Education

New and damning evidence emerges in Department of Public Instruction spying case

[Cross-posted from the website Notes from the Chalkboard]

New evidence has emerged which substantiates allegations by former Department of Public Instruction director Carolyn Guthrie that her personal text messages were illegally monitored by someone on Superintendent Mark Johnson’s staff more than a year after her retirement in 2017.

A screenshot of Guthrie’s FindMy app taken in February of 2019 shows a MacBook Air with a device name of cguthrie-k2268 actively syncing to her personal iCloud account. An IT employee at DPI confirmed that this device name is consistent with the naming scheme the Department of Public Instruction uses for employee computers.

DPI has refused to turn over documents which could help shed light on exactly who was monitoring Guthrie’s communications without her knowledge. But deposition transcripts and related exhibits obtained through a public records request to the Department of Information Technology reveal important new details about the case.

The information calls into question Superintendent Mark Johnson’s sworn testimony about how DPI obtained the text message that was used to cancel the K-3 reading assessment procurement after an evaluation committee had recommended Amplify’s mClass tool. That cancellation paved the way for Johnson to make his controversial contract award to Istation.

Background:  

Carolyn Guthrie served as DPI’s K-3 Literacy Director from December 2012 until September 2017. While in that role, she purchased MacBook Air laptops for everyone on the team including herself, which was somewhat unusual in an agency dominated by Windows devices.

Guthrie set up text message forwarding from her personal iPhone to the laptop for convenience. When she retired, she neglected to log out of her personal iCloud account before turning her laptop in.

On her last day at DPI, August 31, 2017, Carolyn Guthrie handed her MacBook to IT employee Haider Qasim, who assured her that the device would be wiped per department protocol. Guthrie walked off into her retirement and never gave the laptop a second thought. *Qasim did not respond to multiple voice mails requesting comment.*

In December of 2018, representatives of the K-3 reading assessment Request for Purchase evaluation team met with Superintendent Mark Johnson to inform him of their recommendation that North Carolina should continue using Amplify’s mClass tool.

About a month later,  on January 8, 2019, Johnson called a meeting with voting members of the evaluation team. At the meeting, he gave a speech about the importance of freeing up more time for teachers to teach and the need to provide them with the right tools. According to deposition testimony by committee member Susan Laney, some of those present felt his remarks were intended to influence their votes in favor of Istation. At Johnson’s request, the committee voted again. Again Amplify came out on top.

That evening, one of those present–K-3 Literacy Consultant Abbey Whitford–had a phone conversation with Carolyn Guthrie in which she related her concerns about the unusual meeting with Johnson. Guthrie then sent a text message to another retired DPI employee, Anne Evans, which included details from the phone call.

On February 19, 2019, Abbey Whitford was unexpectedly called into a meeting with Mark Johnson’s Deputy Superintendent Pam Shue and HR Director Claire Miller. Whitford was accused of being the source of a confidentiality breach and confronted with a paper copy of the text message between Guthrie and Evans:

According to Whitford’s sworn deposition, when the meeting ended, she drove straight to Carolyn Guthrie’s house and told Guthrie she suspected that someone at DPI was monitoring her text messages. Guthrie pulled up the FindMy app on her iPhone.

Carolyn Guthrie later testified: Read more

Commentary, Education, Legislature

Leandro report: Principal pay plan harms high-need schools

This week, the much-anticipated Leandro report by WestEd was finally made public.

The report is the result of a comprehensive, year-long study by non-partisan education consultants appointed by North Carolina’s courts to take a systematic look at whether the state is living up to its constitutional mandate to provide a “sound basic education” to each child.

It provides a detailed road map for improvements that need to be made to ensure that we are meeting the educational needs of our students, including how we pay our school leaders.

One critical area of need WestEd identified is providing “a qualified and well-prepared principal in every school.”  That need echoes existing research which finds that having an effective principal in place is crucial to the success of a school, especially those that serve our most disadvantaged students.  Clearly one of the most important ways we can ensure we have the right principals where they are most needed is through an effective compensation model.

