In what might be a first in the nine months that he has been in office, North Carolina State Superintendent Mark Johnson gave an interview that was accessible to the average North Carolinian.
In “‘Fighting the status quo’: Inside the combative world of NC’s new public schools chief,” Johnson offers some explanation of his vision for North Carolina and reflects on his rather unorthodox term as the leader of the public schools in North Carolina (https://www.ednc.org/2017/09/27/fighting-status-quo-inside-combative-world-ncs-new-public-schools-chief/).
For many, this interview might have shed some light on what Johnson really hopes to accomplish. It may have had some substance and some weight to it. It may have offered details not previously known. It may have filled in some empty spaces.
Yet, for many public school advocates, it was another example of not saying much with a lot of words. And that conclusion is based on five specific instances within the interview / profile that glaringly confirm Johnson’s focus on what is to happen in North Carolina’s public schools seems to be in direct contrast to his actions and / or words.
- Three initiatives?
Alex Granados and Kelly Hinchcliffe (from EdNC.org and WRAL respectively) write,
During the interview, Johnson spoke passionately about his vision for public schools and the three initiatives for which he has the most excitement:
- Promoting early childhood learning by encouraging parents to read to their children every day
- Advancing personalized learning in classrooms so students can work at their own pace
- Teaching high school students that college is not the only path to success.
Those three initiatives speak to the nebulous approach that Johnson has used in his tenure.
First, what state superintendent has not encouraged parents to read to their children? That is certainly not a new idea, nor is the focus on early childhood education. It usually depends on how much one is willing to invest in the initiative.
In the video interview, Johnson talked about how investing one dollar in pre-K initiatives yielded a return of anywhere between $4 and $16 into the economy. How odd that Johnson not openly fight against the reduction of the budget for DPI that would help in this funding this endeavor.
Furthermore, when many kids who struggle in schools come from impoverished areas of the state, they may have parents or guardians who may not be able to sacrifice the time to make reading to their children a priority simply because they are trying to work to get the necessities of life. There is more to getting children “kindergarten ready” than just reading to them.
And is he ready to fight for the resources to make that happen? And will he be ready to reach out to these parents, because he surely has not been all-together approachable so far.
Secondly, advancing personalized learning requires resources and professional development. It also requires allowing teachers to have the time to work with individual students and a willingness to not measure success by timed intervals. There is nothing that Johnson has said that would lend thought to an idea of extra funds, more professional development, smaller classes while maintaining specials, or lightening the restrictive bonds of promoting students when schools are measured by strict graduation rates.
If students are to be encouraged to go “at their own pace,” then what will Johnson do to make sure that teachers are able to spend more time and attention to each individual?
And that “teaching high school students that college is not the only path to success?” Then why allow the state to make all students take the ACT which is a college-entrance test rather than allow career ready students to take another assessment that is constructed for their particular program of study?
- About “Taking Orders” From the General Assembly
Johnson said in the interview,
“I have a great working relationship with the General Assembly, and our visions actually align very similarly,” he said. “It’s a give and take. We don’t agree on everything, and we work together on what we do agree with.”
What has he ever publicly disagreed with the General Assembly about? And the fact that their “visions align very similarly” seems more of an approval for the many “reforms” that West Jones Street has enacted.
In fact, Johnson sounds more compliant than leading real change. That’s not “transformation” of public education. That’s “preservation” of the General Assembly’s actions.
- “Urgency, Ownership, Innovation, and Transparency.”
It was mentioned by the writers:
Throughout the interview, Johnson frequently returned to his often-used talking points, promising to bring urgency, ownership, innovation and transparency to the state’s education system. He also spoke about his past and how it has shaped his beliefs about public education.
The word “urgency” has become a bit of a mantra for him. He highlighted it in his first state school board meeting. But that “urgency” takes an interesting turn in meaning in this interview. As stated,
But do not expect any major changes right away if Johnson wins the lawsuit.
“I think if you’re looking for a seismic shift, you’re not going to find it. There’s not going to be this tidal wave of change that’s going to come bursting through the doors at DPI,” he said.
Instead, the changes would be systematic, with Johnson hoping to rework the agency’s organizational chart “to make things more accountable and transparent.”
Of course there will not be a “tidal wave” of change coming from the “doors of DPI.” Why? Because those tsunamis are coming from West Jones Street and the powers that be in the General Assembly whom Johnson works closely with.
If one listened to the interview in full, then it becomes apparent that there really are no concrete “innovations” that Johnson talks about, but rather general platitudes and lofty oversimplifications. Talking about having a strong relationship between communities and schools is not an innovation. That’s already happening. If anything, communities are talking about their schools and the need for their schools and have been communicating that with lawmakers and policy makers.
Furthermore, if there are any real concrete innovations that Johnson has, then he needs to be very specific about them and be public with them. That would show some real “ownership” and “transparency.”
Johnson ran on a platform that said we as a state tested too much.
From the Charlotte Observer on Jan. 27 of this year,
“Too much testing” was a major theme in Johnson’s campaign, and the federal government’s switch from No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act gives states more flexibility to scale back (http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/education/article128951579.html).
So, guess what word never comes up in the article concerning the interview? It’s the same word that never is voiced in the entire 27 minute video interview linked to the interview.
That word is “testing.”
Not a word.
What is also interesting is that the state recently had to present its plan to adhere to the new ESSA standards. From the Sept. 5th article from the News & Observer by T. Keung Hui:
Despite pledges to try to cut back on high-stakes standardized testing, North Carolina schools will continue to largely be evaluated based on how well their students perform on state exams.
… State Supt. Mark Johnson had campaigned on a “too much testing” theme in 2016, saying the state could take advantage of the flexibility given in ESSA to scale things back. In an interview Friday, Johnson downplayed the significance of the new plan, saying it’s a living document that can be changed over time (http://amp.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article171279007.html).
Downplaying it is not the way to “not talk” about it. Giving a coherent plan as to how he will reduce testing in the state in an open, transparent manner would show that Johnson plans to “own” this part of his platform. It would be great if he was “urgent” about it as well because news that the ACT will become a central part of how each student will be measured no matter what “pathway” he/she chooses.
Or maybe they can take it when they are ready at their own pace. Or better yet, let’s not force each student to take a test designed for college admittance when not all students want to go to college.
- Blaming Previous DPI Leaders
One final note concerns Johnson’s insistence that previous leaders were simply not accomplishing what needed to be done.
However, it is interesting that Johnson blames others who had to work under a more restrictive atmosphere than he supposedly will if he wins the lawsuit against the state board. In fact, Johnson’s entire tenure has centered around trying to win a lawsuit to not have to work under the same conditions that previous leaders had to.
It really only proves that if Johnson is going to “transform” anything, he is going to have the legislation do it for him, specifically in special sessions.
Now that’s transparency.