Incoming NC schools chief to WRAL: No thought to DPI staffing yet

Incoming DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

Incoming DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

Election Day included more than a few surprises this year, not the least of which being newcomer Mark Johnson’s victory over longtime Department of Public Instruction (DPI) Superintendent June Atkinson.

This week, WRAL has a fascinating report on how Atkinson’s taking the defeat. Meanwhile, Johnson isn’t offering up too many thoughts on how he’ll handle the new role and what changes can be expected at the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

From WRAL’s report:

The night of the election, Johnson couldn’t sleep. Adrenaline kept his mind racing with all that was ahead. Not only did he need to move his family to a new city, he had to prepare for his new job overseeing a system with more than 1.5 million students and 180,000 full-time employees.

His mind has continued to race in the nights since.

“I’ve been sleeping more, but also now I kind of just pop up at 4:30 in the morning with ideas in my head that I just have to get out of bed and get on paper,” he said.

Johnson isn’t sharing what those ideas are just yet.

“Out of respect for the team (at the Department of Public Instruction), I would like to talk to them before presenting plans to the press,” he said.

It’s also unclear how he might handle some of the senior staff at the department. As superintendent, Johnson will have the power to dismiss or reassign dozens of people who are in exempt policymaking and exempt managerial positions. He said he hasn’t given any thought to staffing yet.

For now, Johnson says, he is trying to take things slowly and “be very deliberate and seek a lot of advice.” He still has several personal issues to take care of before January, including putting his Winston-Salem house on the market and searching for a new home in Raleigh.

“If you have any leads on houses,” he said, laughing. “We have to move to a brand new city where we don’t know the city. We have to learn the neighborhoods. Where do we want to live? And how close can I actually get a house to DPI so that I don’t spend too much time in the car so I can see my daughter at night?”

Johnson says he is still in awe of what happened on Election Day and what that means for his family.

“It’s one day that determines the future of your personal life,” he said. “It’s an experience that is unlike any other that, really, I don’t think anyone can know unless they run for office.”

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Why profit-maximization at virtual charter schools is incompatible with high-quality education

In most industries, the profit motive generally maximizes economic efficiency.  However, this assumption is unlikely to hold true for private operators of public schools, such as those operating virtual charter schools (VCSs) in North Carolina.  Financial incentives for North Carolina’s VCSs emphasize the maximization of enrollment via aggressive marketing, at the expense of providing high-quality education to students.

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In county wracked by increasing segregation, Charlotte schools to weigh new student assignment plan

school-busespng-91b35e2c325e0b5bLast month, Policy Watch reported on the tremendous resegregation challenges facing North Carolina’s two largest school systems, the Wake County Public School System and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS).

Fittingly, this week, leaders in the Charlotte school system will be considering a draft plan for a pending student assignment, and it’s likely to be a disappointment to those advocating for more sweeping changes.

CMS is planning a public hearing on the draft Wednesday, but as The Charlotte Observer reported last week, the proposal had generated applause from some, and disappointment from others.

It’s important to note in this discussion that, at last count, the school system reported that 93 of its 168 schools handle school populations where more than 50 percent of children hail from low-income families.

In 65 schools in CMS, the percentage of disadvantaged children exceeds 70 percent, despite long-held research that high concentrations of poverty can be harmful when it comes to student achievement.

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Despite calls to speed assignments that heavily weighed socioeconomic diversity, the draft plan unveiled last week would continue to prioritize so-called “neighborhood schools,” meaning students’ geography will continue to play a heavy part in their assignment.

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Politico: Education behemoth Pearson reaps millions from no-bid public education contracts (including NC) (UPDATED)

*Scroll to the end of this story for a response from the NC Department of Public Instruction

Politico’s Stephanie Simon published an investigative report today looking into the business dealings of British education giant Pearson, finding that the company’s success is due in part to negotiating lucrative no-bid contracts with public education agencies around the country — including one with North Carolina.

The investigation found that public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it’s familiar, even when there’s little proof its products and services are effective.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, for instance, declined to seek competitive bids for a new student data system on the grounds that it would be “in the best interest of the public” to simply hire Pearson, which had done similar work for the state in the past. The data system was such a disaster, the department had to pay Pearson millions extra to fix it.

The data system Simon refers to is PowerSchool, which the News and Observer reported last year “has so many problems that the accuracy of transcripts, athletic eligibility and the number of students enrolled in schools is uncertain.”

Many of those problems were fixed, and the state sought a discount from Pearson to reduce the $7.1 million price tag for the PowerSchool. It’s not clear if any money was refunded, however, nor is it clear whether the state or local districts will be responsible for the $6 million owed to Pearson next year for PowerSchool.

