Matthew Stokes: On Education

Matthew Stokes: On Education

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Sports fans throughout Alabama are familiar with Cecil Hurt, the longtime sports editor of the Tuscaloosa News.  A talented reporter and a gifted wordsmith, Hurt’s analysis carries great weight among Alabama fans. In the waning days of Mike Shula’s tenure as the University of Alabama’s head football coach, Hurt posed an important question:  does Alabama have the best coach it could have? Mal Moore and other university leaders answered in the negative, and the rest is history. After the last couple of weeks, I feel compelled to humbly borrow that line from Cecil Hurt and point it in another direction.

Does Alabama have the best education system it could have?

If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is almost certainly “no.”

The recent move to revoke the state’s Common Core education standards have drawn renewed attention to our situation, but so also has the news that the University of Alabama has been highly invested in attracting wealthy, out-of-state students to the Capstone.  Taken together, the two issues highlight the condition of public education in our state, and it’s hard to be particularly encouraged. Let’s take a look at college enrollment first, and then return to the Common Core revocation.

A story appeared last week in Inside Higher Ed highlighting a report from the Joyce Foundation that looked at the tendency of large, public research universities to recruit outside their respective states, instead of recruiting students from inside their own borders.  There was specific attention given to the University of Alabama (my alma mater, in the interest of full disclosure) in a piece at al.com.   According to the researchers behind the study, the issue is not simply an imbalance of in-state vs. out-of-state enrollment; the concern is an imbalance in student demographics based around class and race.

That’s a fair point, and we can debate the extent to which any state’s large research universities owe deference to the high school students within the state.  I don’t think it’s an easy question to answer, as many high quality public schools – the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina, the University of Texas – have exceptionally high rates of in-state students, while still having exceptionally high academic reputations.  There is the question of funding, as one researcher noted that UA’s push for out-of-state students coincided with a decline in funding from the state legislature. These are valid concerns in that a state university, particularly a long-standing research institution, ought to serve the students from its home state, and should therefore have a high percentage of students from within its borders, while also counting students from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds.  It’s a tall order, but one worth pursuing.

All of this is complicated in Alabama, as we are a state of just under five million people yet our state is home to over a dozen public four year institutions, with several more private schools and numerous community colleges.  Students have almost endless options, and as crazy as it sounds, that works against a large school like the University of Alabama. The question faced by administrators in Tuscaloosa is this: could the school grow to rival larger campuses like the University of Florida or the University of Georgia while keeping high academic standards and a large percentage of in-state undergraduates?  At this juncture, it does not appear to be the case.

None of which is to say that there anything wrong with students in the state of Alabama.  Along with their parents, they’re mostly doing the best they can with what they are given.  The same is typically true of teachers. Yes, studies such as this raise all sorts of questions about equity and fairness, but they also highlight the remarkable discontinuity between the state’s university system and the people who run our schools at the K-12 level.  It is hard to look at this story apart from the most recent fight over Common Core, wherein political leaders treat education standards as something that can be tweaked and altered on a whim. Critics can attempt to expose UA’s failure to enroll more in-state students, and they would have plenty of arguments in their favor.  Yet the persistent fact is that in a state the size of Alabama, there may not be enough high achieving students to go around.

Solving this problem is far too complex to solve in this space, but our state’s leaders in both the legislature and the state board of education have an important role to play.  Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth weighed in last week in support of an immediate end to Common Core.  His statement acknowledges that Alabama still ranks far too low in education metrics, but he offers little in return.  Common Core’s opponents erroneously label it as a liberal measure; Common Core was a conservative staple until it was championed by the Obama administration, at which point it became another cudgel to go after President Obama.  If, as Ainsworth contends, Alabama knows what is best, then it is incumbent upon the Lieutenant Governor and others to lay out a clear plan for how our children are to be educated. A laundry list of cliches about liberals and political correctness, none of which have anything to do with math standards, will not suffice.  For my own part, while I respect the federalist tendency to do our own thing in education, I fail to see why Alabama’s standards ought to be so different from the rest of the countries. If Common Core is voluntarily adopted, where is the harm?

It may be that Common Core’s approach to math education is confusing and ill-founded.  It may be that the University of Alabama is only interested in students from wealthy zip codes around the country.  The more likely and more painful scenario is that if Common Core is failing, the reason for its failure will be found somewhere close to the explanations for the University of Alabama’s enrollment disparities.  

There is no conspiracy at work. Instead, we have a dysfunctional state board of education and a legislature willing to ditch standards that have barely had a chance to plant roots all in a weak effort to score political points.  Little wonder that we lag behind, and little wonder that the state’s namesake university decided to look elsewhere for talent. I have often remarked that government cannot do everything, but right now, this is something that is in its purview.  Whatever the outcome of this latest foray, the legislature should commit to a hands off approach for several years, and let our educators do their work, making changes at the margins appropriate to each local circumstance. At the state level, we’ve had enough meddling for a while.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at lookagain@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.