Education

Istation ordered to halt implementation of K-3 reading assessment tool in N.C. schools

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

This story has been updated to include statements from Ossa Fisher, president and COO of Istation. 

Istation must stop implementing its K-3 reading assessment program in North Carolina’s schools pending a review of the controversial process by which the company was awarded the state’s $8.3 million reading assessment contract.

That’s the word from the N.C. Department of Information Technology (DIT), which granted Amplify’s request for a stay in the disputed contract award to competitor Istation.

Amplify asked DIT to step in after Superintendent Mark Johnson rejected the firm’s appeal of his decision to award the contract to Istation.

The news of DIT’s ruling comes days before thousands of traditional calendar schools prepare to open their doors for the 2019-20 school year. Teachers across the state have already begun to train on the Istation assessment tool, which replaced Amplify’s mClass.

“This decision means that Istation must halt its implementation while the proceeding is pending with DIT,” said Amplify CEO Larry Berger. “We look forward to working with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and DIT to ensure that all educators in the state have the critical opportunity to understand their students’ reading development at the beginning of the school year, just as they have in the past.”

Johnson said the stay would cause disruptions.

“I am disappointed in this stay as it sows unnecessary confusion for our educators just as the school year starts but am confident that the decision the State Board [of Education] and I made in support of a positive change will stand,” Johnson said.

He stood by his earlier claim that Istation is the “best reading diagnostic tool for teachers, students, and parents.”

“There were problems with the procurement process, but the final decision was fair, objective, and followed all rules, policies, and laws,” Johnson said. “This has been clearly detailed in a public letter.”

Meanwhile, Istation President and COO Ossa Fisher issued a statement late Wednesday saying the firm has not been asked to stop its work implementing Istation in North Carolina schools.

“Istation will continue the work we started in North Carolina this summer training teachers and helping students develop critical grade level reading skills for a successful school year,” Fisher said.

She said Istation was “legally and appropriately” awarded the contract by the DPI and remains confident the contract will be upheld in the legal process.

Many teachers have been critical of the switch from mClass to Istation.

They have also questioned the process by which the contract was awarded, contending Johnson ignored the recommendations of an evaluation committee that ranked mClass over Istation.

But Johnson claims the process was tainted. He contends, among other things, that some committee members breached confidentiality on the procurement process and were biased in ways that tilted the evaluation in favor of Amplify.

N.C. Families For School Testing Reform and the N.C. Association of Educators have asked Attorney General Josh Stein, State Auditor Beth Wood to take a look at the process used to award the contract.

Education

State education officials launch TeachNC initiative to help with teacher recruitment efforts

State education leaders launched a new website this week as part of North Carolina’s strategy to recruit teachers.

TeachNC, as the initiative is called, includes a media campaign that works in tandem with the website, to give prospective teachers insight into the profession.

Superintendent Mark Johnson first announced the new venture during his Innovation and Leadership Dinner in February.

The official launch came this week with Johnson and partners, Best NC, and Teach.org, a nonprofit teacher recruitment organization, touting the benefits of TeachNC.

“As business leaders, we know that the talent in our organizations is key to our success. The same is true for education in North Carolina; our teachers and other educators need to be recruited and valued like other high-skills professionals,” said BEST NC Board Chairman Walter McDowell.

Johnson said the website makes it easier to learn about the teaching profession in North Carolina.

“Being a teacher allows you to have a fruitful and fulfilling career anywhere in North Carolina – your hometown, a big city, the mountains, or the coast,” Superintendent Johnson said. “We have over 2,500 public schools in North Carolina’s 100 counties, and now we have an easy-to- use platform to learn about becoming a teacher.”

Gov. Roy Cooper delivered what could be considered the first recruitment pitch for TeachNC.

“North Carolina is a wonderful place to build a life and a career and we’d love to welcome you to join our public schools as a respected teacher. Come help us continue our strong tradition of public education while you challenge, empower, and inspire North Carolina’s next generation,” Cooper said in a statement announcing the initiative.

While there are rumblings of a teacher shortage in North Carolina, the state’s most recent report on teacher attrition shows fewer teachers left the profession or changed school districts in the 2017-18 school year that either of the prior two years.

North Carolina’s teacher attrition fell slightly from 9 percent to roughly 8.1 percent of the state’s 94,909 teachers.

Here’s how the media campaign will work:

TeachNC will work with North Carolina television and radio stations to air public service announcements to promote the initiative. A campaign titled “Teachers Have Better Work Stories” will highlight the creativity, leadership and excitement teachers bring to classrooms.

In conjunction with television and radio ads, TeachNC will launch a localized social media campaign tol highlight the Better Work Stories of current and former North Carolina teachers. The Better Work Stories campaign materials will be made available to local schools and communities for their recruiting efforts.

And here’s more information about the website:

Visitors to TeachNC.org can learn about the teaching professions. The site provides information about what it takes to become a teacher, one-on-one coaching, school district profiles and salary information. Visitor can also review content about licensure and financial aid (including $1,000 TeachNC scholarships), educator preparation programs, application checklists and more.

The tools, services, and resources included in the system will be expanded and updated regularly based on evolving best practices, ongoing user research, and feedback from partners and other education stakeholders.

All of North Carolina’s educator preparation programs were invited to join the TeachNC initiative. Profiles of participating programs will be featured on the TeachNC website. More than 30 of the 54 public and private educator preparation programs have joined the initiative so far, and more will continue to be added.

