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:

NC Department of Public Instruction asks districts to refrain from conducting formal observations of online teaching

As our classrooms sit empty and silent, North Carolina’s educators are working hard to adapt public education to the reality of an unexpected deadly pandemic.

Reinventing teaching and learning overnight is not an easy prospect. Not surprisingly, the work has included significant hiccups. Tech tools such as Zoom and Canvas are being taxed beyond their capabilities. So are many teachers who have relied for years on strong face to face relationships and physical resources to build a foundation for successful instruction.

Against this incredibly stressful backdrop, news is now emerging from a number of North Carolina school districts of plans to continue formal teacher observations for the North Carolina Educator Evaluation System (NCEES)–despite the fact that school buildings will remain closed through May 15 and possibly longer.

Informal drop ins by administrators to see what educators are doing in their classrooms are a normal and often quite useful part of teaching. Those interactions offer a safe opportunity to get valuable feedback which can lead to more effective teaching, and they could be especially helpful now.

However, many of the state’s teachers are concerned about having their teaching formally evaluated under these chaotic and unfamiliar circumstances, especially considering that the evaluation results can have an impact on whether or not they’re able to renew their teaching licenses and continue their careers as educators.

Fortunately, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction shares those concerns.

Late last week, this memo was provided to district superintendents and human resources departments via a Google-based system of folders which is reportedly filled with so much information that it can be quite difficult to navigate:


Additional clarification was provided yesterday to NC Senator Jeff Jackson by Wade Butner, who serves as Policy Advisor for the Office of the State Superintendent:

After consulting with the appropriate subject matter experts, NCDPI does NOT recommend or endorse conducting observations virtually as a part of the NC Educator Evaluation Process. This information has been communicated to districts via the EPP and Licensure FAQ. Please note the portion I have highlighted below:

Q: Some employees require a proficient evaluation in order to renew their licenses. How is the state modifying evaluation requirements given the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: State leaders have been made aware of the issues related to employee evaluation and the potential impact on teacher licensure. A decision on how the State Board of Education will meet the statutory requirement to evaluate teachers annually will require consultation with the General Assembly. At this time, we ask that LEAs/charter schools have some patience on this question and we will deliver guidance once a decision has been made. With that said, the state’s evaluation rubric has not been validated for virtual instruction. We ask that school systems not attempt to evaluate your teachers on instruction provided by virtual means.

Most recently, district superintendents were advised in a call with Deputy Superintendent David Stegall today that there is no provision in NCEES for evaluating teachers in an online learning environment.

It is completely understandable that many of us are reacting to this crisis by trying to adapt our normal routines to abnormal circumstances.

But what North Carolina educators need most of all right now is simply support and understanding–not one more thing to worry about.

As we navigate these turbulent, uncharted waters, clear and consistent communication between state and district is going to be indispensable in keeping us all on the same page and focused on doing the best work we can for North Carolina’s children.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools asks state for testing waivers, authority to pay all public school employees

In a Friday letter to leaders of the Department of Public Instruction, the State Board of Education, and both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools superintendent Earnest Winston and board chair Elyse Dashew requested flexibility from the state to assist the district in dealing with a health crisis which has shut down schools for the forseeable future.

Specifically, the requests include waivers for end-of-year testing and the authority to award emergency leave pay to all public school employees “who are unable to work because their job duties cannot be performed remotely and reasonable alternate work is not feasible or productive.”

You can read the letter in full below:


Senator Richard Burr is a disgrace to North Carolina, and he needs to resign

On February 7, North Carolina’s own Senator Richard Burr published an op-ed on In it, Burr reassured Americans that the United States was “better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus, in large part due to the work of the Senate Health Committee, Congress, and the Trump Administration.”

On Thursday morning, NPR released a secret recording made of Burr on February 27 at a meeting of the Tar Heel Circle, an exclusive, members-only social club that rubs elbows with the rich and powerful.

In the recording, Burr is heard telling attendees “There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history…It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

Burr added that the coronavirus pandemic was likely to disrupt travel in a big way and could lead to widespread school closures and require military mobilization.

Senator Burr serves as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and is privy to information about governmental response to threats such as the coronavirus pandemic. He even helped author the federal government’s Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act.

As if reserving his deep concern about the coronavirus for an exclusive, paying audience wasn’t enough, last night ProPublica broke the news that Burr had sold off up to $1.7 million in stock less than a week after telling the public that the government had the coronavirus threat well in hand.

The stock market has declined about 30% since Burr dumped his stocks.

Senator Burr has stated he’s not going to run for reelection in 2022. That’s not good enough. An elected official who misleads the public on a deadly threat and engages in what amounts to insider trading for his own financial benefit doesn’t deserve to represent North Carolinians.

Senator Burr needs to resign now.

State Board delays vote on new $1.2 million Istation contract, expressing concerns over “significantly escalated cost”

At today’s conference call meeting, the North Carolina State Board of Education delayed action on the Department of Public Instruction’s request that it approve nearly $1.2 million to extend Istation’s contract to provide the state’s K-3 reading assessment from the beginning of April through the end of July.

