One underreported aspect of the mClass/Istation literacy assessment debacle has to do with NC Superintendent Mark Johnson’s misrepresentation of the cost of mClass.
Amplify, the curriculum and assessment company that produces mClass, filed an official protest of Johnson’s awarding of a multimillion dollar contract to Istation last week. In that protest letter, which may well be a precursor to litigation, Amplify’s attorneys noted the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction had informed the press of the previous $6.3 million cost of mClass but had failed to mention that the annual cost had been reduced 40% in their recent contract bid:
It appears to be an obvious attempt to mischaracterize the Istation purchase as a substantial cost savings. And it wasn’t an isolated incident.
On Monday, June 24, Superintendent Mark Johnson met with district superintendents for their quarterly meeting. Having already received some pointed questions about Istation from representatives of the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association the previous week, Johnson knew he’d be facing a tough crowd regarding his unilateral adoption of the computer-based K-3 literacy screener. He included this slide in his presentation to superintendents:
Note the glaring omission on Johnson’s “cost comparison” of the actual $3.75 million annual recurring cost proposed by Amplify for its mClass tool during the recently concluded procurement process.
It’s fair to wonder whether Superintendent Johnson similarly misrepresented the price of mClass when he presented his Istation decision to the State Board of Education for approval–and whether their vote might have been different had they known about the 40% cost reduction.
As backlash by the public and district superintendents grew and a likely lawsuit by Amplify loomed, NC Superintendent Mark Johnson agreed on Friday to change the implementation plan for the Istation reading tool. Characterized as a “delay,” the change was an obvious attempt at appeasement. However, it isn’t actually a delay, it causes more problems than it solves, and it certainly won’t appease anyone who’s been paying attention to the Istation contract fiasco.
Johnson’s new plan came after the Executive Board of the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association sent a letter to the state superintendent formally requesting that Johnson ask the General Assembly for a one year reprieve on implementing the new computer-based K-3 reading assessment.
The plan has been broadly described as a “delay,” leading some to believe that schools will not begin using Istation when schools open. That’s absolutely incorrect.
Johnson said in a conference call with State Board of Education members on Friday, “We want to go ahead and get into schools but give all of September, October, November, December to be months where students and teachers are learning this new tool and then no metrics are measured until January.”
Essentially what this means is there will be no measurement of student achievement for official benchmark (EVAAS) purposes until the school year is halfway finished. However, training and practice with the computer-based tool for kindergarten to third grade students will proceed as planned. Actually, it’s already underway.
Johnson’s half-hearted bid at allaying concerns over the impossibly short implementation timeline fails to acknowledge the scope of the Istation fiasco. There are a whole lot more worms in the can.
The superintendent’s unexpected unilateral decision to award the K-3 literacy screener contract to Istation disregarded input by two knowledgeable teams of professional educators who participated in the evaluation process and recommended continued use of Amplify’s mClass tool.
When news that Johnson had ignored input by the evaluation teams in selecting Istation reached the public, the Superintendent and his representatives falsely claimed the committees had not reached consensus and had not recommended mClass. Many have filed public records requests for written notes, rankings, and votes compiled by the committees. DPI’s Communications Department has yet to produce the requested documents as required by state law.
Superintendent Johnson continues to attempt to hide information about the flawed contract process behind non-disclosure agreements signed by those who participated in evaluating mClass and Istation on DPI’s behalf. However, it’s crystal clear in the language of those agreements that any expectation of confidentiality ended when Johnson awarded the contract to Istation on June 7.
In terms of the tools themselves, there are a whole host of reasons why the committees recommended mClass over Istation, not one of which will be resolved just by delaying use of data six months.
One of the most important advantages of the mClass screener has to do with screening for dyslexia. In 2017 the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law mandating that students with specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia “receive the necessary and appropriate screenings” and tasking local boards of education with reviewing “diagnostic tools and screening instruments used for dyslexia…to ensure that they are age-appropriate and effective.”
