Agenda for Alabama’s Third Century: Raising Educational Attainment for All

While Alabama continues to gain on other states in the percentage of adults with a high school diploma, it is falling further behind the national average when it comes to the percentage of the population with a bachelor’s degree or better.

This is important because higher educational attainment is correlated with higher rates of labor force participation, higher personal income, and higher GDP per capita, as well as, better health outcomes.

The visualization below shows the correlation between a state’s per capita income and the percentage of adults (individuals 25 years or older) who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. The greater the percentage of college-educated adults in the state population, the higher the state’s per capita income. And vice-versa. The correlation holds true for the percentage of the population with an associate degrees.

In response to changes in demographics and the economy, Alabama leaders launched a full-court press to raise levels of educational attainment, recognizing that as a cornerstone of future prosperity. The Success Plus initiative brings government, education, and business together around a coordinated effort to raise educational attainment and post-high school advanced skills training, with the goal of adding 500,000 highly skilled workers to the workforce by 2025. In the face of the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s all the more important to sustain educational momentum and prevent the exacerbation of educational inequities that have held Alabama back.

PARCA opened 2020 with an annual meeting in January that challenged speakers to sketch out a vision for our state’s third century. We’re revisiting the central themes explored at that meeting in the coming months, beginning with this installment on educational attainment.

From PARCA’s work with schools and governments, successful organizations follow a process in order to pursue a vision.

  1. Know where you stand and own your data.
  2. Make a plan for improvement, one that includes goals and evidence-based strategies for how to achieve them.
  3. Measure progress toward your goal. Analyze the results.
  4. Celebrate successes. Shift resources and strategy if tactics aren’t working.

This report, as a first step, describes where Alabama stands in comparison to other states in educational attainment.

Narrowing the Gap in High School Attainment

It’s not a surprise that Alabama trails other states. The state is dragged down by its historic underinvestment in education, by the legacy of racially-segregated, separate and unequal schools, as well as continuing inequities and de-facto segregation in some areas.

Here’s the good news: Alabama has shown it can produce dramatic change. When it comes to raising the percentage of adults with high school education, it has, according to Census Bureau data. 1

  • Between 1940 and 2018, Alabama ranked third highest among states in percentage point gain in high school attainment.
  • By 2018, Alabama had nearly closed the gap with the US average for the percentage of the state’s adult population with a high school degree.
  • In 2018, 87% of Alabama adults had a high school degree compared to 88%.

And while work remains to be done, Alabama has also made significant progress in closing the gap between Blacks and whites in high school attainment. In 1940, after decades of Black flight from the South and with segregation still in full force, only 4% of Black adults in Alabama had a high school diploma, compared to 22% of whites. Both races trailed well behind the national averages. By 2018, 82% of Black adults in Alabama had a high school credential compared to 89% of whites. Across the U.S., 85% of Blacks and 93% of non-Hispanic whites have a high school credential.

In spite of advances, Alabama still ranks No. 44 among the 50 states in the percentage of its population with a high school degree, thought the gap between all states is much narrower than it once was.

Falling Behind in Bachelor’s Degree Attainment

The gap is much wider when it comes to the percentage of the population with a four-year degree. When it comes to bachelor’s degree attainment, Alabama has failed to keep pace with the growth rates in other states.

  • In 1940, the percentage of the population with a college degree was small in Alabama (3%) and the U.S. (5%).
  • Since 1940, the percentage of the population with a college degree has steadily increased but Alabama’s growth rate has been slower than the national rate, resulting in the current gap of 7 percentage points.
  • Since 1940, Alabama had the ninth-lowest percentage point gain among states in bachelor’s degree attainment and ranks No. 44 among the 50 states in the percentage of the adult population with a degree.

Use the menu to select other states for comparison

Alabama’s bachelor’s degree attainment trails the national average for both Blacks and whites. Among Alabama whites, 28% of adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 36% of whites nationally. That’s a gap of 8 percentage points.

In Alabama, among Blacks, 17% of adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 22% nationally. That’s a gap of five percentage points. Throughout this period, more students began enrolling and graduating from college. However, white students nationally and in Alabama seem to have been better positioned to take advantage of this major shift in higher education.

Nationally, the gap in bachelor’s attainment between whites and Blacks is 14 percentage points, compared to a gap of 11 percentage points in Alabama. For both races, the gap with the US average has widened between 2010 and 2018, according to the Census statistics. The percentage point growth in attainment was particularly slow for Alabama Blacks during the latest period, advancing only two percentage points.

These educational attainment measures are not solely attributable to the preparation levels and graduation rates from Alabama K-12 schools or colleges, though the performance of those schools has an effect. Also influencing the equation, particularly in terms of bachelor’s degree attainment, is where Alabama graduates move after college, which is often a function of where career opportunities are available, and the population and wages are growing. Data suggests that many of the states seeing rapid increases in the percentage of the population with bachelor’s degrees are drawing college-educated migrants from other states. Alabama research from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education also finds that the state exports college graduates.

If you want a closer look at how the state’s compare on educational attainment, the visualizations below present a more detailed view. The charts break down the population into segments based on the percentage of the population in each educational category. An individual’s category is determined by his or her highest level of education. The percentage represents the number of people at that level each attainment divided by the total population 25 years and older. In this chart, the states are sorted by the percentage of the population with an associate degree or higher. Use the tabs to explore the states ranked by the percentage of the population with bachelor’s and graduate degrees or the states’ data displayed in an interactive map.

How Does Educational Attainment Compare within the State?

Overall, Alabama’s educational attainment rates may trail the rates of other states, but measures of attainment also vary widely within the state. Educational attainment, as measured by the percentage of the population with bachelor’s degrees or higher, exceeds the US average in five counties: Madison, Shelby, Lee, Jefferson, and Baldwin. Five additional counties exceed the Alabama average: Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Autauga, Coffee, and Elmore Counties. Those top counties represent most of the major metro population centers plus the university towns. The exception is Coffee County which is home to Enterprise State Community College and includes the residences of many of the personnel, military and civilian, associated with Fort Rucker.

Within the top 20 are a few counties where educational attainment levels are higher than one might expect based on their rural character: Sumter, Pike, and Macon. On closer examination, all three have a university and a relatively small population. Macon County also has a large Veterans Administration Hospital. Pike County is home to some defense contractors and other manufacturing businesses that likely boost the county’s share of credentialed residents.

As in the national context, there is a relationship between education levels and income. In Alabama, the most predictive relationship can be found by comparing county per capita income and the percentage of the population with an associate degree or higher. In general, counties with higher levels of educational attainment have higher levels of income. Educated workers seek out locations where there are concentrations of higher-paying jobs. Higher-paying jobs generally require higher levels of education or training. Businesses seek out locations where there is an ample supply of educated residents so hiring will be easier. Higher incomes generate more business opportunities.

The quest to close the gap

For its first 150 years of statehood, Alabama intentionally operated separate and unequal schools for blacks and whites. And even for whites, the schools weren’t adequate to keep students on pace with the rest of the United States. Through the 1950s, Alabama’s population was predominately rural with an economy oriented to agriculture or blue-collar industry. Alabama’s primary recruiting tools were low taxes, low wages, and cheap land.

The lingering effects of this historic underinvestment in students become apparent in the period of record-low unemployment prior to the pandemic. Despite a booming economy and low unemployment, Alabama continued to have one of the lowest labor force participation rates in the U.S. Businesses struggled to find employees to meet the demands of more technologically advanced workplaces, while a disproportionate number of citizens, primarily those with lower levels of education, stayed stuck on the sidelines.