North Carolina’s principal pay system was overhauled in 2017, after our ranking had slipped to an embarrassing 50th in the nation.  The new pay plan, which was crafted with intense lobbying by pro-business education reform organization Best NC, compensates school leaders based on how much their students grew on standardized tests at the end of the year, with overall pay fluctuating accordingly on an annual basis.

The Leandro report finds that North Carolina’s system for paying principals “works against the state’s meeting the requirement of a qualified principal in every school” because it “creates a disincentive for effective principals to work in underperforming schools, which often take more than one year to improve and meet or exceed targets for growth.”  As it currently stands, if a principal who has been rated ‘effective’ moves into a low-performing school, he or she has a very short period of time to bring test scores up before seeing a reduction in salary.

Of principals who were surveyed for the Leandro study, 24% said that, as a result of the new principal pay policy, they would “seek to retire as soon as possible,” “leave to obtain principalship in another school,” or “leave the principalship.”  A whopping 44% said they “oppose” or “strongly oppose” the compensation model.

WestEd’s recommendation is for a major overhaul of principal compensation.  Instead of tying pay solely to test scores, the report calls for broadening indicators of progress to include measures related to things like teacher recruitment/retention and school working conditions.  It suggests that North Carolina create “incentives, rather than disincentives, for working in high-need schools,” potentially including the following:

*A meaningful supplement for principals who take a position to turn around a persistently failing school

*Protection against principals having a salary reduction if they go to work in low-performing, hard-to-staff school in order to enable multiyear efforts to improve these schools

The WestEd report should serve as a major wake up call to state lawmakers who must now take action to ensure compliance with the Leandro court decision.  There’s no better place to start than working toward ensuring stable leadership in our neediest schools.

Justin Parmenter is an educator and public school advocate who lives in Charlotte. He blogs regularly at Notes from The Chalkboard.

Commentary, Education, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

N.C. GOP official disputes account of suffering teacher, gets dunked on by Rep. Deb Butler

Rep. Deb Butler

(Note: This post originally published Wednesday morning on the “Notes from the Chalkboard” blog, which is maintained by Charlotte teacher and K-12 activist Justin Parmenter.)

After the N.C. Republican Party Communications Director questioned the veracity of her account of a public school teacher not having enough money for food and gas, Representative Deb “I Will Not Yield” Butler responded to his public records request by publishing the teacher’s entire heartbreaking email on Twitter.

Tuesday evening, Brunswick/New Hanover County Representative Deb Butler posted the following tweet:

Shortly after her tweet, Butler’s legislative assistant Tayler Williams received an email from North Carolina Republican Party Communications Director Jeff Hauser.  Hauser was making a formal records request that Butler turn over the email she claimed to have received from the teacher.

That’s right.  The N.C. GOP didn’t believe a North Carolina teacher could be struggling to this degree.

In response to the request, Butler asked the teacher for permission to publish the email in its entirety and posted it on Twitter just an hour after Hauser asked for it.

You can read the gut-wrenching account of this Brunswick County teacher’s financial struggles in its entirety below:

