K-12 Education Ranks as the #1 Priority Among Alabama Voters

In late 2017, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) surveyed Alabama voters to determine their thoughts about the general direction of the state and the issues that most concern them. PARCA partnered with Samford University to survey policy professionals from across the state including academics, journalists, business and nonprofit leaders, and lobbyists. Their responses provided a list of 17 critical issues facing Alabama. PARCA partnered with USA Polling at the University of South Alabama to ask registered voters about these 17 issues. The voters’ responses generated the Top Ten list of voter priorities. Details about the survey and its methodology can be found in the full Alabama Priorities report.

Alabama Priorities

1. K-12 Education
2. Healthcare
3. Government Corruption and Ethics
4. Mental Health and Substance Abuse
5. Poverty and Homelessness
6. Jobs and the Economy
7. Crime and Public Safety
8. Job Training and Workforce Development
9. Improving the State's Image
10. Tax Reform

Key Findings

  • Voters broadly agree on the critical issues facing the state.
  • Voters are not polarized along traditional political, ideological, racial, or generational lines. There is a significant gap between the priorities of experts and the priorities of voters.
  • Policymakers have an opportunity to inform and educate voters on critical and systemic challenges facing the state.
  • Policymakers have an opportunity to respond to immediate, often highly personal issues that concern voters.
  • Elected officials and candidates have an opportunity to show leadership and to build broad coalitions to address Alabama’s most pressing challenges.

This summer and fall, PARCA will produce summary briefs on each of the top ten priorities chosen by Alabama voters. Each brief will answer four critical questions: what is the issue, why it matters, how Alabama compares, and what options are available to Alabama policymakers.

#1: K-12 Education

What is the issue?

K-12 public education is the highest concern for voters in Alabama. Seventy percent said they were very concerned, and this issue cuts across all political parties as a major concern. Eighty percent of Democrats indicate they are very concerned, followed by 60% of Republicans and 66% of independents. The key concerns cited by voters included funding, teacher preparation, class size, and low student achievement.


Forty-four percent of voters said that funding was their top priority related to education.

Alabama ranks 39th among the 50 states when it comes to per-pupil spending on K-12 education. According to data from the Alabama Department of Education, there is a wide disparity between spending in Alabama school systems, ranging from over $12,000 per student in Mountain Brook to $7,615 per pupil in Autauga County.

In 2015 Augenblick, Palaich, and Associates (APA) was commissioned by the Alabama Department of Education to study the adequacy and equity of school funding in the state.

To determine adequacy, APA looked to see what successful districts in Alabama spend per student. They also formed fifteen panels of school representatives from across the state tasked with estimating the resources needed to educate any student in Alabama and meet state standards. Chart 1 shows that the expenditures of state and local funds per student across the state in 2013 was considerably less than the estimated expenditure per student needed to provide an adequate good education, as estimated by the two approaches used by the APA study.

These actual and estimated expenditures of state and local funds per pupil are from 2012-13. Actual expenditures per pupil in 2015-2016 were $7,900 per pupil, still below what is recommended.

In addition to concerns about adequate funding, there is concern about the equity in the distribution of state school funds.

Alabama’s funding formula essentially treats all general education students the same, regardless of whether they need extra assistance, which costs money.

Differences in local property wealth enable wealthier districts to spend more on education and potentially create unequal opportunities to learn. A number of analytical studies have shown that Alabama’s school finance system has not met accepted equity standards.

Teacher Preparation

Surveyed voters expressed concern over teacher preparation, with 24% indicating it is their greatest concern related to education.

PARCA has documented the importance of teaching quality in developing student success. Effective teachers can produce gains of 1.5 grade levels, compared to gains of only a half grade among teachers at the bottom of the pool.

In September 2018, the Alabama State Department of Education issued report cards for the state’s teacher training programs, the   Overall, new teachers scored on knowledge of teaching methods, but teacher candidates at a number of colleges fared poorly on mastery of the subject matter they planned to teach. In some cases, only 25% passed these subject matter exams on their first try, though most did pass by their third attempt.

Also included were results from a survey of school principals assessing the degree to which first-year teachers in their schools showed promise as effective teachers.  The pie chart below shows that the majority (59%) entered the profession as effective teachers, with 41% still emerging and needing support, and a small percent needing more corrective remediation.

These are mostly encouraging results as research shows that new teachers learn and grow and become better with experience. Still, state policies surrounding teacher certification vary, and there is debate on what aspects of teacher training are most important. Knowledge of teaching methods and human development continues to be highly valued, but critics in the field argue that more time needs to be spent actively learning through practice teaching in the field with a mentor observing and providing meaningful feedback. Studies are also showing a strong connection between teacher subject matter knowledge and impact on student learning.

Class Size

Class size was identified as a concern by voters in Alabama, and 10% said it was the issue about which they were most concerned. In Alabama, mandated class sizes are established through a teacher-pupil ratio, which provides for smaller classes in earlier grades. Established ratios in Alabama include Grades K-3: 1-18; Grades 4-6: 1-26; and Grades 7-8: 1-29. When districts have to cut their budgets, teachers are let go and class sizes rise.

Support for reducing class size came from research that found small classes could have a positive influence on student achievement. Other researchers have warned that caution is needed, finding that teachers do not necessarily change their instructional practices when class size is reduced and that some subjects may be taught equally as well in larger classes.

Still, it does appear that very large class-size reductions of 7-10 fewer students per class can have significant long-term effects on student achievement. The academic effects seem to be largest when introduced in the earliest grades, for subjects focused on hands-on group activities, and for students from less advantaged family backgrounds. They may also be largest in classrooms of teachers who are less well prepared and effective in the classroom. This leads critics to point out that concentrating on developing effective teachers is the best approach since effective teachers can help students learn in both large and small classes.

Student Achievement 

Student achievement was identified as an important issue and was the top concern of 16% of voters. In reality, each of the concerns identified in this brief are justified as concerns primarily in how they affect student achievement or student learning, the primary goal of schooling in most settings. Ultimately student achievement is influenced by a number of factors. Research has found that the education level and income of a student’s parents are the most influential factors shaping how a student performs in school and their later success. At the same time factors at the school and teacher level can make a difference:

  • High-quality expectations for all students
  • A rigorous and relevant curriculum
  • Extracurricular activities that encourage student personal growth
  • High-quality teaching that encourages student investigation, active learning, and methods that appeal to students with different learning styles
  • Enriched use of new technology in teaching and learning
  • Effective use of small classes
  • After school support, tutoring, assistive technology, and more intense individual support as needed
  • Effective instructional leadership
  • Quality leadership, culture, and resources

Why Does Education Matter?

Education is important to a number of people because it will impact their future and the future of their children. Research shows that education has a positive impact on employment, lowers cost for crime, and improves personal health.

Employment and Economic Development

In 2017 the median wage for college graduates was more than twice that of high school dropouts and more than one and a half times higher than that of high school graduates. The unemployment rate was three times lower than for high school drop-outs and two times lower than for high school graduates. Eeducation supports economic development and helps build communities that draw businesses and strengthens cultural institutions.

Lower Crime

Research has found that schooling significantly reduces the probability of incarceration. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 56% of federal inmates, 67% of inmates in state prisons, and 69% of inmates in local jails did not complete high school. Education becomes a strategy for reducing crime, personal tragedies, and the economic costs associated with crime.