If Alabama is to reach its full economic potential, the state needs to continue to improve the equity, effectiveness, and efficiency of its educational delivery system. It needs to reach out to adults who need to advance their education. And it needs to retain the graduates its schools produce.


Alabama First Class Pre-K Research Gains National Exposure

The National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University has recognized research on the persistence of the impact of First Class Pre-K.

Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, PARCA, ThinkData, and the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education published a peer-reviewed article in the International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy showing the persistence of gains in math and reading for students who received First Class Pre-K. This article is the culmination of several years of work involving five cohorts of students over time.

First Class Pre-K students in Collier Elementary School in Mobile County public schools. al.com, March 7, 2019

The article, written for an academic audience, offers a detailed statistical analysis of recent findings of the research team already shared with policymakers and pre-K advocates in Alabama and authored by UAB, the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, and PARCA.

Results indicate that children who received First Class Pre-K were statistically significantly more likely to be proficient in both math and reading compared to students who did not receive First Class Pre-K. Further, there was no statistical evidence of fadeout of the benefits of First Class Pre-K through the 7th grade, indicating the persistence of the benefits into middle school.

You can read the published article here.

To read previous research about additional academic benefits of Alabama First Class Pre-K, especially as it pertains to educational equity, click here.


COVID-19 and Public Education: Lessons Learned Last Spring

Alabama schools are set to re-open in August, with plans for local systems to offer educational services through traditional on-campus schools, remote on-line education, and a hybrid of traditional and remote learning options.

With the novel Coronavirus still spreading, all plans are subject to change. Already, the state’s largest system, Mobile County, and the Selma City School System have decided not to open school buildings and to proceed with only remote learning for all of its students this fall.

As policymakers, educators, and parents prepare for what will likely be a most unusual school year—including the possibility of additional shutdowns— PARCA gathered information from local reports and two major national polls that attempt to describe what parents and students experienced during the school closures this spring. As schools plan for the fall, these experiences are important to understand.

According to the polls, parents worried the online school experience was resulting in:

  • learning loss and lack of academic advancement
  • a lack of social interaction for students, negatively impacting student mental health
  • inadequate contact between parents and teachers
  • a mismatch between the resources provided by schools and the aid parents most needed
  • increased inequities in the educational experience

The Shutdown

As COVID-19 spread this spring, schools across the country closed. By March 20, 45 states had closed all schools. By early May, the number climbed to 48 states and the District of Columbia—affecting more than 55 million students. Only Montana and Wyoming allowed schools to remain open, although some systems in those states did close. 1

Almost overnight, schools entered uncharted waters. States, systems, and local schools mobilized resources for parents and students and reimagined teacher-student interaction. For most schools, this entailed some version of virtual education.

According to a Gallop Survey conducted in March 2020, 70% of parents of K-12 students not in school at that time reported their child was participating in an online education program run by his or her school. The survey found that among parents whose children were not enrolled in a formal online education program, 52% were homeschooling with their own materials, 25% were using a free online learning program not associated with their child’s school, and 35% were not engaged in any formal education. 2

Some schools had the capacity to respond to COVID-19 closures comparatively easily. That includes schools in Alabama and elsewhere that were already designed as virtual schools. Other systems in other parts of the country are more experienced in online education because of long winter breaks with harsh weather. Conversely, most schools, educators, parents, and students were thrust into a new learning environment for which they were little prepared.

Parents and students around Alabama reported a wide variance in student experiences, varying according to system, school, grade, and teacher. Some reported students having more work than before the shutdown and spending hours each day with regular virtual check-ins. Others reported that work was considered optional or that students finished nine-weeks of work in just a few days. The long-term effects of the academic transition and the inconsistency of students’ experience will take time to assess.

Parent Reactions

The national nonprofit educational organization Learning Heroes conducted a survey of parents in April and March 2020. The survey, which reached 3,645 parents from across the nation, was conducted in conjunction with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), and the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE).

Results show that parents, now in the role of educators or critical partners in their child’s learning, have gained a new appreciation for what teachers and schools do. 3

Figure 1

Source: 2020 learning Heroes Survey

Some parents reported being overwhelmed, while others reported more involvement in their child’s learning has given them a healthy sense of engagement and better insight on how to help their children learn. These parents look forward to being more involved in schools and their child’s education once schools re-open.

Academic ConcernsLoss of Learning Assessed

Seventy percent of parents expressed concern about the loss of learning and how this will be made up.  Fifty-four percent are concerned their children will not be ready for the upcoming school year. These issues raise more fundamental questions about the nature of teaching and learning. High-quality teaching and learning can presumably occur in different forms. With state testing postponed, measuring the impact on student learning gain or loss will be complicated but is an important objective.

Figure 2

Source: 2020 Learning Heroes Survey

States such as California and South Carolina are planning to implement new tools for assessing learning loss. Quick, real-time assessments conducted by teachers in the classroom, or virtually, will likely be most effective. Assessments that take time to report results will have limited utility for teachers but may be instructive for administrators and researchers.

Researchers have tried to predict the magnitude of pandemic-related learning loss by analyzing normal summer learning loss — the degree of academic regression between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next – and treating the COVID shutdown as an extended summer. Some researchers estimate that students likely ended the school year with only 40% to 60% of learning gains achieved during a typical school year. [efn-note] M., Soland, J., Tarasawa, B., Johnson, A., Ruzek, E., and Liu, J. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. Edworking Papers, May 2020. Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University [/efn_note] Other studies estimated much lower losses. 4 5 6

Some experts believe the projected learning loss is over estimated.

They note that estimates using summer loss as a baseline are not taking into account the learning that occurred through virtual forums and support provided by schools this past spring. Likewise, most of the content students were expected to learn was already introduced to students by March, although students did not have an opportunity in class to practice skills, and develop mastery. Furthermore, teachers are prepared to work with students coming back at different levels of preparation after the summer break, so they will not be caught off-guard. At the same time, this will likely be much more challenging and will be taxing for teachers who are less prepared and motivated to work with diverse learners.

These same experts, however, are alarmed about the challenges facing beginning readers, who usually need continued re-enforcement throughout the year. This could affect future literacy rates and have implications for implementing Alabama’s Literacy Act in the lower grades. 7

Social and Mental Health Concerns

Parents expressed fear about the impact of COVID-19 on their children’s social-emotional well-being, and 59% worry about the impact of reduced social interactions. For young children in unsettled or abusive home environments, the school can be a safe place. Long-term absence from this safe place can become a source of heightened trauma with long term consequences.

Many children may be coping well, but medical experts are concerned about the stress and trauma children (and adults) are experiencing during the pandemic, especially those with underlying mental health conditions. School-aged children experienced sudden changes in their educational setting and routines. Many experienced shock. Some families have had the stress of sickness and death in their families as a result of the virus – though overall a relatively small percentage. Many more families are under financial strain. Concerns have been raised about abuse, neglect, loneliness, and isolation. The virus has affected every facet of the life of children and adults. 8

Symptoms of trauma in school-aged children can include:

Physical SymptomsOver-or under-reacting to stimuli (physical contact, doors slamming, sirens)
Increased activity level (fidgeting)
Withdrawal from other people and activities
CognitiveRecreating the traumatic event (e.g., repeatedly talking about or “playing out” the event) or avoiding topics that serve as reminders
Difficulties with attention
Worry and fear about safety of self and others
Disconnected from surroundings, “spacing out”
Social-EmotionalRapid changes in heightened emotions (e.g., extremely sad to angry)
Difficulties with controlling emotions angry outbursts, aggression, increased distress)
Emotional numbness, isolation, and detachment
Language and CommunicationLanguage development delays and challenges
Difficulties with expressive (e.g., expressing thoughts and feelings) and receptive language (e.g., understanding nonverbal cues)
Difficulties with nonverbal communication (e.g., eye contact)
Use of hurtful language (e.g., to keep others at a distance)
LearningAbsenteeism and changes in academic performance/engagement
Difficulties listening and concentrating during instruction
Difficulties with memory 9

Parents can reduce the risk of stress by creating a calm, safe, and predictable environment, communicating and building a positive-supportive relationship with their children, and encouraging their children to develop self-regulation skills.

