My seventh grade students weigh in on the pros and cons of remote learning

*note: This piece first appeared in Cardinal & Pine

As school year 2019-20 winds toward its surreal and heartbreaking conclusion, there is much uncertainty on the horizon as far as what next year has in store for students and teachers.

This week the Center for Disease Control released guidelines entitled Considerations for Schools which outline how schools can operate safely in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  Some of those guidelines–including seating one child per row on buses and spacing desks six feet apart–make it abundantly clear that there is probably no way we’re going to have all of our students coming to school at the same time until the virus is well under control.  

School year 2020-21 will almost certainly include some measure of remote learning, and it’s important that our efforts to improve that learning experience are informed by the people that we are serving.  

With that in mind, I surveyed my 7th grade English students this week to get their thoughts on what they’ve enjoyed about remote learning, what they haven’t enjoyed about it, and what suggestions they have for how we could improve remote learning going forward.  

As background information, my school provides each student with a Chromebook, and they were given the option of taking those devices home with them when school buildings closed.  Instructional approaches vary somewhat, but in general teachers are holding some live class sessions on Zoom, posting assignments on Canvas or other online platforms and holding regular office hours to answer questions as well as encouraging students to reach out by email whenever they need assistance in understanding and completing their work.  

I have nearly 150 students in all and was able to get a surprisingly high survey participation rate, so I am pleased with how representative the survey responses are.

In terms of what my students like about attending school from home, answers focused primarily on sleeping in, various freedoms that aren’t typically part of the physical school setting, and the ability to work at one’s own pace:

The one thing that I have enjoyed the most is sleeping more and more free time.

I like that I could wake up a little later than 5 am

The fact that I get to eat whenever I want and I get to go to the bathroom whenever I want.

You can take short little breaks every once in a while, and you can sit on your couch and eat snacks.

I can sit in my bed and do my work.

Something that I have enjoyed over the last couple of months is the flexibility on assignment due dates.

I am able to talk to all of my friends while doing my work. Even if it is virtual, it is better than nothing.

We have a lot more free time, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad.

I can get out earlier and not have to spend a hour getting home from school

The freedom of being able to wake up later, and also being able to finish something without having to change classes and lose passage into “the zone”.

constant food

I have gotten closer to my family because we are usually busy with school and extracurricular activities which didn’t give us as much time to go for a walk and talk with each other like we do now.

As for what they do NOT enjoy about remote learning, many of my students talked about missing their friends, the limitations of technology and how much harder it is to learn when you’re working on your own:

Being trapped at home all day.

I have not enjoyed how the work mostly doesn’t work and I am getting tired of zoom.

One that I definitely not enjoyed is that even though it can be fun at times to work from home it is very hard because I lose my focus very easily and get distracted doing other things and it’s been super stressful to keep up with all of the work from all these classes.

My sleep schedule is off, I am stressing a lot more, and I wish I could see my friends in person.

You do not get to see your friends and teachers face to face. It makes it hard to do anything because you can not just have a conversation with the teacher.

I can’t see my friends and it’s much easier to learn with a teacher in front of you.

Being at home has many distractions from school work

I haven’t enjoyed the fact that there is little to no human contact and it’s, in my opinion, harder to concentrate.

Something I didn’t enjoy was the fact that I eat, sleep, and learn all in the same place.

It’s harder to learn new concepts without someone teaching it in person.

At home I don’t have a teacher to remind me what to do so I worry that I’ll miss something.

I keep getting distracted and every time I have a question. I need to send an email.

It’s harder to manage yourself and stay on task.

I don’t like how it’s harder to interact with the teacher because asking a question can take upwards of 30 minutes and you might have to ask another or maybe they didn’t understand the question.

You can’t get help easily and you can’t be with your friends. Also, almost all our work has been in projects. And when projects stack up, well, you’re in deep shiitake mushroom sauce.

In terms of suggestions for making remote learning more effective, students wanted their teachers to work on organizing information so it’s easier to keep track and be understanding of how responsibilities in the home can impact student work:

every class should only have 2 assignments MAX every week. just because we’re home doesn’t mean we have all the time in the world.

Maybe not give us as much work or if u do give us a later date so we can have time because we do have lots of other classes that we need to focus on especially if some of us are taking a new language and still trying to get use to that and things.

Explain Better on how to do the assignment.

