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Improving education in Alabama: An issue guide for voters

In April of 2022, Reckon and partners including Essential Partners, Cortico, and Bridge Alliance, hosted conversations with Alabamians under 40 about the future of their state for a project called Bridge Alabama. This guide focuses on an issue raised in those conversations.

Here are a few of the comments that inspired this reporting.

From Nichole, in our April 12th session: “I was an educator for two years and I taught seventh and eighth grade English in a very small school district here in Alabama. So I was an educator here … And then my first year of teaching, I had a student who was fully illiterate and just because of where the school district was located and the lack of funding and resources that it just has not received over the years, and all the reasons for that, the student came to my classroom at 13 years old and could not read, could not write their name. And I had to work with them throughout the entire year, just to try to even make baby steps during my first year of teaching and where I’m still trying to learn the job.

And that’s, one, something you never want to see for someone that old, but, two, there should have been resources available for that student, but there weren’t. And that student just kind of slipped through the cracks. And unfortunately, that’s not the only case that like this in the state. There are a lot of places where there’s really good educational opportunities for our students here, but there are far too many places where there aren’t, where students are falling through the cracks. And as a result of that, they’re not getting the education and the access they need in order to go on and achieve their potential. And we all deserve so much better.”

And from Jessica, also in our April 12th session:

“And so my experience with that is the kids in suburban schools, they have the quality education that they need. They have all the resources that they need in order to make the educational experience in a public school equitable. And so what I’ve noticed, something in particular is that the classrooms in a suburban school [are] much smaller versus the ones in an urban school. So in an urban city school, public school you’ll have 30 plus kids in one classroom and they don’t have enough desks. I’ve witnessed kids have to sit on the floor versus in a suburban class, you have 15 to 20 kids, if 20 kids, in a classroom.

… And so my hope is that with the public education, that we will have more equitable resources spread across the board, whether it’s suburban or urban, that they have the necessary funding to be able to get a quality education, whether they’re in urban or suburban school.”

Alabama’s K-12 students face myriad challenges including a teacher shortage, poverty, racial and economic achievement gaps and the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Alabama, just 16.6% of students are proficient in math. Just 28.2% of students are proficient in science, according to the results of state standardized assessments.

Myriad socioeconomic challenges

Poverty is a major contributor to education challenges in Alabama. The poverty rate in Alabama is 16.8 percent—more than three percent higher than the national poverty rate of 13.1%. Persistent poverty has been linked to poor education outcomes, according to the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama.

Alabama is one of the nation’s poorest states, both in terms of household incomes and families living below the federal poverty level, according to research from Alabama Possible. Due to Alabama’s public education funding system that relies heavily on local tax revenues, wide disparities persist in amounts spent per student in Alabama’s public schools. Spending per student ranges from $12,000 per student in Alabama’s wealthy city of Mountain Brook to $7,615 per student in Autauga County, a county in the Black belt region of Alabama—one of the poorest regions in the nation.

The intersection of race and poverty in Alabama is another challenge the education system must grapple with. Alabama is home to the Black Belt—one of the poorest regions of the nation. The 25 counties that make up the Black Belt are also the 25 poorest counties in Alabama. In Bullock and Perry counties, two of the poorest counties in Alabama, the poverty rate is nearly 31 percent.

In the average Black Belt county, just 11% of K-12 students scored well enough on state assessments to be considered ‘proficient,’ according to the Alabama-based Education Policy Center.

Alabama’s math and science proficiency rates are already low with just 16.6% of students proficient in math and 28.2% of students proficient in science, according to the Education Policy Center. The national average proficiency rates for 8th grade math and science are 32% and 33% respectively.

Due to a shortage of qualified teachers, rural schools often depend on teachers with emergency certifications to teach courses.

“The biggest challenge we face in our Black Belt counties if qualified math and science teachers, and relying on people who are on emergency certification who are teaching math and science who don’t have a background in math and science,” said Julie Swann, a long-time educator in the Black Belt and Alabama Education Association UniServ Director of District 31.

The COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning challenges only widened the achievement gap for Alabama students, data from the Alabama Department of Education shows. One in three students went virtual when COVID crippled schools in 2020.

While data shows poverty rates do correlate with lower academic performance, affluent black students still don’t perform as well as their white classmates. The achievement gap between black and white students is large -- between 20 and 30 percentage points in any given subject area.

Stanford’s Educational Opportunity Monitoring Project identified both racial disparities and education disparities that influence achievement rates.

Who is addressing these issues?

There are multiple parties in both the public and private sectors working to improve education outcomes in Alabama. The state and federal governments have offered additional funding and opportunities for teachers.

  • The Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama works to find to the best education practices that will improve the quality of life for Alabamians. Learn more about their work and research at www.edpolicy.ua.edu.
  • The Alabama Education Lab by AL.com is a team of journalists dedicated to covering K-12 education through the lens of what we can do to help our state’s kids achieve their potential. Read more at www.alabamaeducationlab.org.
  • Here are the “high flyers” identified by the Alabama Education Lab—these schools are high-poverty schools with strong academic performance.
  • To address the teacher shortage issue, the state legislature passed the Teaching Excellence and Accountability in Math and Science billto incentivize teachers get fully certified and get higher salaries. There are also federal student loan forgiveness programs available for teachers who work in low-income areas. Teachers who are certified through the TEAMS bill will be able to receive up to $15,000 in additional pay each year.

What solutions and best practices can improve education in Alabama?

While literacy remains a challenge in many rural communities, one rural elementary school is using early interventions to help early elementary students struggling to read get caught up. Cullman Elementary School has a dedicated reading coach who works one on one with students to improve their reading.

The model Cullman has created for helping young elementary students improve their reading skills is an example other schools can use to boost overall reading scores through early interventions.

The Reckon Report.
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