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Column: New superintendent should set clear objectives for state schools

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Contributor

With the news that the Alabama Board of Education has selected Dr. Eric Mackey to serve as the new State Superintendent, our state’s public school leaders have an opportunity to create a path forward for student learning in Alabama.

This upcoming generation will leave high school entering an uncertain economic future. Automation and other technological changes is remaking the nature of work in our country. By some measures, students can anticipate working over a dozen jobs in their lifetime. Our public education system has a serious task before it in preparing students to enter this uncertain world.  Many Alabamians have deep affection for their local schools, but there is much work to do in making sure our schools meet the needs of this upcoming generation.

Public education should accomplish two goals.  First, schools should prepare students to live as productive, responsible members of society.  Put another way, our schools should teach students how to handle the freedoms and responsibilities that come with being citizens in a free society.

For many years this was second nature, and Alabamians of a certain age will see this as an obvious, admirable goal. Yet, in recent years, this dimension has often been overlooked as educators have been forced to dedicate so much classroom time preparing students for standardized tests.

Now the pendulum has swung the other way. Too many of our students lack a strong knowledge of history as well as the oral and written skills necessary to critically engage with the world around them. Teachers should encourage students to grow in their understanding of the privileges, duties and responsibilities of citizenship in our great country.

The second goal of our public education system is more readily apparent, and that is the need to prepare students to enter the workforce.  Our schools already spend a considerable amount of time teaching math and science, and that should continue. This instruction has taken many shapes in the past, including Science in Motion and today as AMSTI, the Alabama Science Math and Technology Initiative. These disciplines are commonly recognized as STEM – science, technology, engineering and math, with some adventurous educators adding arts education to form a STEAM curriculum.

As students prepare to enter a workforce unlike any we’ve ever seen before, the development of these skill sets is critical to the success of our students and the future economic well being of our state. STEM/STEAM education is critical to student success after high school, whether students are pursuing a vocational career or a college degree. STEM/STEAM paired with a robust education towards citizenship will help students become nimble in the workforce and responsible citizens as they grow into full adulthood.

There is little doubt that the majority of our public educators are hard working and passionate about students.  As the state’s new superintendent, Dr. Mackey must continue to see that these traits continue to mark our state. Moreover, the state board of education should be committed to proven methods of education that are buoyed by new innovations and technologies.

Too often innovation and improvement have been mere window dressings on older, stale bureaucracies. Petty fights over Common Core wasted valuable political capital in making meaningful reform that would benefit our state’s students. Dr. Mackey should remember that, while teachers should be respected and supported in a wide number of ways, our system of public education is in place to serve students and their parents.

The superintendent and the board should resist the opportunity to use the bully pulpit to stifle reforms such as charter schools or tenure reform, instead focusing all attention at making Alabama’s public education system the best it can possibly be.

Superintendent Mackey and Governor Ivey should work make every effort to work in tandem to pursue common objectives, serving as leaders for both the board of education and the state legislature.

It is worth remembering that the majority of Alabamians are perfectly happy with their public schools.  Where changes are needed, those changes should be made in the context of mutual support of public schools on the part of leaders and citizens.

Dr. Mackey and the board should work diligently to ensure that those schools are strengthened and supported so that our students, their parents and our state can enjoy the full return of that investment.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at [email protected].

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