Making it feel like I’m not stuck at home

By making everything cohesive. I am getting zooms at the same time on the same day, some teachers go back and forward the way things are organized. It makes it a lot harder for the student because they have to figure it out on their own.

not expect us to be on every zoom call

I know there is required work that we have to do because we’re still in school learning but too much of it is very overwhelming because i’m pretty sure most of us are new to this unexpected change and i’m trying my best.

Two student suggestions really brought home for me the limitations of online school and reminded me that the most important goal is a return to normalcy:

There really is nothing we can do to improve online school because having less human contact is the whole point of quarantine.

Find ways to keep us safe so we can reopen the school.

Teachers are doing the best we can to keep students engaged and learning during this pandemic, and we’ll continue to work at making remote learning more effective, listening to and incorporating feedback from all stakeholders, including our students.  

We will master new digital tools, streamline organization and delivery, and improve access by bridging the digital divide that exists in many places across the state as we wait for health experts to solve COVID-19.

But as we carry out this work, we need to keep in mind that remote learning isn’t and never will be an acceptable substitute for in-person learning. 

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Here’s how much of your NC tax dollars are supporting virulently anti-LGBTQ discrimination via school vouchers

A new bill filed by NC Senator Ralph Hise yesterday would increase funding for the controversial Opportunity Scholarship voucher program by $2,000,000 per year beginning next school year.

This seems like a good time for a reminder about exactly what your tax dollars are supporting when they’re used in this manner.

Here are five perennial top ten voucher fund recipients, how much $ they’ve pulled in since the program began in 2014-15*, and discriminatory language from their student handbooks and/or admissions documents.

Northwood Temple Academy, Fayetteville: $1,379,402

School handbook

Northwood Temple Academy expects teachers to believe that any form of sexual immorality (including adultery, fornication, homosexual behavior, transgenderism, bisexual conduct, bestiality, incest, and use of pornography) is sinful and offensive to God (Matthew 15:18-20; I Corinthians 6:9-10).

All students are expected to exhibit the qualities of a Christ-like life espoused and taught by NTA and to refrain from certain activities and behavior. Thus, NTA retains the right to refuse enrollment to or to require automatic withdrawal of any student who engages in sexual immorality, including any student who professes to be homosexual/bisexual/transgendered or is a practicing homosexual/bisexual/transgendered, as well as any student who condones, supports, or otherwise promotes such practices or is unable the support the moral principles of the school (Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:27). NTA retains the right to refuse enrollment or require automatic withdrawal of students if a parent engages in sexual immorality, including any who practice, promote and/or condone homosexual/bisexual/transgendered behavior (Romans 1:24-27, 1 Cor. 6:9. 1 Cor. 6:18-20. 1 Thess. 4:3-5, Heb. 13:4).

Living Water Christian School, Jacksonville: $1,460,080

School handbook

Living Water Christian School’s Biblical role is to work in conjunction with the home to provide an education grounded upon spiritual truth and to mold students to be Christ-like. On occasion, the atmosphere or conduct within a home may be counter or in opposition to the Biblical lifestyle LWCS teaches. This includes, but is not necessarily limited to sexual immorality, homosexual or transgender orientation, or inability to support the moral principles of LWCS. LWCS expects parents/guardians to refrain from conduct or a lifestyle which would undermine the religion, Christian beliefs and values taught by the School and to cooperate and support the religious educational philosophy of the School. In such circumstances LWCS, predicated upon religious reasons, cannot effectively partner with the parent/guardian because of the divergence between the religious teachings of the School, which permeate the entire educational experience and philosophy of LWCS, and the beliefs, attitude, lifestyle or conduct of the parent/guardian. LWCS reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant or to discontinue enrollment of a student.

Fayetteville Christian School, Fayetteville: $2,083,120

School handbook

The student and at least one parent with whom the student resides must be in full agreement with the FCS Statement of Faith and have received Jesus Christ as their Savior. In addition, the parent and student must regularly fellowship in a local faith based, Bible believing church. Accordingly, FCS will not admit families that belong to or express faith in non-Christian religions such as, but not limited to: Mormons (LDS Church), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims (Islam), non-Messianic Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. Furthermore, students and families are expected to manifest by example Christian virtue in their lives both in and out of school by living life according to Biblical truth. Accordingly, FCS will not admit families that engage in illicit drug use, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality (LGBT) or other behaviors that Scripture defines as deviate and perverted. Once admitted, if the student or parent/guardian with whom the student resides becomes involved in any of the above activities it will be grounds for dismissal of the student/family from the school.