Teacher Interaction

Parents expressed concern about the lack of regular ongoing contact they and their children have with their children’s teacher(s). This is perhaps less critical for self-motivated students with highly resourceful parents or guardians with time devoted to learning at home. But many students depend on regular high-level teacher interaction. Parents indeed may have the will and skill to perform in this role but are working in fulltime jobs. Others express concern about not having the background to adequately support their children. Still, others may be in stressful life situations that rob them of the motivation and energy to serve in this role. In each of these situations more ongoing contact with teachers and community support specialists would likely make a significant difference.

Figure 3

Source: 2020 Learning Heroes Survey

Though parents find communication with teachers extremely helpful, the majority did not receive this support on an ongoing basis.  Teachers have found themselves in uncharted territory for which they were not prepared. They too may not have the skills and background needed for online teaching and tutoring.  The awkwardness of online communication and technical hiccups can generate additional frustration. Everyone is learning and adapting.

Resources Provided by the School

An especially important issue for schools this past spring was providing guidance and resources to parents to assist them in working with their children. The figure below shows the percent of parents indicating they received key resources from their child’s school during the pandemic this past Spring.

Figure 4 

Source: 2020 Learning Heroes Survey

But sometimes what parents received was not what they needed or found most useful. In Figure 5 below, resources are ordered by the percent of parents who found the assistance useful (red bar), from highest to lowest, and the percent receiving the guidance or resource.  

Figure 5

Source: 2020 Learning Heroes Survey

The most useful assistance included:

  • school provided personal technology
  • online guidance
  • one-to-one tutoring with teachers
  • ongoing regular contact with teachers
  • printed versions of class materials
  • remote classes delivered online

Parents found printed materials more helpful than digital materials.

The gap between what was offered and what was found most useful, when offered, was largest for the following:

  • personal guidance in supporting your child’s learning at home
  • remote one-to-one tutoring by teachers
  • school provided technology
  • access to mental health services

COVID-19 and Equity

A number of observers have focused attention on the profound inequities in education magnified by COVID-19.  Systems vary in funding, resources, curriculum, extracurricular offering, teacher experience and in many other ways. These disparities are likely exacerbated when the home becomes, not by choice, the primary learning environment for all students.  

Virtual education has the potential for system-by-system and house-by-house differences in capacity to compound each other.

Differences in capacity across households include the following:

  • Income and educational attainment of parents.
  • The knowledge and experience of parents, guardians, or other adults.
  • The time and availability of parents, guardians, or other adults to actively facilitate or assist in their children’s learning.
  • Family structure: One and two-parent families where responsibilities are shared.
  • Relationships between parent-child, parent-teacher, and student-teacher.
  • Access to communication, guidance, and support from teachers and schools. 
  • Access to community supports and enrichment.
  • Access to computer technology and high-speed internet. Capacity and motivation to make use of these resources.
  • Access to nutritional food daily.

These obstacles may be greater, but in no way limited, to lower-income areas.

The general public and government leaders most frequently cite a child’s school and teachers as the primary difference in their education. But research has long noted that children do not enter school as a blank slate, and that inequalities begin at birth as a result of different prenatal conditions, and too often are made worse during those early years before school.  Children enter school with vastly different levels of preparation. The achievement gap, from this point of view, is a symptom of broader inequality, past and present. Improving education on campus and on-line and building a solid workforce calls for addressing these inequalities in the home and school. 10 Strauss, V. (2020). How COVID-19 has laid bare the vast inequities in U.S. public education. The Washington Post, April 14, 2020. /efn_note]


School Discipline and Race in Alabama

Black students face harsher disciplinary measures than white students for similar offenses, a PARCA review of public school disciplinary records has found. Meanwhile, Alabama is one of few states nationally, and the only state in the Southeast, that has no uniform statewide policies requiring due process when students are suspended or expelled.

Suspensions have been shown to increase rates of school failure.   

Students with a record of numerous disciplinary infractions are at a higher risk for trouble in school and life. Research has shown that students experiencing early problems with attendance, academics, and discipline more frequently experience negative outcomes, such as leaving high school without a diploma or graduating, but unprepared for college or work. Such problems in school have also been linked to a greater likelihood of poor health and criminal activity.[1]

There is very little evidence showing positive impact of out-of-school suspensions on student behavior, and in many cases, they are more likely to cause more harm than good. Out-of-school suspensions are disproportionately applied to Black students, and potentially contributing to a pipeline that leads from school to prison.

Background

In 2018, PARCA Research Coordinator Joe Adams collected data from the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) that included extensive disciplinary records for the school years, 2014-15, 2015-16, and 2016-17. Using these data, PARCA has found that students who are Black are more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than white students for the same offense, and students who are white are more likely to receive the less restrictive in-school suspensions than Black students. These findings provoke concern considering the broader context of racial inequities in education, healthcare, criminal justice, corrections, employment, and housing conditions.

In recent years research has found significant differences in the use of suspension and expulsion based on race. These data, along with research showing the long-term negative impact of suspensions and expulsion, have led states to re-examine their disciplinary policies, though Alabama is behind this curve.

A report issued by the Education Commission of the States in 2018 found that most states are limiting the use of suspension or expulsion. [2]

  • Sixteen states, plus the District of Columbia, limit the use of suspension or expulsion by grade level, usually by disallowing suspension or expulsion in the early grades. Alabama’s state regulatory statutes do not currently have such limitations. Though suspensions are more common in middle and high school, they also frequently occur in the lower grades in Alabama.

  • Several states limit the use of exclusionary discipline for certain violations. Of those, about 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, prohibit suspension or expulsion solely for a student’s attendance or truancy issues. This limitation does not exist in Alabama. Suspension is a common disciplinary action for truancy and tardiness in the state.

  • About 30 states, plus the District of Columbia, encourage districts and schools to utilize non-punitive, or more supportive, school discipline strategies. Of those, 22 states, plus the District of Columbia, mention the use of specific, evidence-based interventions — such as schoolwide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), restorative practices, Response to Intervention (RTI), trauma-informed practices and social-emotional learning. Alabama statutes do not address the school-wide programs cited above, though individual schools are choosing to implement PBIS, restorative justice, and other such programs, and the Alabama State Department of Education developed a guidebook to PBIS.

A student’s right to a fair hearing in the state is another important issue. Based on a 1975 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Godd v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 [1975]), students who are suspended or expelled have a right of due process to defend themselves in a fair hearing. Since this ruling, states have enacted policies to ensure local communities follow through and protect a student’s constitutional right to a hearing. Some states outline very detailed procedures for local boards to use. Most directly state that no student will be suspended or expelled for more than 10 days without an objective hearing. Alabama is one of the few states nationally and the only state in the Southeast that does not have uniform statewide procedures that must be followed before removing a student from school. See https://safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/school-discipline-laws-regulations-state.