Impact on Health

Finally, among many other outcomes, education is positively associated with good health. In the US, adults without a high school diploma can expect to die nine years sooner than college graduates. In today’s knowledge economy, an applicant with more education is more likely to be employed and land a job that provides health-promoting benefits such as health insurance, paid leave, and retirement. Conversely, people with less education are more likely to work in high-risk occupations with fewer benefits. Furthermore, education is positively associated with the likelihood of eating healthy foods and exercising regularly.

How Does Alabama Compare?

Unfortunately, Alabama’s education system has consistently ranked among the lowest in the nation, and low among other southern states. Education Week, a highly recognized national publication, annually publishes a ranking of state educational systems using rigorous methods focused on 1) student chance for success (family income and education, enrollment in pre-K, enrollment in postsecondary education); 2) adequacy and equity of educational funding; and 3) student achievement measured by math and reading performance, high school graduation and results from AP testing. Their ranking continually places Alabama between 43rd and 45th among the states, with a grade of D- or C- overall. Where Alabama ranks best is in “chance for success” (grade of C )[i].

Ed Week gives Alabama’s education funding a D+ overall. On various spending indicators it gets an F. Alabama’s education spending is low when compared to other states and the nation. But when spending is adjusted for cost of living differences, it is comparable to other southern states, though still below national averages. For equity, it gets a B+, which raises a few eyebrows. The state share of all education funding is relatively high in Alabama and in other southern states, as well as the amount generated by Federal funds. This creates equity. It is in the capacity of local districts to raise funding through property taxes that inequities occur. Still, the relationship between per-pupil spending and district wealth in Alabama is comparable to other southern states.

Ed Week’s rankings gave Alabama an F for the current status of student achievement, though the state received a D+ for improvement over time and a B for lower achievement gaps between low- and high-income students.  There clearly are large differences in scores on state tests between the wealthiest and poorest districts in the state, and performance appears to be correlated with wealth. At the same time, PARCA’s report on student achievement in 2017 found both high poverty and low poverty students in Alabama scoring low when compared to national averages on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). NAEP provides standardized tests in math and reading that serve as benchmarks for comparing Alabama to other states. Chart 2 compares the percentage of students in Alabama and the US scoring proficient or above on those tests.

NAEP tests are highly demanding, and students in the highest performing states generally do not score beyond 50-60% proficient or above. On a positive note, though Alabama’s results on NAEP have not substantially changed in recent years, results show significant improvement over the past 12-15 years.

What Can Alabama Do?

Strengthen student-based funding

The Augenblick and Palaich report recommended that Alabama consider adopting a student-based funding model that recognizes differences in student needs. This model would seek to spend funds strategically to help each student reach their potential. Another related approach is to adopt a zero-based method focused on estimating costs for meeting state standards that would account for student differences.

Other proposals for improvement focus on setting a long-term plan for achieving adequacy in funding and increasing local funding as a percent of total funding. One approach is for the state to provide a match for local funds with extra fund devoted in low-wealth communities. Both solutions require more funds devoted to public education. One frustration is that increasing funds for education does not always lead to better schools, teaching, and student achievement. While a fair, base amount of funds is critical, other issues get in the way, such as how districts and schools use their funds and the degree to which high performing teachers are motivated to teach in particular communities or schools. Still, studies have demonstrated that when local funds are strategically targeted at supporting students who have been flagged for needing assistance, a positive impact on learning can occur.

Improve Teacher Effectiveness 

Alabama’s report card for teacher training program indicates that new teachers would benefit from greater expertise in subjects they will be teaching. A review of varying approaches to strengthening knowledge of subjects being taught is merited.

Practice in a live classroom setting is essential for new teachers. Alabama already assesses classroom performance in the credentialing process, but attention should also be paid to giving prospective teachers experience in a variety of settings including high-poverty and high-risk schools.

Research has also shown value in pairing prospective teachers with experienced teacher coaches and mentors. Moreover, once teachers enter teaching, it is important that they continue to be supported by access to high-quality, standards-aligned instructional resources and curriculum-based professional learning.

Decisions regarding class size reduction should be made strategically and combined with professional development.

The substantial expenditures required to sustain smaller classes must not only be justified by the impact on student learning by itself but also weighed in regard to other interventions that impact learning.

Research has identified conditions under which small classes and class size reduction is most effective. Rather than mandating across the board reductions or increases in size (in response to budget cuts) districts and schools might benefit from having the freedom to strategically maintain small classes where they are most needed and increasing class size where they are less likely to make a difference.

Furthermore, not all teachers are prepared to take advantage of the benefits of a small classroom. Implementation of small classrooms needs to be accompanied with professional development on how best to maximize learning in a small class.

In addition to the Alabama Reading Initiative, expand access to high-quality Pre-K educational support.

The early years of school through the 3rd grade are critical points in brain development and in shaping a child’s educational and life experiences. Learning to read in the early grades, as promoted through the Alabama Reading Initiative – is an essential part of early development.

But even before that, a stimulating and supportive environment during the preschool years provides a foundation for sustained success.

Pre-school services in Alabama are offered through a diverse delivery model that includes public school systems, childcare centers, Head-start centers, university-based labs, and community organizations such as the YWCA.

To improve the quality and availability of Pre-K education, Alabama nationally recognized First Class Pre-K program provides training, materials, and financial support through the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education (DECE), Office of School Readiness (OSR). Continued investment in the spread of quality Pre-K is warranted as many families and children are still on waiting lists for attending First Class Pre-K programs

Strengthen the capacity of local school systems to collect, analyze and use performance data aligned with college and career readiness.

Alabama has made progress in setting standards for college and career readiness that can serve as benchmarks goals for helping students learn and grow. Assessment data can be used to measure the impact of school and classroom interventions on student learning. Effective assessments that produce fine-grained data identify students who need assistance. Support can be targeted at helping these students through after-school programs, tutoring, study skills workshops, personal counseling and mentoring, and individual reading support. Currently, a number of districts lack the capacity to effectively engage data in this way and assistance through regional centers, universities, or organizations like PARCA is needed.

Experimenting with School Vouchers for Low-Income Students

School vouchers provide funded scholarships that allow students to attend a private school of the family’s choice, an option otherwise unavailable to low-income families. After reviewing research some analysts have surmised that vouchers are not likely to increase or reduce student learning, but that competition induced by vouchers has led to improved public schools. This needs to be studied further.

The Alabama Accountability Act provides for a form of vouchers through a program which distributes scholarships to low-income students in Kindergarten through 12th grade to use in participating non-public and public schools. Through the scholarships, parents can choose school environments they perceive as being better equipped to help their children succeed as well as develop attributes and values that go beyond academic test scores.

Recent research conducted by the University of Alabama Institute for Social Science Research found that students receiving scholarships performed similarly to public school students on standardized tests.  The study did not compare scholarship recipients with students attending the public school they would have attended without the scholarship, but rather compared them with public school students across the state. Continuing attention should be paid to assessing the results on for students benefiting from scholarship and the impact on of the scholarship program on public schools.


Developing an education system that helps all children learn is good for Alabama. Low performance and unequal opportunity to learn in public education are often described as “wicked problems” because they are highly resistant to being resolved. PARCA believes Alabama can do better. With effective Pre-K, the growing belief that all students can learn, and new economic development led by strong leaders – Alabama’s educational goals are within reach – and this gives us hope.

[i] Ed Week (2018).  State grades on K-12 Education: Map and rankings.  Quality Counts 2018https://www.edweek.org/ew/collections/quality-counts-2018-state-grades/report-card-map-rankings.html

To read the full PDF brief, including tables and charts, click here.

