By Mark E. Dixon, President of A+ Education Partnership
This 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. Meanwhile, our neighbor Mississippi made significant gains, meeting the national average in 4th grade reading and math.The Nation’s Report Card is based on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a test that is administered nationwide every two years to 4th and 8th grade students in math and reading.
This drop is part of an eight-year decline for Alabama students, a decline that is, frankly, unacceptable. But our history shows Alabama students can compete nationally. When leaders statewide were unified a decade ago around the common goal of teaching children to read, Alabama made record gains on NAEP—and we can make great progress again. Now, more than ever, we must work together. We must bring transformational change to our education system. Here are some places to start:
1. Ensure that more resources are going to schools that need them most.
Schools with unique 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.
2. 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. 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.
3. 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 fourth grade. Without this fundamental skill, children cannot succeed in future grades, much less graduate. Similar to successful efforts in Mississippi, 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
Every child deserves a great school that provides them with a true opportunity to succeed. Alabama’s NAEP results should serve as a rallying cry for all education leaders to recognize our challenges and commit to the hard work that will put Alabama students first.
Mark E. Dixon is President of A+ Education Partnership. A+ Education Partnership drives improvements in public education for every Alabama student. We set and deliver high expectations by advocating for policies, practices, and investments that advance learning, and by partnering with schools to build the capacity of teachers and leaders.