Hold that happy dance: Don’t sleep on Mark Johnson and the possible return of Istation

Yesterday the Department of Public Instruction released a statement that the agency was cancelling the controversial 2019 contract that Superintendent Mark Johnson awarded to Istation to provide NC’s K-3 reading assessment.

In the statement, DPI explained a new procurement would begin with the goal of having a K-3 reading assessment in place for the start of the 2020-21 school year, now just weeks away:

In light of the Governor’s announcement that students will not return to schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, the State Board’s decision to not seek progress monitoring data for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, and the novel needs K-3 students, educators, and parents will face next school year, DPI has terminated the June 2019 Read to Achieve diagnostic tool contract and will immediately begin a new process to procure one, uniform reading diagnostic tool before the start of the 2020-21 school year.  

Considering the way that contract was originally awarded and the feedback NC teachers gave about the tool, this is good news.

But it’s not quite time to celebrate.

We are still waiting for the Department of Information Technology to rule on the legality of that June 2019 contract award. DIT confirmed yesterday that the hearing officer still has not issued a decision.

Given all the evidence that has surfaced, it’s fairly safe to speculate that there are two most likely courses of action for DIT: a) Invalidate the contract award and instruct DPI to start the procurement over. b) Invalidate the contract award and give the contract to Amplify. The second scenario is less likely if you look at the hands-off approach that DIT has taken thus far.

So if we’re more or less waiting for DIT to instruct DPI to start the procurement over, why would Mark Johnson pre-empt that decision by cancelling the Istation contract himself? Why would he not wait and see how it plays out?

By restarting the procurement himself, Johnson can set the terms of how that process works (as long as he follows the requirements set by the General Assembly, which he would say he did last time). He can ignore, or try to ignore, whatever ruling DIT issues on the original contract, saying “What contract are you even talking about? I already cancelled that one.”

It’s entirely possible that Johnson could be planning to fast track a new procurement and attempt to award the contract to Istation all over again.

After all, if we know anything about Mark Johnson it’s that he loves him some Istation.

What the public needs to do is continue to hold Superintendent Mark Johnson accountable for following lawful processes in awarding contracts and making good decisions for our children that are based on input from the true experts on reading: North Carolina educators.

We also need to look to the Department of Information Technology and the State Board of Education to ensure the proper checks and balances on Johnson’s power in this matter.

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NC Superintendent Mark Johnson abandons fight on Istation, pulls the plug on controversial contract

Update: Here are some additional thoughts on the surprise DPI move to consider:

Hold that happy dance
The Department of Public Instruction has announced the cancellation of the $8.3 million contract awarded by Superintendent Mark Johnson to Istation for North Carolina’s K-3 reading assessment.

The bombshell was buried at the end of a press release that went out this afternoon:

In light of the Governor’s announcement that students will not return to schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, the State Board’s decision to not seek progress monitoring data for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, and the novel needs K-3 students, educators, and parents will face next school year, DPI has terminated the June 2019 Read to Achieve diagnostic tool contract and will immediately begin a new process to procure one, uniform reading diagnostic tool before the start of the 2020-21 school year.  

Some background: Last June, Mark Johnson unexpectedly announced his decision to scrap mClass, a K-3 reading test which had been the primary Read to Achieve assessment tool since 2013, in favor of online reading test Istation. 

The move met with immediate opposition from educators and parents alike.  Pushback grew stronger when details about the process which ended with the multi-million dollar Istation contract award began to emerge.

It turned out that Johnson had ignored the advice of a broad committee of professional educators, subject matter experts, and Department of Public Instruction staff who engaged in an in-depth, months-long Request for Proposal (RFP) process before recommending North Carolina’s schools should continue using the mClass tool. 

Then he cancelled the RFP for murky reasons (which included a text message allegedly obtained by snooping on the personal communications of a retired DPI director) and assembled a small evaluation team almost entirely devoid of educators which would, eventually, select Istation for the contract.

After protests were lodged by Amplify, the parent company of mClass, the Department of Information Technology looked into the procurement process to determine whether or not it was conducted properly.  DIT held a week-long hearing in January to hear arguments from both sides and was expected to issue its decision soon.