On the Friday conference call with State Board members, DPI K-3 Literacy Director Tara Galloway said she was “confident” the Istation tool is effective at screening for dyslexia. However, effective screening for dyslexia requires having a reader produce sounds and read words to determine whether phonological processing problems are present. Because Istation is an online tool, its phonological awareness measure is limited to having students listen to a sound and match it with an answer choice instead of actually segmenting individual sounds out from a spoken word by producing it on their own. This approach is inconsistent with the International Dyslexia Association’s recommendations on dyslexia assessment and appears to fall short of meeting the General Assembly’s legislative mandate as well. The mClass tool which has been in statewide use since 2013 aligns much more closely with those requirements.
Istation is the wrong choice for our youngest readers. The process our state superintendent followed to procure it was deeply flawed and suspicious, and his response to the backlash has been riddled with deliberate misinformation.
When the controversy over his unilateral decision to award a multi-million dollar contract for a K-3 reading assessment tool to computer-based Istation boiled over, NC Superintendent Mark Johnson’s reply to concerns voiced by the North Carolina State Superintendents’ Association included a warning.
In the email, Johnson claimed that those who were involved in the procurement process had signed non-disclosure agreements and “are not to share any information about the process with anyone outside the team.”
The message was seen by some as an effort to keep those with inside knowledge of the flawed process from sharing what they know, and by others as a possible pretext for not fulfilling public records request for documents related to the fiasco as required by state law.
Now the actual non-disclosure agreement form signed by members of the voting and non-voting committees that evaluated reading screeners and reportedly recommended adoption of mClass to Superintendent Johnson has surfaced in a Facebook post by former DPI employee Amy Jablonski.
As you can see for yourself, the document states the following (note that italics and bold are mine):
Pursuant to North Carolina’s Administrative Code 09 NCAC 06B.0103, all information and documentation (verbal and written) relative to development of a contractual document is deemed “confidential” and shall remain confidential until successful completion of the procurement process.
Therefore, Evaluation Committee Members (both voting and contributing advisors) are required to keep all comments, discussions, and documentation confidential until a notification of award has been made by the Issuing Agency for this solicitation. By participating in this Evaluation Committee you agree to not divulge any information to an unauthorized person in advance of the time prescribed for its authorized release to the public. This includes coworkers, supervisors, family, friends, etc.
Mark Johnson’s claim that those with detailed knowledge of the procurement process that ended with his decision to award the contract to Istation must keep their mouths closed is 100% false. Any obligation by those involved to stay silent ended when the superintendent announced his decision on June 7.
Here’s hoping this revelation is one more step toward the truth.
Last week I published a blog post detailing how NC Superintendent Mark Johnson ignored the recommendation of a committee of educators and made the unilateral decision to award the contract for a K-3 reading screener to a company called Istation.
According former DPI employee Amy Jablonski, who headed the evaluation committee, Johnson’s selection of Istation disregarded the Request for Purchase (RFP) evaluation team’s advice that North Carolina schools should continue using the mClass screener which has been in place since 2013. The change means moving from a model in which children read one-on-one with their teacher to one where their interaction is with a computer.
The fact that the blog post has been shared more than fifteen thousand times on social media is a testament to how unhappy educators and public school families alike are with the decision–and how eager they are to learn exactly how it happened.
Over at the Department of Public Instruction, the reaction couldn’t be more different. On Friday, DPI spokeswoman Jacqueline Wyatt denied to the Raleigh News & Observer that the committee had reached a consensus and alleged that “actions that jeopardized the legality of the procurement” had led to the cancellation of the RFP and resulted in a process which had unnamed DPI representatives negotiate directly with the vendors.
The same day Wyatt told the News and Observer that the RFP committee hadn’t recommended mClass, Superintendent Mark Johnson sent an email to representatives of the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association in response to concerns about the selection of Istation.