PARCA Annual Survey Addresses Representation in State Government, Public Education and Payday Loans

PARCA collaborated with Samford University to conduct our annual telephone survey of Alabama citizens between June 4 and July 18, 2018. The survey was directed by Dr. Randolph Horn and was under the field direction of Grace Okoro.

The survey addressed topics including the quality of representation in state government, and, in partnership with the Alabama Association of School Boards, questions about public education in Alabama, and, in partnership with the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, questions about payday loans.

Many trends remained the same from previous years, but some of the results were surprising.

Read the full report here. (PDF)

Jobs and the Economy Ranks #6 Among Alabama Voter Priorities

In late 2017, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) surveyed Alabama voters to determine their thoughts about the general direction of the state and the issues that most concern them. PARCA partnered with Samford University to survey policy professionals from across the state including academics, journalists, business and nonprofit leaders, and lobbyists. Their responses provided a list of 17 critical issues facing Alabama. PARCA partnered with USA Polling at the University of South Alabama to ask registered voters about these 17 issues. The voters’ responses generated the Top Ten list of voter priorities. Details about the survey and its methodology can be found in the full Alabama Priorities report.

Alabama Priorities

1. K-12 Education
2. Healthcare
3. Government Corruption and Ethics
4. Mental Health and Substance Abuse
5. Poverty and Homelessness
6. Jobs and the Economy
7. Crime and Public Safety
8. Job Training and Workforce Development
9. Improving the State's Image
10. Tax Reform

Key Findings

  • Voters broadly agree on the critical issues facing the state.
  • Voters are not polarized along traditional political, ideological, racial, or generational lines. There is a significant gap between the priorities of experts and the priorities of voters.
  • Policymakers have an opportunity to inform and educate voters on critical and systemic challenges facing the state.
  • Policymakers have an opportunity to respond to immediate, often highly personal issues that concern voters.
  • Elected officials and candidates have an opportunity to show leadership and to build broad coalitions to address Alabama’s most pressing challenges.

In the following months, PARCA will produce summary briefs on each of the top ten priorities chosen by Alabama voters. Each brief will answer four critical questions: what is the issue, why it matters, how Alabama compares, and what options are available to Alabama policymakers.

#6: Jobs and the Economy

What is the issue?

Alabama voters ranked jobs and the economy as the 6th most important issue, with 56% of respondents indicating they were very concerned about this issue. The issue ranked highly across all subgroups: political affiliations, generations, gender, and  education level, and race. The only substantive difference in subgroups found was in ideology, where the issue ranked lower for liberals than for conservatives or moderates.

Voters were also asked to identify their top priorities regarding jobs and the economy, selecting from the number of available jobs, availability of qualified workers, wage growth, or increasing the minimum wage. Thirty-two percent of respondents selected increasing the minimum wage as their top priority; 24% identified number of available jobs, followed by availability of qualified workers at 22%. Wage growth was found to be least important and was selected by 18% of respondents.

Why are Jobs and the Economy Important?

 A growing economy and a high employment rate support many measures of overall well-being, including household income, health, housing stability, tax revenue, and more.[1]  Economic growth:

  • is the most fundamental indicator of an economy’s health,[2]
  • is an important indicator contributing to poverty reduction;[3]
  • can create job opportunities and hence stronger demand for labor;[4]
  • can improve standards of living and health;[5]
  • can improve educational attainment;[6] and
  • can improve technology and infrastructure.[7]

How Does Alabama Compare?

There are numerous indicators used to determine jobs and economic growth. We consider four of the most commonly used measures, although there is much debate that these measures tell the entire story.

Gross Domestic Product

Economic health is most typically measured by the growth rate of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a comprehensive value of all goods and services produced.[8] Like the U.S., Alabama has enjoyed GDP growth every year between 2009 and 2017, although the state has grown at a slower rate than the nation. The state saw its lowest percentage increase of 1.9% from 2013 to 2014 and ranked only higher than Mississippi (1%) among southeastern states. Alabama’s GDP increased 3.3% from 2016 to 2017, exceeding the growth rate in Arkansas and Mississippi, but trailing other southeastern states.

Median Household Income

Median household income is the income figure that divides all households into two equal groups, with half earning more than the income and half earning less. Median income in Alabama increased annually since 2010. In 2016, according to American Community Survey 1-year estimates, Alabama’s median household income was $46,257 – 46th among all states, more than $10,000 below the national average. When compared to other Southeastern states, Alabama fared worse than all except Louisiana ($45,146), Arkansas ($44,334) and Mississippi ($41,754).


Poverty is measured as the percentage of people earning less than a specific dollar amount: the federal poverty line. The federal poverty line is adjusted for the number of people in a household and is revised annually. The percent of population in Alabama living below the federal poverty level has declined from 19% in 2010 to 17.1% in 2016, mirroring declines at the national level. However, the percent of people living below the poverty level in Alabama is still higher than that of the nation. When compared to 10 states in the Southeast, Alabama’s poverty rate ranked 5th highest in 2016 and 7th highest among all states.

Unemployment Rate

Alabama’s unemployment rate is also decreasing, as is the national rate. In 2013, Alabama’s unemployment rate was 7.2%. By 2017, the figure had declined to 4.4%. The state’s rates are comparable to that of the U.S. during this same period. Nationally, unemployment fell from 7.4% in 2013 to 3.8% at the end of 2017. Alabama’s unemployment rate (4.4%) ranked 5th lowest among 10 Southeastern states, where Arkansas had the lowest unemployment rate of 3.7% and Mississippi had the highest of 5.1%.

What Can We Do?

The state has numerous options to support a robust economy and a strong job market, including:

  • increased investment in education: in 2016, Alabama was 39th among the states in per student spending;[9]
  • increased investment in healthcare; in 2014, state-level per capita healthcare spending was 9% lower than the national average, suggesting lower levels of insurance coverage and healthcare access;[10]
  • increased investment in infrastructure: Alabama’s infrastructure was graded a C- in a recent study by civil engineers[11]. For more in infrastructure, see PARCA’s 2017 report, How Alabama Roads Compare.[12]
  • developing an adequate, fair, and efficient tax structure: Alabama collects the least amount in state and local revenue per capita of any state in the nation. See How Alabama Taxes Compare.[13]
  • continuing ongoing work to align K-12 and post-secondary education and training offerings with the needs of employers, increasing opportunities for students and workforce quality for employers.

Although we considered four of the most commonly used measures, we cannot ignore the fact that economic growth is difficult to measure or even define. Many studies have shown both pros and cons of using the above indicators to measure growth. For example, authors have argued the validity of using unemployment rate as a measure of growth, considering the increasing number of part-time jobs versus full-time jobs.[14]  Others have argued the difficulty of measuring growth based on indicators such as standard of living, given the lack of, or consistency of data. However, this article seeks only to highlight a snapshot of Alabama’s economy and how the state compares nationally, using consistent data for all states. More comprehensive research should be done to gain more insight into changes in the state’s jobs and economy over time.

Drafted by Kenesha Reynolds-Allie, Ph.D. and the Staff of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama

Read the full PDF report here.