It is surprising that DPI would announce its own cancellation of the contract rather than waiting for an official decision to be made by the Department of Information Technology, and it’s important to keep Mark Johnson’s history of Istation shenanigans in mind here.

DPI now has just weeks to successfully complete a new procurement process in order to have a K-3 reading assessment in place for the 2020-21 school year as mandated by North Carolina’s Read to Achieve law.

It’s unclear how that process will work or what Mark Johnson’s role in it will be given how spectacularly he bungled the last one.

James Ford: Our grading system is inherently inequitable, and it’s time to imagine something different

photo credit: Alvin C. Jacobs

North Carolina State Board of Education member James Ford made the following comments at today’s meeting to explain his opposition to the grading policy the board was considering, urging his colleagues to “disrupt what has heretofore been a really inherently inequitable system and begin to imagine something that’s different.”

You can listen to audio of those comments below:


I’m certain I’ll probably be in the minority here that I won’t be able to approve this particular policy, but I did want to take a couple moments to offer some comments and qualify my position.

I recently read an article in the Washington Post about how COVID-19 has laid bare the inequities of the public education system, and it used the framing of renowned education researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings, who instead of talking about “achievement gaps” she coined the phrase “the education debt” that speaks to how society owes students from historically marginalized groups because they’ve been left behind as a result of, you know, historical, economic, political policy decisions.

It’s important to acknowledge that on our best day in North Carolina our public schools don’t serve all of our students well, and I think we all can acknowledge that and recognize that. What the virus has done though, in the midst of this global emergency, in the way that it’s disrupted our education, it’s not only exposed these inequities but it’s exacerbated them.

In other words, those who were already disadvantaged by the former arrangement are even more so now. We’ve done our best as a board, I have no doubt, to try to account for these inherent flaws in our system in such a strained environment. I don’t doubt that, I know that for a fact. We’ve had to respond really quickly and definitively in unprecedented times and a dynamic environment, and this is uncharted territory. And it’s precisely because it’s uncharted I can’t support the idea of either grades or GPAs for students at this moment in time. 

Whatever the functional utility of the grading system is, whatever it’s designed to tell us about the mastery of content, it’s been so compromised now that it invalidates the very meaning of it. What does it mean to score an A or B, in this atmosphere? What is the usefulness of that metric, when we haven’t even completed the course content?

It’s hard for me to gather, I know we have a system where students are justifiably extrinsically motivated by a grade or quality points as ways of gaining competitive advantage and demonstrating rigor and college entry, etc. But in a global pandemic, where all students do not even have access to an equitable learning environment, I cannot in good conscience give a supposed choice to receive a letter grade because due to circumstances beyond students’ control, it’s not a real choice at all.

The very spirit of equity demands that we run all of our decisions through a set of screens or questions.

Some examples of that would be:

Who most benefits from this proposal and why?
Who does not benefit and why?
What might be the unintended consequences for marginalized groups?

When I do that, it’s clear to me that while it would certainly benefit students who are already positioned to perform well with the resources and opportunities for learning, those without the same level of access would be further disadvantaged.

And it may appear as if it’s a punishment or a harm to those already enrolled in the courses, AP, IB, CCP, who have done the work to get here for sure. But I’d submit there’s a difference between actual harm and just not being helped, in a radically unstable environment.

So I’d further just like to challenge us to think altogether differently about the culture of grades and the system of infatuation with GPAs that has been facilitated throughout the years and throughout the decades.

If ever there was a time to truly focus on intrinsic motivation of students and on the mastery of content versus symbols of merit it must be now.

I don’t think we’re going to be returning to any semblance of normal, and the truth is, for most working adults, we don’t get grades anyway. We get performance evaluations–we talked about that as part of our conversation today–to analyze our development against a set of competencies.

It’s obvious I have a bias here in that I don’t believe in the whole notion of grades to begin with. But I’ll conclude by saying this:  

I realize that in all likelihood this measure’s going to pass, and I don’t question the motivation of any of my colleagues here on the board. I know we’re all trying to do the best we can given the circumstances. And also, to all those who have written in and communicated your thoughts, I appreciate you. That’s exactly what you are supposed to do in this environment.