Simon’s investigation also found that in many cases, Pearson was never held to performance targets outlined in the contracts—if they didn’t meet the standards, they weren’t penalized.

In addition to PowerSchool, Pearson also backs one of North Carolina’s new online virtual charter schools, N.C. Connections Academy. The State Board of Education approved N.C. Connections academy just last week for a four year pilot program, alongside K12, Inc.’s N.C. Virtual Academy.

The state legislature required the State Board of Education to approve two virtual charter schools for the pilot program, and only two non-profit organizations applied — one backed by Pearson, the other by K12, Inc.

The approval came in spite of serious reservations on the part of some board members as well as education advocates who feared that North Carolina’s students could experience the same negative academic outcomes that have been experienced by virtual charter school students in other states, or that poor students would have a hard time accessing the technology and infrastructure necessary for online learning.

Read Stephanie Simon’s full investigation of Pearson here.

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2/18/2015 UPDATE: NC Department of Public Instruction’s CFO, Philip Price, reached out to N.C. Policy Watch to respond to the Politico investigation of North Carolina’s contractual relationship with Pearson for its new student data system, PowerSchool.

Price said DPI took 16 months to work with the NC Attorney General’s office and other key state-level education stakeholders to gain a waiver for bidding out the adoption and implementation of a new student data system. The impetus for continuing to contract with Pearson, said Price, was that the education behemoth also owned the state’s old data system, NC WISE. A significant costs savings would occur if Pearson also undertook the construction and implementation of PowerSchool.

“NC WISE cost $168 million to implement. Pearson charged us just $3.7 million to convert to PowerSchool,” said Price.

That figure doesn’t include additional monies ($1.25 million) that the state had to pony up for more training and help with migrating data from NC WISE to Power School. Even so, Price says, the state saved a lot of money going with Pearson.

Politico’s story also makes the allegation that Pearson is typically not penalized when it fails to live up to contractual obligations. But Price says at least in North Carolina, that’s not the case.

“We’ve gotten credits back since we established a service learning agreement,” explained Price, who says that if Pearson doesn’t meet certain agreed upon elements of the contract, they refund the state money. “$437,000 in September 2014, and we’re still receiving credits.”

Pearson also gave North Carolina a year of free content, worth $6 million, for its SchoolNet application, which allows teachers to build lesson plans and formative assessments.

Guilford County’s broken tablets, K12 outsourcing grades to India and more

There’s a lot of education news this week, so here’s a roundup of happenings for your Tuesday morning.

Guilford County suspends tablet program

A significant number of defective tablet computers has forced Guilford County Schools to suspend their highly anticipated technology initiative that would put tablets in the hands of thousands of middle school students.

GCS spent more than $3 million in federal Race to the Top funds on the one-to-one technology initiative. Amplify supplied the 15,000 tablets, of which thousands developed broken screens, came with unsafe chargers causing tablets to melt, and students reported problems with cases.

Read the News & Record’s story here.

K12, Inc. outsources student essay grading to India

The Idaho Virtual Academy, operated by K12, Inc., outsourced thousands of student essays for grading by reviewers in India, reports Idaho Education News.

This isn’t the first time K12, Inc. has been outed for outsourcing instructional work to laborers outside of the U.S.

K12 said this was just a pilot program to offer teachers more support. Another K12 teacher in Pennsylvania discussed how she was overwhelmed trying to grade the papers of the 300 students she was assigned for just one term.

State Board of Education member calls for increasing teacher pay to the national average

Veteran school board member John Tate called for a resolution at last week’s school board meeting to raise teacher pay to the national average.

Board chair Bill Cobey called his move out of order and tabled it for discussion at next month’s meeting.

North Carolina was in the middle of the pack for teacher pay as recently as 2008, according to the National Education Association. Today the state ranks 46th in the nation.

Are Charter Schools a Threat to Traditional Public Schools?

This WFDD story considers the conflict between state support of charter schools and the needs of the public school system in advance a WFDD-hosted community forum on school choice, charters and vouchers.

The forum is tonight at 7 p.m. at the Kulynych Auditorium in the Wake Forest University Welcome Center.

Election Day school bond

It’s Election Day, and the contentious $810 million Wake School bond is on the ballot for voters to decide on today. The bond would provide funds to build new schools, renovate others and provide for improved technology as the district looks forward to increased population growth.

Opponents of the bond question the accuracy of the county’s enrollment projections and worry that residents will be burdened by both the 10-percent property tax increase and the additional debt they’ll incur if the measure passes.

The News & Observer has loads of coverage on the bond issue here.