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A conversation with Alabama’s school superintendent

Alabama schools must realign their limited resources more strategically to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population, Bice says. Photos courtesy Alabama State Department of Education
Alabama schools must realign their limited resources more
strategically to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population, Bice says.
Photos courtesy Alabama State Department of Education

Creating lifelong learners

Schools + parents + business + industry = Success

Later this month, school doors will reopen in Alabama for more than 700,000 students. Alabama Living editor Lenore Vickrey sat down with Alabama School Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice recently to talk about the state of our public schools. Following is an edited portion of that interview. For more information about Alabama’s schools, visit

Alabama Living: We hear a lot about the bad things in our public schools, but we want our readers to know about the good things. Tell us about some of those good things.

Bice: I think the most exciting thing at the moment is that we’ve redefined the “high school graduate” for the state of Alabama. As part of that, we set a goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. We took a baseline last year and we were at 72 percent, which to some may not sound like a positive thing. It’s actually higher than it’s ever been since records have been kept in Alabama. And we set a trajectory through 2020 of increasing it by 2 percent each year to make that goal. But in the first year we increased about 3 percent which again, doesn’t sound like a huge amount. If we continue on that trajectory, we’ll get to 90 percent even before 2020.

And the significance of that is two-fold. Number one, what it means for those individuals that are actually now high school graduates rather than high school dropouts and their options for future choices of continuing their education or certain jobs they would have not been eligible for. But as a state, it also means people (graduates) have greater income. And if you have greater income, you spend more. So for our economy, it’s a huge boost. What we’re trying to get across to our legislature is the two main funding sources that fund public education, which are income tax and sales tax. If we are able to get them behind us on some of the things that we are trying to do and actually get to this 90 percent graduation rate, we can be our own solution to our funding problem for the education budget, because we’ll have a greater number of people with higher income and spending more. Which, obviously, will enhance the education trust fund. So it helps the individual and it helps the state.


Alabama Living: What specifically are we doing inside the schools to keep students in the classroom?

Bice:  The Department of Education is a huge bureaucracy and bureaucracies tend to treat whoever they serve as if they’re all the same. And we’ve done that for a long time in public education. We’ve reorganized the department, we changed a lot of our rules and regulations so that we’re actually rewarding and supporting innovation. And removing some of the rules and regulations that have held people back from doing things that could create more opportunities for children to be more engaged.

There’s a school in rural Talladega County, Winterboro, that was having issues with dropouts and [they] visited schools around the nation looking for a new solution. They had tried a lot of things and they weren’t working. They came up on Project-Based Learning and they partnered with business and industry to come in and look at teaching math, science, social studies and English around solving real world problems provided by business and industry. One of the first things they did was tear down walls between classrooms, so that teachers…


Alabama Living: The physical walls?

Bice: Physical walls, and they created learning suites. Where groups of students come in and work with teachers who have planned their lessons around solving that problem. And it’s remarkable. Since they have done that for the last three years, they have had one student to drop out of school, their graduation rate is at 98 percent and their discipline referrals are almost nonexistent. Because they are providing education in a different sort of environment from the way we traditionally provided education.


Teachers are encouraged to come up with ideas outside of what has typically taken place inside Alabama classrooms.
Teachers are encouraged to come up with ideas outside of what has typically taken place inside Alabama classrooms.

Alabama Living: And just that one simple change has made that much difference?

Bice: Absolutely. One of the biggest changes that occurred… most of the faculty that had taught there many years chose to leave because they weren’t willing to make the shift. And that’s another area of work that we are being very strategic on. If the adults that are teaching our children aren’t willing to shift to a 21st century sort of learning environment for children, then we’re helping them find other ways to earn a living. Because we need people that are connected to our students.


Alabama Living: You were telling me earlier that another classroom was involved in a garden.

Bice:  I was just there this morning. To kick off an initiative that we’re calling “Ending Childhood Hunger in Alabama,” an area that we are focusing on is to begin to teach children how to have a garden. So that they can learn about sustainability, building their own gardens at home and making sure that as they become adults, they understand that they can have control over their hunger needs. It was just remarkable. And they are again teaching science, math, social studies, and English through this work in the garden.

After the formal press conference, they turned the children loose and they immediately got engaged telling everybody about their plants and what’s going on. One of the neatest stories was from a first-grader. I asked her, I said “What are some of your challenges?” She says,  “You know, we’re just so challenged right now because we have cabbage worms that are attacking our cabbage.

And I’m thinking, OK, a first-grader talking about cabbage worms. So I say, “How are you handling this?” and she says, “We come out every morning and pick off the cabbage worms because if we don’t, they are going to eat up our cabbages. But we’ve also left a few, so we could see what happens to the cabbage worms after they eat the cabbage. They actually build a chrysalis, become a chrysalis and hatch into Cabbage Butterflies that are just as bad as the worms, but they trick you because they’re pretty. So we go after those as well.”