Board member JB Buxton expressed concerns that the four-month contract represented a “significantly escalated cost” over the 3 year, $8.3 million cost the board originally approved:

“If we annualize the monthly fee here, we’re talking about a $10.8 roughly million dollar contract over 3 years, which is I think about $2.5 million higher than what we voted on…”

Buxton noted that concerns with the tool had been raised in the field which needed to be addressed. He added that the board needed to protect taxpayers, especially considering the looming economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

DPI’s request for $1.2 million comes while the Department of Information Technology is still weighing a decision on whether Istation’s original three-year contract award was legal.

Istation’s current contract ran from January through March 31 at a cost of $928,570.

You can hear Buxton’s comments below:

Here are the details on the proposed contract:


[update] 15 states and Washington DC have closed all K-12 schools due to COVID-19 pandemic. North Carolina is [now] among them.

Update: At a 4:30 press conference, Governor Roy Cooper announced all North Carolina schools will be closed for two weeks starting Monday, March 16.

Thank you, Governor Cooper.


In an effort to control the exponential spread of a virus that has now killed more than 5,000 people worldwide, leaders of 14 states and Washington DC have shuttered all K-12 schools.

North Carolina is not among them.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services made two seemingly contradictory recommendations on Friday:

1. Those who go to work should keep a minimum distance of six feet between themselves and others.

2. We should not close schools.

For most educators who work in classrooms crammed full of upwards of 40 students or supervise cafeterias filled with thousands of children at a time, this reckless approach makes very little sense.

New research shows that carriers of the virus that causes COVID-19 are most contagious before they exhibit symptoms and in the first week of the disease. We have no way of knowing who is spreading the virus and who isn’t.

Closing schools is a logistical nightmare which will have a disproportionately negative impact on those who can afford it least. But our number one concern has to be for the health of our children.

It’s time for Governor Cooper to act.


You can track school closures nationwide using this map tool at EducationWeek.

States where all K-12 schools have been closed as of Saturday 3/14 morning include:

New Mexico
Kentucky (not currently mandatory but closures are widespread)
West Virginia
Washington DC

Mark Johnson, the private sector is calling

Nobody really knew what to expect when political newcomer Mark Johnson won North Carolina’s 2016 election for state superintendent, defeating 3-term Democrat June Atkinson by just 1%.  Those who helped elect the first Republican state superintendent in a century thought he talked a good game, particularly by promising to reduce testing in our schools.  

They thought it might be time for a change.

To some degree, Mark Johnson was set up for failure by the North Carolina General Assembly.  Immediately after Johnson’s election, state representative Craig Horn sponsored a bill which gave the superintendent unprecedented control over our state’s education funds.  Horn’s bill relegated our highly qualified, govern-by-consensus State Board of Education to the sidelines on many meaningful decisions related to education in North Carolina.  It also spawned court battles which ruined any chance Johnson had at developing a positive working relationship with the state board.

Consolidating that much power in the hands of one man with so little experience in either education or leadership was a huge gamble by Republican state legislators.  

That gamble has backfired in a big way.

Mark Johnson’s leadership at the Department of Public Instruction has been an unmitigated disaster.  

During his three year tenure–which has felt like three centuries–Superintendent Mark Johnson has lurched from scandal to scandal.  

It’s not a track record that should inspire confidence in North Carolina voters.

While serving as superintendent, Mark Johnson has managed to alienate many of North Carolina’s educators as well.  At a time when state legislators have been prioritizing tax cuts over public education for nearly a decade, Johnson has consistently failed to stand up and advocate for more resources for our schools.  In 2018 he called North Carolina’s $35,000 starting teacher salary “good money,” which raised eyebrows of educators working exhausting side hustles to keep the lights on.  

The superintendent also criticized the thousands of public school educators who turned out at rallies in Raleigh the last two Mays to protest the legislature’s lack of support for education–although he did show up at a School Choice rally as keynote speaker to celebrate charter schools and vouchers. 

But if you ask any classroom teacher what irritates them the most about Superintendent Mark Johnson, it’s likely to be his endless self promotion.  Since he took over, teacher mailboxes around the state have been filled by a steady flow of glossy color fliers boasting various photo-ops of Mark Johnson.  The fliers are printed on luxurious card stock and contrast sharply with the lack of copy paper and textbooks in our schools.

It’s almost as if Mark Johnson has been campaigning for his next office ever since he started.  Indeed, just like his two-year teaching career and his abandoned term on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board, Johnson’s time as state superintendent has always felt like a stepping stone to elsewhere.  

Mark Johnson is currently running for elsewhere as a Republican candidate in the primary for Lieutenant Governor.  If he wins that office, he’d get a seat on the State Board of Education and the NC Board of Community Colleges. He’d also have the power to appoint directors to the Public School Forum and the Teaching Fellow Commission and would serve as Chair of the E-Learning Commission.

Perhaps most importantly, Mark Johnson would become president of the NC Senate and have the ability to cast tie-breaking votes. With control of the Senate beyond November 2020 very much in play, that role could become critically important in shaping education policy.

When you vote on Tuesday, March 3, remember that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  If you get a Republican primary ballot and value leaders who are honest, transparent, collaborative, and committed, then please do not vote for Mark Johnson.  

It’s time for Mark Johnson to return to the private sector.