NC Superintendent falls for fake news on school grades

First it was Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, now it’s Superintendent Mark Johnson.

This week shoddy reporting that started with Raleigh CBS affiliate WNCN had folks all over the state convinced that state legislators were considering changing the grading scale used to measure student performance in school. According to multiple news outlets, the new scale would make 40% a passing grade for North Carolina public school students.

The bill under consideration in the General Assembly would actually do no such thing. It would merely extend the same 15 point scale used to calculate NC School Report Cards that has been in place for the past six years. The legislation has nothing whatsoever to do with student grades.

Last week Mark Johnson held a private event to launch his NC2030 plan, informing hundreds of legislators, educators, movers and shakers about his vision for the next decade in NC public education. Johnson’s plan calls for the 15 point scale to be continued, and it’s a move that would require legislative approval.

On Tuesday Johnson appeared on WLOS in Asheville to talk about his NC2030 plan which, let me remind you, calls for this exact change. But when the interviewer asked him about the school grades legislation, Johnson appeared to think the bill called for a change in the way we grade students:

Interviewer: The General Assembly talking about possibly making changes to the grading scale, lowering an A would now be an 85 rather than a 90. Talk about that. What are your thoughts on that?

Johnson: I need to talk to the members of the General Assembly who filed that bill. We were not involved in filing that bill. I’d like to know what their concerns are. I’d like to know where that came from. Obviously I have a concern, because a 90 to 100, that’s a big range for an A. And I don’t know that we necessarily want to make our grading scale less rigorous in order to get more students As.

There’s actually no need to talk to legislators to understand what’s going on here. All you need to do is move beyond the fake headlines and read the actual bill.

Johnson’s comments begin at about the 7:55 mark in the video. Hat tip to Raleigh teacher Kim Mackey for catching the SNAFU.

Misinformation about NC school grades dominates the airwaves–and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest’s Twitter account

Tuesday was a frustrating day for anyone with even a cursory understanding of education policy in North Carolina.  Despite his seat on the State Board of Education, that would apparently  not include our Lieutenant Governor, Dan Forest.

Here’s what happened.  On Monday evening Raleigh CBS affiliate WNCN published a story titled ‘NC General Assembly mulling over changing grading scales.’

To the uninformed, WNCN’s story made it sound like legislators were considering changing the way students are graded to make it far easier for students to pass:

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The North Carolina General Assembly is considering changing the grading scale used in state public schools.

Right now, anything less than a 60-percent mark is a failing grade. The new scale would change that to anything less than 40 percent.

The new scale would be:

  • A: 100 to 85 percent
  • B: 84 to 70 percent
  • C: 69 to 55 percent
  • D: 54 to 40 percent
  • F: Anything below 40 percent

Tuesday morning, other media outlets around North Carolina followed WNCN’s (mis)lead:

The story then spread to other states, with media outlets continuing to repeat the misinformation.  Public reaction was pretty much what you would expect, including plenty of insults about the low bar set by public schools.

Here’s the thing.  The legislation these news outlets were ‘informing’ the public about is HB 145.  HB 145 has nothing at all to do with grades students receive in schools.  The bill doesn’t even change anything about education policy in North Carolina.  All it does is extend the same grading scale that has been used to measure performance of our public schools ever since the Republican supermajority-controlled General Assembly introduced School Report Cards in 2013.  It’s also a move that was called for last week by Republican state superintendent Mark Johnson in his NC2030 plan:

For the news media to get a detail on education policy wrong and start a little brush fire with the public is annoying, but not all that rare.  However, for an elected official that sits on the State Board of Education to pour gas on that fire by using his platform to claim that we are lowering standards is highly unusual, as it appears to show either incompetence or a desire to unfairly disparage North Carolina’s public schools.  We should expect far better from our leaders.

NC Superintendent opts for marketing over substantive change

After weeks of controversy and speculation, North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson held his Innovation and Leadership event in Raleigh on Tuesday to make what he had hyped as ‘Major announcements for our education system.’