Some local boards in the state have developed due process procedures, with varying levels of clarity, and some have not. If a system fails to protect due process, the only recourse is a legal proceeding. Under these circumstances, it is conceivable that a student could be suspended, or even expelled, because of an infraction in which they are innocent, without a hearing and investigation into what happened.

Alabama lawmakers recognize these issues are a problem.

In the 2020 session of the Alabama Legislature Senate Bill 189 proposed limits on suspensions and expulsions. The bill proposed:

  • Requiring local boards of education to hold a hearing when a student is expelled or suspended for more than 10 days.
  • Prohibiting suspension of students enrolled in Pre-K through the fifth grade unless the safety of other students was endangered.
  • Prohibiting suspension for truancy or tardiness.

At the close of the shortened 2020 legislative session, SB 189 had passed the Senate and was referred to the Education Policy Committee in the House of Representatives.

Analysis of Disciplinary Infractions

The dashboard charts below show data on reported infractions in Alabama schools, beginning with the number of reported incidences for all specific infractions collected in the state Student Incident Report (SIR) system. This includes charts showing the infractions with the highest number of incidents, as shown below.

Disturbances or disruptions generated the most reported infractions all three years, followed in 2017 by assault, disobedience, and defiance. These categories give some idea of the offense committed, but with limitations. Local schools and systems may vary in how they interpret these categories. Mystery offenses are unspecified offenses.

The total number of reported infractions by race are shown below. Students who are Black comprise 33% of students in Alabama’s public schools; however, they account for 60% of all reported disciplinary incidents.

Extensive research has demonstrated that students in low-income or poverty households are more likely to experience family stress, verbal and physical abuse, neglect, drug and alcohol use in the home, and other sources of emotional pain and trauma—and may develop different responses or reactions to stressful situations.[3] Cultural conflicts between students and teachers and administrators may also result in a disproportionate number of Black students cited for infractions, as well as teacher-student exchanges that escalate and fail to properly address situations that arise.  [4] [5]

Responses to Disciplinary Incidents in Alabama Public Schools

The following dashboard charts show the punitive actions (dispositions) for all offenses in Alabama, as found in the data provided to PARCA by ALSDE.

Among the incidents that are reported to the state in the SIR data, the preferred disposition for responding to the vast majority of incidents was suspension. Out-of-school suspensions are more common than in-school suspensions, though the 48-40% split is not an alarmingly large gap. Both are used frequently.

More problematic are dispositions by race. The following dashboard chart displays state-level disposition data for Black and white students, divided between schools that utilize corporal punishment and those that do not. In Alabama, systems that use corporal punishment tend to be majority white systems. Majority Black systems are more likely to prohibit corporal punishment. Systems with greater racial diversity are mixed in their use of corporal punishment. Consequently, by default, Black students are less likely to receive corporal punishment.

The proportion of Black students receiving out-of-school suspensions is markedly higher than for white students, who are more likely to receive the less severe in-school suspensions.  

These patterns hold when looking at dispositions for specific infractions committed by both Black and white students. Looking at dispositions recorded for nearly 60 infractions, in 90% of the infraction types, Black students were more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than white students for the same infraction.

The dashboard charts show the percentage of students receiving out of school suspension by race for the most common infractions.

Infractions are ordered from the highest gap to the lowest between the percentage of offenses cited for Black and white students punished with out-of-school suspensions for the same offense. This order varies somewhat each year. Black students are more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than white students for all of the 10 most common infractions.

Among the most frequently occurring infractions, the gap between cases in which Black and white students received out-of-school suspension was largest in 2017 for tobacco-related offenses and smallest for drug-related offenses. In 2016, the gap was largest for disobedience. Infractions for disobedience resulted in out-of-school suspension in 19% of the cases involving white students, but when Black students committed the offense, out-of-school suspension was used in 47% of the cases.

This is a gap of 28 percentage points – showing that Black students were twice as likely to be removed from school than white students for this same offense.

The charts below provide more detail for different infractions. Use the filters to explore results for all infractions. Examples are posted below.

Suspensions – Background and Research

In the 1990s and early 2000s, schools across the United States employed exclusionary discipline, namely in-school and out-of-school suspensions, at increasing rates. Suspensions are a punishment for “bad behavior” and may have also been seen as a “cooling off period” for students. In other situations, suspensions may be used to bring more control to a hostile situation and create easier conditions for maintaining a safe learning environment. In any case, suspensions are a signal to parents/guardians that their children are demonstrating behavioral problems.

With in-school suspensions, students are removed from their regular class but still attend school in a designated classroom or another school in the system. Thus, the students are still receiving some form of instruction and supervision. Out-of-school suspension prohibits the student from attending school for a temporary period, usually five or fewer days. Very serious infractions may result in expulsion—removing the student from the school system.

Clearly, there are situations where the safety of students and school personnel must take priority and call for removing a student from school grounds. However, there is very little evidence supporting the positive impact of suspensions on student behavior.[6] Researchers documenting the increased use of suspensions over the last three decades found they were not effective in changing student behavior and were associated with other negative outcomes, including lower academic achievement, grade retention, increased drop-out rates, and involvement with the juvenile justice system.

Critics argue that suspensions are adversely related to student learning. Suspensions remove students from the classroom or an optimal learning environment. Achievement gaps are widened as out-of-school suspensions are disproportionately given to students who are male, Black, economically disadvantaged, from single-parent families, or who have disabilities. Suspension can create more sense of separation between the student and school, increase feelings of not belonging, and negative feelings about school. Unsupervised students are vulnerable to getting in more trouble and consuming alcohol and drugs. Suspensions can cause further stress for children and a sense of isolation.

Suspension can be a way to remove the “problem” without addressing the underlying causes.

References 

[1] Balfanz, R. (2009). Putting Middle Grades Students on the Graduation Path: A Policy and Practice Brief. Everyone Graduates Center and Talent Development, Middle Grades Program. Middle School Association.

[2] Rafa, A. (2018). 50-State Comparison: State Policies on School Discipline. Education Commission of the States. August 28, 2018

[3] Nixon, B. (2012). Stress Has Lasting Effect on Child Development. The Urban Child Development Institute.

[4] Investigating the Association between Home-School Dissonance and Disruptive Classroom Behaviors for Urban Middle School Students. The Journal of Early Adolescence, Vol. 38, pp. 530-553. April 2018. By K. Tyler, J. Burris, and S. Coleman. 

[5] Classroom Disruptions, the Teacher-Student Relationship and Classroom Management from the Perspective of Teachers, Students, and external Observers: A Multi-Method Approach. In Learning Environments Research, Vol. 22, Issue 1, pp. 101-116, April 2019.  By M. Scherzinger and A. Wettstein.

[6] Ritter, G. (2018). Reviewing the progress of school discipline reform. In Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 93, No. 2, p. 133-138, 2018.


2019 ACT WorkKeys: Preparing Students for Work in a Time of Uncertainty

High school seniors and recent graduates are preparing to enter a workforce that has been disrupted, hopefully only temporarily. In a matter of weeks, the nation has gone from record low unemployment to levels not seen since the Depression. Employers are adapting to a new set of work conditions and the demand for new skills appropriate for remote work is rapidly rising.

The WorkKeys Assessment may now be more valuable than ever in helping employers assess the practical skills and adaptability of potential hires.

WorkKeys Assessments in Alabama

WorkKeys is a standardized test given to 12th graders in Alabama public schools. The assessment is meant to measure skills relevant to many of today’s work environments. This is a test that generates positive results in Alabama with steady progress.

