Michael Sentance Out as Alabama’s State School Chief

Alabama State Superintendent of Education Michael Sentance at his teachers’ cabinet.

Alabama’s State Superintendent of Education, Michael Sentance, resigned on Wednesday effective immediately. Sentance was at the job for one year.

“I am humbled and appreciative of the opportunity to serve as state superintendent in Alabama,” Sentance said in a released statement from the Alabama Department of Education. “There are many good things happening in public education in this state. My hope is that Alabama makes educating all children the state’s highest priority, allowing the state to make significant educational gains and truly becoming the jewel of the south that it has the ability to become.”

Resign is such a nice word, but he was on the verge of being forced out which is a shame as he was open to jettisoning Common Core.

Quinn Hillyer wrote that Alabama’s State Board of Education, whose members are elected, planned to consider firing him at today’s scheduled meeting. Apparently, discussion about firing him began several months ago and the concerns leveled at him by board members pining to out Sentance appear unfounded.

What’s the problem? It seems the problem is the fact he wanted to bring some change to the department. Can’t have that. He appears to have inherited a mess, and worked to clean it up.

Hillyer wrote:

Sentance has outlined an inspirational agenda and set of goals for the state’s schools and students. But in doing so, he has roiled the waters of the existing Alabama educational power structure — you know, that same power structure that has put Alabama near dead last in every measure of educational attainment. The state school unions — the worst in the country — are against him, because he has upset their apple cart. A good rule of thumb is if Alabama’s existing educrats are against somebody, he must be pretty good.

He added:

If you as a board member hire somebody from out of state, bring him in, and ask him to do a job, then you should be helping him to navigate unfamiliar territory, offering to ease his transition, and working extra hard to give him the tools and space he needs to succeed. I challenge the current board members — other than Mary Scott Hunter and Betty Peters, who want to keep him on the job — to show more than a pittance of examples of them actually doing any of this. (Whatever happened to southern hospitality? Whatever happened to Southern manners? And whatever happened to basic, business-like common sense?)

Sentance, prior to coming to Alabama, served as the Secretary of Education in Massachusetts and as the Senior Education Advisor to Massachusetts Governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci. You know, Massachusetts who during his time as Secretary of Education implemented an education reform package that made the state a leader in K-12 education.

You can’t get there without rocking the boat.

What Do the Feds Expect Us To Do Without the ESSA Waiver?

Alabama State Department of Education Headquarters

As a member of the Alabama State Board of Education, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015 gave me hope that the state could finally chart its own course in education and repair the damage done by heavy-handed federal mandates on Alabama students’ learning.

One of the mandates that came from the pre-ESSA No Child Left Behind statute allowed the U.S. Department of Education (USED) to micro-manage our student assessment system. After four years of problems administering the ACT Aspire tests to students in grades three through eight and once again in grade ten, our education officials saw ESSA as an opportunity to develop a new test that would better serve students. As Alabama Superintendent of Education Michael Sentance recently told local news outlets, the ACT Aspire test “gives very little information back to schools about what is actually being tested. They don’t release test questions; that doesn’t help teachers understand what’s being asked of them as a result.”

According to a letter sent to Superintendent Sentance at the beginning of the year, it appeared that USED agreed that using the ACT Aspire was problematic. In fact, after an extensive peer review of the test, USED had concluded that the state’s use of ACT Aspire may not satisfy federal requirements, and placed a condition on the state’s receipt of $247 million in Title 1 funding: “External peer reviews and Department staff peer reviewers and Department staff evaluated Alabama’s submission of evidence about ACT Aspire and found, based on the evidence received, that the components of your assessment system meet some, but not all, of the statutory and regulatory requirements of [ESSA].”

In light of the many problems with the test—problems recognized by USED—Alabama teachers, state board members, and Superintendent Sentance reached a consensus that the contract with ACT should be ended and a better test developed. The problem we face is that a new test takes a year or more to develop and wouldn’t be available for students to take during the 2017-2018 school year to satisfy federal testing requirements. Sentance has asked USED to grant the state a waiver to administer interim assessments instead of the ACT Aspire next year while a new assessment is being developed.

It seems like a simple common sense request. After all, both USED and state officials have recognized Aspire is problematic. Yet after a conversation with Acting U. S. Deputy Jason Botel, Sentance reported to the AL state board of education that it didn’t seem likely USED would approve the waiver, stating, “It was pretty clear right from the start that the answer was going to be “no.”