In the email, which you can read below, Johnson repeated the claim that no consensus had been reached on mClass and added that those who were involved in the procurement process had signed nondisclosure agreements and “are not to share any information about the process with anyone outside the team.”
The point about nondisclosure agreements could be interpreted as a warning to people who served on the evaluation committee not to talk. It could also be a pretext for not complying with the public records requests that have begun flooding in to DPI from people who want to find out the truth.
To add a little context, the mandate to issue an RFP for diagnostic reading assessments dates back to the 2017 budget bill passed by the state legislature. That legislation calls for the State Superintendent to ‘form and supervise an Evaluation Panel to review the proposals’ before selecting a vendor with the Superintendent’s approval (note that the original timeline was extended a year after the bill was passed).
So here’s a basic overview of what appears to have happened.
A team was formed to evaluate diagnostic reading screeners, then divided into two groups (one was composed of DPI employees as mandated by the above law, and the other ‘non-voting’ committee was a broad group of subject matter experts which is rightly viewed as best practice at DPI.)
After rigorous review, both groups came to the consensus that mClass was the best tool for North Carolina schools.
The consensus was presented to Superintendent Mark Johnson in a meeting at DPI in December of 2018 in the form of a PowerPoint which included recommendations by both the voting committee and the non-voting committee that mClass be adopted.
Johnson cancelled the RFP process and negotiations with the vendors began.
Johnson selected Istation as the new reading assessment tool for North Carolina schools.
North Carolina’s citizens deserve to know what our elected officials are doing on our behalf and how they’re spending our hard-earned tax dollars. We especially deserve to know when their decisions have deep and lasting impacts on our children.
The committees that evaluated Istation, mClass, and two other vendors had detailed discussions about the various products, and notes were taken on those discussions. They conducted votes and ranked the tools, and those results were recorded in writing. There’s even a PowerPoint on somebody’s hard drive at DPI that shows the results that Amy Jablonski and three others presented to Mark Johnson in that meeting in December of 2018.
Multiple public records requests have been filed with the Department of Public Instruction by taxpaying citizens who want to see the records above as well as other documents related to Johnson’s decision to award the contract to Istation.
North Carolina public records law requires that custodians of public records such as the Department of Public Instruction “shall permit any record in the custodian’s custody to be inspected and examined at reasonable times.”
Public school employees and parents in North Carolina are rightfully upset about the unilateral decision to adopt Istation. We’re unhappy about the marginalization of human teachers, the increase in screen time for our youngest students, the short timeline for implementation, and the millions of dollars wasted on mClass materials which will now be useless. We’re dismayed by how inadequate this tool will be for diagnosing young readers with dyslexia in a timely manner. We’re troubled by what seems to be an obvious and hamfisted attempt to obscure the process which led to this bad decision. And we’re not going away until we’ve turned the light of truth on it.
Update: Amplify, the company that produces mClass, has filed an official protest with the Department of Public Instruction requesting that the contract with Istation be suspended while this matter is investigated. Amplify’s attorneys outlined the limitations of the Istation tool and pointed out that the committee that evaluated tools under the RFP are reported to have recommended mClass be adopted in North Carolina schools. You can read the filing below:
As the 2018-19 school year wound down and teachers began their well-earned summer breaks, Superintendent Mark Johnson dropped an unexpected bombshell: North Carolina schools would be scrapping the mClass reading assessment system and replacing it with the computer-based Istation program.
North Carolina schools have used mClass as the diagnostic reading assessment tool in grades K-3 since the Read to Achieve legislative initiative was implemented in 2013.
Johnson’s announcement of the change referred with no apparent irony to “an unprecedented level of external stakeholder engagement and input” which had gone into making the decision. He neglected to mention that he had completely ignored the recommendations of those stakeholders.
When the Request for Purchase (RFP) for a Read to Achieve diagnostic reading assessment first went out in the fall of 2018, a statewide committee of experts in curriculum and reading instruction was assembled largely under the direction of Dr. Amy Jablonski, then-Division Director of Integrated Academic and Behavior Services at the Department of Public Instruction, to inform the process.