Alabama Living: How often do you get out?

Bice: I purposely go once a week to a school and spend time with students and just see what’s going on. I’m amazed at what’s going on. You know, do we have some schools that are underperforming? Absolutely we do, but those are by far the minority. And we are dealing very aggressively with those right now, to turn them around so that those students have options just like other students. But, by far, the majority of our students, once we’ve removed some of those rules and regulations that have kind of held them captive for years, the innovation that’s coming out of these schools is just remarkable.


Alabama Living: And who’s really to be credited for that? Teachers there, parents or…..?

Bice: It’s a combination in these schools where it’s really taking off. It’s where the school community has partnered with business and industry and with parents. It’s really a collective community effort. Sometimes schools try to do their own thing aside from the community and especially aside from the business and industry. And where we’re seeing the greatest move forward is where business and industry have paired with education. Because as I have shared openly, ultimately business and industry are our customers of public education. Whether it’s straight out of high school, two years later after a technical degree, four years later a B.S. degree, or ten years later. Those people go into the work force, so we want to make sure that we are partnered with them along the way, so there is a connection between what we do and what they’re expecting.


Alabama Living: Any other positive stories that you’ve encountered in junior high or high schools?

Bice:  Our Torchbearer Schools are those that are defying the myth about some of the things people say that prevent children from learning. These are schools that have over 80 percent free or reduced lunch population, which means most of their children live in some level of poverty.

We have a group of schools now that seven or eight years ago were some of our lowest performing schools in the state. And because of great leadership being brought in and giving them flexibility to do things that they knew they needed to do, they are now some of our highest performing schools in the state. The analogy I use is eight years the children were poor, lived in public housing, many of them lived in single parent homes where their parents were under-educated because we didn’t do a good job with them either. Black, Hispanic, speaking a different language — all the reasons we sometimes use as excuses as to why the children can’t learn. Eight years later, after a lot of work, the children are still poor, they still live in inner city housing, and all those variables are still exactly the same. But those children are performing at levels comparable to any of our highest performing schools in the state. Which are models for us to take away from those best practices to share with all of our schools.


Alabama Living: You mentioned flexibility as a factor.

Bice: Yes. For teachers and others to be able to come together and develop curriculum, outside of things we have typically done in education.


Alabama Living: [To] think outside the box.

Bice:  [Yes,] to think outside the box. I don’t own a box, I burned all that a long time ago because boxes don’t serve well to serve the diverse population of students we currently serve in Alabama. It’s more diverse than it’s ever been with poverty being our biggest challenge. We have to be able to realign what we do and our limited resources more strategically to meet the needs of those children.


Alabama Living: What can the people of Alabama do best to support our schools? You know, we’re not real fond of tax increases in our state.

Bice: Sure and I understand that. You know, I’ve been on this job now for 15 months and this will be my first budget that I’ve really been able to work with. I was very upfront with the legislature when I came with my request. Many of the things that I asked for in our budget, that were the priorities or our state Board of Education, were actually not requests for new money but to take money that had previously been spent for something else and move to things that we had, through research and best practice, determined would have a greater return on investment.

One of the areas that we know is just crucial in our state is so many kids come to school hungry, without the clothes they need, without their basics having been met. We asked to take money that had been spent, for years, on the graduation exam remediation and we’re doing away with the graduation exam and replacing it with the ACT. Which gives people something to work towards that’s meaningful. But there was a pot of money set aside for remediation of that, take that and help us. Some people say that’s not the schools’ responsibility, well if we want them to learn, it absolutely is. In partnership with other state agencies and other private industries that want to come together and create these organizations of service to families and children.

You know, I’ve worked in some of the poorest counties in the state. I worked in Coosa County for a while; it’s very rural, great place, wonderful people and very little economic growth there at this point. And many of those parents have lived there forever and have needs for those children. I look at these big white buildings here in Montgomery that are filled with bureaucracy, ours being one of them, and think, “How does that parent that may not even have the capacity to even know where to start to get the services their children need, how do they ever get there?” So it’s our responsibility to break down that bureaucracy to the level that it can be accessed at the local level.

Alabama Living: The Common Core came under some attack during the last legislative session. Is there anything the public needs to know about this that hasn’t already been said?

Bice: I was involved with this when it first was set up in 2007. It was a time when a group of governors and a group of educators thought, “We’ve got 50 states that are working every so often to redo their standards for math and the English, language arts and algebra can’t be that different in 50 different states. We’re spending enormous amounts of money and time for different states to be doing what they could do collectively, possibly learn from each other and come up with something that’s even better than what they could’ve done individually. To me, that was, for lack of a better term, a no-brainer.