[1] Good Growth for Cities 2017, A report on urban economic wellbeing from PWC and Demos, November 2017. https://www.pwc.co.uk/government-public-sector/good-growth/assets/pdf/2017-good-growth-for-cities.pdf

[2] Bolton, S. and Khaw S., “Economic Growth”, July 2006. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2006/jul/10/ukeconomy.globalrecession

[3] Adams Jr., Richard. H, “Economic Growth, Inequality, and Poverty”, The world Bank, Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Network, February 2003.

[4] Department for International Development (DFID), “Growth: Building Jobs and Prosperity in Developing Countries” https://www.oecd.org/derec/unitedkingdom/40700982.pdf

[5] Weil, D.N. “Economic Growth”, 3rd Edition, Harlow Pearson Education Limited, 2013. Rivera IV, B., and Currais, L., “Economic Growth and Health Direct Impact or Reverse Causation”, Applied Economics Letters, 6(11), 761-764.

[6] The World Bank (2007), “Education Quality and Economic Growth”

[7] Canning, D., and Pedroni, P., “Infrastructure and Long Run Economic Growth”, Consulting Assistance on Economic Reform II Discussion Paper, 57.

[8] Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of Economic Analysis. https://www.bea.gov

[9] “Annual Survey of School System Finances” U.S. Census Bureau https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/school-finances.html

[10] A state-by-state breakdown of per capita healthcare spending. https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/a-state-by-state-breakdown-of-per-capita-healthcare-spending.html

[11] American Society of Civil Engineers, “Report Card for Alabama’s Infrastructure”, 2015. https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/ASCE-AL-Report-Card-2015-Full-Report-FINAL-web.pdf

[12] How Alabama Roads Compare. 2017. Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. http://parcalabama.org/how-alabama-roads-compare-ninth-edition-2017/

[13] How Alabama Taxes Compare. 2017. Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. http://parcalabama.org/how-alabama-taxes-compare/

[14] Jericho, Greg, “Why unemployment is no longer the best indicator of the economy’s health” https://www.theguardian.com/business/grogonomics/2016/aug/22/why-unemployment-is-no-longer-the-best-indicator-of-the-economys-health


Job Training and Workforce Development Ranks #8 Among Alabama Voter Priorities

In late 2017, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) surveyed Alabama voters to determine their thoughts about the general direction of the state and the issues that most concern them. PARCA partnered with Samford University to survey policy professionals from across the state including academics, journalists, business and nonprofit leaders, and lobbyists. Their responses provided a list of 17 critical issues facing Alabama. PARCA partnered with USA Polling at the University of South Alabama to ask registered voters about these 17 issues. The voters’ responses generated the Top Ten list of voter priorities. Details about the survey and its methodology can be found in the full Alabama Priorities report.

Alabama Priorities

1. K-12 Education
2. Healthcare
3. Government Corruption and Ethics
4. Mental Health and Substance Abuse
5. Poverty and Homelessness
6. Jobs and the Economy
7. Crime and Public Safety
8. Job Training and Workforce Development
9. Improving the State's Image
10. Tax Reform

Key Findings

• Voters broadly agree on the critical issues facing the state.
• Voters are not polarized along traditional political, ideological, racial, or generational lines. There is a significant gap between the priorities of experts and the priorities of voters.
• Policymakers have an opportunity to inform and educate voters on critical and systemic challenges facing the state.
• Policymakers have an opportunity to respond to immediate, often highly personal issues that concern voters.
• Elected officials and candidates have an opportunity to show leadership and to build broad coalitions to address Alabama’s most pressing challenges.

In the following months, PARCA will produce summary briefs on each of the top ten priorities chosen by Alabama voters. Each brief will answer four critical questions: what is the issue, why it matters, how Alabama compares, and what options are available to Alabama policymakers.

#8: Job Training & Workforce Development

What is the Issue?

Job training and workforce development is the 8th most important issue for Alabama voters with 51% of voters indicating they were very concerned about the issue. Job training and workforce development averaged 3.9 on a 1 — 5 scale where 1 is “not at all concerned” and 5 is “very concerned.”

The workforce development system is a diverse mix of public and private organizations working to prepare people for the workforce and help those already in the workforce to develop new skills. Workforce development efforts range from organizing large-scale hiring fairs, to designing and delivering industry and employer-specific training, to helping a single mother secure childcare while she takes GED classes.

The workforce development system serves job seekers and employees in need of developing and maintaining marketable skills, as well as employers, in need of a sufficient supply of future employees with the necessary skills. The system involves educators tasked with teaching basic skills to industry- and employer-specific training. It involves communities focused on talent attraction and retention. And it involves government agencies tasked with managing public funds and providing general workforce development oversight and coordination.

Taken together, the diverse components of the state’s workforce system work to provide a ready supply of labor, a healthy tax base, and a stable economy.

Why Does Workforce Development Matter?

In previous generations, a basic high school education was sufficient for entry into the workforce. Today, an increasing share of entry-level jobs require a level of training beyond a high school diploma. To generate a prepared workforce, there is continued need to improve preparation for and access to two and four-year colleges. However, the demand for advanced training is also being addressed by K-12 schools, where students are increasingly presented with options for earning industry-recognized credentials while still in high school. Certificate programs are being expanded for new graduates and current workers.

Alabama has enjoyed an unprecedented run of industrial recruitment and new job creation. According to the Alabama Department of Commerce, the state has added or announced 138,197 new jobs between 2010 and 2017. In that same time, employment in Alabama has grown from 1,893,169 to 2,081,176 – an increase of 188,007, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 3.8% (December 2017). Recent monthly unemployment rates for the state have hovered between 3.7 and 4.1%, the lowest numbers since at least 1976. Despite the surging demand for labor, Alabama’s population growth has been sluggish, creating a tight labor market and a pending shortage of workers.

How Does Alabama Compare?

Size of the Workforce

Between 2010 and 2017, Alabama’s net population growth was 2%. Alabama’s population is projected to surpass 5 million by 2025.1 Yet, the Pew Research Center projects it is unlikely that the Millennial labor force will reach the size of the Baby Boomer labor force. 4 The Generation X and Millennial generations are smaller in number than the Baby Boomer generation that is now reaching retirement age. In fact, 2017 Census estimates show that 51% of the working-age population (25 – 64) are older than 45. With the youngest Baby Boomers reaching age 65 in 2029, Alabama’s job growth is projected to surpass growth in its labor force. The University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Development Research (CBER), project a workforce shortage in Alabama as high as 225,320 workers by 2024 with conditions continuing to worsen through 2040.

Skills of the Workforce

By 2020, 65% of all jobs in the United States will require education and training beyond high school. . As of 2017, only 43% of Alabama’s workforce has completed postsecondary education. Data on workers with in-demand credentials and training other than a post-secondary degree is unreliable, but the experience of business and industry leaders suggest that the number of workers with these credentials is insufficient.

Alabama workers face a gap in needed skills.

Alabama’s employers voice the need for improvement in employees’ skills, including basic and soft skills, such as communications and punctuality, needed to properly function in a work environment. A May 2017 CBER report defined six different skill types essential in the modern workforce: basic skills, complex problem-solving, resource management, social, systems, and technical skills. Already, many employers report that simply finding dependable workers with basic soft skills is an increasing challenge.

These challenges are by no means unique to Alabama. However, comparing workforces across states is complicated and ultimately unhelpful.

The Workforce System

State agencies, including the departments of Commerce, Education, Human Resources, Labor, the Community College System, and four-year institutions, distribute funds for workforce development from at least 18 different federal programs managed by three different federal agencies. The state agencies support, collaborate, or direct regional and local efforts, including regional workforce councils, workforce development boards, county and municipal governments, and nonprofits.