But I want to push us ideologically to disrupt what has heretofore been a really inherently inequitable system and begin to imagine something that’s different. That really reliably measures what students know and focuses on content mastery. Because we do owe an educational debt, and so long as we continue to push down this path, it feels to me like we’re just running up the balance on the backs of those who are already on the margins.

And I hope we can begin to center those students in the ways we make decisions going forward.

Here’s why the NC Department of Public Instruction’s recent investigation into spying allegations is a complete joke

Right at close of business last Friday, the Department of Public Instruction released the results of its investigation into how the department came to have the personal text messages of retired K-3 Literacy Director Carolyn Guthrie.  

But a number of gaping holes in DPI’s findings call into question how serious the department actually is about getting to the truth. 

First, here’s a little background:  

Carolyn Guthrie retired from DPI in September 2017.  According to sworn testimony she gave in the Istation case, upon her departure she neglected to log her two DPI-issued Apple devices–a MacBook Air laptop and an iMac desktop computer–out of her personal iCloud account.  

Unbeknownst to Guthrie, her personal text messages continued to sync to those devices long after her retirement.

One of those text messages, sent in January 2019, included confidential information about North Carolina’s K-3 reading assessment procurement process.  The message was used by Superintendent Mark Johnson to cancel the procurement on the grounds of a confidentiality breach at a moment when it was very much going mClass’s way.  He later awarded an $8.3 million contract to Istation.  

The entire procurement process is under investigation by the Department of Information Technology (DIT), and DIT is expected to rule soon on whether or not it will be thrown out.

In his own sworn deposition, Johnson claimed the text message was obtained when an unknown whistleblower slid a paper copy of it under the door of Deputy Superintendent Pam Shue’s door.  (Shue was responsible for supervising the K-3 Literacy department until her departure in summer of 2019.) Johnson said in his deposition that DPI was investigating the origin of the text message.

Fast forward to last Friday afternoon, when DPI released the following statement about the results of its investigation:

A Statement from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction

The agency has completed its investigation into a former employee’s allegations that her personal text messages were accessed via a DPI-issued device.  The former employee admitted that she connected her DPI-issued devices to her personal text messaging accounts in violation of the state’s acceptable use and internet security policy.  The investigation concluded that after the former employee retired in October 2017, her former agency-issued desktop computer remained connected to her personal accounts and was transferred to her successor.  This individual was a social friend of the former employee and viewed the text messages as a source of entertainment and information on personal matters. The individual shared the former employee’s text messages with at least one other career employee in the K-3 literacy division.  

Upon that individual’s retirement, the desktop was transferred to the career K-3 literacy employee.  That employee continued to view the former employee’s personal text messages and admitted to providing a screenshot of a text message conversation to her supervisor in February 2019.  The supervisor informed DPI leadership that the screenshot had been slipped under her door by an unknown individual. Shortly thereafter, the employee disconnected the desktop from the text messaging account.  DPI has examined each device that was assigned to the former employee and has determined that they are no longer connected to any personal email or messaging accounts. The investigation concluded that knowledge of access to the personal account was limited to the K-3 literacy office. 

There are some problems with DPI’s findings which deserve attention.

When Carolyn Guthrie retired on September 1, 2017, she was succeeded by an interim director who has no relevance to this matter whatsoever because she retired in July 2018.  The text message which used to cancel the procurement was sent and intercepted in January 2019.  

The DPI statement claims Guthrie’s desktop computer was eventually transferred to an employee in K-3 Literacy who admitted to viewing Guthrie’s personal text messages and screenshotting the one that was used as evidence of a confidentiality breach serious enough to warrant cancelling the RFP process.  

It doesn’t mention whether this employee still works at DPI.  Nor does it explain whether there were any repercussions for that individual knowingly violating North Carolina’s wiretapping statute, which could constitute a class H felony.

But there’s another obvious flaw with DPI’s findings that calls the veracity of the whole investigation into question.  Notice that the statement only mentions a desktop computer and makes no reference at all to Guthrie’s MacBook Air laptop.

