In January, the state board of education celebrated Alabama’s record high school graduation rate of 89%. State superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice gave “100 percent of the credit” for the meteoric rise from 72% to 89% in a five-year period “to our school systems, to our teachers, to our leaders, to our communities, to the people who have come together to come up with a myriad of ways to serve our school children.” Governor Robert Bentley attended the celebration.
Alabama Teacher of the Year Jennifer Brown brought more than a dozen lawmakers and policymakers into classrooms at Vestavia Hills High School where she teaches tenth grade science during 2016.
After reading Marsh’s bill reforming teacher evaluations, Brown knew she needed to do something to help lawmakers and policymakers see what’s really happening in Alabama’s schools.
So Brown tweeted this invitation from the airport on the way home from a Teacher of the Year conference in Texas in January where she learned Arizona’s Teacher of the Year regularly invited lawmakers into her classroom.
Invite a legislator to your classroom this week. Educators are the only ones who can change this conversation!! pic.twitter.com/SZTdeEYqt2
— Jennifer Brown (@jbrownaps) January 24, 2016
“I know there’s one thing we all have in common–legislators, teachers, parents–we all care about kids,” Brown said, adding, “I feel like it’s important for legislators to talk with teachers and students. Legislators need to see the innovative things happening in our classrooms. Real learning is taking place in school.”
Teachers across the state sent invitations to their lawmakers, too, to show them what’s happening in classrooms today.
“We want [legislators] in our schools. We want them to be a part of this teaching and learning process. We want them to see what we’re doing and we want to help shape legislation to help schools always improve. We have to figure out how that improvement benefits students.”
In September, the Alabama Public Charter School Commission approved the Mobile Area Education Foundation’s application to open the Accel Day and Evening Academy, designed for students 16 and older who have dropped out or fallen behind.
The foundation plans to open Accel in August 2017 with an initial enrollment of 300 students, with plans to expand to 350 students in five years.
The state commission hears all proposals for charter schools to operate in areas where the local board of education does not serve as a charter authorizer. In November, Alabama had only two local boards registered as authorizers: Birmingham City and Athens City schools.
Even though the Alabama Education Association is struggling to reinvent itself, teachers still made an impact during the 2016 regular legislative session.
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, sponsored legislation calling for teacher evaluation reforms, which drew strong response from the education community. Alabama Teacher of the Year Jennifer Brown led the opposition, calling for Marsh to eliminate a controversial way to measure teacher effectiveness based on student test score changes from year to year.
Many changes were made to the bill, called the RAISE (Rewarding Advancement in Instruction and Student Excellence) Act, which won over some opponents, but Marsh ultimately shelved the bill for the session.
One component was revived attached to the teacher pay raise bill, which said no additional salary would be paid for advanced degrees earned by teachers unless related to the subject taught, with a couple of exceptions beginning with the 2017-2018 school year.
Dr. Tommy Bice stunned the education community on March 1 when he announced he would retire at the end of March. “There comes a time when you decide that the time is right, and that time is now,” Bice said at a news conference at his office. “I will return to where my greatest passion lies — working with inner city students, their teachers and leaders to transform not only the educational opportunities for students, but the communities in which they live,” Bice said in a news release.
Bice said public education had improved under his watch, and pointed to the state’s 89 percent graduation rate as one of those accomplishments.
Bice had held the position since November 2011. Before that, he was a deputy superintendent. Before joining the state Department of Education, he was superintendent of the Alexander City school system.
After taking time off, Bice became education director of the Mike and Gillian Goodrich Foundation, based in Birmingham.
Deputy Superintendent of Career Technical Education and Workforce Development Philip Cleveland was named interim superintendent.
After interviewing six candidates and a confusing vote, the state board of education named education consultant Michael Sentance as Alabama’s state superintendent in August. Three Alabama superintendents sought the position. Some educators started a petition asking the board to rescind its vote, citing Sentance’s lack of experience in the classroom. Sentance held a similar position during a period of improvement in Massachusetts’ schools.
Governor Bentley told attendees at a November Alabama Association of Regional Councils Conference in Montgomery, “Our education system in this state sucks.” Reaction from education leaders across the state was swift, but Bentley doubled down on his comments in a video response, saying “We can’t keep telling ourselves what we want to hear. Alabama’s dead last, and that must change.” Bentley said he started a conversation with his remarks and said, “let’s all do something about it now.”
Bentley’s remarks came after newly-hired Alabama superintendent Michael Sentance proclaimed in October that Alabama’s students are facing a math crisis, citing Alabama’s low ranking on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
State lawmakers in April unanimously passed the state’s largest education budget and largest pay raise for school employees since the Great Recession.
The $6.3 billion budget increased spending for K-12 schools, community colleges, four-year universities and other programs, by 5.6 percent over the previous year. Employees earning less than $75,000 were given a 4 percent raise, while those earning $75,000 or more were given a 2 percent raise. Principals and assistant principals were given a 4 percent raise regardless of current pay. Prior to a 2 percent cost of living raise in 2014, educators had not had any raise since 2007.
Five years in the making, Alabama’s school report cards were released the Friday before Christmas with no fanfare, no press release. Overall, the state fared well on the indicators, earning 89 points out of 100 for improvements students made in math and reading, 59 out of 100 for achievement, and 89 points out of 100 for the graduation rate indicator, which is a blend of four- and five-year graduation rates.
Each of Alabama’s 137 school districts earned points on those three indicators plus a local indicator, chosen by each district as an area of measurable focus. Though the state school board chose not to calculate overall grades until additional indicators are released in December 2017, AL.com calculated grades for each school district based on the available points for each indicator and the weights assigned to those indicators by the state.
Sixteen of Alabama’s districts earned A’s, and only one district earned an F. For complete district scores, click here. To look at individual schools’ scores, look up each one on the state department’s “A-F Report Card page.”
Alabama’s graduation rate, third-highest in the nation, might have been too good to be true after all. AL.com reported federal officials were asking questions about Alabama’s graduation rate in November. Alabama superintendent Michael Sentance told state school board members in December that the investigation turned up diplomas that were “not honestly earned.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General found the state department was unable to properly oversee local school districts’ reporting of graduation rates, Sentance said. Preliminary findings also showed local districts were counting students in special education as graduates after state officials were told by federal officials to count those students as completers instead of graduates.
It’s unclear how widespread the problem is, but Sentance said he doesn’t anticipate grad rates being re-calculated. Sentance said the state department bears the responsibility, calling it a “black eye for the department” and said, “So many of the schools are doing the right thing. And for this brush to be painted broadly is terribly sad.”
Sentance said he has not been told when the OIG’s audit report will be released.