As one of only two total elections in a seven-county area, the April 12 runoff between former Principal Jackie Zeigler and gubernatorial appointee Matthew Brown for the District 1 seat on Alabama’s State Board of Education isn’t expected to generate a large turnout.
Even though Zeigler ended the March 1 primary with a 10,000-vote advantage over Brown, it wasn’t enough to avoid a runoff, expected to cost around $500,000.
Over the past few years, the landscape of education in Alabama has seen several changes and 2016 has been no exception. With the recent retirement of State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice and impactful education bills being considered in the legislature, the winner of next week’s runoff may be joining the board at an influential time.
College and Career-Ready Standards
Since approval by the legislature in 2012, Alabama’s College and Career-Ready Standards have contained elements of the Common Core. As national attention to Common Core has grown, grassroots conservative organizations and a handful of legislators have mounted unsuccessful efforts to repeal the standards over the past five years.
Instead, Zeigler said, benchmarks and standards should be decided at the state level and shouldn’t include “a pathway toward a federal curriculum.” She also said too much focus is being placed on the abstract rather than on “concrete levels of cognitive fluency.”
“Criticism of Common Core has grown and teacher support has decreased,” Zeigler said. “Parents are frustrated, students are stressed and teachers have their hands tied.”
However, Zeigler said, one must be careful Common Core isn’t simply relabeled, adding lawmakers considering new standards should be “challenged to include education advocates who will include public discussion and input by educators, community groups and business leaders.”
Appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley, Brown has served on the board since last July. Brown has said he, too, opposes Common Core, as well as any other standards with ties to the federal government. He also pointed to the recent science standards the board adopted, which he emphasized didn’t require input from Washington, D.C., but still include high standards set at the state level.
“Everyone wins when we have high standards — students get a better education, teachers get better preparation and guidance [and] parents and taxpayers get more accountability,” Brown said. “We can and should learn from the successes in other states, while making sure that we are doing what works best for our own students.”
Brown’s opponents have called into question his financial backing from Progress PAC, the Montgomery-based political action committee affiliated with the Business Council of Alabama, which has openly opposed legislative attempts to repeal the current standards.
As of March 1, Brown had received $54,000 in donations from the PAC, but defended their support by citing their other educational priorities such as tenure reform and school choice.
High graduation rates, low test scores
Alabama achieved an 89 percent statewide graduation rate last year, only to see 76 schools designated as “failing” based on test scores from the same period. As others have suggested, Brown said “the elimination of the graduation [exam] has led to major increases in the graduation rate.”
Brown said teachers on every grade level must be held accountable “to ensure a child is not being passed to the next grade without being properly prepared” — something he said sets a student up for failure.
Similarly, Zeigler said the ultimate goal of the educational system should be to produce capable graduates, which she says current standards and assessments are failing to do.
According to Ziegler, standardized tests shouldn’t be implemented simply as “a means of student data collection.” In addition, she believes too much weight has already been placed on student test scores, and in that regard, said removing the Alabama High School Graduation Exam was “a step in the right direction.”
“Tests were intended to serve as diagnostic tools to determine areas of strength and deficiency,” she added. “Conducting ongoing, fluid assessments that are tied directly to instruction will produce a valid and current means of accurately knowing what skills the students have mastered, rather than a standardized test at the end of the senior year tied to graduation determination.”
While Brown acknowledged that data can be valuable, he added it’s “certainly possible to have too much testing.” As a board member, he said the SBOE should be challenged to make sure school administrators, parents and legislators understand the limitations of standardized testing.
Efforts to reform teacher tenure have become a significant issue in the race, mostly due to a pending bill written by Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh. The PREP Act, as it is called, aims to shift Alabama teachers from a three-year tenure track to a five-year system and base maintaining tenure on student performance and professional evaluations.
In Zeigler’s eyes, the state school board, teachers, principals and parents should develop a system to evaluate teachers, not politicians. In a previous release urging legislators to vote down the PREP Act, Zeigler said the bill uses models from the manufacturing world to judge the performance of educators. Students, she wrote, “are not widgets” or “uniform products.”
“The PREP Act requires a minimum of 25 percent of teacher evaluations be based on standardized test scores. This will cause more teaching to the test,” Ziegler said. “This badly designed method of evaluation will put teachers at the mercy of factors not within their control.”
Brown said he’s been opposed to every version of the PREP Act and its precursor, the RAISE Act. In his own words, Brown supports tenure reform and incentives for teachers that take jobs in hard-to-staff locations and subject areas.
Replacing Dr. Tony Bice
Zeigler: “The new state superintendent needs an old fashioned back-to-basics approach. Less teaching to the test. Less paperwork. More hands-on teaching to the individual students. More parental involvement. No chasing after the newest national fad of the year. Availability of career training at the option of the student and family.”
“I will ask the state board to delay a decision on the permanent superintendent until I take office. They are allowed two six-month periods to do the search. That will allow me to bring the perspective of a principal and classroom teacher.”
Brown: “The next superintendent must have integrity and be able to win the respect of educators, parents, and community leaders. The superintendent will also be responsible for managing an 800-plus-employee state department of education, so a solid management background is also very important.”
Advocating for teachers, increased compensation
Zeigler: “I would support teachers by an active voice on their behalf. I will keep my eyes and ears open to protect our educational interests, such as stopping the raid on the Education Trust Fund. I would keep abreast of legislative proposals that directly impact educators (and) give notice to those in District One so that they can study and drill down to get true meaning and then give notice to their legislators. I will keep open lines of communication with the legislators so a two-way dialogue can be continuous to ensure input and feedback from educators and parents are heard.”
“Teacher pay, although not set by the SBOE, needs to be brought to the forefront and addressed. I can champion this cause by meeting with those in the legislature who can include pay raises in the education budget, not forgetting the support staff and retirees. It will take time and effort but is worth it.”
Brown: “I joined my fellow Board members in recommending that a teacher pay raise be included in the education budget this year. I have also advocated for an increased allotment to teachers for professional development. I favor flexibility in how these funds are used. Teachers, as professionals, know the areas in which they could use additional training.”
“No teacher goes into the profession for the paycheck, but every teacher has an incredibly important job. That means they should be highly valued and, yes, well compensated. Teachers should be paid more, and I think the vast majority of teachers are willing to accept more accountability in return.”
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