Guthrie was made aware that someone at the Department of Public Instruction was reading her personal text messages in February 2019.  She quickly pulled up her FindMy app and saw that one computer physically located at DPI was still actively syncing to her personal iCloud account.  

Here’s a closeup of her screenshot:

That’s not a desktop computer, it’s a MacBook.  The two icons are completely different on the FindMy app, as you can easily see in this example:

So in the wake of the Department of Public Instruction’s investigation, the most crucial question remains unanswered:  Who had Carolyn Guthrie’s former laptop in January 2019?  

Numerous public records requests have been filed with DPI for computer inventory logs that would answer that question.  Director of Communications Graham Wilson denied those requests, claiming the logs were confidential personnel records and could not be released. 

DPI’s findings engage in some really gross victim blaming in the name of standing up for state policy on “acceptable use and internet security.”  However, they don’t explain why DPI’s own policy on wiping computers of departing employees to remove “any personal information you may have left on the machine such as passwords” wasn’t followed with either of Ms. Guthrie’s computers.

(You can read that policy here).

But perhaps the most troubling thing about the DPI statement is simply the dismissive manner in which the department acknowledges that one of its employees engaged in potentially criminal behavior while on the clock.  

Those actions deserve to be taken seriously–especially when the information obtained through surveillance was used to cancel a multimillion dollar contract.

Charter school teacher suspended after expressing concerns about being forced to report to work during a deadly pandemic

According to WRAL, a teacher at Franklin County charter school Youngsville Academy was placed on administrative leave today, just one day after news broke that Youngsville teachers were being required to come to school despite the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis that has resulted in a statewide stay-at-home order by Governor Cooper.

Yesterday WRAL revealed that teachers were expected to report back to the building on April 9.

Communication from school administration noted that educational models other schools were following were not working and suggested that any staff members feeling anxiety about coming to work should consult mental health services.

Today the teacher who had reached out to WRAL was placed on paid administrative leave while an investigation is made into contract violations for “disparaging the school” and not following protocol for reporting concerns.

Youngsville Academy founder and principal Larry Henson’s email to the teacher warns that the investigation could result in termination. (Read the WRAL piece to see the actual email). But as WRAL notes, it’s illegal for employers to terminate employees for reporting unsafe working conditions.

Any employee who believes their employer has retaliated against them for exercising their rights under whistleblower protection laws can file an official complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration by completing this online form or by calling 1-800-321-OSHA.

It’s time! Vote Justin Parmenter, NCAE Region 3 Director

The campaign is over, and voting in the NCAE election began tonight at 7 pm.

NCAE members who live in Region 3 (Anson, Cabarrus, Gaston, Kannapolis, Lincoln, Charlotte / Mecklenburg, Montgomery, Rowan, Stanly, and Union counties) have the opportunity to elect a regional director, and I humbly ask for your support as I seek that position.

2020 is going to be a big year for education advocates. We have the chance to make a serious impact on November’s general election by keeping education at the forefront of voters’ minds.

As we reshape North Carolina’s political landscape into one that is more friendly toward public education, it will be incredibly important to have leaders in NCAE who are actively engaged, have detailed policy knowledge and experience at advocating for policy change, and are able to grow our organization’s membership, empower educators and strengthen our collective voice in the region.

I believe I’m that leader, and I’m ready for the challenge.

I have a strong track record of speaking out fearlessly on behalf of our students and educators and showing up when it matters most. Throughout my campaign I have worked hard to get to know our members in counties outside Mecklenburg and better understand the issues educators face in those places, and I will continue to do that.

With your help, we can turn Region 3 into a powerhouse, where we’ll be able to fill a meeting chamber with a sea of red at the drop of a hat and win the changes our schools deserve.

At 7 pm on Saturday, April 4, NCAE members should have received a link to their ballot via the email address that is registered with NCAE. Voting closes at 11:59 pm on Tuesday, April 14.

If you are an NCAE member and you did not receive the voting link, please check your spam folders and then contact ncaeelections@ncae.org for help.

When you cast your vote, please consider supporting these dear friends as well. Their leadership will be instrumental in transforming NCAE into a change-making organization that is led by its members.