WorkKeys is one of the measures through which a student can be designated as College and Career Ready in the state. They may not have the specialized training needed for particular occupations, but if a student earns a certification at the higher levels, the measure should increase the confidence of employers in hiring staff who are adept at applying useful cognitive skills and knowledge to applied work tasks in contemporary work settings.

The Assessments. The assessments consist of three tests of applied cognitive skills which are relevant, according to ACT’s research, to over 20,000 occupations:

  • The Applied Math test
  • The Graphic Literacy test
  • The Workplace Documents test (applied reading for understanding)

Students are awarded a National Career Readiness Certification if they score a Platinum, Gold, Silver, or Bronze score on the WorkKeys. Platinum is the highest level, followed by Gold, Silver and Bronze.

After modifications to the 2018 assessment created significant fluctuation among the different certificate levels, the results in 2019 showed steady gains in the Platinum and Silver levels, and slight decreases in the percent of students earning Gold and Bronze certificates, as well as the percent of students not receiving any certificate.

In Alabama students earning a Silver certificate or above are considered career ready.

Highlights of the WorkKeys test results for the Class of 2019 include:

  • 66% of Alabama high school graduates were deemed workforce ready as measured by the ACT WorkKeys assessment, an improvement over 64 % in 2018.
  • At 94%, Hartselle had the highest percentage of workforce-ready graduates, as measured by WorkKeys.
  • The Silver Certificate continues to be the level with the highest percentage of students.

WorkKeys is emerging as another source of information for making employment decisions and helping prospective workers learn about strengths and weaknesses and opportunities for growth. Using job profiling data provided by ACT, the Alabama Department of Labor maintains data listing the median WorkKeys scores for high demand occupations requiring an associate’s degree or less.


2019 Assessment Results

The following charts show the percentage of graduates in Alabama who demonstrated workforce readiness on WorkKeys assessments.

Percent Workforce Ready Increased in 2019.

In 2019, 66% of high school graduates taking the assessment were deemed workforce ready. This percent has steadily increased since 2015.

Workforce Ready at the Local Level  

The following charts focus on workforce readiness among graduates at the local level. A county view is appropriate when thinking about the quality of a local workforce.

Of course, local school systems and schools are the places where students develop knowledge and skills related to work readiness.

Listed below are the top ranked systems based on workforce readiness assessed through WorkKeys:

  • Mountain Brook City – 95%
  • Arab City – 94%
  • Satsuma City – 94%
  • Cullman City – 89%
  • Hartselle City – 87%
  • Trussville City – 87%
  • Homewood City – 86%
  • Madison City – 86%
  • Brewton City – 85%
  • Guntersville City – 85%

Mountain Brook has made positive gains over the past two years and appears to remain committed to WorkKeys as a valuable assessment.

With committed effort, WorkKeys is an assessment where systems can show growth, as demonstrated by a variety of systems and schools in Alabama.

A number of large and medium-sized systems made noteworthy gains over 2018. Auburn City topped all, showing remarkable gain (up by 24 percentage points).

Among the schools, Loveless Academy continued its top ranking with 100% of students deemed workforce ready. Top schools include:

  • Loveless Academic Magnet High School, Montgomery County – 100%
  • New Century Technology Magnet High School, Huntsville City – 95%
  • Mountain Brook High school – 95%
  • Brewbaker Technology Magnet High School, Montgomery County – 94%
  • Arab City High School – 94%
  • Ramsay High School, Birmingham City Schools – 94%
  • Satsuma High School, Satsuma City Schools – 94%

A number of large and moderate sized high schools experienced positive gain over 2018. This is an area of growth for a number of schools failing to show gains in more purely academic assessments.

Change in Certificate Levels

Students are deemed workforce ready if they achieve certification at the Platinum, Gold, or Silver levels. The charts show that the percentage of students at the Gold and Silver levels increased moderately from 2015 through 2017, with Platinum barely making a dent. After modifications to one of the tests in 2018, Gold and Platinum level certificates grew substantially, while Silver certificates dropped significantly. The percent at each level in 2019 is comparable to 2018, but with positive gains in Platinum and Silver. The percent of students at the lowest level, with no certificate, continues to drop.

Overall, this resulted in a higher percent workforce ready for the state, with a positive trend toward higher certification levels. 

Change in Certificate Levels at the System Level

Platinum: Mountain Brook and Homewood City finished in a tie with the highest percent of Platinums, followed by Madison City, Hoover, Hartselle and Arab City. Aburn City climbed up in 2019 to join these state leaders.

Gold: Oneonta, Arab, and Mountain Brook are the systems with the highest percentage Gold. Though the majority of systems decreased at the Gold level, a number of systems increased their percentage. Leading the way in percentage point gain was Chickasaw City and Jacksonville City, followed by Piedmont City and Talladega County. Arab City continues to show nice gains as well.

Silver: This is the minimum level to be counted as workready. A number of less affluent systems are among the leading systems for Silver certificates. Systems with the highest percentage at this level include Opp City, Satsuma City, Haleyville City, and Lamar County. The vast majority of systems increased in the percentage of students earning Silver certificates in 2019, led by Opp City.

Subgroup Analysis

Analysis of subgroup results shows a continuing disparity between subgroups. Use the filters to see how systems differ in subgroup performance. Some schools may be better at assisting struggling groups than others.

The highest performing groups include students who are Asian, white, non-poverty, female, and military-affiliated. The lowest-performing groups are black, migrant, and special education. While all of the racial groups are increasing their percentage of workforce ready, black students have made the most gain since 2015.

Females continue to outperform male students, though both have shown comparable positive growth since 2015.

In looking at trends, all racial groups are showing progress from year to year, especially Asian and black students.

Finally, special populations are also showing positive growth in workforce readiness, especially students qualifying for free lunch (poverty) and students living in foster homes.

Discussion

The 2020 report, Education Matters, written by PARCA on behalf of the Business Education Alliance, recommends increasing the awareness of WorkKeys as a valuable tool for employers, communities, and schools.

In addition to the assessments, WorkKeys provides a full suite of resources that can help provide training for teachers, test preparation for students, and design career-related curricula to help students improve their “hard” and “soft” skill levels. ACT Career Ready 101 is designed to help teachers bring work readiness skills into the classroom. This raises questions about how students become workforce ready in school. Beyond special resources for preparation, is the curriculum and content delivered in schools changing to strengthen career readiness, even in traditional academic subjects?

The long-term future of WorkKeys will be determined by the continuing value educators give to these assessments and suite of resources, and the degree to which employers value WorkKeys. A growing number of communities and employers are aware of the utility of WorkKeys, but this still varies across the state. Currently, schools also vary in the degree to which they emphasize WorkKeys.


Alabama Public Opinion Survey 2020

PARCA’s 2020 Public Opinion Survey, completed before the onset of the COVID-19 in the U.S., hints at the challenges state policymakers will face in responding to the pandemic.  

The survey finds, once again, aversion to certain taxes, support for public education, and mistrust in state government. At the same time, the survey finds a lack of consensus in how the state should respond to other critical issues facing the state.

Taxes

Alabamians have a strong aversion to taxes but may not fully understand their tax burden.

  • 57% believe they pay the same or more taxes than people like themselves in other states.
     
  • 51% say upper-income earners pay too little. The percent of respondents who believe upper-income earners pay too little has dropped in each of the last four years.
     
  • 49% say lower-income earners pay too much, up from 40% in 2016.
     
  • 48% say they pay the right amount of taxes, compared to 45% in 2010.

Public Education

Alabamians believe education is the most important service state government provides.

  • 78% believe the state spends too little on education, compared to 74% in 2019 and 68% in 2013.
     
