In April 2022, Believe and partners including Essential Partners, Corticoand Bridge Alliancehosted conversations with Alabamians under 40 about the future of their state for a project called Alabama Bridge. This guide focuses on an issue raised in those conversations.
Here are some of the comments that inspired this report.
From Nichole, during our April 12 session: “I was an educator for two years and 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 totally illiterate and just because of where the school district was and lack of funding and resources that he just didn’t get over the years and all the reasons to that the student came to my class at 13 and couldn’t read, couldn’t write their name and I had to work with them all year long just to try and take baby steps during my first year of teaching and still trying to learn the trade.
And that’s, a, 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 this student fell through the cracks. And unfortunately, this is not the only case like this in the state. There are many places where there are very good educational opportunities for our students here, but there are far too many places where there are none, where students fall through the cracks . And as a result, they don’t get the education and access they need to continue and realize their potential. And we all deserve so much better.
And from Jessica, also during our April 12 session:
“And so my experience with that is that kids in suburban schools get the quality education that they need. They have all the resources they need to make the educational experience in a public school equitable. And so what I noticed, something in particular, is that the classrooms of a suburban school [are] much smaller than those of an urban school. So in an urban city school, a public school, you’ll have over 30 kids in a classroom and they don’t have enough desks. I’ve seen kids have to sit on the floor compared to a suburban class you have 15-20 kids or even 20 kids in a class.
…And so my hope is that with public education, that we have more equitable resources distributed across the board, whether it’s suburban or city, that they have the funding to be able to get a quality education , whether they are in an urban or suburban school.
Alabama’s K-12 students face myriad challenges, including a shortage of teachers, poverty, racial and economic achievement gaps and the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Alabama, only 16.6% of students master math. Only 28.2% of students master science, according to the results state-standardized assessments.
A myriad of socio-economic challenges
Poverty is a major contributor to education challenges in Alabama. Alabama’s poverty rate is 16.8%, more than 3% higher than the national poverty rate of 13.1%. Persistent poverty has been linked to poor academic performance, according to the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center.
Alabama is one of the poorest states in the nation, both in terms of household income and families living below the federal poverty line, according to a study by Alabama Possible. Due to Alabama’s public education funding system that relies heavily on local tax revenue, large disparities persist in the amounts spent per student in Alabama’s public schools. Spending per student ranges from $12,000 per student in the affluent town of Mountain Brook, Alabama to $7,615 per student in Autauga County, a county in Alabama’s black belt region, one of the poorest regions of the country.
The intersection of race and poverty in Alabama is another challenge facing the education system. Alabama is home to the Black Belt, one of the poorest regions in the country. 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%.
In the middle Black Belt County, only 11 percent of K-12 students performed well enough on state assessments to be considered “competent,” according to Alabama. 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% proficient in science, according to the Education Policy Center. The national average proficiency rates in mathematics and science in Grade 8 are 32% and 33% respectively.
Due to a shortage of qualified teachers, rural schools often rely on teachers with emergency certifications to deliver lessons.
“The biggest challenge we face in our black belt counties is having qualified math and science teachers, and having people who have emergency certification teaching math and science and who don’t have a background in math and science,” said Julie Swann, a longtime educator in Black Belt and Alabama Education Association District 31 UniServ Director.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges of remote learning have only widened the success gap for Alabama students, data from the Alabama Department of Education shows this. One in three students has gone virtual when COVID crippled schools in 2020.
While data shows that poverty rates are correlated with lower academic performance, affluent black students are still not performing as well as their white classmates. The achievement gap between black and white students is significant – between 20 and 30 percentage points in any given subject.
Stanford’s Educational Opportunity Monitoring Project has identified both racial and educational disparities that influence success rates.
Who takes care of these problems?
There are several parties in the public and private sectors working to improve educational outcomes in Alabama. State and federal governments have provided additional funding and opportunities for teachers.
- The Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama strives to find the best educational practices that will improve the quality of life for Alabamians. To learn more about their work and research, visit 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 children reach their potential. Read more on www.alabamaeducationlab.org.
- here are the “high potentials” identified by the Alabama Education Lab – these schools are very poor schools with good academic results.
- To address the teacher shortage problem, the state legislature passed the Excellence and Accountability in Mathematics and Science Education Billto incentivize teachers to obtain full certification and obtain higher salaries. There are also federal student loan forgiveness programs available for teachers who work in low-income areas. TEAMS Bill-certified teachers will be eligible to receive up to $15,000 in additional compensation each year.
What solutions and best practices can improve education in Alabama?
While literacy remains a challenge in many rural communities, a rural elementary school is using early intervention to help struggling elementary students catch up. Cullman Elementary School has a dedicated reading coach who works one-on-one with students to improve their reading.
The model Cullman created to help young elementary students improve their reading skills is an example that other schools can use to improve overall reading scores through early interventions.