Plan underwhelms many educators

By Larry Lee

It is almost a given that when Alabama gets a new school chief, shortly thereafter we will also get a new “strategic plan.” Maybe there is a law somewhere that says this is mandatory, or maybe it is just the new guy trying to tell everyone how smart he is and that we were wise to hire him because he has all the answers.

So there was no surprise when state superintendent Mike Sentance unveiled Alabama Ascending recently.

It is a 20-page wish list for K 12 education, as well as college teacher prep courses.

My inbox began immediately receiving comments from superintendents and educators around the state. One said, “Mr. Sentance introduced his Alabama Ascending, a new strategic plan to replace Dr. Bice’s Plan 2020, which replaced Dr. Morton’s Education Ruler which replaced Dr. Richardson’s plan (which I don’t think had a name). Reminds me of the Israelites and the wilderness. But hope it doesn’t take 40 years for the state department of education to figure out what we need to do for our students. They just need to ask a few professional educators in our schools who live this every day.”

A teacher suggested that instead of printing copies of the plan, the state department should donate the paper to be used to do so to classroom teachers.

And as I often do in such cases, I turned to folks outside Alabama for their input.

One was Diane Ravitch, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and one of the most recognized voices in the country urging education be guided by common sense instead of the latest fad conjured up by a think tank.

She commented, “This is all goals. Where’s the beef? Remember that No Child Left Behind said 100 percent of our students would be proficient by 2014.”
Another review came from Bill Mathis, who runs the National Education Policy Center in Colorado. “I have to commend my Alabama colleagues for having a comprehensive plan that includes almost every hot button idea floating around the education echodome,” he said, obviously tongue-in-cheek. “There’s no shortage of words or initiatives, but one wonders whether this Spruce Goose might be a bit heavy to get off the ground.

“Alabama is around 38th place on education spending and this kind of plan doesn’t come free. Will the legislature and the governor fund it?”

Mathis makes an excellent point. I looked over all 20 pages of the plan carefully and could not find dollars assigned to any portions. Which to me, makes this more of a wish list than a strategic plan. However, on page 15 we find a goal of providing equitable funding and financial support to all schools and systems. But what is the price of equity?

Nearly 20 years ago Dr. Tom Meredith was chancellor of the University of Alabama System. Good guy and good friend. Governor Don Siegelman tasked him with chairing the Alabama Commerce Commission that would create a road map to economic prosperity for the state.

Tom did not take his job lightly. He pulled together various people from throughout the state. He picked the brains of researchers. He held meeting after meeting. I attended several of them.

After months and months of dedicated effort, the report was released with quite a bit of fanfare. I probably still have some file folders about it. Who knows, I might even have one of the reports. But by and large I have to believe what few copies still exist are somewhere gathering dust. And I know for certain that little in the state changed as a result.

Not surprisingly, I thought back to my friend Tom Meredith and the Commerce Commission as I read Alabama Ascending.

And as I read in the plan that all high schools will someday offer statistics and calculus, I also thought about NCLB and 100 percent proficiency.

Larry Lee led the study Lessons Learned from Rural Schools and is a longtime advocate for public education. Read his blog: