COMMON SENSE SOLUTIONS FOR IMPROVING STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT
Most folks in Alabama agree on one thing. All schools should be operated by competent instructional leaders, all children should be entitled to the opportunity for learning at least on their grade level, students should be safe places and school environments should be conducive to creating high student learning expectations. Recent news releases from Alabama’s State School Superintendent touted a new high graduation rate average for Alabama’s schools. All too often such proclamations give school leaders, educators, parents and citizens, in general, good feelings about the directions of our schools’ progress. After all, we want to believe that our children are excelling academically.
There is an increasing number of concerned parents who question the ways and means by which “academic progress” and “graduation rates” are measured. Such questions and concerns are not without merit as every few years a new (usually federally initiated), comprehensive, guaranteed success program is introduced tailor-made to effectively improve learning for all students. However, to digress a bit, it is disheartening that we recently discarded what was sold to us, in part, by the US Department of Education (USDE) as the latest new and improved packaged curriculum/assessment program/standards ever created...Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test (ARMT) accompanied by Alabama Yearly Progress (AYP). ARMT was purported to be a criterion-referenced assessment aligned with Alabama’s content standards mandated for all public schools in Alabama. It was perhaps one of Alabama’s best attempts to move many students upward, except for two stumbling blocks. There were (and still are) incompetent teachers, who did not, for a variety of reasons, teach all of their students to read on grade level during the early years and other teachers who passed on struggling students without actual mastery of the particular subject. Also, top state education officials soon realized that too many students were not achieving at the required levels to “pass” the required goals. That seemed easy enough to fix…our State officials contacted our USDE representative (with whom I spoke) and requested a waiver of sorts which, in essence, lowered the measuring bar of assessment and placed tens of thousands of students from “non-achievers” to “achievers”. As soon as the next year’s assessment rates were released, the then State Superintendent sent a statement to news media outlets that Alabama’s passing scores on the ARMT had increased dramatically. And now we find ourselves already abandoning the requirements to pass a comprehensive graduation exam and replace it with several “options” and “waivers” which result in raising the graduation “rate”.
We cannot depend on the USDE along with their millions in funding to purchase effective, meaningful student academic success. While I am supportive of good teachers to be eligible for higher salaries, more pay will not fix struggling schools which do not have school cultures which are conducive for student learning. Far too many schools throughout Alabama are vestiges of violence, defiance and fear. However, our State Superintendent of Education and some district superintendents appear to ignore the underlying factors which clearly serve as barriers to thousands of students to achieve as do students in schools which insure and promote positive goals, motivation to learn, a respectful and violence-free school environment where all students can learn and excel. This apathetic approach by our educational leaders is unconscionable. Perhaps a few bus tours to address teachers and parents in communities where these dysfunctional schools exist.
A non-scientific review of selected data from the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) appears to highlight a correlation between school environment/culture and low graduation rates. The illustration below serves to indicate the numbers of five (5) incidents as reported by schools using ALSDE’s Student Incident Report (SIR). These 2015 figures are from high schools and systems within the Alabama Gazette’s distribution area with the exception of Bessemer High School (Bessemer City). There is no attempt that this information be interpreted as scientific or beyond the geographical scope of the basic data as shown. No race or ethnic variables were used in selecting schools. It should also be noted that there are schools in other areas of the state which have higher figures for these incidents. This topic is a problem which begs for attention throughout the state.
School Assault (#) Defiance (#) Disobedience (#) Disorderly Conduct (#) Fighting (#) Grad Rate
Ben Russell 2 143 165 7 16 81%
Jeff Davis 7 139 429 138 130 64%
Brantley 1 3 3 5 22 95%
Elmore Co. 0 22 0 3 20 83%
(8 – 12)
Bessemer 7 114 101 12 115 48%
It is important to reiterate that the schools selected and their reported data to the ALSDE is not to be used here in lieu of reliable, scientific research. Readers are encouraged to visit website ALSDE.edu and select the categories “Schools and Systems” and “Data Center” for a more thorough view of factors and variables which may affect student performance in many other schools. I believe readers will find the data above to be representative of other schools which report similar data. For years well-intentioned State education leaders have spent millions of tax dollars on purchasing and trying non-validated programs using our children as “lab rats” with no outrage over the unacceptable schools’ cultures and learning environments which, at the very least, distract from student learning. It is unfair to any child to be placed in a school where disorder, defiance and violence is the norm. It is time to focus on these few schools and make each one a safe place for our students to attend and learn in peace. We have a dearth of strong leadership, classroom management and high-interest instruction with data supported outcomes and teacher accountability. ARMT, AYP, Common Core, national and international aligned standards and the excessive amount of money spent will never legitimately raise student academic performance in all schools. One has to question the “why” these circumstances are allowed to exist and wonder if there is an unwritten and unspoken mindset which essentially considers acceptable that some schools will be unruly, failing schools and most students will not be high achievers.
Effective leadership at all levels is desperately needed now to establish order, demand respect and re-invent these “danger zone” schools by created learning cultures where academic achievement is reality.
David Nichols, ED. D., conducts research and publishes on vital issues facing our public schools. The Alabama Schools Boards Association awarded him the distinguished “Master Level” for his years of service and training. He served on two local school boards (city and county) in Alabama and as a teacher, leader and consultant at every level from k – 12 through universities. He served as the Associate Dean of Students for Samford University. His publications include four books, school safety response manuals, dozens of journal articles and opinion pieces in speaker, and security consultant to schools, municipalities and higher education institutions.