This team included specialists in general education, special education, and English language learner services, school psychologists, representatives of Institutions for Higher Education, dyslexia experts, and school and district leaders. They reviewed the four vendors that were passed through to the team, including mClass and Istation, working extensively through detailed demonstrations with all four products before determining which would best serve the needs of North Carolina’s children.
The committee presented its recommendation to Superintendent Mark Johnson in December of 2018. They noted that students and teachers needed a tool which could accurately assess risk in all domains of reading. They noted the crucial importance of having a teacher actually listen to a child read and sound out words. They noted the legislative requirement of an effective dyslexia screener. And they recommended that schools continue using the mClass diagnostic tool, which they believed best accomplished all of those things.
Six months later, Superintendent Johnson completely disregarded the recommendations of those professional educators in announcing his unilateral selection of the computer-based Istation diagnostic tool.
There are a few reasons Johnson’s decision is problematic, apart from its unilateral nature and dismissal of the input of knowledgeable stakeholders.
Poor timing: Announcing the change just as teachers leave for summer vacation means there will be insufficient time for educators to get up to speed with the new materials before they have to start using them for the 2019-2020 school year. For year-round schools which are beginning their school years in early July this is an even bigger problem.
Increased screen time: The adoption of Istation means increased screen time for our youngest students. Excessive screen time is already a major concern of many parents and educators, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics, which notes that “a growing body of evidence suggests that the use of media while engaged in academic tasks has negative consequences on learning.”
Reduced human interaction: As the selection committee pointed out, having a teacher listen as a child produces sound is a crucial part of literacy instruction. Teachers who use mClass sit with their students and observe their reading behaviors. This one-on-one interaction allows educators to quickly and accurately identify students who need additional help and pursue appropriate interventions to get them on track. Istation marginalizes those classroom teachers, instead requiring children to look at a computer screen and react to what they see rather than actually reading letters and words and creating sounds for a qualified human teacher to evaluate.
Potential lack of correlation with state assessments: Research demonstrates that mClass results are highly predictive of performance on North Carolina End of Grade reading assessments. Not only does Istation lack that level of documentation, Denver Public Schools recently had to reduce the impact of early literacy scores on school rating systems because third graders who scored well on Istation were scoring so poorly on year-end reading tests that concerns were raised about the validity of results.
Insufficient screening for dyslexia: In 2017 the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law mandating that students with specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia “receive the necessary and appropriate screenings” and tasking local boards of education with reviewing “diagnostic tools and screening instruments used for dyslexia…to ensure that they are age-appropriate and effective.”
Effective screening for dyslexia requires having a reader produce sounds and read words to determine whether phonological processing problems are present. Because Istation is an online tool, its phonological awareness measure is limited to having students listen to a sound and match it with an answer choice instead of actually segmenting individual sounds out from a spoken word by producing it on their own. This approach is inconsistent with the International Dyslexia Association’s recommendations on dyslexia assessment and appears to fall short of meeting the General Assembly’s mandate as well. The mClass tool which has been in statewide use since 2013 aligns much more closely with those requirements.
Decreased student motivation: One key to getting accurate measures of student ability is maintaining high levels of engagement and motivation. For elementary students especially, sitting in front of a screen and working alone can quickly turn to drudgery, and that feeling can negatively impact results. This concern was recently raised by Idaho teachers who mentioned that first graders using Istation lost interest and began randomly clicking answers because “they just wanted to be done.”
Here in North Carolina, teachers who have used the program i-Ready for individualized online reading instruction report similar problems with motivation. Michele Jordan, third grade teacher in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, says, “It was a joke. My kids clicked through because it was boring. They complained about it and preferred print books, and I could never rely on the data because they didn’t take it seriously.” When reading instruction and assessment involves one-on-one interaction with the classroom teacher, it is much easier to maintain the engagement necessary to accurately assess students.