This diffuse network is tasked with serving the current and future workforce; including youth aged 14 – 24, adults in need of basic skills or with physical, mental, or financial obstacles, and workers looking for work or additional skills.

This basic structure is in place across the United States. However, the goals, requirements, funding, and schedules of these programs do not necessarily align.

What Can Alabama Do?

Redesigning the Workforce System

Recognizing the sometimes conflicting goals and requirements of the existing workforce system, Alabama has been at work realigning its overarching workforce structure. The Alabama Department of Commerce now includes a Workforce Development Division, composed of the Alabama Industrial Development Training (AIDT), the Alabama Workforce Council (AWC), and seven regional workforce councils representing all 67 counties. The role of those components is as follows:

AIDT: Alabama’s workforce training agency assists new and expanding companies with recruitment, assessment and training of potential employees, development and production of job-related training materials, provision of training facilities, and delivery of job-specific services for pre-employment and on-the-job training.5

AWC: The Council is composed of business executives from industries and organizations across the state. It facilitates collaboration between government and industry to help Alabama develop a sustainable and skilled workforce. In 2018, the AWC secured $55 million in federal funds for workforce training. These funds are designated to develop workforce training starting with colleges that pair with local industries to meet the demands of the current and future workforce. The AWC allows workforce and education resources to meet specific needs identified by business and industry exclusive to each region.

Regional Workforce Councils: Alabama has replaced its former structure of three workforce regions, with seven regions, each with its own workforce council. Each council supports its local economy by creating a strategic plan and workforce development system. Within each region, local boards are appointed to implement local strategy and to oversee the distribution of state and federal funds.

With the change in structure comes a greater role for business and industry in creating and executing workforce strategy. Previously, educators guided the conversation. Under the current structure, business and industry have a greater voice.

Alabama’s new workforce structure is still in its infancy. There are, however, encouraging signs. With seven regions compared to the previous three, decisions and initiatives can be targeted with greater precision. This structure also creates an unanticipated, but hopefully, productive culture of innovation and competition, with each of the seven regions looking to both learn from and compete with each other.

The work of one workforce region, West Alabama Works, is highlighted in the Business Education Alliance’s 2018 report Leadership Matters, produced by PARCA with guidance from A+ Education Partnership. State leaders can learn from successes in West Alabama Works and the other six regional councils and work to replicate and expand strategies that prove effective.

Focus on Soft Skills

Responding to the identified need for a workforce better equipped with the basic knowledge of how to function in the workplace, Alabama public schools have added career preparedness as a one-credit course required for graduation. Students cover topics including personal decision making, academic planning, career development, and other social and financial skills.

Adding to that, in 2018, Alabama’s Department of Education began seeking applications for Alabama’s Industrial Development Training’s (AIDT) High School Direct Ready to Work pilot program. Ready to Work’s curriculum instructs students on workplace skills as well as expected behavior in the workplace, including the importance of punctuality and teamwork. Through High School Ready to Work, students can earn an “Alabama Certified Worker” certificate widely recognized by industry in Alabama. In addition, those who complete the program earn a tuition waiver for one college course at an Alabama Community College.

Attainment Goals

State and local leaders are beginning to speak the language of attainment – the need for workers to attain the necessary skills and credentials for the jobs and careers they seek. Credentials include traditional two-year, four-year, and post-graduate degrees, but also industry-recognized certification and training earned before, alongside, or instead of traditional academic degrees.

In 2018, the state set a goal to increase attainment. Alabama’s Success Plus plan lays out strategies to help meet the state’s goal of adding 500,000 highly skilled workers statewide by 2025.
Local areas are responding to the call. In Mobile, the Mobile Area Education Foundation has set a local goal of adding 75,000 new credentialed workers to its workforce by 2030.

In central Alabama, the Bold Goals Coalition of Central Alabama has established a goal of adding 125,000 highly skilled workers by 2025.

The new language and measurable goals provide a means to measure progress.

Additional Opportunities

The National Skills Coalition, a national group working to increase the skills of American workers, has articulated four broad policy areas that can expand workforce training: Integrated Education and Training (IET), stackable credentials, job-driven financial aid, and greater alignment of public and private projects.

Alabama has made positive steps in some of these areas, notably through the Ready to Work program and new stackable credentials provided by community colleges, but in no area has the state achieved the recommendations of the National Skills Coalition.

Additionally, state and local leaders can explore options, policies, and procedures to expand and stabilize the workforce, including strategies that:

• Improve retention of older workers;
• Increase the number of career coaches in Alabama schools;
• Expand educational opportunities in lower-income communities;
• Develop support systems for special populations, including veterans and workers with disabilities;
• Improve data sharing between state agencies;
• Align workforce systems with support systems, such as TANF, SNAP, and childcare;
• Remove employment barriers for ex-offenders;
• Expand Alabama’s Ready to Work program, currently offered in 75 locations; and
• Expand efforts to provide soft skills training.

With the demand for 225,000 additional workers by 2024 and an educational attainment goal of 60%, Alabama must be innovative to meet its workforce demand.


The value of developing a healthy workforce is vital for Alabama’s economy and its people. Employed individuals with skills matched to available jobs are more likely to live productive lives that contribute positively to their local communities. Conversely, an unstable workforce fails to support local industry and economic development, and is often associated with more crime, increased costs for healthcare, homelessness, family stress, substance abuse, and other factors associated with poverty. A strategically aligned workforce development system is vital for the success of individuals and Alabama businesses.

Drafted by Natalie Millar and the Staff of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama

Read full report in PDF version here.

[1] Fry, Richard. (2018, April). Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. Retrieved April 30, 2018, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/11/millennials-largest-generation-us-labor-force/

[2] Center for Business and Economic Research, The University of Alabama. (2017, May). State of Workforce Report XI: Alabama, Retrieved May 15, 2018, from http://www2.labor.alabama.gov/workforcedev/WorkforceReports/Alabama.pdf

[3] Ibid.

[4] AlabamaWorks! (2018, April). 2018 Alabama Success Plus Report. Retrieved April 30, 2018, from https://alabamaworks.com/wp-content/uploads/2018.04.30_SuccessPlus.pdf

[5] Center for Business and Economic Research, The University of Alabama. (2017, May). State of Workforce Report XI: Alabama, Retrieved May 15, 2018, from http://www2.labor.alabama.gov/workforcedev/WorkforceReports/Alabama.pdf

Newly released “Leadership Matters” report examines reinventing schools through key leaders

Last weekend at the Business Council of Alabama’s Governmental Affairs Conference, the Business Education Alliance unveiled its latest report, produced by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. The report, titled Leadership Matters: A Blueprint for Reinventing Schools for Student Success, looks at the role of state, school and community leaders in driving our schools towards success.

Alabama public schools are producing more high school graduates, but more of them need to be graduating prepared for and connected to education and training beyond high school. Alabama’s economy has the potential for impressive growth, but to capitalize on that potential, business and industry will need a new generation of better-educated Alabamians.

To capitalize on this moment of opportunity for students and for Alabama’s economy, creative and energetic leadership is needed at the state and local levels.

With a new state superintendent of education in place and November elections set to determine leadership in the Governor’s office, the State Legislature, and the State School Board, a new class of leaders will be called on to craft a plan for closing gaps in preparation and paving pathways to career opportunities.