Within the next year, TeachNC will expand to provide robust information on the more than 100 school districts and charter schools in North Carolina. The website will feature tools and resources to help teacher candidates identify the schools and communities best suited to their skills and interests.

Education

Superintendent Mark Johnson’s controversial iPads, plus 800 more, to be distributed this school year

A spokesman for State Superintendent Mark Johnson said Wednesday the

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

remaining 2,400 iPads purchased for North Carolina’s schools in 2018 will be distributed this year.

N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) spokesman Graham Wilson said the 2,400 iPads bought to support early childhood literacy, plus an additional 800 purchased last month, will be delivered to schools in the coming weeks.

“Extensive, strategic work has been conducted by DPI over the summer to deliver more funds and supports to schools – and over 800 additional iPads were purchased a month ago as part of that overall plan. The plan will be announced next week,” Wilson said.

In all, Johnson bought 24,000 iPads. They have been the source of much discussion by critics still angry about the superintendent’s decision to buy iPads without first informing the State Board of Education (SBE).

The purchase also raised concerns because Johnson spent $6.6 million in unspent Read to Achieve dollars to buy the iPads under a no-bid contract.

Around the time the iPads were purchased, NCDPI sent layoff notices to dozens of employees to help meet a $5.1 million state-ordered budget cut. That move angered critics who wanted the money used to save jobs.

Ethical questions were also raised after Policy Watch reported that Johnson and three influential Republican budget writers in the North Carolina General Assembly were wined and dined by Apple reps at their Cupertino, Calif., headquarters prior to the purchase.

Apple spent more than $5,300 on transportation, lodging and meals on a total of six North Carolina leaders.

Meanwhile, the 2,400 iPads have been stashed in the state Textbook Warehouse for nearly a year.

In March, Johnson told the SBE the distribution of the iPads was delayed due to Hurricane Florence, which forced many school districts in the Eastern part of the state to close.

Johnson said the leftover devices would go to schools where they are needed to enhance personalized learning.

“We’re going to strategically get those [in schools] to get the ratios up where the ratios are still low in districts that are high needs and especially schools that are high needs in those high needs districts,” Johnson told the SBE. “They will be getting those iPads.”

Some school districts preferred Chromebooks and were given money to buy them, Johnson said.

 

Education, News

NCAE president wants state treasurer to stop ‘playing political games’ with State Health Plan

NCAE President Mark Jewell

With thousands of teachers’ access to health care at risk, the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) has called on State Treasurer Dan Folwell to stop playing “political games” with the State Health Plan (SHP).

NCAE President Mark Jewell said the NCAE is concerned about its members’ health being placed at risk as part of a “political power struggle, and we are even more concerned for the health of our members given the revelations of the past week.”

The SHP is operating under a cloud of uncertainty as Folwell pushes the Clear Pricing Project (CPP). He contends the plan will rein in high health care costs by tying SHP reimbursement rates for medical services to 182 percent of Medicare’s reimbursement rate.

“We are spending billions of teacher and taxpayer money on something where the contracts are secret. And those secret contracts have led to higher costs,” Folwell said in an interview with the Public School Forum.

Many North Carolina hospitals, including major ones, have not signed on to the plan. The deadline to do so was Monday.

“With only four hospitals statewide signed onto the program, and the largest health systems completely absent from the program, there would be hundreds of thousands of SHP members who are functionally unable to access quality, affordable, ongoing medical care within a safe or reasonable distance of their home,” Jewell said.

He said the additional revelation this week that the October 1 open enrollment date has been suspended until a date “that has not yet been finalized” is proof that Folwell’s “office has not sufficiently planned for this outcome.

Jewell requested that Folwell:

  • Communicate directly with SHP members in an honest and open way about the current state of the CPP contract process, including a full explanation of how we arrived at this current situation.
  • Fully explain his proposed solution to the current impasse, including a detailed timeline for implementation.

“SHP members are rightfully frightened and frustrated at the lack of information coming out of your office, and we feel strongly that it is time to stop playing political games and put the best interests of members first,” Jewell said.

Education

N.C. Virtual Public School teachers can return to work this fall under ‘administrative agreement’

The 220 N.C. Virtual Public School (NCVPS) teachers told they couldn’t work during the fall semester to satisfy a state mandate that requires temporary employees to take a break in service received good news on Wednesday.

The teachers learned they will be able to return to work next week, thanks to an administrative agreement reached between the NCVPS and State Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

The school’s fall semester starts Monday.

Under the agreement, DPI will manage and pay the teachers directly through the state’s Integrated HR-Payroll System, also known as BEACON, instead of using Temporary Solutions, the OSHR division that provides payroll administration for temporary state agency employees.

The Office of the State Controller, which implements the BEACON system, confirmed Wednesday that it can accommodate the transition of VPS teachers from Temporary Solutions to DPI.

“The Office of State Human Resources will continue to provide support and guidance during this transition,” OSHR Communications Director Jill Warren Lucas said in a statement. “No teacher will miss a paycheck and students should prepare for their classes to start as scheduled.”

State Superintendent Mark Johnson warned last week that if a fix was not found, NCVPS would be forced to cancel or reduce enrollment in half of its 150 courses this year. He estimated 7,300 students would be unable to take advantage of the NCVPS courses this year if teachers are forced to take the 31-day service break