The Thin Truth About “The Truth About Read to Achieve” Letter From Mark Johnson

This morning all educators in the state received an email from State Superintendent Mark Johnson entitled “The Truth About Read to Achieve.”

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Here is the entire text:

Educators – 
  
     Unanimous political agreement is rare these days, but the truth is everyone – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – agree on at least one thing. We must support our youngest learners’ reading skills to ensure they have the best chance for success in school and in life.

     While I support the statewide program focused on K-3 literacy (Read to Achieve), I have been very vocal that it needs to center more on supporting teachers and instruction and less on testing students. Unfortunately, you may have heard some wild theories over the summer about the new reading diagnostic tool required by Read to Achieve. 

     The truth is the process to select a diagnostic tool had to be cancelled twice due in part to unethical actions by former DPI employees. Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of other DPI employees, the final process was fair and objective. Istation was the recommendation of the evaluation committee and was unanimously approved by the State Board of Education. We are already getting positive feedback from educators who have been trained on the new system.  

     Please click here if you want the full story, gory details and all, as to what happened during the procurement process. It’s not pretty. The truth is the two processes that were cancelled each had unfair advantages for the incumbent vendor over others. Even worse, some bad actors at DPI went so far as to state that my efforts are just to “appease lazy a** teachers.” I know North Carolina’s educators are working harder than ever, and I do NOT agree with that negative assessment. 

     The truth is when I took office, we found millions of dollars from Read to Achieve that were going unused at DPI. We jumped into action to get this money to you and your classrooms. We sent $200 for each K-3 reading teacher to buy supplies, started a new professional development program with NC State to mentor new teachers on best practices when teaching reading, and provided master literacy training to every school district. 

     We also utilized those millions to buy iPads for K-3 reading teachers to use in their classrooms. (I recently met with teachers who were told they could only use the iPads for assessments. The truth is you can use those tablets and the new ones you receive this year for any literacy activities in your classroom you want! So, please do.) 

     At the start of this school year, we are using Read to Achieve state funds to send districts an additional $400 per K-3 classroom. We will also be using state funds to purchase more devices for you to use to support K-3 literacy activities, including personalized learning. The Read to Achieve funds are earmarked specifically for kindergarten through third grade literacy efforts, but the truth is the money won’t stay in Raleigh like it used to! 

     While this email has been focused on K-3 literacy, please know that we appreciate your hard work in every grade and every subject. A well-rounded education gives our students the best opportunity to work hard and succeed. (Another email will follow with updates on our work to reduce testing, support teachers, and increase funding for schools.) 

     Thank you for everything you do for our students and your service to our state. North Carolina is fortunate to have you. 

The truth is that our future is brighter thanks to your hard work.

Mark Only

Mark Johnson
NC Superintendent of Public Instruction
@MarkRJohnsonNC
NCsuperintendent.com

This email simply screams, “I am the victim! It’s someone else’s fault.” From the iPad situation to iStation’s contract to the renewal of Read to Achieve, Johnson tries to cast cast doubt on the very people who are literally trying to shine a light on issues that need more transparency.

It also shows that he is trying hard to control the narrative. Never in my 20+ years of teaching have I received an email from a state superintendent that was meant to explain actions or lack of action for absolution when so many pieces of evidence point at the need for investigation.

Some things to maybe consider:

“Unanimous political agreement is rare these days, but the truth is everyone – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – agree on at least one thing.”

First sentence and he makes it partisan.

And this overall argument has really nothing to do with wanting students to be able to read. It has everything about how we resource the initiatives that need to be critically selected to fulfill those needs.

“While I support the statewide program focused on K-3 literacy (Read to Achieve), I have been very vocal that it needs to center more on supporting teachers and instruction and less on testing students.”

First, Mark Johnson is not “very vocal.” Sending blanket emails, videos, and glossy flyers is not being vocal.

Being vocal is fighting openly for students. Did he rally with nearly a fifth of the teaching force in Raleigh who were asking more from a miserly NCGA to help students? Did he openly confront lawmakers about public education issues?

And supporting Read to Achieve and not acknowledging its shortcomings since its inception is nothing more than rubber-stamping Phil Berger’s platform.

There was that May 2018 study by NC State in conjunction with the Friday Institute that found really no success in the Read to Achieve initiative on a state level since its inception. five years earlier.

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It did find, however, on a local basis that there were some local initiatives that have shown some promise. Look at pages 23-24 of the study report and see how actually fully funding a reading instruction initiative and supplying those initiatives with effective instructors makes a difference.

In fact, fully funding schools and making sure that there are enough professionals in the rooms with the students are vital in any place. The fact that any success in this depends on the local professionals (teachers, assistants, administration) being able to dictate what can be done and having the faith that required resources will be available simply flies in the face of people like Berger who preach “smaller government” but actually practice more overreach.