  • 69% support increasing taxes to support education, but no single tax increase option garners majority support.

Alabamians value local control of schools.

  • 87% say the local board (45%) or state board of education (42%) should set school calendars, while only 3% say the legislature should decide.
     
  • 59% say local boards of education are best suited to decide how education dollars are spent.

Other notable education findings:

  • 76.5% believe that taxes on Internet sales should be distributed to local schools in the same way as sales tax revenue from brick-and-mortar sales.
     
  • 66% say any potential lottery revenue should be restricted to the Education Trust Fund.
     
  • 59% oppose using state tax credits to fund private school scholarships.
     
  • 49% say charter schools provided expanded opportunities rather than diverting funds from other schools, but almost 25% don’t know or have no opinion.
     
  • 41% say new education funding should be prioritized to increasing teacher compensation.

Trust in State Government

Alabamians’ trust in state government improved slightly compared to 2019 but is still well below rates reported in the early 2000s.

  • 80% support keeping the General Fund and Education Trust Fund separate, down from 82%, but still well above the 69% reported in 2016.
     
  • 66% believe state government officials do not care about their opinions, down from 69% last year. This compares to a low of 55% in 2008 and a high of 74% in 2010.
     
  • 55% believe they have no say in state government, down from 57% last year, but well above the low of 43% in 2008.

Policy Preferences

Alabamians express a wide variety of opinions on pressing policy issues. We asked respondents to choose their preferred policy response or policy action to such issues as prison overcrowding, taxes, education, and healthcare. Each of these six questions offered multiple responses from a range of perspectives. No single policy proposal garnered a majority response. The closest was a proposal to expand mental health services for the homeless, identified as the most important response to homelessness by 45% of respondents.

Download the full report here.


Analysis of Amendment One: Proposing an Appointed State Board of Education

Before each election, PARCA provides an analysis of proposed statewide amendments to the Alabama Constitution.

When voters go to the polls on March 3, they’ll not only be voting in the primary race for President, Vice-President, one U.S. Senate seat, seven U.S. House of Representatives, multiple state Judicial seats, and various other state and county offices, but they will also be asked to vote on one new amendment to the Alabama Constitution of 1901.

The Alabama Constitution is unusual. It is the longest and most amended constitution in the world. There are currently 946 amendments to the Alabama Constitution. Most state and national constitutions lay out broad principles, set the basic structure of the government, and impose limitations on governmental power. Such broad provisions are included in the Alabama Constitution. Alabama’s constitution delves into the minute details of government, requiring constitutional amendments for basic changes that would be made by the Legislature or by local governments in most states. Instead of broad provisions applicable to the whole state, about three-quarters of the amendments to the Alabama Constitution pertain to particular local governments. Amendments establish pay rates of public officials and spell out local property tax rates. An amendment from a few years ago, Amendment 921, granted municipal governments in Baldwin County the power to regulate golf carts on public streets.

Until serious reforms are made, this practice will continue and the Alabama Constitution will continue to swell.

Amendment One

“Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, to change the name of the State Board of Education to the Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education; to provide for the appointment of the members of the commission by the Governor, subject to confirmation by the Senate; to change the name of the State Superintendent of Education to the Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education; to provide for the appointment of the secretary by the commission, subject to confirmation by the Senate; and to authorize the Governor to appoint a team of local educators and other officials to advise the commission on matters relating to the functioning and duties of the State Department of Education.”

Alabamians this March will be voting on an amendment to the Alabama Constitution that would potentially overhaul state education governance and policymaking as it relates to K—12 public schools in the state. The amendment would abolish the elected State Board of Education and the Board-appointed position of State Superintendent of Education. The amendment would create a Governor-appointed Commission, the Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education. The Commission would appoint a Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education, to replace the existing state Superintendent’s position.

State commissions or boards of education and chief state school officers, whether superintendents or secretaries, are central to state education governance. The process used for their selection has implications for accountability, decision-making, and setting priorities for a state’s K—12 education system.

All but two states (Minnesota and Wisconsin) have a school board or commission. Eleven states have elected school boards (12 if including the District of Columbia). The rest have appointed boards, most of which are appointed by the governor. States with elected school boards or commissions are listed below.

States with Elected Boards

  • Alabama
  • Colorado
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Nebraska
  • New Mexico – only an advisory group
  • Nevada – Mixture of elected and appointed members
  • Ohio
  • Texas
  • Utah

The proposal before the voters in Amendment One resembles the governance structure currently in place in 12 states in which the governor appoints the school board and the board appoints the superintendent.

Education Governance

Why does this matter? States have the responsibility for implementing federal education law and developing, implementing, and managing state-level policies. For this to work well, several institutions must work well together.   

State legislatures must pass effective legislation.

Governors can propose education legislation and have the statutory authority to approve or veto legislation. As the state’s chief executive, the governor carries out the laws passed by the legislature. They can also play an important role in shaping the priorities of a state board when they have the power to appoint. In some states, as in Alabama, the governor serves as president of the school board.

State boards of education are responsible for statewide curriculum standards; high school graduation requirements; qualifications for professional education personnel; state accountability and assessment programs; standards for accreditation of local school districts; preparation programs for teachers and administrators; administration of federal assistance programs; and the development of rules and regulations for the administration of state programs. State boards are often seen as the lay representative of the state’s population and as the liaison between professional educators and policymakers. Boards should play a role as advocates for education and, in some states, have been influential in building consensus on state education policy.[1]  

Finally, state superintendents are responsible for administrative oversight of state education agencies and implementation of state law and board policies. Policy-making can occur as superintendents interpret laws and policies that they are responsible for implementing.

There are four different models used in varying states for how state boards and state superintendents are chosen. The majority of states fall into one of these models. Each model, described below, has implications for how state leaders work together in setting priorities and implementing policies.[2]

Model 1: Governor Appoints Board and Superintendent

In 10 states (Delaware, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia), the governor has the most structured power in setting priorities and ensuring they are implemented.

Consequently, the superintendent and board should both be aligned with the governor, though the superintendent may feel more independent of the board than in other models where the board appoints them. The governor is accountable to the voters and can be held more directly accountable for the status and effectiveness of education in the state

Model 2: Governor Appoints Board and Board Appoints Superintendent

The proposed Commission in Alabama fits this model.

In 12 states (Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Rhode Island, and West Virginia), the governor still has power in shaping the education agenda but has less direct control over the implementation of policies through the superintendent’s office, as compared to Model 1. The Board and Superintendent would potentially have a closer relationship than found in Model 1.

Model 3:  Governor Appoints Board while Superintendent is Elected

In 11 states (Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming), voters may see different platforms for education supported by the governor and the superintendent. The governor appoints the board, and this becomes a channel through which policy is formed. The superintendent may exercise more autonomy in interpreting those policies and how they will be implemented in the state.

Model 4:  Board is Elected and Appoints the Superintendent

In Alabama and five other states (Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, and Utah), the governor and the board are both directly accountable to voters. Since the board appoints the superintendent, this increases their power.

In this model, the governor is likely in the weakest position to craft or control the education agenda, compared to the other models. According to the Education Commission of the States (ECS), states using this model potentially face stronger challenges aligning and collaborating across state leadership, unless the voting public is clear in its desires. When alignment is not present, states will likely face limitations in pushing for and sustaining ambitious policy changes. At the same time, an elected board will be highly responsive to voters and will seek out their opinion, preferences, and needs.

According to ECS, eleven additional states (Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington) function under modified and mixed versions of the above models. Five of these elect their board, though New Mexico’s is only an advisory commission. Two of these states elect their state superintendent. No state elects both their state board and superintendent.