When Superintendent Johnson announced the selection of Istation, he offered his sincere apologies for the delay and acknowledged that the timing would put school districts in a hard spot with implementation beginning so soon. However, according to Dr. Jablonski, her team asked the superintendent to consider requesting a one year extension by the General Assembly to allow more time for the process to play out. He declined.
With so little transparency around the process, it’s hard to know exactly what was going on behind closed doors at the Department of Public Instruction between when the RFP review committee offered its recommendation way back in December and Mark Johnson’s eventual announcement that Istation had been selected–although it’s interesting to note that Istation CEO Richard Collins has been a major donor to Republican party candidates for office over the past decade:
What is clear is that Istation is the wrong choice for North Carolina’s children. Our students need their love of reading and their growth as readers to be nurtured through human relationships and engaging interactions with their teachers. Those teachers need to be afforded sufficient time and training so they can implement programs with fidelity. And our students who require the most individualized support need us to have effective tools in place that allow us to diagnose their needs as early as possible so we can get to work meeting them. Mark Johnson’s unilateral Istation adoption is going to make it a lot harder for us to achieve those important goals.
Twenty years ago, I sat in a graduate Educational Psychology class, listening with alarm to Dr. Thomas Fetsco talk about “transfer,” which he defined as the application of skills learned in one context to a separate context. Dr. Festco was a fantastic teacher, and he loved to play devil’s advocate. That particular day he told the class there was not a great deal of evidence that transfer occurred with any regularity. Although Dr. Fetsco didn’t say it, I felt an implicit “So, what are you going to do about it?” in the lesson.
In the ensuing two decades I have spent as a middle school educator, I’ve constantly looked for evidence of transfer. After all, isn’t that what every teacher really wants–to be sure that their students’ lives are improving as a result of their work, that students are actually taking what we teach them and using it for something important?
I teach 7th grade English Language Arts, and while I take the standards of my subject area very seriously, I also believe deeply in the value of the unwritten curriculum. I believe educators should do everything we can to teach soft skills, nurture strong character and develop effective life habits in our students. Those are the areas where transfer is needed most.
In my class, my specific hopes for students include that they will learn the importance of developing informed views and engaging with their world, that their opinions matter and their voices have the potential to be powerful if they use them in the right way. To those ends, I regularly have my students read about and discuss current events, and I try to emphasize the power of the written word. As a rule I keep my personal views to myself, remembering that my role should be to facilitate my students’ own thoughtful development rather than telling them what they should think about everything.
Often those hopes remain just that–hopes–and I have no way of knowing whether anyone’s life is really changing as a result. The blessed exception occurs when someone takes the time to reach out and tell me.
As this school year wrapped up recently, I got an unexpected email from a former student. This young man just finished 8th grade and is heading off to high school in the fall. Coming to the end of 9 years at our K-8 Language Immersion magnet school often puts students in a reflective mood, and the student wanted to let me know what my class had meant to him and how he had applied some of the things he learned in his own life. I share the unedited email here with his permission:
Dear Mr. Parmenter,
I know that you receive many emails but I wanted request that you take a few minutes to read this email because it has truly come from deep in my heart.
To me school is not only a place to learn things but a place to learn life lessons and things about the world. Your class was one of the only places where my “thought about school” was really presented to me. What I mean by this is that your class really taught me not only about ELA but mostly about social and political injustices in the world and about good things that are happening in our world as well. I wanted to thank you for teaching us about all of the good and bad things on this planet. I loved how you taught it to us in a fun way by reading excerpts from different articles and and then having group discussions.
I wanted to let you know that your class really inspired me to do many things in our community one of these things was to email our mayor, our senator and the president about my thoughts on gun control. I think these emails were very successful because out of all that people I emailed the only person that did not respond was the president.