…a local teacher here in Brunswick County, North Carolina.  I wanted to express my concern and frustration over the requirements and qualifications required for any form of public assistance.  I realize that there are large amounts of families that are in tight financial situations but I am having difficulty with the fact that as a state employee who works extremely hard every day and I am not able to receive help.  I am a single mom with zero support from my child’s father. He has been unable to be located and works under the table so I cannot track his employment. I have been denied any form of help, from Medicaid for my daughter to food stamps and childcare vouchers.  I understand that I am employed and I am thankful for this every day but when I submit my information to try to get any assistance, I am denied because my Gross amount of pay is utilized, rather than my take home pay. According to my paycheck, I make $4,840 a month.  This is not accurate. I have to take into consideration that I only get paid 10 times a year and therefore I have set up at Summer Cash account through SECU to help save money for the months I am not paid in the Summer. I take out $600 from each paycheck for that amount which leaves me with $4,240.  I also have supplemental insurances to help cover emergencies since I am the only income for my family. This costs $440.32 a month. I am now at $3,799 a month. Then I have to take into account that I have state, federal, retirement, social security, and medicare taken from my paycheck for the amount of $1,070.89.  I am now bringing home $2,728.79. With my take home pay, I have monthly bills that I have to pay. I pay $975 a month in rent, $130 in utilities, my phone bill is $143, car insurance is $100, insurance for my daughters health and dental is $84. I have student loan payments at $336 a month. I have personal loan payments each month from trying to cover months that I was extremely in debt.  These total $393. I have to pay day care each week at $90 a week so on average that is $405. I am at $162.79 left. I also have credit card payments each month that cost $156.00. I have $6.79 left in my bank account to now cover gas, groceries, and miscellaneous items that always arise. I am currently in debt from not being able to pay all of my bills each month. I am $504 in debt to one student loan company and $672 to another.  My bank account currently sits at $0.64. I have another week before payday.

If you would so willing to help explain to me what I can do about this I would greatly appreciate it.  I am trying extremely hard each month to make it day to day. I often go without food in order to make sure that my daughter is provided for.  I depend on the charity of friends to help cook me dinner with leftovers since they know how hard I am struggling. I have sold off everything I can in my household to try to supplement my income and I try to pick up babysitting jobs or tutoring to make ends meet.  I am asking for your help as my local representative with this. I know I am not the only teacher in this situation. I realize that some strides are being taken to help with teacher pay but I need help now. If I would be able to get any kind of assistance I would be more than grateful.

It’s hard to imagine being less in tune to the realities of life for a North Carolina public school teacher than the Republican Party is right now.  Earlier this month our General Assembly passed a bill which was inaccurately titled the “Strengthening Educators’ Pay Act.” The legislation would have given teachers in years 0-15 no raise at all for the next two years and approximately $50 a month more to the majority of experienced teachers at 16 years and up.

That bill was so insulting to North Carolina’s educators, especially when paired with the massive corporate tax cut passed around the same time, that Governor Cooper vetoed it and asked the legislature to do better.  Cooper even offered to negotiate salary increases for educators independent of the Medicaid expansion issue, which has been at the heart of our four month budget impasse. The General Assembly responded by adjourning until mid-January.

When North Carolina teachers have to go hungry in order to provide for their children, you know the problem has gotten really bad. When a high-ranking representative of the majority party refuses to accept that reality, it’s clear that relying on our state legislature to step up and do the right thing is probably not realistic.  It’s an incredibly sad state of affairs.

At this point all we can really do is hope that better days lie ahead.

Commentary, Education

NC needs to dramatically expand early childhood education…the genuine kind

[Cross-posted from the blog of veteran North Carolina educator Justin Parmenter, Notes from the Chalkboard.]

As members of the North Carolina House and Senate huddle behind closed doors to hash out a budget compromise which may well include a controversial online Pre-K pilot, a new report by the non-partisan Program Evaluation Division of the North Carolina General Assembly recommends an increased focus on early childhood learning.

Earlier this session, Union County Representative Craig Horn introduced legislation to create a virtual Pre-K pilot program.  The program would provide in-home access to online preschool for North Carolina children who are living below the federal poverty line and would test the feasibility of expanding access to all preschool-aged children in the state.

The Senate declined to include the pilot in its budget, but Horn has vowed to keep fighting for it–despite the fact that dozens of early childhood education experts have called for an end to such programs, pointing to the dangers of increased screen time and the importance of relational learning opportunities with actual human beings.  Those experts recommend instead expanding access to high-quality Pre-K, which North Carolina has received national attention for not sufficiently funding.