So we came back and asked our board if they would be interested in us working on that, to which they said yes. We began working on the process of working with 48 other states and a multitude of other entities, pulling together the best of all the states’ standards. We actually started with all the states’ standards and looked at those internationally because many of our graduates now are going to be competing, not just within the United States but for jobs internationally. What can we do to make sure the standards get them there? We came up with, throughout that process, input from every state that was participating before anything was finalized and finally came up with a set of standards. Alabama, unlike some other states, took the Common Core standards that were developed through that collaborative and brought it back to Alabama. Alabama educators, teachers, principals, university faculty and laypersons, which is the way we’ve always done it, took those and Alabama standards to look at the two and compare them. They took the best of both and combined them into what we refer to as Alabama’s College and Career Ready Standards for Math and English Language Arts. We don’t report our work to anyone outside of the state of Alabama.

When people ask me what’s the big difference between our previous standards and our new standards, this sounds awfully simple, but it’s really a change in the verb. In our old standards it would say, “Compute three digit numbers to come up with the correct sum.” In our new standards in the same grade it would say, “Given this real world situation, based on what you’ve learned, determine the mathematics that is required to solve the problem. Work with three or four of your peers to come up with as many solutions to it as you can. Choose the one that you feel best answers the question and explain to the rest of your class why you chose that solution.” The arithmetic is still the same.


Alabama Living: Right.

Bice: Still adding three digit numbers. But what we’re asking students and teachers to do differently is to think, work together and to solve problems. Which is, when you talk with business and industry and higher education, the skill set that has been missing. Under the previous way we have been teaching, for almost a decade now, to pass a test. Now we want them to take what they’ve learned and apply it to something they may have never even seen before. That is what’s exciting. It changes the role of the learner and it changes the role of the teacher. It also equips children to take on situations and issues that they may have never had the ability to do before.


Alabama Living: So this is what you were talking about when we started this interview. You’re changing what a high school graduate will be.

Bice: Exactly. You know, I spent probably the first six months on the job meeting with business and industry and higher education; which, I realized immediately on being hired that there was a disconnect between us and them. The whole purpose of that time was to ask them that question. What is it about Alabama high school graduates that is missing when you get them? Interestingly and somewhat unexpected, the response from business and industry and higher education was identical. That they have some of the basic math, English, science and those sorts of skills that you would expect them to have, but they don’t appear to know what to do with them. And they are so programmed to take the test and move on, they don’t want to continue to learn. Just give me the answer, tell me what you want me to do with it and let me go.

So we want to create a graduate that is a lifelong learner, that has intellectual curiosity, that isn’t afraid to experiment what they’ve learned and work with their peers to come up with solutions. Which is what the real world looks like. So that’s what we are trying to prepare them for.


Alabama Living:  Ten years from now, what are our schools in Alabama going to look like?

Bice: I challenge people to think about that very question. I actually met, about a week or so ago, with all the plant managers from all the school systems in the state.


Alabama Living: The physical plant?

Bice: The physical plant managers, because they are an intricate part of what we do as well. And I challenged them to think ten years from now about what their job might look like that is different. We get real caught up in building these big places to public education, but with technology and some of the examples I’ve given you, learning can occur in a lot of different places and a lot of different times. We’ve got to begin to look at education through that lens rather than it being a place. It really could be, with technology, a 24/7 anywhere and anytime experience for students. Not for all, but for those that can handle that sort of thing.

We have distance learning now where we offer hundreds of courses so that students, no matter where they live, can take courses. That doesn’t have to happen during the school day. That can happen in the evenings and that can happen on the weekends. I have a son that took a Latin course from a teacher at another school because they didn’t offer it at his school and it couldn’t be worked into his school day. So he took it at night on his own in a blended model with his teacher from another school system. It worked out beautifully and more efficiently. Rather than building something, there are a lot of empty buildings in the world today. If we opened up, and they’ve done a lot of this in the urban areas, go to the empty storefronts in local neighborhoods and open up “schools”. They might be Twilight Schools, it means it’s after hours, so that kids who have had to drop out of schools and support their families could actually have an opportunity to return to school, be successful and be this higher wage earner to supports their families. But it takes us rethinking how we deliver education.

Bice: Probably the question that I am asked the most, that drives people crazy when I say, “Ask for flexibility.” They say, “What can we ask flexibility from?” I refuse to give them the list, because the minute I give them the list I have now, again, taken over the thinking process. What might be thought of and created within a faculty in Dekalb County verses what might be thought of in Wilcox County could be totally different and of equal value. So, we have a 134 school systems and 1,500 schools. So we could have 1,500 different ways this looks.


Alabama Living: It doesn’t look like the school you and I went to.

Bice: Exactly, it doesn’t need to.