The keynote speaker of the night was Kelly King, CEO of BB&T and board member of Best NC.  King scared the crap out of the audience, painting a dark, positively Trumpian picture of the social landscape in North Carolina:

‘We are leaving a worse society for our students than we grew up enjoying.  We aren’t leaving them with any hope. And with no hope, they go out and get on drugs, they kill others, they get guns, and they get into other sorts of trouble.’

Our superintendent was more upbeat.  He praised teachers for their dedication, saying, “Teaching is a wonderful profession.  It is a fulfilling, fruitful profession.”  From another source, Johnson’s words might have felt inspirational.  But take a look at this actual video of Mark Johnson at the end of his ‘fulfilling, fruitful’ second year teaching science at West Charlotte High School in 2008:


It would have been great had the evening included some actual major announcements for our education system.  To his credit Johnson did call for a 5% increase in pay for teachers, which was a refreshing change considering only a year ago he referred to $35,000 for a starting teacher as ‘good money.’  

But rather than debuting a game changer, Johnson’s ‘major announcement’ was about a marketing campaign called Teach NC which aims to “reclaim the image of what teaching is” and increase recruitment and retention of educators in our state.  

Details are scarce at this point.  There’s a Twitter account which was created and parked last month, and there’s a bare-bones web site with some vague talk of re-imagining teacher recruitment efforts to look “beyond ‘traditional’ teaching professionals to individuals without education degrees, teacher training, and experience.”  

What’s interesting is who was tapped to lead the charge on refurbishing the image of the North Carolina teacher.  Best NC is 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.  

Education advocates might tell you that, since its founding a few years back, Best NC’s most noteworthy contributions to the public education arena have been two things:  The first was actually the lack of a contribution–the organization stayed silent on the corporate and income tax cuts which have deprived public schools of billions in potential revenue. It was also silent on last fall’s constitutional amendment to cap income tax, again limiting future education revenue.  Imagine the impact had a coalition of the state’s most successful business people come out in favor of increasing public education funding rather than prioritizing financial profit for the private sector and already wealthy individuals. It didn’t happen.

The second thing Best NC is known for in public education circles is its enthusiastic lobbying for North Carolina’s principal pay plan.  At a Best NC legislative gathering held just prior to Mark Johnson’s event on Tuesday, Representative John Fraley referred to that pay plan as ‘a mess.’  He’s right.

North Carolina’s principal pay plan came at time when North Carolina had fallen to an embarrassing 50th in the nation, and change was desperately needed.  Unfortunately, the change that we got after all of Best NC’s behind-the-scenes work with lawmakers was a plan that pays principals based on their students’ standardized test scores despite findings by the Department of Education that such measures are not accurate predictors of future success.   The plan is so flawed that some North Carolina principals stood to see their salaries drop by as much as $20,000, and the General Assembly had to add a hold harmless clause to prevent a mass exodus of principals from the state.

It’s difficult to know how our ‘innovative’ approach to compensation has impacted principal recruitment because, surprisingly, the Department of Public Instruction doesn’t track principal turnover.  But I think it’s safe to say that folks aren’t streaming into the state for an opportunity to lead one of our schools.

Now Best NC will bring its transformative vision to teacher recruitment and retention.  I’m sure that with so many successful CEOs behind the curtain the marketing know-how at Best NC is top notch.  But as we move forward, let’s keep one important point in mind.

What North Carolina’s public schools need is not the appearance of being great places to work, they need to actually become 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 improve recruitment and retention of teachers in our state.

The transformation we need is going to require a whole lot more than a slick marketing campaign.  It’s going to require leadership that believes in putting the public good ahead of adding more money to the pockets of the already super rich.  Time will tell whether Best NC can get behind a vision like that.