In this report, we examine the crucial role leadership plays in shaping educational outcomes, and we showcase six examples where leadership is making a difference and where data indicate students are achieving higher levels of success.

Change-making leaders in education are not exclusively school administrators. Leaders are also stepping forward from government, business, higher education, and from community and civic groups. In fact, in all instances showcased, successful leaders have forged partnerships to accomplish their goals for better student outcomes.

Leaders show a passion for change. Sheffield’s Superintendent Keith Lankford describes having a “fire in his belly” to capitalize on his community’s hunger for higher expectations for their children.

Leaders empower teachers and students to believe in themselves.  As Talladega County fifth-grader Annslee Shaddix explained, she’s learned talents aren’t fixed; they’re mastered through effort. “If you had a fixed mindset,” she said, “you’d never improve.”

Leaders see possibility beyond conventions. Pike County’s Superintendent Mark Bazzell knew many of his high school students were capable of college-level work. In 2018, 23 Pike County students earned not just a high school diploma, but a college associate degree at the same time.

Leaders may be as ambitious as those in West Alabama, where a new, employer-driven training and recruitment system is replacing traditional educational models, matching student interests and ambitions with employer needs in partnership with area school systems

Or leaders may focus on the basics, like in Brewton, where the community pools money for scholarships, and every senior is required to devise a plan for college or financial independence after high school, referred to in Brewton’s down-home vernacular as a “Get Off Your Momma’s Payroll Plan.” Those resources and plans are among the factors that help that community produce some of Alabama’s highest college and career readiness rates.

“Finishing high school is not our goal. Our goal is getting them to the next level,” explained T.R. Miller High School Assistant Principal Doug Gerety.

Leaders across Alabama would do well to embrace those higher aspirations and pursue them with the strategic thinking, dedication, and innovation shown by dynamic communities.

Click here to read full report here.


Alabama Class of 2017 High School Graduation, College and Career, ACT and WorkKeys Results

In this graduation season, we take a look back at some encouraging educational statistics for last year’s graduating class, the Class of 2017.

For the Class of 2017, the final tally for the state high school graduation rate and college and career readiness rate both improved over the Class of 2016’s rates.

However, there is still a troubling gap between the percentage of high school seniors graduating and the percentage of those seniors graduating college and career ready, as measured by the state.

For the seniors in the Class of 2017, 89 percent graduated with a diploma, but only 71 percent of seniors earned the college and career ready designation.

The statewide results for the ACT and WorkKeys assessments also both showed improvement for the Class of 2017.

The ACT is the widely used assessment test designed to measure college readiness. The test is given to all 11th graders in Alabama’s public schools. WorkKeys is a separate test, also developed by the ACT organization, designed to measure workforce readiness. The test, given to all 12-grade students annually, measures students’ skills on the math and reading skills as they might be applied in the workplace.

The state uses both as measures of the college and career readiness of graduates. High school seniors are considered college and career ready if they meet one of the following criteria.

  1. Score college ready in at least one subject on the ACT
  2. Score at the silver level on ACT’s WorkKeys Assessment
  3. Earn a passing score on an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate Exam (college-level courses delivered in high schools)
  4. Successfully earn a career technical credential
  5. Earn dual enrollment credit at a college or university
  6. Successfully enlist in the military

Graduation and College and Career Readiness Percentages

The interactive chart below allows users to explore the graduation and college and career readiness percentages for high school seniors in 2017 at the state level and by school system, and high school. When comparing results on individual measures, bear in mind that some schools and systems vary on which route to college and career readiness they emphasize. Some may invest heavily in providing AP classes or preparation for the ACT while others concentrate on dual enrollment or career technical education.


As Alabama’s graduation rate has soared, so has the concern that some students who are receiving high school diplomas haven’t been adequately prepared for the next step after high school.

In March, then-State Superintendent Ed Richardson pointed out the disparity between Alabama’s high school graduation rate (87 percent in 2016) with the Class of 2016’s College and Career Readiness rate (66 percent). Richardson called the 21-percentage point gap between the graduation rate and the career readiness rate “unacceptable.”

“Some schools have a gap approaching 60 percentage points,” Richardson noted. “In fact, a few high schools only have one in four graduates who accomplish one of the six College- and Career-Ready Standards.”

The final tallies for the Class of 2017 showed that the gap between high school graduation and college and career readiness narrowed to 18 percentage points.

Richardson declared the gap between graduation and college and career readiness one of the “most serious issues facing our schools.”

“Failure to address this issue immediately,” Richardson said, “will only result in more high school graduates and their families being led to believe they are ready for the next step in their lives when they are not—harm public education and depress our state’s economic growth.”


For those students who plan to continue at a four-year college, the ACT is designed to measure their readiness for college.

In 2017, 18 percent of high school seniors met or exceeded the benchmark score in all four subjects tested, English, Reading (Social Studies), Math, and Science. That’s up from 17 percent in 2015, according to the most recent data provided by the Alabama State Department of Education.

Success rates vary by subject: 53 percent of high school seniors scored college-ready in English, 37 percent in reading; 28 percent in science; 24 percent in math. The percentage of students scoring above the college-ready benchmark for each subject has increased in all subjects, except for English. In English, 53.1 percent of students met the college-ready benchmark in 2015 compared to 52.6 percent in 2017.

ACT scores are most commonly reported as scale scores, a number on a 36-point scale (a 36 in a perfect score)

The average scale score on the ACT for Alabama was 19.2 in 2017, up from 19 in 2015. While Alabama trails the national average scale score of 21, it is important to keep in mind that Alabama is one of 18 states in which 100 percent of public school students take the test. The state pays for one administration of the test for students in their junior year.  In most other states, only those applying for college take the test. Students can take the test multiple times. Their best score is the one counted in the statistics.

Among the 18 states where 100 percent of students take the test, Alabama’s composite score ranks behind 13 states and is tied with North Carolina. Alabama’s average composite score ranks ahead of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Nevada.



Over the past three years, the average composite score has increased for every subgroup of students, except for nonpoverty students. The average composite for nonpoverty students was 20.8 in 2015 and 20.7 in 2017.


On the WorkKeys assessment, 64 percent of graduates in 2017 earned a Silver certification or higher, the level needed to be considered college or career ready by the state. That’s up from 61 percent in 2016.

ACT has identified the foundational skills needed to be successful in thousands of different occupations.  ACT predicts that students who score at the Silver level have the skills needed for 67 percent of the occupations in their database. Those scoring at the Gold level have the foundational skills needed for 93 percent of jobs profiled. A platinum level certification indicates that a candidate has the skills needed in 99 percent of jobs ACT has profiled.


The Priorities of Alabama Voters

In 2018, Alabamians will elect a governor and five other statewide executive branch officers, 140 legislators, and scores of local officials. Those elected will lead Alabama for the next four years. These leaders should be responsive to the concerns of those they represent but also willing to help citizens understand critical, but perhaps less obvious, public policy issues. Such leadership requires understanding what issues most concern voters and what issues voters may not fully appreciate.

In this election year, PARCA surveyed Alabama voters to determine their thoughts about the general direction of the state and the issues that most concern them. We found broad agreement on the critical issues facing the state. Based on voter response, PARCA identified and ranked voters’ top 10 critical issues. Alabama Priorities explores this issue.