If you are interested in reading it then all of the red is what I send to our mayor 🙂 :
Hello Mayor Lyles,
My name is (student name) and I am a 14 year old boy who goes to Waddell Language Academy. The reason that I am emailing you is to inform you of something that I and many others are concerned about in this country. This past Monday we had a lockdown drill. To me it felt different and not just any kind of different it felt like it could be real. I think that this either could be that there was just a shooting in Charlotte or it could be that my teacher was about to barricade the door shut. If you did not know already in 2018 there were 21 weeks school weeks, and there were 23 school shootings . This means that there was more than one school shooting in every single week of 2018. To me this is unacceptable and is very hard to rap my head around and understand in my 8th grade mind. There have been people in the U.S. with unhealthy obsessions with school shootings which is a mental issue and should be taken care of right away.
When I think about what could lead to all of these school shootings it leads back to gun control. When I think of gun control it frustrates me and sometimes makes me very angry. Just to give you an idea of what I am talking about, as I write this email my hands are almost shaking at this idea. It makes me think that the U.S. and our government is betraying the country by hand giving guns to people that should never ever have them. I understand that this is probably not the case and there is probably no intention to do that but what they are doing is parallel to the idea that I stated about betrayal.
One goal/purpose of writing this email is so that I can make a change in our country. I know that I am a kid and there is not much that I can do but we kids are the future of our nation and I think that I should be able to have the right to help out. I was wondering what I could do, whether it is partnering with you or doing something on my own. In other words, I am asking for guidance on how to help our country on the topic of gun control, as a kid.
Thank you so much Mr. Parmenter for all the things you have done for our school and for me.
As members of the North Carolina House and Senate huddle behind closed doors to hash out a budget compromise which may well include a controversial online Pre-K pilot, a new report by the non-partisan Program Evaluation Division of the North Carolina General Assembly recommends an increased focus on early childhood learning.
Earlier this session, Union County Representative Craig Horn introduced legislation to create a virtual Pre-K pilot program. The program would provide in-home access to online preschool for North Carolina children who are living below the federal poverty line and would test the feasibility of expanding access to all preschool-aged children in the state.
The Senate declined to include the pilot in its budget, but Horn has vowed to keep fighting for it–despite the fact that dozens of early childhood education experts have called for an end to such programs, pointing to the dangers of increased screen time and the importance of relational learning opportunities with actual human beings. Those experts recommend instead expanding access to high-quality Pre-K, which North Carolina has received national attention for not sufficiently funding.
Now the General Assembly’s non-partisan Program Evaluation Division has issued a report which falls very much in line with the recommendations of the experts.
Entitled ‘North Carolina Should Focus on Early Childhood Learning in Order to Raise Achievement in Predominantly Disadvantaged School Districts,’ the report points out that the disadvantaged districts in our state which manage to maintain high levels of achievement are those that focus on early education.
The Program Evaluation Division concludes that the General Assembly should require low performing schools to add an early childhood learning improvement component to their currently required improvement plans and also that the GA should require the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to comprehensively assess early childhood learning for districts across the state.
Responding the PED’s recommendations, State Superintendent Mark Johnson suggested that ‘personalized learning,’ a catch phrase for students learning on their own using computer software, is a great way to improve early learning results.
I bet I can find dozens of early childhood education experts who disagree.
At that event, Johnson told attendees about a new marketing campaign to improve the image of teaching in our state. The charge would be led by his Department of Public Instruction and Best NC, a pro-business education reform lobbying organization whose board of directors is made up of wealthy, influential executives from businesses like Bank of America, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Allen Tate Real Estate.
The goal of marketing is to increase sales, sometimes by convincing the customer they are getting something which they actually aren’t. That appears to be the strategy in use by Teach North Carolina, whose website recently launched.
Teach NC let it be known from the beginning that they aimed to set the record straight on how well North Carolina teachers are compensated:
Unfortunately, the information Teach NC provides to the public on their Salary & Benefits page is riddled with the following misleading claims and outright falsehoods.
