Alabama does not have an education system designed to educate all children. It never has. But, the possibility of laying the foundation for one is closer than ever.
A state longitudinal data system (SLDS), while a seemingly confusing policy topic, is a necessary step to creating a well-functioning education system. It is critical to helping all children reach their full potential.
Since the founding of Alabama’s public schools in the 19th century, there have been gaps preventing some children from receiving a quality education. The result is that not all children were—or are—given the opportunity to achieve what they are capable of, often through no fault of their own.
Historic events and technical advances have closed some gaps. Desegregation, the creation and expansion of programs to meet students’ diverse needs, the design and construction of better schools, and the decision to hold all students to high academic standards, among other things, have all played roles in improving our delivery of public education. But, there are still tremendous inequities, many of which we are likely unaware.
Of the more than $6 billion a year we spend on education in Alabama, less than a fraction of one percent goes toward making sure programs work effectively.
We hear stories and see disparate numbers on student achievement, socioeconomics, and program effectiveness. And, as southerners, we take those anecdotes and call them data, but the reality is we’re not making decisions based on all the information available. Even with the information available today, Alabamians can’t get a clear look at how particular programs affect our children as they move from pre-k through our schools and then colleges.
Two good bills in the Legislature right now (SB153 in the Senate and its House companion, HB97) would help solve this by creating an SLDS. This would make it easier to bring together existing information, generate a clearer picture to reveal trends and patterns (while protecting individuals’ privacy), and ultimately create better opportunities for students.
Some things we know without an SLDS. For example, almost one third of Alabama high school graduates who enroll in two- and four-year colleges have to take and pay for remedial classes. These classes teach topics students were supposed to learn in high school.
Why are one in three students enrolling in college not prepared for the work? What classes did they take (or not take) in high school? What did their schools lack? Was chronic absenteeism or discipline a problem? What prepared their peers who were ready? Is there a more effective way to prepare students for college-level coursework if they’re behind? An SLDS can help answer questions like these.
Other questions also turn up when considering what we already know.
For nine of the last ten years, ninth grade had the largest enrollment of all grades in Alabama, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. What creates this “ninth grade bulge,” as researchers call it? For students who were retained, what happened to them in middle school, and what happens later in high school? How do they perform if they enroll college?
More often than not, we don’t have good answers to questions like these because it’s hard to find and connect relevant information from one institution to the next.
We need to learn from the experience of today’s students to ensure we do a better job tomorrow. We can tell anecdotes and make assumptions, but until we can evaluate our education system with meaningful, connected information, policymakers will continue making decisions based more often on anecdotes and assumptions than hard evidence.
An SLDS can help Alabama use its tax dollars wisely, and help state and local officials become better stewards of our money. This is an important step in laying the groundwork for an education system that meets the needs of all children.
Thomas Rains is Vice President of Operations and Policy at A+ Education Partnership, an organization that works to ensure each child in Alabama has the opportunity for success. He can be reached at email@example.com.