Liberty Christian Academy, Richlands: $2,487,617

School morality statement

LCA is a religious institution providing an education in a distinct Christian environment, believing its biblical role is to work in conjunction with the home to mold students to be Christ-like. On occasions in which the atmosphere or conduct within a particular home or the activities of the student are counter to or in opposition to the biblical lifestyle the school teaches, the school reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant or discontinue enrollment of a current student. This includes, but is not necessarily limited to, living in, practicing, condoning, or supporting sexual immorality, including but not limited to, sex outside of marriage, homosexual acts, bisexual acts; gender identity different than the birth sex at the chromosomal level; promoting such practices; or otherwise the inability to support the moral principles of the school (Leviticus 20:13a, Romans 1:27, Matthew 19:4-6). 

Berean Baptist Academy, Fayetteville: $2,542,444

Articles of faith

We believe that any form of homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality, incest, fornication, adultery, and pornography are sinful perversions of God’s gift of sex (Gen. 19:5,13; Lev. 18:1-30; Rom. 1:26-29; 1 Cor. 5:1; 6:9; 1 Thess. 4:1-8). We believe that the only Scriptural marriage is the joining of one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24; Mk. 10:6-12; Rom. 7:2; 1 Cor. 7:10). We believe that God has ordained the family as the foundational institution of human society (Deut. 6:4-9). The husband is to love the wife as Christ loves the church (Eph. 5:21-33). The wife is to submit herself to the Scriptural leadership of her husband as the church submits to the headship of Christ (Eph. 5:22-23; Phil 2:10, 11).

Student handbook

Any BBA student who is engaged in a sexually immoral relationship or who has engaged in a sexually immoral relationship during the school year will be subject to corrective action ranging from a ten-day suspension with probation to dismissal from the Academy.

If you object to your hard-earned tax dollars going to institutions that are able to legally discriminate against children, contact your state legislator before the General Assembly reconvenes on May 18 and urge them to vote no on this bill.

Senate contact info

House contact info

Deputy Superintendent at center of Istation saga had DPI surveillance victim’s former laptop at time of spying

After months of stalling, stonewalling, and misinforming, the Department of Public Instruction has finally released computer inventory logs which may solve the mystery at the center of the Istation controversy: Which department employee improperly monitored a retired director’s personal text messages?

Obtained through a public records request, the logs show the MacBook Air in question was assigned to Deputy Superintendent Pamela Shue at the time the text message was intercepted.


K-3 Literacy Director 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 DPI-issued MacBook Air laptop out of her personal iCloud account.  

Unbeknownst to Guthrie, her personal text messages continued to sync to the laptop long after her retirement.

One of those text messages, sent in January 2019, included information about North Carolina’s K-3 reading assessment procurement process.  The message was somehow obtained by Superintendent Mark Johnson and used 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.

Guthrie was made aware in February 2019 that DPI was in possession of her personal text messages. She pulled up her FindMy app to see what devices were active on it.

The screenshot Carolyn Guthrie took in February 2019 shows her DPI-issued MacBook Air still syncing to her personal iCloud account more than 17 months after she retired from the department. The map clearly indicates the active device with inventory number k2268 is housed inside the Department of Public Instruction building.

DPI’s failed misinformation campaign:

North Carolina’s statute on interception of electronic communication, § 15A-287, is a “one party consent” law.  It states that, without the consent of at least one person involved in the communication, it is a Class H felony if a person “Willfully intercepts, endeavors to intercept, or procures any other person to intercept or endeavor to intercept, any wire, oral, or electronic communication.”

When allegations first surfaced that someone under DPI’s roof had engaged in potentially criminal conduct at the center of the procurement process, Superintendent Mark Johnson and his staff initially attempted to mock them into oblivion.

Johnson joked in a radio interview about his “elite squad of ninjas” and “DPI spy team,” and Communications Director Graham Wilson derisively referred to the charges as “blogger conspiracies.”

In his sworn December 2019 deposition in the Istation case, the superintendent claimed he had no knowledge of anyone at the Department of Public Instruction monitoring computers for text messages. He testified that a paper copy of the screenshot was slid under the office door of Deputy Superintendent Pam Shue by an anonymous whistleblower, and that DPI was investigating the matter.

