Mark Johnson’s open defiance of a government agency decision is a big deal

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*this article was originally published by the Charlotte Observer

Superintendent Mark Johnson’s startling defiance of another state agency’s authority has thrown the process of assessing North Carolina’s K-3 students into uncertainty as the new school year gets underway.  

Last year a broad evaluation committee made up of Department of Public Instruction (DPI) employees, professional educators, and subject matter experts overwhelmingly recommended Amplify’s mClass for the assessment contract.  Johnson then cancelled the procurement process under dubious circumstances and assembled a new committee which would recommend Istation’s computer-based assessment instead. When details emerged that called the process’s adherence to procurement rules into question, Amplify appealed the decision to DPI.  After DPI rejected the appeal, Amplify filed a Request for Administrative Hearing with the Department of Information Technology (DIT).  That’s the state agency charged with making sure that other agencies follow North Carolina’s rules and procedures when procuring information technology.

DIT was concerned enough by Amplify’s allegations to grant its request for a temporary stay of the Istation contract’s implementation while the agency reviews the process the state superintendent followed in awarding it.  Upon completion of that review, DIT has the authority to issue a decision on whether or not the Istation contract is valid.

In his initial public statement about the development, Mark Johnson referred to the stay as “improper” and said, “DIT lawyers need to understand they are accountable to North Carolinians, not the CEO of Amplify.”  Just a few days later, Johnson announced that Istation would provide its services for free so that North Carolina schools could continue using the tool, saying, “Istation believes in supporting public education in North Carolina so much, they have agreed to continue training teachers at no additional cost during this ridiculous DIT review.”  Istation President Ossa Fisher said the company would “work with DPI, educators, parents, and students without pay until the issues surrounding the stay are resolved.”

Istation may be providing its product for free, but it’s free in the sense that a puppy is free.  Use of a brand new assessment tool requires a significant investment of time and energy by school personnel.  Those things aren’t free.

With the state superintendent indicating that schools should keep using an assessment which another agency has put on hold, the vitally important work of assessing our youngest readers has descended into confusion all over the state.  Some districts such as Wake and Cabarrus have contracted directly with Amplify to use the mClass tool on their own dime, and some are using other tools to track student reading progress. But a considerable number of districts are following Johnson’s lead and proceeding as if Istation’s contract will be upheld, training teachers on how to use Istation and assessing students on the tool.  The mClass application has been removed from the state’s electronic platform NCEdCloud and replaced with Istation. With Mark Johnson’s blessing, Istation assessments are now collecting data on North Carolina students, despite the fact that the company’s contract has been put on hold by DIT.  

While Superintendent Johnson can disagree with DIT’s decision, he should know better than to run roughshod over due process.  After all, as Johnson reminded everyone last month, he’s not just superintendent, he’s also a lawyer. Personally endorsing and advocating for a product that hasn’t gone through proper procurement to operate in North Carolina–as the free offering of Istation has not–appears to be a deliberate attempt to subvert the decision of a governing authority.  North Carolina’s public school families deserve better than this poor leadership and the chaos that surrounds the important work of evaluating our children’s reading abilities.

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