NC teachers make $53,975 on average
Fact: While technically true, a recent analysis by NC Public School Forum found that this misleading figure includes $4580 in local salary supplement. But 87% of NC’s districts offer salary supplements that are less than that amount–and some offer none at all. The number also includes compensation for certifications/advanced degrees that many teachers don’t have and bonuses that many teachers aren’t eligible for.
Teachers can earn bonuses for teaching Advanced Placement, Reading or Math
Fact: The only Reading and Math teachers eligible for bonuses are those in narrowly defined grade levels whose students’ standardized test scores place them in the top 25% in their school district. AP teachers get a $50 bonus for each student who passes their AP exam. Teachers absolutely do not earn bonuses simply for teaching those classes.
In North Carolina, teachers receive secure retirement plans
Fact: In 2017, state legislators stripped retiree health benefits for any state employee hired after January 1, 2021. Teachers who come to North Carolina before that date will still get those benefits unless legislators take further action, but it’s important to be aware of the whole story.
At most schools, you’ll have about two months to earn extra income
Fact: Ok, that one is actually true. According to the most recently available data from the National Center for Education Statistics, more than half of North Carolina’s teachers have at least one additional job. I’d argue that’s not a particularly strong selling point if you’re trying to attract teachers to our state.
When the website initially launched, Teach NC also claimed that teachers in NC can increase their pay by earning a master’s degree. As any North Carolina teacher can tell you, compensation for advanced degrees was eliminated by the legislature in 2013.
What North Carolina’s public schools need is not the appearance of being great places to work, they need to actuallybecome great places to work. They need to become places with roofs that don’t leak, where educators are respected and empowered, where students are safe and supported, and where we have all of the resources that we need to get the job done. Those are the changes that will really improve recruitment and retention of teachers in our state.
North Carolina Representative Craig Horn is promising to “redouble” his efforts to bring virtual Pre-K to impoverished four year olds, despite the fact that the pilot program was not included in the Senate budget which was rolled out last week.
The program would provide in-home access to online preschool for North Carolina children who are living below the federal poverty line.
Horn emphasized that virtual Pre-K is “not a replacement for, or an alternative to, face-to-face, high quality pre-K” in a recent interview with NC Policy Watch. He has yet to publicly explain why the legislation includes the following language: “(ii) test the feasibility of scaling a home-based curriculum in reading, math, and science delivered by computers and the Internet to all preschool-age children in the State.”
“We are targeting our most underserved children, four year olds that for whatever reason don’t have access to a Pre-K or just can’t get to one. Transportation issues, health issues, socio-economic issues, issues that we can’t even imagine…I’m not willing to leave these kids that are not on that list for any reason, I’m not willing to leave them behind.”
“Socio-economic issues”? What does that even mean?
It should not be too much to expect that our lawmakers take a thoughtful, measured approach to public policy. Responsible governance on solving Pre-K access problems would involve collecting data on which families are not taking advantage high quality Pre-K, identifying barriers to access, and working in good faith to address those barriers well before turning to an electronic screen to teach four year olds.
In this case exactly none of that due diligence has been done. In fact, no data currently exists on the reasons families have for turning down an NC Pre-K slot. The whole idea behind this bill is built on Representative Horn’s stereotypes of poor families and their “socio-economic issues.”
Horn has also repeatedly claimed that he is fully committed to expanding legitimate Pre-K, telling the K-12 Education Committee he believes “We may, and I think we will, continue to expand access for Pre-K.” However the National Institute for Early Education Research recently called on North Carolina lawmakers to do a better job of providing young children with the foundation they need to be successful in school. They seem to think Horn and his colleagues are leaving far too many of them behind:
NC Pre-K now reaches less than half (47 percent) the children it was designed to serve. Significant numbers of young children–almost 33,000–across all races and ethnicities, in both rural and urban areas, are losing the opportunity to develop foundational skills needed to succeed in school and beyond. In fact, 40 counties are serving less than half of eligible children.
