Superintendent Mark Johnson appears poised to again ignore educator input on K-3 reading test

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In a tense discussion with the State Board today over the future of K-3 reading assessment in North Carolina, a feisty Superintendent Mark Johnson repeatedly defended the controversial 2019 procurement process that led to his awarding an $8.3 million contract to Istation.  

That process saw Johnson cancel the procurement after a broad committee of professional educators, subject matter experts, and DPI staff overwhelmingly recommended the state stick with the mClass tool that requires children to read to a human teacher. 

Johnson then assembled a much smaller team made up primarily of noneducators who chose the online reading test instead.

In the latest developments, Johnson unexpectedly cancelled the 2019 contract last week before the Department of Information Technology could issue a ruling on its legality.  At today’s meeting, the superintendent told a skeptical board he’d be proceeding with a new procurement with the intention of having an assessment in place for school year 2020-21.

Though uncertainty lies ahead, there were some interesting clues dropped during the discussion about where the procurement could be going.  

Summarizing the current situation for the board at the outset of the meeting, State Board General Counsel Eric Snider quoted a related DPI memo from earlier this week which said “Current classroom-based instructional practices are insufficient for a post-pandemic education system.”

Johnson also said during the meeting that rebidding the contract is “something that is the right thing to do right now given how much school has changed under these very trying times.”

These references to the pandemic and shifts in educational approaches could be groundwork for an argument that students should have their reading skills assessed using computers rather than by an actual teacher.

Teachers know best:

Multiple individuals participating in today’s meeting urged Superintendent Johnson to seek feedback from educators in making the important decision about how North Carolina will test K-3 students on reading.

North Carolina Teacher of the Year Mariah Morris offered to assist along those lines, saying “I would just like to very respectfully ask that during the procurement process that an advisory team of K-3 teachers are involved in the process, and if you need any assistance at any level on gathering such a team I’d be more than happy to help with that process, because teachers are so passionate and excited to help our students with the K-3 literacy piece.”  Johnson did not respond to the offer.

State Board Member JB Buxton reiterated the importance of involving classroom-level experts in decisions that heavily impact their students:  “I think it is an utmost priority for us that we get, to Ms. Morris’s good point, strong participation from influential and credible district voices that are seen as evaluating and recommending, and I think this will be important for us to move on from this chapter.  It will be important for the vendor that is chosen to be able to do so with the comfort that they have strong buy in and backing from all parties.”  

Johnson reminded everyone that “there were outside voices on the panel for the Read to Achieve diagnostic tool.”  (Those were the voices Johnson ignored that overwhelmingly recommended mClass)  He added that the law requires voting members of the evaluation committee must be DPI employees.

Finally, State Board Member Jill Camnitz also urged Johnson to accept teacher input, saying, “It seems to me that we’ve got a great opportunity here to take Ms. Morris up on her offer, and what we’ve got out there right now are teachers that have used two quite different systems.  Out of that experience I think will come some very wise counsel.”  Again Johnson was silent.

Audio of that portion of the meeting is here:

Johnson is right that the law calls for an evaluation panel “composed of persons employed within the Department of Public Instruction.”  

But any superintendent who values the insight and experience of professional educators would do two things:  

1)  Ensure the evaluation panel includes voting members who have taught and assessed K-3 reading, and 

2)  Establish processes for the work of that panel to be informed by current K-3 classroom teachers.

If Johnson doesn’t do either of those two things, it could be an indication that he doesn’t want to hear what actual teachers think would be the best way to assess our youngest readers.

Incidentally, here’s the panel that selected Istation for Mark Johnson last year:

  • Erika Berry, DPI Policy Advisor
  • Nathan Craver, Digital Teaching and Learning Consultant
  • Thakur Karkee, Psychometrician
  • Pam Shue, Deputy Superintendent of Early Education
  • Julien Alhour, Director–Architecture, Integration & Quality Assurance
  • Tymica Dunn, Purchasing Section Chief
  • Chloe Gossage, Chief Strategy Officer
  • Melissa Strong, Attorney
  • Srierekha Viswanathan, Project Manager

Some other important points from today’s meeting:

Johnson essentially punted on a really crucial question from Vice Chair Alan Duncan regarding how Johnson could assure the perception of fairness and independence when the superintendent himself has made “derogatory comments about at least one of the potential bidders.”  (That would be Amplify)

Duncan also raised the point that the State Board of Education would need to approve any contract issued by DPI, inferring the board might be unlikely to approve a contract if there appeared to again be significant concerns about the procurement process.  Johnson immediately commented that the process was governed by the state statute that called for the procurement.

That exchange could be foreshadowing of a scenario where Johnson again awards the contract to Istation, then essentially dares the State Board to refuse to approve it and risk being blamed for students not having a reading assessment in place for the 2020-21 school year.

The statute Johnson is hiding behind was in the 2017 budget bill and mandates a vendor be selected by March 1, 2018, so it’s worth asking whether that law has passed its shelf life anyway.

The wild card in all of this is that the Department of Information Technology could still issue a ruling on whether Johnson’s 2019 contract award was legal.  DIT could then make its own contract award or lay out stipulations for a new RFP process.  Those potential outcomes could explain why Johnson cancelled the contract on his own last week in hopes of staying in the driver’s seat despite what an absolute mess the process has been under his leadership.

Stay tuned for more drama in this never-ending saga.

Complete audio of the K-3 reading assessment discussion from today’s meeting is below:

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