  • In Mississippi, five members of the state board are appointed by the governor, two at-large members are appointed by the lieutenant governor, and two at-large members are selected by the speaker of the house of representatives. The superintendent is appointed by the Board.
  • In South Carolina, board members represent each of the judicial circuits where they are elected by the legislative delegations representing each circuit. The CSSO is elected.
  • In Louisiana, eight members are elected from individual districts, and three are appointed by the governor from the state at large, with consent from the senate.

Elected and Appointed State Boards: Strengths and Weakness

The process for selecting the board and chief state school officer can influence the goals for these officials. Some groups, including the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), emphasize the role of state boards in representing the interests of the lay public in accordance with democratic principles. Whether elected or not, NASBE contends that:

“State boards of education are integral to the governance of public education in the United States. State Boards, operating as a lay body over state education, are intended to serve as an unbiased broker for education decision-making, focusing on the big picture, articulating the long-term vision and needs of public education, and making policy based on the best interests of the public and the young people of America.”

Elected board members are charged with asking important and challenging questions that lead to good policy. The question is whether boards effectively play this role.

Proponents say elected boards are more responsive to the public will. As elected officials, board members have their rightful place and, ideally, are only responsible to the people who elected them. They should be more empowered to oppose what they believe is not in the interests of the state’s schools and children.

At the same time, as elected officials, re-election is an important goal, if not the central goal. Thus elected board members may find themselves where the interests and desires of voters conflict with policies, programs, and practices that best serve children.

Conversely, proponents of appointed boards cite the strength of the vetting process in creating boards with knowledgeable, skilled, effective board members. An appointment process allows the governor to consider the needs of the board and the qualities different candidates would bring. Others cite that governor-appointed boards and appointed superintendents create a more efficient, aligned, and harmonious system for setting and implementing education priorities. Ambitious and substantive changes to a state’s school system are more feasible in a more efficient system that encourages collaboration and strengthens the governor’s capacity to effect change. However, while somewhat insulated, appointed boards are not immune from political pressure. 

Conclusion

The selection process for state school boards and state superintendents is important, and there are reasonable arguments for both elections and appointments. Regardless, the selection process will not remove politics. The nature of the task — setting and implementing the state’s K—12 education policy — means state school boards will likely always be politicized to some degree.

Thus, it is essential to establish both an effective governing structure and qualified leaders committed to strengthening teaching and learning in Alabama.

A quality education is how dreams are realized and the people’s voice is strengthened.

Read the full PDF report here.


References

[1] National Association of State Boards of Education (2019). “State Board of Education Responsibilities”

[2] Education Commission of the States (2017). 50-State Comparison: K-12 Governance Structures.”


Newly released “Education Matters” report assesses the progress of public education in supporting Alabama’s workforce initiative

In 2020, Alabama is in the midst of one of the most significant workforce initiatives in the state’s history. Reports have highlighted the need for 500,000 additional highly skilled workers by 2025 who have earned a high-value, industry-recognized credential.  

The Business Education Alliance of Alabama (BEA) commissioned PARCA, with support from the A+ Education Partnership, to provide research that would bring coherence, clarity, and guidance to the state’s effort to meet these goals. That research report, Education Matters, was released by the BEA in January 2020.

The report outlines the state’s system for workforce development. It provides data on key performance measures of the education-to-workforce pipeline. And it takes a close look at career and technical education as part of a larger focus on college and career readiness in Alabama.

Through this analysis, the report highlights challenges that need to be addressed.

  • Improving basic math and literacy instruction: Alabama’s performance on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading and math are falling short of neighboring states and the nation. 
  • Closing the gap between high school graduation and college and career readiness: While 90 percent of students are graduating from high school, only 75 percent are identified as college and career ready (CCR). 
  • Accurately measuring college and career readiness: Authentic college and career readiness requires a solid foundation in English, reading, and math, applied cognitive skills, soft skills, and occupation-specific skills. Are the current indicators of college and career readiness in the state accurately reflecting these skills?
  • Promoting quality credentials: Data indicate that in some cases high schools are driving up the number of career and technical education certifications earned without attention to whether the certificates are rigorous or in alignment with state needs. 
  • Systematically collecting and analyzing education and workforce data: Alabama’s planned longitudinal database continues to be delayed. While there are technical challenges, the primary obstacles are political—rooted in the state’s longstanding resistance to data transparency. While the lack of transparency satisfies some, it is not in the best interest of the economy, the workforce, or the Alabamians served by the state.

To meet the state’s needs and goals, more collaboration needs to occur between business, high school career and technical education, and postsecondary education.

Read all of PARCA’s findings in the full Education Matters report here.


Alabama’s Third Century

Governor Kay Ivey delivers the keynote at Governor Albert P. Brewer Legacy Lunch at PARCA’s 2020 Annual Meeting.

Alabama spent 2019 looking back at its first 200 years of statehood. In 2020, it seems appropriate to look forward to the next 100.

PARCA’s annual meeting, held Friday at Birmingham’s Harbert Center, was inspired by that theme: Taking lessons from the past in order to chart the way to a better future.

Along with a detailed look at the demographics shaping our state, it also included a series of experts discussing what the future holds for education, corrections, health and opportunity in Alabama.

The meeting featured Governor Kay Ivey describing her administration’s strategic efforts to raise educational achievement and to improve access to and the effectiveness of workforce training to meet the increased demands of the 21st-century economy.

The face of America and Alabama is changing

UNC-Chapel Hill Business professor Jim Johnson points out demographic trends that will reshape the country in the coming century.

James H. Johnson Jr., professor of business and director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spoke of the demographic changes that are already reshaping the state and the nation. Both Alabama and the nation as a whole are undergoing seismic shifts that will change the country.

  • Population is flowing to the South.
  • The country is becoming more diverse.
  • Marriage across racial and ethnic lines is increasingly common.
  • The country is aging.
  • Men’s share of the higher education population and the workforce is declining, while women’s share is rising.
  • Grandparents are increasingly involved in or responsible for the raising of their grandchildren.

Recognizing and preparing for these changes will be essential if Alabama is going to be competitive in coming decades. A fuller discussion of Johnson’s observations can be found in a paper Johnson published last year in Business Officer, a publication of The National Association of College and University Business Officers

Though Alabama has not grown as rapidly as magnet Texas and the Southern states on the East Coast, it will feel the same shifts. The native-born white population is not reproducing fast enough to replace itself, much less grow in numbers. Meanwhile, Hispanics, blacks and other minorities are younger on average and will constitute a greater share of the population over time.

Technology is pushing the frontiers of education

Neil Lamb of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology discusses the future of education at the PARCA 2020 Annual Meeting.

Neil Lamb, the Vice-President for Educational Outreach at Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, highlighted factors that will shape education over the next 100 years: the ease of information access, advances in the science of learning, the rise of personalized learning, and the development of data-driven classrooms that allow for in-the-moment shifts in teaching strategy.

Lamb said these innovations offer great promise but they can’t be deployed haphazardly or without adequate support for the teachers that will need to use the tools to help children succeed. There must be attention paid to equity in spreading technology and adequately resourced professional development to support its implementation. Lamb, who served on the Governor’s Advisory Council for Excellence in STEM, pointed the audience to that Council’s recently released report: Alabama’s Roadmap to STEM Success.

Among its first step recommendations is a proposal that is now before the Alabama Legislature: The State Department of Education proposes to hire a team of 220 math coaches to provide statewide support for improving math instruction.