While children may be attending other early education programs, those programs do not provide all the quality components of NC Pre-K—so those vulnerable children are less likely to gain the lasting benefits provided by NC Pre-K.
This year’s House budget calls for no additional funding for NC Pre-K beyond what was already passed into law during previous sessions.
The estimated cost of providing real Pre-K to all four year olds in North Carolina stands at just over $300m. It would be a lot more likely we could move toward universal access if Horn and his fellow legislators hadn’t voted to cut income taxes to benefit large corporations and wealthy individuals, the most recent round of cuts depriving our state of $900m in annual revenue.
All of our children deserve access to a Pre-K program where they can work with qualified human teachers and peers to develop communication and collaboration skills that will make for a smooth transition to kindergarten. Our budget priorities should reflect our belief that they deserve it. And if there are indeed families who are not able to take advantage of those opportunities, our legislators should care enough to identify and help them overcome the obstacles they face.
As Winston Churchill put it, “It is no use saying: ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”
Earlier this week I was on late bus duty in the gym. A bus had overheated, and while a mechanic worked on getting it running again students were sitting in the gym and waiting.
A second grade boy approached me and said, “I’m feeling tired. What should I do?” I asked, “Well, do you have a backpack?” He said he did. I said, “How about you use it for a pillow, lay down and get some rest?” I told him I would wake him up when the bus was fixed. He thanked me and said, “Don’t forget to wake me up!” and went to get his backpack pillow straight. It was a charming interaction that reminded me how much I love being a teacher because of all the ways I get to be a positive presence in the lives of others.
The very next day I found an envelope in my third grade daughter’s backpack. She recently took her first major End of Grade standardized reading test, and the envelope contained her score report. The report details for parents and students whether the child’s test result is on grade level and whether it meets what are called “College and Career Readiness Standards.”
Think about that for a minute.
Our schools are communicating to some third graders that they are not on track to go to college or have a career–at the same time that their classroom teachers are trying their best to encourage them to dream big and believe in themselves.
We’re telling the young man who is hoping to be the first person in his family to get a degree that it’s not looking good. The 9 year-old girl who was entertaining notions of becoming a doctor and then maybe even the first female president of the United States is now hearing that she is probably not destined for greatness after all.
The idea of measuring whether children are college or career material is rooted in the Common Core movement. That initiative to raise academic standards and strengthen accountability was originally started by state governors and business leaders who felt that schools were too often giving high school diplomas to students who lacked the skills they needed to be successful.
A few years after this group began work, the Common Core standards were introduced. Then, in 2013, North Carolina’s State Board of Education adopted College and Career Readiness measures which indicate that any student who scores a 3 or lower on a standardized test is not on a trajectory that will lead to college or a career.
This is the kind of thing that happens when the folks who are crafting education policy are hopelessly out of touch with what’s going on in our schools. An idea which may have sounded reasonable to a CEO, a career politician or a board member can end up doing real damage in the classroom, where professional educators who want to change lives for the better are doing the actual work with children.
Here’s what any good teacher can tell you: For students–and, really, for anyone–failure is painful. The way humans react to pain is generally to pull back and avoid it. So the reaction some of our children have to academic failure is to think, “Well, that’s really not for me anyway” and put their energy somewhere that makes them feel successful.
Now consider that this particular score we’re reporting to them is a one-time, hours-long, high-pressure test which is framed as the primary measure of their learning for the year. If their result on this all-important test says that they aren’t cut out for a career or for higher education, do we honestly expect them to be motivated by that information?
Standards are important, and teachers must set high expectations for students and push them to stretch hard towards their brightest future. And we do. But the messages that we send our students around their learning need to be nurturing, especially for those who most need support. Telling third graders that they aren’t going to college and they won’t have a career unless they get their act together should NOT be part of that conversation.