Education Association calls for end to state “failing schools” list

“I don’t think the people who wrote this had any intention of improving schools,” Dr. Craig Pouncey, Jefferson Co. Schools Superintendent

Education Association calls for end to state “failing schools” list
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The state’s largest organization for public educators is calling on lawmakers to repeal the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) in the most recent edition of the Alabama School Journal.

In a front page article of Alabama Education Association’s trade publication, the group says $140 million have been removed from school districts in the last 5 years as a result of AAA.

“I don’t think the people who wrote this had any intention of improving schools,” Dr. Craig Pouncey, Superintendent of Jefferson County Schools told WBRC FOX6 in a telephone interview.

Chart published in Alabama School Journal reports money lost per school district following the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act.
Chart published in Alabama School Journal reports money lost per school district following the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act.

Pouncey’s district has lost nearly $7 million in state funding since the law was enacted, according to this week’s journal article. That’s despite only having 2 of its 57 schools on the state’s most recent “failing schools” list.

Each year, the State Department of Education is required by law to produce a list of the lowest 6 percent of schools in Alabama based on standardized assessments. Students attending schools on the list are then eligible to transfer to another school with the potential of receiving a state funded scholarship to a private school or for their parents to receive a tax credit for the cost of tuition.

Education leaders such as Dr. Pouncey are then in a tough spot of trying to teach to constantly changing assessments that, in some cases, come back with bad data, as was the case with the 2016 ACT Aspire scores according to then State Superintendent Michael Sentance.

While districts remain hopeful new standardized tests will give a more accurate reflection of student achievement, they remain focused on improving lower-performing schools.

“A key is to have effective and innovative leaders who will provide support and help remove as many barriers as possible so teachers are able to teach,” Professor Jane Cobia, an expert in school improvement at Samford University, tells WBRC.

Cobia stresses those leaders need to understand the needs of both faculty and students and then provide optimal training for aspiring teachers. Those priorities are reflected in Jefferson County School District with multiple initiatives aimed at improving student performance.

A 2013 internal audit of lower performing schools convinced Jefferson County to work improving the quality of instruction in classrooms. For the last four years, Pouncey says his district has worked with the Southern Regional Education Board to raise their standards for reading and math.

“No one likes to be labeled as failing

"You have got to have a good administrator in each school who sets an expectation of success and then holds people to those standards," said Pouncey.

Cobia echoes that sentiment but also says a school's performance is the product of not only an educator's expectations.

"A culture of expectations does affect student performance and this comes from the parents, extended family and the community."

Other initiatives aimed at improving student learning at Jefferson County include doubling the number of educational specialists who work with new and experienced teachers across the district. These specialists go to schools with new teachers and serve as role models who can offer support with crafting lessons tailored to a classroom’s needs. Additionally, this year 350 teachers in the district attended a 3 day phonics training course. That $500,000 investment in teacher training is an effort to reinforce foundational reading skills for students.

Still education experts warn of an approach like the failing schools list that does not always take enough factors into account when measuring school performance.

"No one likes to be labeled as 'failing,'" said Cobia. "My thinking is to support and set what I call stepping stone goals and these can be small and incremental."

WBRC requested an interview with an administrator or teacher at Birmingham City Schools for this story but were turned down on multiple attempts. Fourteen of 43 Birmingham City Schools appear on this year's AAA Failing Schools List, more than any other district in the state. The district's Communications Officer sent the statement below in response to our request for comment.

We are providing strategic reading interventions for students who are below grade level in reading in all middle and high schools. We have implemented an early literacy initiative in 15 of our K-5 and K-8 Schools. We have developed new curriculum frameworks in math and reading for all grades K-8 to address standards implementation. Teachers are receiving professional development in how to implement the new curriculum framework in teaching the Alabama course of study standards. The district offers on-going professional development for teachers and administrators throughout the year. The district is providing leadership coaching in instructional best practices for administrators and teacher leaders. We are implementing a new evaluation system which helps to identify and prioritize targeted areas to strengthen classroom instruction. We are confident that these measures will increase student achievement and improve outcomes for all students.
Statement from Birmingham City Schools

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