The STEM Success report includes the recommendation that an evaluation process be built into the math coach initiative so policymakers will be able to measure its impact and adjust the strategy in pursuit of success.

Alabama’s crisis in corrections must be addressed now

Bennet Wright, executive director of Alabama’s Sentencing Commission, speaks on the criminal justice and corrections.

Bennet Wright, Executive Director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission and past President of the National Association of Sentencing Commissions, challenged the audience to think differently about prevailing but largely unexamined assumptions about crime and punishment.

Wright said Alabama has created one of the most complex systems of criminal justice and corrections in the United States. New laws are laid on top of old, but the old are not repealed. A multitude of different agencies and players operating with distinct motivations keep the institutions from functioning together as a system. Wright’s presentation materials can be accessed here.

Governor Kay Ivey’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, chaired by Justice Champ Lyons, released a report and reform recommendations just last week. A letter with recommendations can be accessed here.

The Study Group’s report can be accessed here

An ounce of prevention saves lives and money

Monica Baskin, a professor in the Preventive Medicine Division of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, discusses Alabama’s health challenges and possible promising approaches to improving health.

Monica L. Baskin, Professor of Preventive Medicine and director for Community Outreach and Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB, described the tremendous cost borne by Alabama as a consequence of poor health and pointed to opportunities to address health problems and health disparities before they become issues.

According to estimates by the Milken Institute, the direct and indirect costs of chronic disease in Alabama total more than $60 billion a year, more per capita than any other state except West Virginia.

In her presentation, Baskin cited several promising initiatives aimed at preventing the development of chronic disease, and encouraged partners statewide to increase innovation, collaboration, and equitable dissemination in order to get information to the people and places that need it most.

Time to speed up innovation in pursuit of opportunity

University of South Alabama Associate Vice President of Research Michael Chambers urges the state to adopt a more nimble and rapid approach to innovation and problem-solving.

And Michael Chambers, Associate Vice President of Research at the University of South Alabama, argued that we, as a state, need to speed up our pace of experimentation and change. Chambers, an experienced businessman, entrepreneur, and attorney, said businesses have had to learn to act quickly, be flexible, be competitive, to avoid complacency, and to plan on change. If Alabama’s leadership and citizens expect to be competitive, Chambers said, we should do the same.

Looking back to look forward

In preparation for the program, PARCA produced a series of charts that present key indicators of the economy, health, education, and criminal justice over a long time span. Interactive versions of those charts are available below. The charts compare Alabama to the U.S. average or to other Southeastern states. In the interactive version, you can change comparison states.


Mississippi’s Progress Not a Surprise; It was Part of a Plan

When the 2019 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released last week, the good news was that fourth-grade students in our neighbor state, Mississippi, scored at the national average in both reading and math and that eighth graders there made significant gains in reading and math as well.

On all four measures, the average score for Mississippi students exceeds those of Alabama students, despite Mississippi’s higher level of poverty and higher percentage of students of color. The interactive chart below traces the average scale scores for Alabama and Mississippi students on the NAEP since 2003 on each of the four measures. The green line represents the average of public school students nationally. Other tabs in the chart allow you to explore other ways of looking at the data, including comparing demographically similar groups of students across states. In each of the main demographic and economic categories, Mississippi students are outperforming Alabama’s. The NAEP reading and math assessments are given every two years to a sample of students in each state, the sample representing the demographics of the state. It is the same assessment from year to year, and it is administered nationally. Known as the Nation’s Report Card, NAEP serves as the principal national measure of academic proficiency for U.S. education.

Mississippi’s rise was not a surprise; it was part of the plan: a serious, sustained, and strategic effort to improve. In a 2018 report, Leadership Matters, commissioned by Business Education Alliance, PARCA described Mississippi’s strategic plan for educational improvement.

Mississippi has had a consistent and cohesive educationally-focused leadership in the Governor’s office, the State Legislature, and at the Mississippi Department of Education. Current superintendent Carrie Wright was recruited in 2013 from a leadership position in the District of Columbia’s rapidly improving public schools. Under Wright, and with the backing of an appointed state school board, Mississippi has operated under a plan that includes goals, objectives, and clearly articulated strategies aimed at meeting those goals. To track progress on the implementation of strategies and progress toward goals, the superintendent delivers an annual update that details actions taken to advance toward those goals.

Mississippi borrowed some aspects of its approach to improving reading from Alabama’s Reading Initiative. And more recently, Alabama borrowed from the Mississippi model. Earlier this year, the Alabama Legislature adopted a Literacy Act, similar to a Literacy-Based Promotion Act Mississippi adopted in 2013. Mississippi developed its own student assessment test for grades 3-8, MAAP, which was first deployed in the 2015-2016 school year. Alabama hopes to deploy its own state-developed assessment in the spring of 2020.

Over the long term, both Alabama and Mississippi have made progress in both reading and math. However, during Superintendent Wright’s tenure in Mississippi, Alabama has had five different superintendents. The State Department of Education did develop a state plan for education, Plan 2020, in 2012, but it was never fully developed and implemented and was shelved as subsequent superintendents came and went.

Reading

In 2011, just eight years ago, Alabama enjoyed the national spotlight when NAEP was released. Alabama fourth graders scored at the national average, having made the largest improvements in the U.S. That growth coincided with and has been generally attributed to the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI). ARI emphasized a schoolwide commitment to getting all students reading at grade level, with an emphasis on Kindergarten through third grade. ARI placed a reading coach in every Alabama elementary school and required intensive professional development to teachers on research-based approaches to teaching reading.

However, after that achievement, and in the face of a constrained budget, funding for ARI was reduced, and schools were allowed to repurpose the state-funded reading coaches for other purposes. Reading scores on NAEP began drifting and in 2019 dropped sharply in both fourth and eighth grades.

Earlier this year, the Legislature adopted the Literacy Act, which will require that third graders be able to read, or they will be held back to repeat third grade. The Literacy Act, modeled after similar legislation in Mississippi and other Southeastern states, is expected to add urgency to reading instruction and to addressing reading challenges like dyslexia. ARI’s funding was also increased by $6.5 million, though at $51 million per year, that’s still far from the $64 million it received at its peak in 2008. Education leaders say the program will be restored to fidelity.

Math

While the 2019 reading results on NAEP were distressing for the severity of the drop, the math results for Alabama students were equally disturbing. Alabama school children in both the fourth and eighth grade had the lowest average test scores in the United States. It’s a familiar position for Alabama. Alabama ranked behind all other states in 2015. In 2017, Alabama students climbed a couple of notches in the rankings, but slipped back into last this year.

The state’s strategy for addressing math is less clear. In March of 2019, Gov. Kay Ivey put on hold new math standards, which had been developed by a statewide panel of educators. Ivey postponed adopting the changes to the math course of study after some conservative groups, who are opponents of the Common Core state standards, voiced their objections. In a letter to State Superintendent Eric Mackey, Ivy asked that Alabama’s new proposed math curriculum be compared to the math course of study for the top six performing states on the NAEP: Massachusetts, Minnesota, the Department of Defense’s educational system, Virginia, New Jersey, and Wyoming.

Considering Mississippi’s results, its approach to math should be examined as well. Mississippi did adopt the Common Core standards. Judging by national results, it safe to say that Common Core did not cause NAEP scores to leap. But it’s also true that states that did not adopt the Common Core have seen declines on the NAEP as well. Other factors may be contributing to an overall stagnation in educational progress. However, with Mississippi bucking the trend, Alabama would be well served to take note and inspiration from our neighbor’s progress.