Mike Sentance stepped into his new role as state school superintendent on Sept. 12, 2016. This was the first time in his life to be a superintendent at any level. So to say his knowledge of what needed doing and how to get it done was limited is an understatement. And compounding the situation is that as a native of Massachusetts he had no knowledge of Alabama.
In other words, the learning curve was not steep–it was straight up. And conventional wisdom would be that under such circumstances, the first thing one would do would be to work 24/7 to make friends, learn some Alabama education history and not make rash decisions right out of the starting gate.
However, what is conventional wisdom in Alabama must be something much different in Massachusetts because this was not Sentance’s approach at all.
Instead, he seemed determined to impress people with how poor Alabama schools and teachers are and to constantly talk about how great things are in his home state. He said that Alabama teachers were so weak they had to use scripts to teach lessons, that many Alabama math teachers could not work in another state and that generally our teachers have been poorly-prepared while in college.
In early November former Governor Robert Bently declared that “Alabama education sucks.” Did Sentance come to the defense of our 730,000 students and their teachers and administrators? Nope. He never said a word.
On January 7, 2017 Alabama got a letter from the U.S. Department of Education questioning whether or not the ACT Aspire is aligned to state standards. The following week, the state released its annual list of “failing schools” as required by the Alabama Accountability Act. For the first time ever, a large number of high schools made this list of 75 schools. Why? Because 9-12 high schools were measured only on the performance of 10th graders taking this test for the first time.
And where was Sentance? Here are schools being judged on a suspect test and again, he was quiet as a church mouse. While media had a field day pointing out failing high schools, he never came to their defense.
Just two weeks ago the state education department released graduation rate info at 4 p.m. on a Friday before a state holiday. Info that local systems knew nothing about. Rates that were much different in many cases than local systems were expecting.
The outcry from local superintendents was loud and long. And while Sentance expressed alarm that info was wrong, he never tried to justify why it was released without local systems being notified.
So now, eight months into his new job and at the end of the school year and the end of a legislative session, Sentance has sent a memo to local superintendents that he plans three meetings around the state on May 9, 15 and 16 to hear what they have to say.
Feedback I have gotten from superintendents is that they are not impressed and agree that this is too little, too late for Sentance to mend fences.
Several have said they plan to show him the same respect he showed them with the release of the graduation rates.
Here is an email from one superintendent: “Over the next 14 school days in my county there are 38 graduations, award programs, celebrations, club inductions, spring football games, softball regional finals, banquets, concerts, field days, Baccalaureates, etc., all vying
for Superintendent’s time. Each of these is more important than a listening session that will fall on deaf ears. Listening is a skill and making decisions on what you hear is leadership. Don’t think Mr. Sentance understands this.”.
It’s just one more example of the very sad state of affairs we have these days in our public school system.