The Priorities

Alabama voters are eager to see improvement in K – 12 education, with 70% indicating they are very concerned about the state’s education system. Voters are worried about healthcare , particularly access and cost. With the recent resignations of a Governor, a Speaker of the House, and a state Supreme Court Justice, it should come as no surprise that voters are concerned about corruption and ethics. For many voters, mental health and substance abuse are not just theoretical problems—56% of Alabamians indicate they are very concerned about the issue. The poor and homeless have not been forgotten.

These issues, along with jobs and the economy, crime and public safety, job training and work force development, the state’s image, and tax reform comprise the top 10 list of Alabama’s priorities.

Perhaps this list should not come as a surprise. Previous polling by PARCA and other organizations have found similar results.

What is perhaps more surprising, however, is the extent to which these are shared priorities. We found few significant differences between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites, or other groups. While differences exist, Alabama voters are not polarized.

Alabama Priorities

1. K-12 Education
2. Healthcare
3. Government Corruption and Ethics
4. Mental Health and Substance Abuse
5. Poverty and Homelessness
6. Jobs and the Economy
7. Crime and Public Safety
8. Job Training and Workforce Development
9. Improving the State's Image
10. Tax Reform

Experts and Voters: Differing Priorities

At the same time, while the data suggests broad agreement among voters, there is an area where significant gaps exist. PARCA surveyed business, civic, and nonprofit leaders, journalists, and academics. The differences between the priorities of these experts and voters were noticeable.

Four top 10 issues for voters fell outside the top 10 for experts:

  • Mental health and substance abuse
  • Poverty and homelessness
  • Job training and workforce development
  • Improving the state’s image

Conversely, experts identified four issues that did not register high on voters’ list of concerns:

  • Infrastructure and transportation
  • Prison and sentencing reform
  • Funding state government
  • Civil rights

Possible explanations as to why some issues are more important to voters and others more important to experts are offered in the “Differences Between Experts and Voters” section of the report. three implications are suggested.


The data suggest four implications.

  1. Voters are not polarized along traditional political, ideological, racial or generational lines.
  2. There is a significant gap between the priorities of experts and the priorities of voters.
  3. Policymakers have a two-fold opportunity to inform and educate voters on critical and systemic challenges facing the state.
  4. Policymakers have an opportunity to respond to immediate, often highly personal issues that concern voters.

This research suggests that elected officials and candidates have an opportunity to show leadership and to build broad coalitions to address Alabama’s most pressing challenges.

Read the full report here.
























Thank God For Mississippi: They’re Leading the Way on Educational Progress

At least in terms of education, it’s time to retire the old Alabama catchphrase, “Thank God for Mississippi.”

It’s an easy response when the latest list comes out that finds Alabama and Mississippi at the bottom of the rankings.

Frequently, Alabama bests Mississippi, and, in so doing, stays out of last place.

However, a review of the latest results on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) shows Mississippi students now outscore Alabama students on almost every measure.

In 4th and 8th grade math, Mississippi continued its multi-year rise in performance. Comparing all students in each state, Mississippi has a higher average scale score at both grade levels and higher percentages of students scoring proficient.

In reading, Alabama still outscores Mississippi when all students’ scores are averaged together, though the gap between the two states continues to close.

But looking deeper in the data, in every major subgroup measured, Mississippi students are outscoring Alabama students. When comparing Alabama’s white students to Mississippi whites, Alabama black students to Mississippi black students, Alabama Hispanic students to Mississippi Hispanics, Alabama poverty and nonpoverty students with their counterparts in Mississippi, on all those measures, Mississippi comes out on top.

Comparing the different subgroups with their peers in other states provides some assurance for Alabama. Both Alabama and Mississippi tend to show up poorly on “all students” rankings on standardized tests. That is due in part to the fact that historically disadvantaged groups — students from low-income households, blacks, and Hispanics — tend to score lower on standardized tests than whites and students from nonpoverty households. Alabama and Mississippi both have higher percentages of students in poverty and higher minority percentages than most states.

Breaking out the scores by subgroup allows a more nuanced comparison. When comparing subgroups, Alabama’s performance is better in some instances than the overall ranking might suggest. For instance, in 4th-grade math, Alabama’s “all students” rank is fourth from the bottom among U.S. states. However, when directly comparing black students, Alabama black 4th graders outscore black students in 14 other states.  A deeper examination of subgroups brings to light some important points.

  1. It is certainly not the case that Alabama’s lackluster performance on the NAEP can be blamed on black students or poor students. On some measures, blacks and poverty students in Alabama earn a higher national ranking in their respective categories than whites and nonpoverty students.  It is weak performance across all subgroups — black and white, poverty and nonpoverty — that weighs on Alabama’s competitive position.
  2. There is one subgroup that is especially in need of increased attention from Alabama educators: Hispanics. In both grades and both subjects, the average scale score for Alabama Hispanics was lower than the average scale score for Hispanics in any other state.

In the rank table below, you can explore the average scale score of each Alabama subgroup ranking nationally. Bear in mind that the rank for white students, poverty and nonpoverty students includes all 50 states. For Hispanics, there are 47 states in the comparison group, because in three states there weren’t enough Hispanic students tested to generate a statistically valid sample. For black students, the rank is among 40 states on all measures except 4th-grade math. In 4th-grade math, the comparison group includes 42 states.

Looking more broadly,

  1. Alabama has focused attention on instruction in the early grades and evidence from NAEP shows that has provided benefits. In 2011, Alabama tied the national average in 4th-grade reading. Despite some erosion since then, 4th-grade reading remains stronger than other subjects. In math, Alabama 4th graders improved from No. 50 in 2015 to No. 48 in 2017. Obviously, sustained focus on the early grades remains important.
  2. However, Alabama’s NAEP results in 8th grade remain consistently poor in both reading and math. Middle grades instruction also deserved concerted focus and investment.
  3. Alabama should study Mississippi’s approach to see if that state’s progress can provide lessons. While more in-depth analysis is needed, Mississippi education officials credit that state’s progress to continuity of leadership and a sustained, systematic approach to supporting its school districts. The current superintendent, Carey M. Wright, took office in 2013, recruited from the District of Columbia where she was Chief Academic Officer. Mississippi adopted new higher academic standards and set up a system of professional development to help Mississippi teachers teach to the new standards. Mississippi also implemented a literacy initiative similar to the Alabama Reading Initiative but targeted the initiative primarily at high need schools. On the surface, Mississippi’s efforts mirror Alabama’s, a deeper look might reveal ways in which Alabama’s approach can be adjusted in order to produce similar results.

ACT Aspire: 2017 Results and a Final Look Back

The ACT Aspire, a suite of standardized tests given statewide to students in grades 3-8 and 10, has been the State of Alabama’s primary tool for measuring the academic progress of Alabama public schools since the 2013-2014 school year.

Over the course of four administrations of the Aspire, students showed progress on most measures. By 2017, the percentage of children scoring proficient on the Aspire had improved in most grades and subjects, in some cases significantly. (To explore the data on your own, including views that allow for interactive comparisons between selected schools and systems, follow this link. To view the visualization in full screen, click the button on the bottom right corner).

The gains in math were the strongest. All grades saw steady improvements, except for 10th grade where the percentage proficient was basically flat. The implementation of Aspire roughly coincided with the adoption of new state standards in mathematics, which were intended to increase students’ depth of understanding of mathematical concepts. Though the Aspire has now been replaced by a different standardized testing system developed by Scantron, math proficiency levels will continue to be of crucial interest. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the national benchmark testing system, Alabama students have been at or near the bottom of the country. On the 2017 NAEP, Alabama students posted slight gains (Click here for Alabama 2017 NAEP Results). Continued improvement in mathematics instruction is needed.