Now the General Assembly’s non-partisan Program Evaluation Division has issued a report which falls very much in line with the recommendations of the experts.

Entitled ‘North Carolina Should Focus on Early Childhood Learning in Order to Raise Achievement in Predominantly Disadvantaged School Districts,’ the report points out that the disadvantaged districts in our state which manage to maintain high levels of achievement are those that focus on early education.

The Program Evaluation Division concludes that the General Assembly should require low performing schools to add an early childhood learning improvement component to their currently required improvement plans and also that the G.A. should require the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to comprehensively assess early childhood learning for districts across the state.

Responding the PED’s recommendations, State Superintendent Mark Johnson suggested that ‘personalized learning,’ a catch phrase for students learning on their own using computer software, is a great way to improve early learning results.

I bet I can find dozens of early childhood education experts who disagree.

Commentary, Education

Virtual Pre-K back in House budget, no funds for expanding legitimate Pre-K

[Cross-posted from from the website “Notes from the Chalkboard”]

This is the post I didn’t want to write.

On Thursday night, a successful amendment to the House budget by Mecklenburg County Representative Carla Cunningham stripped funding from Representative Craig Horn’s Virtual Pre-K pilot program initiative and transferred the money to the Department of Public Instruction’s Students in Crisis grants, which aim to “increase school safety by providing evidence-based and evidence-informed crisis services and training to help students develop healthy responses to trauma and stress.”

It was a short-lived victory.

On Friday, at the eleventh hour of budget negotiations, Representative Lewis’s amendment to restore that funding for Virtual Pre-K passed. Now the ball is in the Senate’s court.

To recap, the Virtual Pre-K pilot program will provide in-home access to online preschool for four year olds who are living below the federal poverty line.

In his impassioned speech to the House K-12 Education Committee last month, Horn vowed that his goal was merely to provide educational opportunities to those who would not be attending a real Pre-K program anyway and that Virtual Pre-K was not in any way intended to be a replacement for high quality Pre-K.  Furthermore, he claimed Virtual Pre-K would be accompanied by continued expansion of access to Pre-K. (You can actually hear him make that claim here.)

Neither Representative Horn nor any of his colleagues proposed expanded access to Pre-K in this year’s House budget.

North Carolina has received national attention for the quality of its Pre-K program, which research has proven reduces special education placement and the likelihood of children repeating a grade between 3rd and 8th grade as well as improving reading and math assessment results in both elementary and middle school.  Unfortunately, that national attention has also called out state funding for Pre-K as being entirely inadequate.

Earlier this year, the National Institute for Early Education Research called on North Carolina lawmakers to do a better job of providing young children with the foundation they need to be successful in school:

NC Pre-K now reaches less than half (47 percent) the children it was designed to serve. Significant numbers of young children–almost 33,000–across all races and ethnicities, in both rural and urban areas, are losing the opportunity to develop foundational skills needed to succeed in school and beyond. In fact, 40 counties are serving less than half of eligible children.

While children may be attending other early education programs, those programs do not provide all the quality components of NC Pre-K—so those vulnerable children are less likely to gain the lasting benefits provided by NC Pre-K.

But back to the Craig Horn and Virtual Pre-K. Not only did Horn and his colleagues fail to even propose expanding access to NC Pre-K in the current budget, Horn’s Virtual Pre-K legislation calls for testing the feasibility of expanding Virtual Pre-K ‘to all preschool-age children in the State.’

(ii) test the feasibility of scaling a home-based curriculum in reading, math, and science delivered by computers and the Internet to all preschool-age children in the State.

This legislation opens the door to lawmakers backing away from funding legitimate Pre-K in favor of an approach they can frame as innovative ‘personalized learning’ for young children.

Our children deserve access to a quality preschool education. They deserve to be provided with the opportunity to interact with other children and develop skills of collaboration and communication that will serve as a critical foundation as they transition to elementary school. They won’t get that in front of a screen.