Tamika Walker Kelly–NCAE President
Bryan Proffitt–NCAE Vice President
Turquoise Lejeune-Parker–NEA Director

Thanks so much for your support,

Justin Parmenter
Charlotte, NC

Check out Superintendent Mark Johnson’s whiny email about Istation’s expiration

Today just as the State Board of Education meeting was beginning, Superintendent Mark Johnson had DPI send the following message to the Department of Public Instruction’s email distribution list.

The message requires no editorializing, but I’d invite you to take a moment after reading it to celebrate the fact that Mark Johnson will not be in elected office next year.

Of course, guys like this usually land on their feet. I could see Mark Johnson having a very bright future in marketing for Istation.

Dear School Leaders,

We know these are challenging times, and we appreciate all of your efforts to support students, staff, and your community. While we don’t want to add to your workload, we have an obligation to make you aware of the consequences resulting from the expiration of the state’s Istation contract.

A majority of the State Board of Education, against the recommendation of DPI and some other Board members, declined to extend the Istation contract. As a result, the state contract with Istation expired yesterday. This means you will lose that access to the assessment platforms and, unfortunately, the remote learning platforms. The Board’s decision also means that state-provided rostering and authentication will be deactivated.

Superintendent Johnson has requested that the State Board reconsider their decision and that work is still ongoing, but for your planning purposes, please see below for how this may impact you.

• Districts and teachers will need to take time this week to download and print the student summary report or any other data needed, as it will no longer be available. Some data will be archived at the state level and uploaded into Schoolnet.

• Parents will no longer have access to Istation’s parent portal or the remote learning tools that have been utilized more heavily due to school closures. You may receive questions and complaints, so we suggest that you please prepare your staff with talking points.

• State-provided rostering data for all Istation products will be deactivated. Depending on whether you use other products from Istation or if your district wants to conduct impact assessments upon return to school to measure lost learning, your district may have to build and maintain new local rostering data feeds from local PowerSchool instances to Istation. (We recognize this will be a tedious process in an already challenging time, but it is the only option due to the state’s contract expiration.)

• Access (authentication through the NCEdCloud IAM Service) to the Istation platform will be disabled. Districts who would like to continue using the NCEdCloud IAM Service for authentication purposes will need to contact DPI.

• Districts and teachers will lose access to students’ personalized data and Istation resources.

• We, unfortunately, will likely lose the opportunity to measure the impact that the school closures had on all K-3 students’ reading skills. As you are aware, baseline assessments via Istation were taken in December and January. Due to the contract’s expiration, we won’t be able to conduct an impact assessment upon return to school.

Thank you for your time on this important matter. DPI regrets that we have to add another burden to your plate during this already difficult time. Please let us know if you have any questions.

NC Lt. Gov. Dan Forest’s too-late Istation love shows he doesn’t understand how assessments work

Late Wednesday, North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest weighed in on the Istation controversy.  

In a statement posted to his official social media channels, Forest blasted the State Board of Education’s decision to delay voting on a $1.2 million Istation contract extension while waiting for the General Assembly to grant a formative assessment waiver due to the ongoing statewide COVID-19 school closure:


It’s worth noting that Forest is expressing his passionate albeit misinformed opinion about the matter nearly a week too late.  As a member of the State Board himself, Dan Forest had the opportunity to attend the March 27 meeting, participate in the lengthy conversation that preceded the board’s decision, and then actually cast his vote. 

Forest didn’t show up for the meeting.

The Lieutenant Governor’s office did not respond to an inquiry about the reason for his absence.

Forest’s claims about assessment in the statement warrant further attention.

Take a look at this part:

I am very interested to see how students learn and progress during distance learning, but you cannot gather a true understanding of how students grew (or didn’t) by eliminating diagnostic tools during this COVID-19 statewide school closure. Diagnostic tools, like Istation, show parents and teachers how much a student has grown in a subject by continually tracking the student’s progress, rather than administering a standardized EOG test.

Forest is 100% right that it’s important for educators to “gather a true understanding” of student growth.  

The key word there is “true.”

