Bice focuses on Plan 2020 during Demopolis stop

Dr. Tommy Bice“You’ve got to be disruptive to make things happen,” Dr. Tommy Bice, state Superintendent of Education, told the audience at Demopolis High School Thursday night.

“There’s not a one way” to do things, and under Plan 2020 each school system has the flexibility to set up innovative ways to reach and teach students.

Bice is on a 12-stop tour of cities around the state to speak on “The Future of Public Education,” preparing all students to be college- and career-ready. Demopolis was his second stop.

The mostly supportive audience of about 75 people listened as Bice in a rapid-fire manner told how school districts across the state are implementing new and different ways of increasing graduation percentages, lowering drop-out rates, and teaching subjects so that students will be ready to enter into the 21st century workforce.

Bice, who took over as superintendent in 2012, said his first goal was to challenge the status quo in the state and shake the belief that all education must take place in the same way it has been for decades.

Visiting with business and industry leaders and college administrators, Bice asked what Alabama graduates were lacking. He was surprised that so many said those graduates lacked intellectual curiosity.

One of the first things that the state Board of Education has eliminated is the Alabama High School Graduation Exam, which, said Bice, “didn’t mean anything.” He said 97 percent of seniors passed the exam, but of those who took the ACT exam for college entrance, more than half had to take remedial courses.

Now the state is using a different assessment tied to the ACT test but has begun tracking student progress in the third grade.

“The biggest challenge is redefining what the measure of success is,” he said. It has changed from annual yearly progress as set up by the No Child Left Behind initiative to college- and career-readiness.

Andrea Mayfield“It takes behavioral changes on the part of adults” to make progress, said Bice. He said the biggest obstacles are those he called “CAVE” dwellers – Citizens Against Virtually Everything. “We want a system that serves children and not us,” he stressed.

Each week Bice makes an unannounced visit to a school somewhere in the state to see what schools are doing to meet their challenges and discover how students are making a practical application to what they learn.

He has found that some schools have done away with desks and seat children around a table to interact with each other. He found a fifth grade class writing computer codes to send robotic cars around a grid. Another class used the math they had learned to build a small house in their classroom in one day.

In shaking up the state school system, new standards have been implemented, which has led to opposition by those who believe the federal government is forcing local school systems to comply with certain regulations known as Common Core.

In Alabama, Bice explained, those standards are known as College- and Career- Readiness Standards. “We took the Common Core and added standards to it,”

“I am the only living human being in the state of Alabama who was at the first meeting in 2008” with superintendents from several other states who were discussing how standards are set up in their respective states.

“We all realized we were doing a lot of the same work,” he said, and they asked themselves, “Would it not make more sense than if we look at the best from all our different states, put them together into something we could all share and talk about?”

The states got together and began setting up common standards. Those standards were brought back to Alabama where teachers, administrators and parents began evaluating them. Some were eliminated and others added to.

Since the standards were implemented three years ago, he joked, no federal agency has called him to ask about the state standards. “We get to do our own thing. There is no federal oversight. “

Bice stressed that he is an independent when it comes to politics. “I think it’s insulting that a political party should tell me what to do.”

He said people are wanting to make Common Core the political topic of the year, “and regretfully this is not good for kids.”

He said other arguments against Common Core standards do not apply locally. Alabama is the only state in the nation with assessments aligned with ACT from grades three through 12. It is not part of the federally-funded assessment consortium associated with Common Core.

It is one of three states that did not get a federally-funded data system grant which required data being handled outside of Alabama, and all student data is housed with the Alabama Super Computer Authority in Huntsville. “Not one thing leaves the borders of the state of Alabama.”

Bice was challenged for taking a 26 percent pay hike when teachers didn’t receive anything. He said he didn’t ask for a raise, only for an extension to his contract, but to accept the contract, he had to accept the raise.

A concern about the arts being cut from schools led Bice to say that some people see the arts as an add-on, but the common thread in lower performing schools is that they no longer have any arts program.

Dr. Andrea Mayfield, the new president of Shelton State Community College, led off the evening and announced that the college will begin teaching truck driver training in Demopolis at the former New Era site beginning October 17.

“Education today is something that drives our economy, and it is important that we express our passion for education,” she said.

“The community college is unique in that it provides opportunities for anyone, no matter where they are in the educational process,” she continued.

Jay Reynolds, founder of the Demopolis Area Business Council, thanked the educators in the room. “Education is what separates how bright our future can be.”

Reynolds said he already has seen some of the changes at DHS since Bice’s Plan 2020 was implemented and giving schools the flexibility to come up with innovative ideas unique to their own situations.

One of those plans at DHS is the start of Insurance Service curriculum, which Reynolds has helped design.