Alabama has education reform that works

Education reform has been in the news a lot lately. Reform is the buzzword in Washington, it is the focus of editorial pages across Alabama, and it is a central theme for some political campaigns.

Reform has been a hot topic nationally because of the administration’s reform effort called Race to the Top. You may have heard about this competition, which demanded states make major changes in their laws in order to have a chance at $4 billion in prize money.

The fact is that in Alabama we have been undertaking education reform for the better part of the last decade, and we have some remarkable achievements to show for it.

For example, take the Alabama Reading initiative. Started in 1998, and finally offered to all schools in 2006 after saving up enough money in the budget, the Reading Initiative has shown remarkable achievement.

From 2005 to 2009, few states across the country had more improvement on fourth grade reading scores than Alabama. We do better now at teaching children reading early, especially those children who have problems, than we ever had before.

We know that when children have early success, future academic achievement also rises.

The Reading Initiative did some very basic things.

First, it identified the best teaching techniques for early reading based on research and data. Then the program retrained teachers on these techniques, and supplied support to faculties as they implemented these techniques.

Add some funding for more books and ways to help schools to celebrate and promote reading and you get real progress in early literacy.

We grew this program ourselves, started it in a few schools to see what worked and what didn’t, expanded to other schools as funds became available, and finally offered it to all schools after eight years of effort.

During that time the Legislature and two administrations made sure it was nurtured and protected, even in times of proration. It was steady progress, built on a foundation of experience and what works.

It wasn’t flashy reform. It was simply reform that worked.

We took the success of the Reading Initiative and five years ago started the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI). Again, the program uses research based teaching techniques, retrains teachers, and provides them with materials to teach math and science in an effective and dynamic way.

It has reinvigorated science and math classes across the state, and we are seeing improvement in learning.

Right now, AMSTI is in approximately 40 percent of Alabama junior and senior high schools. We want to expand the program, but in these tough times, where proration has cut education spending by more than 20 percent, we just can’t do it.

We made sure to protect the program where it already is, but growing AMSTI isn’t feasible right now. Hopefully, when the economy gets going again and school revenue rebounds, we’ll be able to bring AMSTI to the hundreds of schools waiting for it.

We know AMSTI works, and we are dedicated to seeing it to fruition.

There is no doubt that gaining some funds from the Race to the Top would be a perfect fit to expand AMSTI. Unfortunately, this kind of steady, no nonsense effort wasn’t highly thought of by the Washington evaluators.

They gave us little credit for these programs.  That is unfortunate because we could really use the funding for what we know works.

Our determination to improve schools with a steady well-planned effort over time will not be shaken. We have been implementing our reform when resources allow, and we constantly look to improve our efforts.

For proof, just look at how test scores are up and dropouts are down. That is real reform.

Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears each Wednesday.

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