Last week’s release of the 2019 Nation’s Report Card came with alarming news: Alabama has dropped to last in the nation in math and significantly declined in reading. These scores are based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a test that is administered nationwide every two years to 4th and 8th grade students in math and reading.
Our decline is not inevitable, though. When leaders statewide were unified a decade ago around the common goal of teaching children to read, Alabama made record gains—and we can make great progress again. It’s time to bring transformational change to our education system. Below we outline steps we can take to bring about that change, and highlight some of the great work already being done in our schools.
Where should we start?
Ensure that more resources are going to schools that need them most.
Schools with greater challenges, such as rural schools and those with high levels of generational poverty or high populations of English language learners, require greater support to meet student needs. These schools should receive more equitable funding, targeted teacher training, and other resources so every child has the opportunity to learn and succeed.
Fully commit to developing highly-effective teachers and principals.
The number one indicator of student achievement is having a well-trained and supported teacher. Teaching requires a high level of knowledge and skills, and this starts with teacher preparation in college. We should incentivize colleges to raise expectations and increase accountability so new teachers are prepared on day one. But this is only the first step. We must elevate the teaching profession by providing new opportunities for career advancement and higher pay. Finally, we need to provide teachers and principals with ongoing professional development centered around students’ needs
Embrace the Alabama Literacy Act and support implementation with additional funding and training.
Our NAEP scores show that we are not adequately teaching children to read by 4th grade. Without this fundamental skill, children cannot succeed in future grades, much less graduate. The recently passed Alabama Literacy Act provides a unique opportunity to refocus our efforts on literacy. This legislation provides teacher training in the science of teaching reading, additional reading coaches, early identification of dyslexia and other challenges, and includes funding for implementation. Going forward, we must expand funding for intensive support for students who are behind and early interventions for students with challenges so they have every opportunity to succeed.
Start early with First Class Pre-K and then support students with innovative after-school and summer learning opportunities.
In addition to the continued expansion of Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program, we must also invest in high-quality after-school and summer learning programs. These programs provide additional instructional support in reading and math to students who need it and combat summer learning loss that students experience while out of the classroom.
Pass the new proposed Math Course of Study and ensure students are being challenged in the classroom.
In order to compete nationally, Alabama students need to be challenged more in the classroom and learn real-world problem-solving skills. As a first step, the State Board of Education should approve the new proposed Math Course of Study (the set of standards that define what students need to learn) and provide teacher training and instructional resources essential to successful implementation of the standards.
Bright Spots in Alabama: Creative Approaches to Enhancing Student Learning
The news in Alabama is not all bad, however. Despite our statewide decline, there are bright spots across our state, schools that serve as shining examples of what can happen when schools and districts are willing to try new approaches to student learning.
For example, check out Harlan Elementary of Florence City Schools’ reading initiatives: Harlan Elementary has a population of 76% economically disadvantaged students. Teachers and administrators recognized that as a high-poverty school, their students might need extra support and reading instruction in order to ensure students are reading on grade-level. Citing many studies that show the large achievement gap between students who read and students who don’t, the school decided to try new ways to get students reading. From recording videos of teachers reading bedtime stories, to sending books home with children and parent engagement meetings, Harlan Elementary has committed to improving reading outcomes for students. Read more about their strategies here.
Coldwater Elementary of Oxford City Schools is trying a new way to provide peer feedback to teachers: At Coldwater Elementary, teachers and administrators created their own short observation tool for their classrooms: the“Observe Me” strategy. Outside each of their classroom doors is a sign inviting in visitors and a list of the teacher’s specific goals . Feedback received goes directly to the teacher. As a result, teachers have embraced observation and feedback from their colleagues as a positive learning opportunity and can immediately implement suggested changes. Read more about this strategy here.
Summer Adventures in Learning (SAIL) offers creative extended learning opportunities for elementary school students: Students can lose critical skills and knowledge when they’re out of the classroom over the summer–a trend known as the ‘summer slide.’ This affects disadvantaged students the most. SAIL is an initiative in Alabama that provides collaborative donor funding to high-quality summer learning programs across the state with one common goal: reduce summer learning loss and get kids learning during the long break. Children are tested before and after the summer to ensure each program’s effectiveness. SAIL programs across the state have seen incredible progress, reporting not only a halt in the “summer slide” but also learning gains of 4-months. You can take a deep dive into one SAIL program, the Brain Forest Summer Learning Academy, where students and teachers learn together here.
It is imperative that we recognize the hard work being done by our teachers and principals daily–and support this work by resourcing it, growing it, and replicating it in schools across the state. By working together, we can change the trajectory of student achievement in Alabama, ensuring that every child attends a great school.