify in every high school in the State of Alabama, based on the workforce development council for that area, what the short-term and long-term projected jobs are for that area and make sure that our programs in career and technical education are aligned to those, that they are aligned to the community college programs, there can be a direct feed into business and industry. And we’ve never done that before.”

Part two 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.