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Alabama State Schools Chief to Resign

Trivia quiz: Name the first state in the country to require students to take four credits of both math and science to graduate with a traditional diploma.

Minnesota? Massachusetts? Wrong and wrong. Repeat after me: Roll Tide. The unlikely answer is Alabama, a historically poor, rural state with low scores on national tests, which first established the ambitious mandate back in 1996 and has implemented several ambitious efforts to raise academic standards since then.

I thought of Alabama's requirement yesterday when Joe Morton, Alabama's state superintendent of education, announced that he would resign after more than seven years in the post. While Morton wasn't schools chief when Alabama approved the four-year mandate, he has helped guide it as school policy, and during his tenure he championed a number of far-reaching efforts to raise graduation rates and improve the reading, math, and science skills of students across the the state. I wrote about one of the state's broad efforts to increase math and science resources for teachers and students a couple of years ago.

Did those efforts pay off? Alabama's scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress still lag behind other states, though its marks have improved in a number of categories.

Alabama's efforts to create higher statewide academic standards have not come easily. A few years ago, I examined the state's efforts to implement its four-year requirements in math and science, and found that the requirements sometimes meant different things in different districts that faced challenges in trying to meet the mandate.

As state schools chief, Morton pressed for a number of politically difficult changes, such as increasing the amount of tax revenue flowing to schools. He also supported increasing the required number of school days per year.

In a statement released by the Alabama State Department of Education yesterday, Morton explained his decision to retire in both practical and spiritual terms.

"[N]o extenuating circumstances factored into his decision to retire at this time other than an inner voice that would not retreat," the department said in the statement. "'He said it kept saying, 'Joe, it is the right time for the state and for you.' "

Morton's resignation is effective Aug. 31.

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