ESSA’s supporters insisted that the bill restored control over education to the states. “With this bill,” Speaker Paul Ryan promised, “We are sending power back to the people.” ESSA author Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) exhorted state officials to test the boundaries of what they can do under ESSA. According to Education Week, Alexander told them to “assume you can do as you please, and if the U. S. Department of Education shoots down your ideas without a clear rationale, don’t take it lying down.” In fact, Alexander advised them to consider legal actions: “You can take the department to court, and I hope that you do.”

Candidate Trump ran on the issue of local control and as President has directed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to restore it. She has PROMISED to do so: “Let us continue to move power away from Washington, D.C. and into the hands of parents and state and local leaders.” Thanks to the State of Alabama, DeVos now has the opportunity to carry through on all these commitments. Either ESSA restores local control or it doesn’t. Let’s find out.

One wonders what’s really going on here. Is USED afraid that if Alabama is allowed to choose its own assessment, it might stray too far from the federal corral not only on testing but on curriculum, standards and maybe other matters down the road? Does ESSA maintain the federal padlock on the gate? Parents and other grassroots citizens warned repeatedly during consideration of ESSA that it continued the “Mother may I” approach to education policy. Were they right?

What does the USED want Alabama to do? We could be penalized for administering the Aspire test and, without a waiver, we could be penalized for replacing it with another test—“damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

Alabama Elects to March Toward True Progress in Education

michael-sentance

On August 11, 2016 the Alabama State School Board selected Michael Sentance of Massachusetts for State School Superintendent; September 8, we approved his contract. One of six finalists, Sentance won my support during his 55-minute interview on August 4. I don’t think anyone in the crowded room was expecting what he said. Sentance gave us a brief but clear outline for his vision of education, modeled on the highly successful reform effort he had been part of in Massachusetts back in the early 1990s.

As he answered our questions, I looked around the room and saw the expressions on people’s faces and noticed a light of hope in the eyes of fellow board members. When the governor passionately asked him, “Why hasn’t anyone else told me this before (regarding AL’s assessment system),” it dawned on me this man from Massachusetts had a real chance of being selected. For the first time in my 13 plus years on the state school board, I believed Alabama could be successful in turning around our educational system and improving students’ lives as Massachusetts had done. As Sentance had explained about Massachusetts’ success, I knew an endeavor this massive would require years of close cooperation among k-12, 2 and 4 year institutions, colleges of education, pre-k, business and industry, and of course parents, the Governor and the Legislature. I wondered hopefully would we in Alabama be willing to join together to take advantage of this unique opportunity, one that might not come along again for a long time?

As I researched his work in Massachusetts, I really liked what I learned. For example, in the fall of 2001 when Sentance left his position as senior education advisor to the governor, the state’s upward trajectory had begun. It culminated by 2007 when Massachusetts ranked first on the NAEP scores on all four assessments – a status never previously attained. Called one of the nation’s most competent K-12 leaders and a Federalist, Sentance has since 2010 valiantly objected to the misguided Common Core regime. He argued for rigorous, proven standards that are developed by teachers and academics in a state. He believed “the states should be doing this work as it allows for creativity and the pioneering innovation that states can provide…. It’s why we were able to introduce engineering into our science standards in 2000—something still lacking in any depth in the Next Generation Science Standards. So I believe that standards should always be established by states without the coercion from the federal government.”

I read that Mr. Sentance also recognized that while the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act focused on the academic aspect of school improvement, the career-tech sector was largely ignored. As he worked through the issue of improving career-tech programs, there was pressure from some sources to set up something like the European model for determining a student’s work future. but he resisted such moves and they did not accept that model. He said, “The focus was to provide a strong academic education for all students. While there was initial resistance to increasing the academic requirements in career-tech programs, eventually a group of career-tech superintendents courageously embraced the challenge of our standards and significantly improved their programs. And, this was done without tracking or pre-determining the destiny of any student.”

In an interview with AP after the vote, our new superintendent explained, “My goal is to raise the achievement of students in Alabama so whatever people think about Alabama, they know that their schools are good and improving…. I’m excited about the challenge… It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take the trust and faith of educators to work with me. So that is something I have to earn. I understand that.”

The AP article quoted Gov. Bentley: “I am not excited that we are 40th in 4th grade reading…46th in 8th grade reading and 50th in 8th grade math.” I join with the governor who asked the public to give Sentance a chance because our school scores must improve.

As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

I have faith that Alabamians will indeed work together and turn our schools around. Our students don’t deserve the status quo. We must turn back to the time when we were progressing in order to march toward true progress.