Alabama paid $1.1 million for a school improvement report. What did it show?

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A dozen Alabama lawmakers polled a Boston advisory group about what it takes to improve student achievement in Montgomery in an hour-long meeting Wednesday afternoon.

The Boston-based Public Consulting Group, which was hired in 2019 after lawmakers required an assessment of the state Department of Education, said the department must take the lead when it comes to improving student performance.

That means working on multiple fronts, from training teachers to teach new English and math standards, to improving communication with the public, to increasing support for struggling schools.

One recommendation ranked above all others.

“You need to hold your schools and your districts accountable,” counselor Anna d’Entremont told lawmakers.

“The Alabama State Department of Education is a leader in education,” she said. “Taking that full ownership and responsibility of not pointing at others, not pointing at outside problems, but fixing what’s on the inside of the home is required to move forward.”

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PCG has received more than $1.1 million for its work with the department since late 2019. The contract expires in May.

The first 168-page report, issued March 13, 2020— on the same day Alabama schools were shut down over coronavirus concerns — hasn’t garnered much public attention, as many lawmakers said they hadn’t read the report.

Many of the report’s five main recommendations and 46 additional recommendations aim to improve the effectiveness of the department. To-do lists include reorganizing the department’s internal structure and developing an action plan to minimize ‘quick fixes’ when external pressure arises.

Other recommendations are:

  • Conducted an impact review of a change to Alabama’s current state school funding model a weighted student-based model aligned with national best practices,
  • Consider whether school report grades are aligned with other performance measures
  • Refine the current school record to ensure stakeholders understand what the information means,
  • strengthening two-way communication with state legislators,
  • Streamline the teacher certification process to allow for faster processing, and
  • Prioritize support for underperforming groups of students, including students with disabilities and English learners.

Since the report was completed, PCG has worked with the department, meeting weekly to support implementation of the recommendations through May 2022. Monthly written status updates were produced along with six comprehensive interim reports, the last of which was published in December.

PCG looked at how other states’ departments of education are structured, examining states that are showing improvement in performance, such as Mississippi and Tennessee, and states that rank high on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).

Lawmakers were frustrated by the state’s low ranking on the NAEP, called the Nation’s Report Card. Alabama ranked last in math in 2019.

Alabama’s new math standards will improve that ranking, said consultant David Driscoll. Stricter mathematics standards were passed in 2020.

“For the first time ever,” he said, “your mathematical standards are aligned with NAEP standards.”

Alabama’s state math test is also aligned with the NAEP, he said. Tests conducted in spring 2021 found that nationwide only 22% of students are proficient in math.

The lawmakers — with representatives from both parties and members of the House and Senate — are part of a study commission formed in response to school choice legislation introduced by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston. The group meets regularly and considers ways to improve K-12 education in Alabama.

Other key recommendations for the department, the consultants said, include the need to develop more technical expertise in using data to drive decision-making.

“Data, data, data, data,” d’Entremont said. The department must be transparent with data and make decisions based on that data, she added. “Not just by gut feeling or hearsay.”

The school improvement department’s office may need to expand, she said. Most states have much larger school improvement teams than Alabama’s, which has ten employees.

Driscoll stressed the need to work with the Department of Education, as well as educators and other experts in the field, to make real improvements.

“The left and right hands have to work together to make it work. And what we’re finding is kind of patchwork,” he said.

Driscoll said the pandemic has made it difficult to implement performance improvement plans. With more time, the way the department works will improve, he added.

Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, said she wanted to follow up on PCG’s results and said it was an opportunity for real improvement.

“We are working to finally do something about public education in the state of Alabama so that all of our children have a chance at a quality education.”

After the meeting, Marsh told He was happy to bring PCG’s report to lawmakers’ attention.

“Based on this report, we have the tools to move in the right direction,” Marsh said. “But we have to start doing something.”

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