Two months later, DPI denied multiple public records requests which sought computer inventory logs showing who was assigned Guthrie’s laptop after her retirement. In the denial, Graham Wilson claimed those records were confidential personnel files and could not be released.

In April, the results of the Department of Public Instruction investigation were released to the public in the form of a borderline unintelligible word salad. The findings attempted to cast blame on Guthrie herself, focused on an irrelevant desktop computer, and didn’t mention the MacBook Air at all. They also explained a supervisor had “informed DPI leadership that the screenshot had been slipped under her door by an unknown individual.” That supervisor would presumably be Pam Shue.

DPI complies with records request:

The computer inventory spreadsheet was finally turned over by DPI last week. (You can access that document here.)

Department of Public Instruction records show that Carolyn Guthrie’s MacBook Air was turned in when Guthrie retired. Then in January 2018 the laptop was reassigned to Pam Shue, and it stayed assigned to her until June 2019.

The laptop’s inventory number k2268 matches the number of the device Guthrie saw actively syncing to her account in February 2019.

So, to make a long story short, the evidence indicates that Pam Shue was in possession of a laptop which was logged into Carolyn Guthrie’s personal iCloud account when Guthrie’s text message was intercepted.

More about Pam Shue:

Pam Shue began working at the Department of Public Instruction in November 2017, about two months after Carolyn Guthrie retired. Her title was Deputy Superintendent for Early Education. The K-3 Literacy team reported to her, and she reported directly to Superintendent Mark Johnson.

Shue was business manager of the K-3 reading assessment procurement which began in 2018. Records show she supported awarding Istation the contract both before and after the procurement was cancelled. She left DPI in June 2019, just weeks after Mark Johnson announced the Istation contract award.

Pam Shue was never deposed in the Istation case, so has never testified under oath as to how she obtained Carolyn Guthrie’s text message or anything else about the procurement controversy.

She did not respond to a request for comment about this story.

Questions that remain:

If I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Shue, here’s what I would ask her:

Was the story about an anonymous whistleblower concocted in order to cover up surveillance of Carolyn Guthrie’s personal communication?

If so, what was Superintendent Mark Johnson’s involvement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teachers know best:

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

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

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

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

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

Audio of that portion of the meeting is here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other important points from today’s meeting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawsuit challenges constitutionality of controversial North Carolina municipal charter law

A lawsuit filed today by the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the law firm Tin Fulton challenges the constitutionality of legislation authorizing the creation of town charter schools in four towns in Mecklenburg County.

In 2018 HB 514 authorized the largely white towns of Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius to use city money to create their own charter schools and admit their own residents while turning away others from more diverse neighboring parts of the county.  

The suit, filed in Wake County Superior Court, claims the law violates the state’s constitutional guarantees of a uniform system of free public education, and equal protection under the law.

You can read the complaint below:


NC Senate bill would require districts to show how they’ll achieve same growth through remote learning that they would in school

A bill filed in the North Carolina Senate today would give school districts until June 30 to come up with a plan for how they’ll ensure remote instruction results in the same learning growth as teaching that occurs at school during school year 2020/21.

It’s hard to articulate how out of touch with reality that expectation is.

North Carolina’s educators are doing the best we can to teach our students in the midst of a global pandemic. As time passes we will continue to find ways to make remote teaching and learning more effective. However, what we’re already seeing is there are an untold number of factors that we have absolutely no control over.

Coming right out of the gate and setting an impossibly high bar sends the wrong message to our state’s educators at a time of crisis when collaboration is crucial.

What we need most from state legislators as we navigate these uncharted waters is the resources to ensure that all of our students have access to the education that is their right.

You can read the entire draft bill below. The section referenced is 5.11(a) point 9.


A monumental question: What forces are shaping North Carolina’s K-12 social studies standards revisions?

by Angie Scioli and Justin Parmenter

A Red4EdNC special report on revisions to North Carolina’s K-12 social studies standards has detailed multiple cases where proposed changes “appear reflective of political, as opposed to academic, motives.” 

Those changes include a push to teach 3rd graders that the state’s monuments should be valued as well as removal of references to climate change and institutional discrimination from high school courses.

Background on revision process:

In April 2019, the North Carolina State Board of Education approved a request from the Department of Public Instruction’s Division of Standards, Curriculum, and Instruction to review and revise K-12 social studies standards.

DPI then assembled teams of educators from across the state to write an initial draft of the new standards.  (Interestingly, those educators are not paid for their work and are required to sign confidentiality agreements, which reduces transparency in the process.)