When reading assessments are administered, the test normally occurs under controlled circumstances with a trained administrator who can monitor student engagement and ensure a distraction-free testing environment.  This administration ensures accurate results, also known as validity.

Validity of formative assessment results is important enough that it’s codified in Read to Achieve legislation, which states “Kindergarten, first, second, and third grade students shall be assessed with valid, reliable, formative, and diagnostic reading assessments…”

I shouldn’t have to remind anyone that the circumstances we’re all living under are anything but controlled.

Reading assessments administered to students at home cannot yield valid data because we cannot ensure the appropriate conditions.  We can’t even tell who is actually taking the assessment or ensure the assessment is available to all students while schools are closed.

In other words, a “true understanding” of student growth is not possible at present.  For Dan Forest to suggest that it is possible demonstrates–at best–a basic lack of understanding of how assessment works.

North Carolina schools will be closed until at least May 15, and as COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise exponentially, odds seem fairly high that closures will continue past that date.  With end of year testing already cancelled, it seems all but certain that the General Assembly will issue a waiver eliminating the formative assessment requirement for this year.

Considering the unusual circumstances North Carolinians are living under, the State Board’s decision to table a vote on the Istation contract pending General Assembly action was absolutely the right move to make. 

NC State Board of Education votes not to move forward with $1.2 million Istation contract

By a vote of 8-2, the North Carolina State Board of Education today delayed action on Superintendent Mark Johnson’s request for a $1.2 million extension of the Istation contract.

The board’s decision was to table a vote on the contract and wait to see whether state legislators will waive formative assessment requirements under Read to Achieve legislation.

Standardized testing for the end of this year has already been cancelled, but there are a number of other laws that rely on data from testing that still need to be addressed by the General Assembly.

A number of concerns were raised by State Board members in the lengthy discussion that preceded the vote on Istation:

➼ Can we ensure equitable access to the technology required to use Istation?

➼ How should the fact that only 6-7% of eligible students are currently using Istation inform our decision?

➼ Is progress monitoring data collected when students are at home valid and reliable when we have no idea who is actually taking the assessment?

➼ Is it prudent to spend $1.2 million for at-home reading support when there are so many resources being offered for free by other companies?

In the end, State Board member Jill Camnitz moved to table action on the proposed contract. JB Buxton seconded, and the only two members who voted no were Dr. Olivia Oxendine and Amy White.

Is now really the time for North Carolina to give Istation $1.2 million?

*update: By an 8-2 vote, the State Board voted Friday to delay action on the contract*
At tomorrow’s 11 AM conference call meeting, the North Carolina State Board of Education appears set to take another look at Superintendent Mark Johnson’s proposal to extend Istation’s contract to provide the state’s K-3 reading assessment through the end of July at a cost of $1.2 million. 

Last week the board chose to delay action on the contract after board members raised questions about the “significantly escalated cost” of the tool and the wisdom of spending $1.2 million taxpayer dollars for this purpose at this particular time.

The current Istation contract is set to end on March 31, so the board may be forced to make a decision tomorrow.  

Here are some important factors to consider:

➡ On Monday the board unanimously voted to apply for a waiver for federal standardized testing requirements.  Testing will not be happening this year, despite legislative mandates that require them under normal circumstances.    

➡ No testing almost certainly means no EVAAS, so the use of Istation for collecting data to inform those value added measures is irrelevant.

➡ North Carolina, like every other state in the nation, is facing an unprecedented health disaster which will likely result in devastating economic impacts.  Indeed, the agenda item immediately following the contract approval vote is discussion about how $50 million that Governor Cooper just approved in school funding flexibility will be distributed in the face of the COVID pandemic. 

➡ Many ed tech companies are currently offering their products at no cost in an effort to support teachers and students at a time of grave economic uncertainty and widespread school closures.  You can see a comprehensive list of those resources at Tech for Learners, a site set up to help educators “confront challenges related to the outbreak of COVID-19.”  I was not able to find Istation listed there.

Here’s hoping that our state board will exercise prudence when deciding how to use significant taxpayer funds at this time of crisis.

You can listen to the livestream of the state board meeting beginning at 11 AM here: