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Opinion | Governor faces decision on Alabama Literacy Act

“Children are not widgets spit out by some machine with the same specifications.”

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The Legislature passed the Alabama Literacy Act in 2019. It was largely the creation of Rep. Terri Collins and is another great example of politicians thinking you can substitute numbers for common sense in classrooms and somehow move education forward.

In a nutshell, the act says that we will give all third graders a test on reading and then make a life-altering decision based on just one test.

But on the last day of the most recent legislative session a bill was passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support saying that the implementation of this act should be delayed for two years, due in large part to the chaos and turmoil put on education by the pandemic which disrupted student learning and teacher training.  The act would go into place in 2024, instead of 2022.

This bill is now on the governor’s desk.  She has until May 27 to either sign it or veto it.

The lines are well drawn with educators in favor of delay, while others, like Rep. Collins and the A+ Education Partnership, are not.  On the other side is the Alabama Education Association (AEA) and the School Superintendents Association (SSA).

And of course some editorial writers have weighed in, such as The Alabama Daily News, which says Governor Ivey should kill the bill.  However, their reasoning is flawed.

They said: “….lawmakers who don’t specialize in education policy tend to lean on the advice of local education leaders.  It’s the Legislature’s job to set policy for schools, it’s not school leaders’ job to dictate policy to the Legislature.”

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Read that again.

They think members of the Legislature should NOT pay attention to professional educators when it comes to education policy.  Isn’t this what happened in 2013 when the Legislature passed the infamous Alabama Accountability Act?  Legislation which has now diverted $148 million from the Education Trust Fund (which now amounts to $206 for every student in public schools) and  University of Alabama research says, after three studies, is not helping those it was supposedly intended to help.

What if the legislature passed a law saying no one could work for any media in the state who doesn’t have a degree in journalism?  Would The Alabama Daily News think members of the media should reman silent?

My own son is an example of how ludicrous this would be.  He is one of the best writers I know.  Has had articles published by national media outlets.  But he does not have a degree in journalism.

As is often the case, I turned to two people I consider to be as good as they come on education issues.  One being retired Mobile County school superintendent Martha Peek and assistant superintendent of the Baldwin County school system Hope Zeanah.  Between them they have more than 75 years experience, which gives them tremendous credibility in my book.  I might add that both of them know Rep. Collins having worked on a committee with her for two years.

Zeanah minced no words when she told me that using one test to determine if a child should be retained in the third grade makes no sense.  “We test too much as it is,” she says.  “We now have so many data points that the last thing we need is one more.  And there is not a third grade teacher in the state who doesn’t know which of her students need help with reading and which ones do not.”

She went on to stress that decisions about retaining a student should be a team decision among different educators, not the results of one test.  In fact she pointed out that this is the policy set by her own school board in Baldwin County..  She also added that she has never seen any research that shows retention of students helps them.

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Go to the literature and you quickly find support for Zeanah’s contentions.  Research says that students are more negatively impacted by grade retention than they are positively affected by it.  Retention can have a profound impart on a student’s socialization.  Students who are retained sometimes develop serious behavior issues, especially as they age.

Peek agreed with Zeanah as to the value of retention.  She pointed out that the Mobile County school board tried this about 30 years ago when they said third graders should be held back if they didn’t read at a certain level.  However, this was abandoned after the board saw the problems that arose.  One being the social concerns of having over age students in classes with younger students.

“We undermined the confidence of students”. recalls Peek.  So instead of retaining students, the system implemented specialized reading classes and alternative interventions.

Peek also pointed out that Alabama is about to receive a great influx of “new” money through the Covid relief fund.  “Why don’t we wait until we have enough money to properly train teachers to implement this process and to provide the resources to help struggling students?” she asked.

Like Zeanah, she thinks we are too intent on testing and making decisions solely based on numbers instead of relying on the common sense and experience of educators.

The central issue here is that of the 140 members of our Legislature, few, if any, truly understand the complexities and nuisances of education.  A first grade teacher with 23 students is dealing with 23 very different situations.  Some kids come from a home with a daddy in it, most don’t.  Some have stories read to them at home, some don’t.  Some go to the dentist when they need to, many don’t.  Some get nutritious meals at home, many don’t.

(I have watched a pre-K student devour their lunch as quickly as possible on a Monday while their teacher whispered to me that the child gets little to eat at home.)

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Children are not widgets spit out by some machine with the same specifications.  They can not be pigeonholed by a single test and given numbers that adequately place them on a learning spectrum.  Teachers deal with the real world.  Schools do not exist in some fantasy land as some politicians would have us believe.  If you disagree with this, then sit in on a committee meeting of an education policy committee and listen to the questions asked by its members.  You will shake your head at what you hear as a lack of understanding is demonstrated time after time.

If I were Governor Ivey I would ask Rep. Collins and the editorial writer at The Alabama Daily News how many hours they have spent in a classroom as a teacher or as a principal or an administrator and compare their experience to that of Peek and Zeanah.

Then put the well-being of children ahead of political wishes and sign the bill on her desk.

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