In reading, the percentage of children scoring proficient improved modestly in grades 3-6, but results for grades 7, 8 and 10 were mixed. Alabama had made significant progress in reading achievement, progress that coincided with investment in and deployment of the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI). In the wake of the Great Recession, funding for the program was cut and school systems were given the flexibility in their use of ARI funds. The most recent state budget included a $4 million increase for ARI but stipulated that the program return to its initial focus on early grade reading.


Aspire tests for science were not uniformly administered for all grades in all years, but in the years and grades available, gains were also made in that subject.


In Alabama and across the country, the differences in the proficiency rates among various subgroups of students remains a concern. In both the state and the nation, the percentage of students from poverty backgrounds scoring proficient is about 25-30 percentage points lower than the percentage of nonpoverty students scoring proficient. Similar gaps between whites and blacks, and whites and Hispanic students.



As a result of those gaps, the percentage of the student body in a school system tends to predict the overall proficiency levels achieved by the students on these standardized tests. The scatterplot chart below shows this general correlation between proficiency levels and poverty levels. A school system’s proficiency rate determines its vertical position on the chart (higher on the chart, the higher the proficiency rate). A system’s poverty percentage, based on the percentage of students directly qualifying for free meals under the National School Lunch Program, determines the system’s position on the horizontal axis, with higher poverty districts to the left of the chart and lower poverty districts progressing to the right.

Though the correlation is obvious, it is also obvious that systems with similar poverty levels often show very different proficiency levels. In other words, the school systems can and do exceed expectations, through effective teaching, resources, and organization.

As a testing tool, Aspire had both fans and detractors. Critics complained that resources for preparing for the test were lacking and that results were not provided quickly. They also questioned whether the tests were properly aligned with the state’s course of study. Fans appreciated the fact that Aspire results were aligned with the ACT, the widely used college entrance exam. Thus, a student’s score on the Aspire tests served as a predictor for eventual performance on the ACT.

The test’s results, which showed lower proficiency rates than the previous state test, the Alabama Reading and Math Test, were also considered by many a more accurate reflection of students’ performance. Aspire proficiency levels for Alabama students were closer to the results Alabama students produced on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, though Aspire proficiency percentages were still higher than Alabama NAEP proficiency levels. Here is a comparison of Aspire and NAEP results for Alabama, with the proficiency levels for national public schools included for comparison.

 JurisdictionTest% of students at or above Proficient
4th Grade MathNational publicNAEP40%
4th Grade ReadingNational publicNAEP35%
8th Grade MathNational publicNAEP33%
8th Grade ReadingNational publicNAEP35%

College-Going Rates for Alabama High Schools

With population growth and a rising high school graduation rate, Alabama’s high schools are producing more graduates and they are sending more graduates, in absolute numbers, to higher education. However, at the same time, a slightly smaller percentage of graduates are moving directly into higher education. In 2016, 63 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college in the year after their graduation. That compares to a 65 percent enrollment rate in 2014.

That’s according to new data released by the Alabama Commission on High Education (ACHE). The data from the report is drawn from the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks student entry and progress through higher education. College-going rates and college destination statistics for the state, for systems and for individual Alabama high schools can be found on PARCA’s Data Dashboard.

The findings in the most recent report are similar to patterns identified in another recently released dataset from ACHE, its high school feedback report. PARCA’s analysis of that data shows that though a slightly lower percentage of graduates are enrolling in higher education, those enrolling appear to be better prepared since a smaller percentage of those enrolled students are placed in remedial education after graduation.

Where are we now?

Alabama trails most U.S. states when it comes to educational attainment, with a smaller percentage of Alabama’s population aged 25-64 holding a college degree. Higher levels of educational attainment produce higher incomes and more job stability in an economy which increasingly demands education beyond high school. To close the gap with other states, Alabama needs a greater share of its population obtaining higher education credentials. But, according to the most recent comparative data, Alabama trails the national average and lags behind all other Southeastern states in the percentage of high school graduates going directly into college.

According to the new ACHE data, approximately 63 percent of Alabama high school graduates are enrolling in college the year after graduating from high school:

  • 32 percent of high school graduates in the state of Alabama enrolled in two-year colleges
  • 31 percent enrolled at a four-year college
  • 37 did not continue into higher education in the year after graduating from high school

Of those Alabama high school graduates enrolling in higher education:

  • 91 percent went to college in-state
  • 9 percent went to college in another state
  • 93 percent went to a public college
  • 7 percent enrolled at a private college

Variation by System

A deeper dive in the data shows how diverse the state’s educational eco-system is. Across the state, systems vary widely in the percentage of graduates who go on to higher education. Some patterns are predictable: affluent suburban districts tend to send most of their graduates to college at four-year colleges and universities. In general, high schools where more students are affluent have a greater share of students going on to higher education. In schools where poverty rates are higher, a smaller share of students go on to higher education (See this chart that compares college-going rates with the proportion of poverty students at a high school). However, a greater variance appears when the percentage of students going to two-year colleges is considered in the mix.

So, it’s not a surprise to find the Mountain Brook City School System topping the college-going list, with the highest percentage of graduates going on to higher education. Over 90 percent of Mountain Brook’s 2016 graduates enrolled in college, with the vast majority of them (86 percent of the graduates) entering a 4-year college. Only 5 percent of graduates enrolled in a two-year college.

More unexpected is the system that finished third on the college-going list. Brewton City Schools also had an impressive college-going rate of 85 percent, but the destination of Brewton’s graduates was different from Mountain Brook’s. In that system, 48 percent of graduates enrolled in a two-year college, while 37 percent went to four-year schools.

Those varying paths toward achieving a high college-going rate continue throughout the rankings.

Among the top 20 systems, 9 systems lean heavily toward 4-year college-going and 11 lean more heavily toward 2-year college going.

Variance by High Schools and Within Systems

When examining the college-going rates at individual high schools, the same contrasting picture of college destination is apparent. Some high schools achieve a high college-going rate by sending most graduates to four-year schools, while others send a high proportion of students to two-year colleges and thereby have high college-going rates.

In some systems, there is a significant variance among the high schools within the same school system. This is particularly true in systems that have magnet high schools (schools where students from throughout the district can apply to pursue advanced academic options).

This is most readily apparent in Montgomery County. Three magnet high schools in the Montgomery County system, Brewbaker Technology Magnet High School, Loveless Academic Magnet Program, and Booker T. Washington Magnet High Schools rank in the top 10 among high schools for the percentage of students enrolling in college the year after graduation. All three send close to 90 percent or more of their graduates to college, and most of them to four-year schools. By contrast, of the 2016 graduates of Lanier Senior High School, only 34 percent enrolled in higher education, according to the Clearinghouse data.

Where do we want to go?

In terms of national comparisons, Alabama has historically ranked low in educational attainment. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 34 percent of Alabama’s population between the ages of 25 and 64 have an associate’s degree or higher. That ranks Alabama 9th lowest among U.S. states.

In order to increase Alabama competitiveness, Alabama high schools need to:

  • Continue increasing preparation levels of high school graduates
  • Identify and employ effective approaches for connecting students to higher education enrollment and financing opportunities

Colleges and universities need to:

  • Increase outreach to Alabama high school students
  • Address problems of access and affordability
  • And once in college, schools need to work with students to increase student persistence and graduation rates