After outcry, Superintendent Mark Johnson tries to put a lid on reading program controversy

After outcry, Superintendent Mark Johnson tries to put a lid on reading program controversy

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

Last week, I published a blog post detailing how NC Superintendent Mark Johnson ignored the recommendation of a committee of educators and made the unilateral decision to award the contract for a K-3 reading screener to a company called Istation.

According to former DPI employee Amy Jablonski, who headed the evaluation committee, Johnson’s selection of Istation disregarded the Request for Purchase (RFP) evaluation team’s advice that North Carolina schools should continue using the mClass screener which has been in place since 2013.  The change means moving from a model in which children read one-on-one with their teacher to one where their interaction is with a computer.

The fact that the blog post has been shared more than 13,000 times on social media is a testament to how unhappy educators and public school families alike are with the decision – and how eager they are to learn exactly how it happened.

Over at the Department of Public Instruction, the reaction couldn’t be more different.  On Friday, DPI spokeswoman Jacqueline Wyatt denied to the Raleigh News & Observer that the committee had reached a consensus and alleged that “actions that jeopardized the legality of the procurement” had led to the cancellation of the RFP, resulting in a process which had unnamed DPI representatives negotiate directly with the vendors.

The same day Wyatt told the News & Observer that the RFP committee hadn’t recommended mClass, Superintendent Mark Johnson sent an email to representatives of the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association in response to concerns about the selection of Istation.

In the email, which you can read here, Johnson repeated the claim that no consensus had been reached on mClass and added that those who were involved in the procurement process had signed nondisclosure agreements and “are not to share any information about the process with anyone outside the team.”

The point about nondisclosure agreements could be interpreted as a warning to people who served on the evaluation committee not to talk.  It could also be a pretext for not complying with the public records requests that have begun flooding in to DPI from people who want to find out the truth.

To add a little context, the mandate to issue an RFP for diagnostic reading assessments dates back to the 2017 budget bill passed by the state legislature. That legislation calls for the state Superintendent to “form and supervise an Evaluation Panel to review the proposals” before selecting a vendor with the Superintendent’s approval (note that the original timeline was extended a year after the bill was passed).

So here’s a basic overview of what appears to have happened:

  • A team was formed to evaluate diagnostic reading screeners, then divided into two groups (one was composed of DPI employees as mandated by the above law, and the other “non-voting” committee was a broad group of subject matter experts, which is rightly viewed as best practice at DPI.)
  • After review, both groups came to the consensus that mClass was the best tool for North Carolina schools.
  • The consensus was presented to Superintendent Mark Johnson in a meeting at DPI in December of 2018 – in the form of a PowerPoint – which included recommendations by both the voting committee and the non-voting committee that mClass be adopted.
  • Johnson cancelled the RFP process and negotiations with the vendors began.
  • Johnson selected Istation as the new reading assessment tool for North Carolina schools.

North Carolina’s citizens deserve to know what our elected officials are doing on our behalf and how they’re spending our hard-earned tax dollars. We especially deserve to know when their decisions have deep and lasting impacts on our children.

The committees that evaluated Istation, mClass, and two other vendors had detailed discussions about the various products, and notes were taken on those discussions. They conducted votes and ranked the tools, and those results were recorded in writing. There’s even a PowerPoint on somebody’s hard drive at DPI that shows the results that Amy Jablonski and three others presented to Mark Johnson in that meeting in December of 2018.

Multiple public records requests have been filed with the Department of Public Instruction by taxpaying citizens who want to see the records above as well as other documents related to Johnson’s decision to award the contract to Istation.

North Carolina public records law requires that custodians of public records such as the Department of Public Instruction “shall permit any record in the custodian’s custody to be inspected and examined at reasonable times.”

Public school employees and parents in North Carolina are rightfully upset about the unilateral decision to adopt Istation.

We’re unhappy about the marginalization of human teachers, the increase in screen time for our youngest students, the short timeline for implementation, and the millions of dollars wasted on mClass materials which will now be useless. We’re dismayed by how inadequate this tool will be for diagnosing young readers with dyslexia in a timely manner. We’re troubled by what seems to be an obvious and ham-fisted attempt to obscure the process which led to this bad decision. And we’re not going away until we’ve turned the light of truth on it.

Update: Amplify, the company that produces mClass, has filed an official protest with the Department of Public Instruction requesting that the contract with Istation be suspended while this matter is investigated. Amplify’s attorneys outlined the limitations of the Istation tool and pointed out that the committee that evaluated tools under the RFP are reported to have recommended mClass be adopted in North Carolina schools. You can read the filing here.

Justin Parmenter is a teacher and public schools advocate from Charlotte. This post appeared orginally on Parmeter’s blog, “Notes from the Chalkboard.”