What the Alabama Department of Education Can Learn from Alabama Football

It is officially college football season in the South. For those who are not familiar with Alabama, that means for the next five months little else matters. We take great pride in our college football programs and it is impossible to live here without pledging allegiance to one of the two major programs – the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Auburn Tigers.

I myself am an avid Auburn fan, but even I have to admit that the program Nick Saban has built at the University of Alabama is reaching dynasty status. For the second straight year and third of the last five, they are the Associated Press preseason number one team in the nation.

When Nick Saban was hired at Alabama, the program was looking to start a new era. It had been a rough previous few years of instability with a lot of coaching turnover that led to low performance on the field.

But even Saban, a former National Championship winning coach, had a rough first year, going 6-6 during the regular season, leaving many Alabama fans wondering if they had hired the right guy. We all know what came next. Over the next nine years, Nick Saban created a dynasty and won four National Championships.

What does this have to do with K-12 education?

It’s no secret that the education system in Alabama has been struggling for quite a while. The most recent NAEP scores, better known as the Nation’s Report Card, rank Alabama at or near the bottom in every major category. Education Week’s 2017 Quality Counts report gave Alabama a D+, good enough to rank 45th in the nation.

This is the situation that Michael Sentence inherited when he was named State Superintendent roughly one year ago. But from his first day in the office, the Montgomery education establishment has been out to get him.

You see, Michael Sentence was never their hand chosen candidate. He is a known reformer. He had no existing relationships and wasn’t beholden to the Teachers’ Union. But one thing that I heard over and over is that he simply isn’t one of us – after all, he is from Massachusetts.  Just one week after he was hired, a petition was created to try and reverse the School Board’s decision.

But Mr. Sentence continued to work, all while there were those trying to make his job of turning around the state’s education system more difficult.

Then last month, the Board decided to do an early evaluation of the Superintendent’s progress. This was not so much about truly evaluating Mr. Sentence’s performance, as much as it was just a part of an ongoing effort to fire him.

The great irony of this whole ordeal is that the person leading the charge to get rid of Superintendent Sentence is Stephanie Bell, the Vice President of the State Board and a 23-year incumbent. So the person talking the loudest about the Superintendent’s performance after just one year on the job is someone who has been on the job for 23 years and is a major part of the problem.

As one State Board member said shortly after the superintendent’s hiring, “As Sentence 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?”

It is expected that the State Board will vote to fire Mr. Sentence at their next scheduled meeting.

Let me be clear – I am not saying that Michael Sentence will be the Nick Saban of the Alabama education system. What I am saying is that, just like Nick Saban, he should be given longer than one year to turn things around.