Draft 1 of the new standards was revealed, and the public was given an opportunity to provide feedback.

Timeline reversal surprisingly tone deaf:

When the COVID-19 crisis started, teacher volunteers writing the new social studies standards–while also making a Herculean effort to quickly transition instruction to new online learning platforms–were informed by DPI staff that the work was being postponed.  Many were relieved by that news. 

Shortly thereafter, someone overrode the postponement decision.  Teachers were told the standards revision project would continue after all, and they were given only a few days to complete edits.  

This quick about-face raises questions about who higher up in the chain of command might be interested in fast-tracking these expensive and disruptive revisions (teacher training will be needed for a new high school graduation requirement, for example) in the midst of a pandemic and why. 

The decision to proceed with revising the standards also demonstrates a lack of sensitivity about the challenges facing our educators and schools. Districts aren’t even sure how current courses will be delivered next year given social distancing requirements. How it is a priority right now to further complicate the K-12 education landscape by changing graduation requirements and adding new courses that require training and instructional resource purchases? 

It would be interesting to know whose priorities are being served by that decision and hear them articulate their rationale.

In early April, Draft 2 of the standards was posted, and public feedback on that draft was collected through April 27.

Most recent changes suggest political motives:

Between Draft 1 and Draft 2 of the standards, significant changes have been made at multiple grade levels which appear to be politically motivated.

Perhaps the most unexpected change is one which would require third graders to be taught that North Carolina’s monuments should be valued by their communities.

Here’s the evolution of that learning objective:

Current objective 3.H.1.3Exemplify the ideas that were significant in the development of local communities and regions.

Draft 1 of new 3.H.1.3:  Categorize ideas and contributions that different groups made in terms of influence on local history.

Draft 2 of new 3.H.1.3Summarize how monuments and memorials represent historical events and people that are valued by a community.

The newest version stands out like a sore thumb, especially in light of recent monument controversies in North Carolina, including the 2017 removal of Durham’s Confederate Soldiers monument in the wake of a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA and the toppling of the Silent Sam monument on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill in 2018.

Influential North Carolina policymakers such as Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest–who also happens to sit on the NC State Board of Education–have spoken out in defense of such monuments.  

In a 2015 radio interview about North Carolina’s monuments, Forest said, “If we whitewashed every offense that was out there to every American, there would be not much left out in this world.”  He later referred to protestors of the state’s Confederate monuments as “communist agitators.”

Additional eyebrow-raising changes to the North Carolina social studies standards have been proposed at the high school level.  

In World History, references to sustainability, climate change, natural resources and consumption of resources, and empathy have been removed.  

In Civic Literacy, an objective which read, “Determine the effects of institutional discrimination on cultural and national identity” has vanished.  Another which would have required students to learn about the idea of how governments maintain the welfare of the public and protection of citizens is also now gone.

It would be interesting to know whose feedback these revisions were based upon.  Are changes designed to ensure our children value North Carolina’s monuments but reduce their exposure to content about climate change and discrimination really indicative of what professional educators thought was best for students?  Or are influential individuals with access to the process reshaping North Carolina education to match their particular worldview? 

If there are shadowy forces at work, it’s worth noting that North Carolina State Board of Education Policy SCOS-12 mandates a revision process which is research-based, data-driven and built on feedback from stakeholders.  

For its part, the Department of Public Instruction has made a public pledge to “carry out a clear and open process in accordance to state law, state board policy, and agency processes.”  Instead we have teachers writing standards who are bound by confidentiality agreements, a pathway to making public comments which is buried deep within the bowels of DPI’s website, and data from public feedback that isn’t even made available to the public.  None of this process appears clear or open, and the lack of transparency leaves interested parties to come up with their own theories about who’s really in charge of what North Carolina students will learn in social studies.

Anyone with knowledge of (1) who issued the directive to fast-track these changes against conventional wisdom, (2) standards revisions that are occurring in violation of state board policy, or (3) content about monuments being added to objective 3.H.1.3 is encouraged to contact Angie Scioli at or Justin Parmenter at

According to DPI, at least one more draft and feedback cycle will occur before the finalized social studies standards are submitted to the State Board of Education for approval.  When Draft 3 is released, it’s going to be very important for the public–educators and non-educators alike–to take advantage of what will probably be their last opportunity to weigh in.

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.

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.