Pope Foundation president ‘depressed’ that teachers might get paid for master’s degrees but totally chuffed about his own

Last week Senate Education chair Rick Horner filed a bill which would restore master’s pay for many teachers in North Carolina.  If passed, the legislation would essentially reverse a move made by state lawmakers in 2013, when compensation for graduate degrees was revoked.  Reaction from teachers and pro-public education organizations was largely positive.  But at least one prominent North Carolinian found the news depressing.

John Hood is president of the John William Pope Foundation, a conservative organization which gives grants to a variety of causes.  He is also chairman of the board of the influential John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank which publishes the Carolina Journal.  

A frequent echo chamberist for the Carolina Journal, Hood makes no secret about his view that paying teachers based on years of experience and degrees is a ‘bad idea’ and that we need to figure out a way to make performance pay happen.  So it should come as no surprise that Hood would cherry-pick data that supports his views on master’s pay, ignoring studies that show positive impact of graduate degrees on both testing data and teacher evaluation results.

What is a bit more surprising is that Hood is cheeky enough to dismiss the value of teachers earning master’s degrees just three months after announcing to the world how ‘enriching’ he found his own graduate experience:

Hood found his master’s degree so life changing that he published an opinion piece of truly astounding rhetorical complexity entitled ‘Take time to broaden the mind’ in which he beseeches the reader to seek out a path of enlightenment similar to his own.  Clearly Hood believes in the power of graduate degrees to bring about fundamental, positive change in people. As long as those people aren’t educators.

It’s a mystery whether the ‘enriching’ from Hood’s master’s degree included any additional Benjamins on top of the more than $230,000 salary reported on the Pope Foundation’s most recent 990 filing.  Unlike Hood, those teachers he claims don’t improve by going to graduate school actually need the money.  Our average teaching salary of $50,861 ranks 37th in the nation, nearly $10,000 behind the national average.  Since the GOP supermajority came to power in 2010, we’ve lost master’s pay, longevity pay, and retiree health benefits, and veteran teacher pay is now frozen from years 15 to 24 with only one final raise after that.  No teacher in North Carolina would ever dream of raking in a salary like Hood’s. But a 10% increase for a master’s degree doesn’t seem outrageous.

When it comes to the master’s pay issue, there’s limited value in playing the duelling research game.  As I said, there’s ample evidence to support both points of view. So, like Hood, I rely largely on my own anecdotal experience to shape my opinion.  The graduate degree I earned improved my classroom management skills, helped me design more engaging lessons, deepened my content knowledge, and made me a more reflective practitioner.  It made me a far better teacher in many ways.

Earning a master’s degree takes tremendous commitment.  By compensating teachers who are willing to put that kind of time, money and effort into ‘broadening the mind,’ our legislators can show they value teachers who practice what they preach when it comes to lifelong learning.  Let’s do the right thing by North Carolina’s teachers and restore master’s pay in 2019.

After ice cream, could state lawmakers address our practice of assigning Fs to schools of poverty?

North Carolina’s long nightmare of frozen ambiguity could finally be over. Yesterday Representative John Torbett filed a bill entitled ‘Official State Frozen Treat.’ If passed, this legislation would end years of confusion which had residents wasting valuable time eating popsicles, slurpees, and even frozen yogurt. Finally, ice cream will be adopted as North Carolina’s official frozen treat.

After amending the General Statutes to elevate ice cream to its proper status, I’d like to offer a humble request as a public school teacher. Could we please address our practice of assigning school report card grades which more accurately measure levels of poverty than student learning?

North Carolina currently assigns schools performance grades based on a formula of 80% achievement and 20% growth. This approach assumes largely that the playing field is level and all students starting from the same point. But the results clearly show that school report card grades and levels of poverty are inversely proportional to each other.  As poverty goes up, school grades go down:

In fact, failing school grades are so closely linked to poverty that Virginia abolished A-F school grades in 2015, resolving that such measures did not effectively communicate to the public the ‘status and achievements’ of schools.

So for God’s sake, once we’ve done the people’s work on this ice cream problem, could we take a look at how we measure success in our public schools?