Actually didn’t Johnson help oversee a reduction of DPI’s budget when the audit he called for actually found that DPI was underfunded?

What really stands out in this study is the suggestion that the state needs to front-load more support and resources for Pre-K through second grade students as well as continuing interventions through all grades.

So Johnson “did” a couple of things about that… at least according to Johnson.

One was the $200 to every reading teacher in the state.

“We sent $200 for each K-3 reading teacher to buy supplies”

Yes, in March of 2018 Mark Johnson all of a sudden distributed $200 to each elementary reading teacher in the state. As reported by Liz Bell of EdNC.org at the time:

The Department of Public Instruction is distributing a total of $4.8 million from funds allocated by the state in 2016 as part of its Read to Achieve initiative for “literacy support” in early grades. Johnson, in his time as superintendent, has emphasized the importance of reading proficiency and early literacy education.

Yes, this seemed like good news. But it seemed rather little when looking at the bigger picture. And it seemed a little empty in the bigger conversation. In fact, it looked more like a publicity stunt.

That money was part of funds originally provided in 2016, yet its allocation in 2018 is something that Johnson seemed to want to get credit for. Did it ever occur it’s being allocated in 2018 was because Johnson was in office to make him look better?

“We also utilized those millions to buy iPads for K-3 reading teachers to use in their classrooms.”

Remember the iPads?

In August of 2018, right after a slew of positional layoffs at DPI, Mark Johnson made the improbable announcement of a six million dollar purchase of iPads. How that money was obtained and how it was immediately spent on Apple products has never really been revealed.

From Travis Fain at WRAL from August 7th, 2018:

Reading teachers across the state, from kindergarten to third grade, will get computer tablets from the state this school year in an effort to track and improve student reading.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson announced the plan Tuesday morning, holding up an iPad for the media, the governor and other members of North Carolina’s Council of State. Johnson’s office put the statewide pricetag for the devices at about $6 million.

Apparently that money came from a “discovered” account of unused funds that DPI had from years past. Johnson claims that it is money that previous DPI officials just sat on. Dr. June Atkinson said differently in this piece from NC Policy Watch that Fain cites within his report.

North Carolina’s former public school superintendent June Atkinson says the state’s current K-12 leader “misled” the public when he blasted the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) last month over $15 million in unspent Read to Achieve dollars.

Atkinson criticized Superintendent Mark Johnson in recent interviews with Policy Watch, nearly a month after Johnson slammed the K-12 bureaucracy for “disturbing” spending practices, including its alleged failure to dole out state cash in 2015 and 2016 intended to boost elementary reading proficiency.

“Mark does not understand or has not in all candor or transparency pointed out that a substantial amount of that unspent money would be a direct result of (local) school districts not using the dollars,” says Atkinson.

And now without even a budget in place that forces schools to go into the new school year with last year’s financial allotments, he announces this:

“At the start of this school year, we are using Read to Achieve state funds to send districts an additional $400 per K-3 classroom. We will also be using state funds to purchase more devices for you to use to support K-3 literacy activities, including personalized learning.”

What’s even more ironic is that many of the original iPads that were purchased last year were never distributed and have stayed in a warehouse for over a year. They were “so needed” last year that they were never given out to teachers and now we as a state have bought more when we do not even have a budget to accommodate the growing number of students in a growing  number of schools around the state.

But it’s the part about the iStation contract deal that really makes this email a rather immature stab at “transparency.”

“It’s not pretty. The truth is the two processes that were cancelled each had unfair advantages for the incumbent vendor over others. Even worse, some bad actors at DPI went so far as to state that my efforts are just to “appease lazy a** teachers.” I know North Carolina’s educators are working harder than ever, and I do NOT agree with that negative assessment. “

Some people would say that iStation had some “unfair advantages.” When Johnson refers to that line about appease (ing) lazy a** teachers” he is making a reference to the now almost famous Exhibit C in his “defense” to mClass’s appeal process.

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There’s a lot more in that exhibit.

Along with the “ass” comment were these lines:

MJ came into their voting meeting to basically (without coming directly out and
specifying) tell them how to vote! However the vote did not go his way so it will be
interesting to see how he gets his way on this.

Yep, she said they walked out of the building and several people said what just
happened?

Re-read that part: “MJ came into their voting meeting to basically (without coming directly out and specifying) tell them how to vote!”

Why would Johnson have come into the voting meeting? And why would he have pressured them directly or indirectly to vote a certain way? So awkward was Johnson’s actions that “several people said what just happened?”

That sounds like a breach of something to me.

Oh, and that We are already getting positive feedback from educators who have been trained on the new system” part? 

Is that really representative of all of the feedback?

There was only one statement in this email that really seemed both true and too the point – “It’s not pretty.”

No, it’s not.