Alabama's best known model of innovation in education lost its effectiveness after being starved of funds, restructured, and generally diluted, according to two separate evaluations of the Alabama Reading Initiative program.
The reading program, once lauded by the U.S. Department of Education as a model for other states, has gone through a lot of changes since it began in 1998. Both evaluations looked at the ARI as it stood at the end of the 2014-2015 school year where it served students in all grades.
"Though data indicate a positive impact of ARI on student achievement, data also indicate that no one factor (staffing of ARI, funding levels of the program, or curricular changes) appears to have had a singular or explanatory impact on student achievement scores," one study concluded.
Both studies were shared with state board of education members by Alabama Superintendent Michael Sentance at the February work session.
One study, conducted by the Research and Development section of the state department, recommended focusing ARI on the elementary level. The second study, conducted by Auburn University's Center for Evaluation, recommended "an examination of the entirety of ARI, perhaps by a blue ribbon panel of experts in the field of reading."
Sentance told board members it is time for the department to move away from ARI and its companion, the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative, known as AMSTI, in favor of different models for supporting teachers and students in Alabama's 1,400 public schools.
He acknowledged the move will be difficult and there will likely be a lot of opposition from educators across the state.
Board members asked if restructuring ARI might help get it back on course, to which Sentance replied, yes, it would, but "if we don't start to move away from the current model, then we're just going to get the same results we have."
Statewide, just 35 percent of third-graders were proficient in reading on the ACT Aspire in the spring of 2016. The ACT Aspire is the annual standardized test given to all students in third through eighth grade and in tenth grade.
Sentance said the focus on reading needs to go deeper to ensure teachers know how to teach reading when they graduate from college. "We need to have someone there in the classroom who already knows how to teach reading," he said.
How did a program with so much promise lose its focus?
Both studies reached similar conclusions.
[Scroll down to read each study in its entirety.]
First, a look back. The ARI began as a K-12 pilot in the 1998-1999 school year in 16 schools statewide. By the 2006-2007 school year, all schools were participating in ARI.
The ARI gained national attention both for introducing the "coaching" model to teaching and for impressive increases in student achievement in reading.
In 2007, Alabama's fourth-graders saw reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress increase by eight points over the 2005 scores. That was a larger increase than seen in any other state. At that point, former Superintendent Dr. Joe Morton and former Gov. Bob Riley urged the program to focus on the K-3 grade span, which it did.
From 2003 to 2011, Alabama's fourth-graders gained 13 points, from 207 to 220, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, reaching the national average for the first time.
Since 2011, there has been no statistically significant change in the NAEP scores for fourth grade reading in Alabama when comparing Alabama's scores from one year to the next. However, the drop in 2015 made Alabama's score statistically lower than the national average for the first time since 2011.
A third phase, beginning in 2012, saw the ARI program expanded to all grade levels. The changes also required ARI's reading coaches to expand their duties within schools due to funding pressures. Both studies cite that expansion of reading coaches' duties as a significant factor in reducing ARI's overall effectiveness.
Both studies highlight a survey conducted by the state department in January 2016 of reading coaches and ARI-supported teachers.
The Auburn study points out that students in low-achieving schools were benefiting most. "Students in the Black Belt of Alabama were more likely to make gains than students in other areas of the state," the Auburn study stated.
The studies also looking at the drop in financial support. ARI was funded by the state at a high of $64 million in fiscal year 2008. That dropped to $40.8 million by fiscal year 2017. Funding began declining during the national recession, and took another big hit in 2014.
In 2013, the former state superintendent, Dr. Tommy Bice, recommended taking $10 million from ARI and giving it to a program aimed at new professional pathways for teachers who want to continue to climb a career ladder but want to continue to work in the classroom. Professional pathways was not a new idea, as it had been recommended to then-Governor Bob Riley in 2009 as a part of the work done by the Governor's Commission on Quality Teaching.
Lawmakers instead took that $10 million away from the State Department of Education altogether.
Teachers in their responses to the state survey also criticized the priority changes over the years. The Auburn study devotes six pages to teachers' and reading coaches' responses to the changes, noting the "enthusiasm" and "buzz" for ARI faded over time.
"Dwindled to nothing," one teacher responded.
"At first, ARI couldn't do enough for us and now I never hear from ARI," said another.
"I feel as though ARI is viewed negatively among teachers," another said, adding, "Teachers I talk with and comments I hear or read seem to resent what they deem as people 'out of touch with reality' constantly telling them how to do their jobs better."
Reading coaches' responses were more favorable about the changes, though some indicated they missed working directly with children.
Some teachers resented the shift away from allowing ARI coaches to work with children, as this teacher stated: "ARI started out very helpful. However, it is nothing like it started out being. Teachers are not able to teach!! They are expected to do more with less. On top of it all, there is now another body (reading coach) in the room that can't even help with struggling students because it is not in their job description!"
At this point, ARI still exists, which was in question this time last year, when Gov. Bentley initially recommended a $23 million cut in ARI's funding, effectively cutting the program in half.
Lawmakers restored all but $7.4 million of the Governor's cut, but the cuts forced the state department to make massive adjustments.
In May 2016, the state said it would fund reading coaches at two different levels, based on how many of each districts' third-graders were testing as proficient readers.
Schools whose percentage of students proficient was below 35 percent would be designated Tier II schools and would receive $76,000 per reading coach. Tier I schools, where 35 percent or more of students were proficient, received $18,296 to fund reading coaches.
The extra money allowed struggling schools to hire a Master's level reading coach.
According to the state department of education, nearly 90% of the FY2017 ARI budget of $40.8 million helps to pay for for salary and benefits for 290 Tier I and 403 Tier II reading specialists in all of Alabama's school districts. Around nine percent, or $3.6 million, pays for 26 regional support staff. The state department spends a little more than $490,000 in administrative costs.
After an outcry from local superintendents in Tier I districts who had already made plans and hired personnel for the 2016-2017 school year, the state made those budgets whole but warned they would not do so again in fiscal year 2018.
The struggling Tier II schools were required to sign agreements with the state department promising to raise proficiency by 10 percentage points on the third grade ACT Aspire reading results. Those results are not available yet.
In an emailed statement to AL.com, Sentance said preliminary data after the restructuring is promising but not uniform across all areas.
The governor's current budget proposes ARI funding for fiscal 2018 at the same level as this year: $40.8 million.
But ARI's survival is still in question.
Sentance seems unconvinced that ARI is the way toward improvement, telling state board members, "At some point, we have to decide how are we going to move to a different plateau? How are we going to move in a direction that's going to increase the competencies in the school and increase the achievement of students?"
The Alabama Reading Initiative Program Evaluation Report - ALSDE Research & Development by Trisha Powell Crain on Scribd
Alabama Reading Initiative Data Analysis & Evaluation - Auburn Center for Evaluation - Auburn University by Trisha Powell Crain on Scribd
Updated 3/2/2017 12:40 p.m. to clarify the language on statistical significance of fourth grade NAEP reading scores.