Skip to content

EdNC. Essential education news. Important stories. Your voice.

State superintendent Mark Johnson continues listening tour in Chapel Hill

State Superintendent Mark Johnson continued his statewide listening tour at Ephesus Elementary School in Chapel Hill on Wednesday. He met with staff of the school to hear about its 1-to-1 technology initiative — pairing each child in the school with a digital device — and how the initiative is working in the school. 

Afterwards, he talked with reporters about the school, the use of technology, and a variety of other subjects. 

State Superintendent Mark Johnson visits a classroom at Ephesus Elementary School in Chapel Hill (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)

His visit to Ephesus Elementary School

“Had a great sit-down with some of the administration here talking about the importance of, not just when they brought in the 1-to-1 to be shiny, special devices that could just be something that goes in the classroom and just has apps that kids play with, but really making it an integral part of the classroom to enhance the teaching environment,” he said. 

“And that’s really the way they look at it here: how did they bring in the 1-to-1, plus using it as really a teaching enhancement for teachers. That meant being very strategic and that also meant a lot of professional development and also means continued support from the staff here to make the technology really work seamless.” 

Johnson was impressed by the way the technology engaged students in their work without hindering other students’ progress. “A teacher could stop and help a student that needed a little extra help. At the same time, all the other students could be moving ahead with the assignment; all of them engaged. No students sitting back bored. No simple worksheets for even the foreign language class.”

Johnson said he looked forward to applying what he observed to other settings.  He anticipates, “really focusing on, not just what technology we get in the classroom but how we make that technology a tool for teachers — something that empowers and engages students but also makes the teaching profession more enjoyable for teachers.” 

8-year-old Jacob Rabinovitz shows Superintendent Mark Johnson what he is working on (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)

What the students had to say about using technology

Johnson noted how the students seemed to enjoy the technology. “And one thing I also wanted to question was how much are you still using paper and pencils? And they all said, ‘Absolutely, we are all still practicing with paper and pencils’…the level of engagement was so impressive. And having students take ownership of their own learning, that’s more than half the battle for a teacher. Because once you have a kid hooked and once their engaged in what they’re doing, then they can take it from there,” he said. “And that was really exciting to see.”

Superintendent Mark Johnson talks to 4th grader Kenny Lester (Photo Credit: Alex Granados/EducationNC)

House legislation that would change calculation of School Performance Grades

Johnson commented on the proposed shift in the way school performance grades are calculated. The full House voted 116-2 Wednesday for legislation that would change the calculation from 80 percent academic achievement and 20 percent growth to a 50-50 split. The bill goes to the Senate next. 

“I probably won’t push for any changes in the current make up of the grades,” he said. “I think what will be really important is how we promote what those grades mean.”

Johnson believes the grades do not reflect how hard teachers may be working in a school. “It doesn’t mean people don’t care what’s going on in that school,” he said. “That usually is a reflection of the circumstances where children are coming from going into that school and that’s what the conversation needs to be about.”

Johnson wants to see more growth in the model, but he is also concerned about proficiency. “But we also have to have the realistic expectation that by the time they get to high school we also need to be talking a lot about proficiency because we need to make sure that the diplomas we’re handing out are actually representative that students are ready to go out and be successful, whether it be in college or whether it be through any kind of vocational training or community college. And that comes down to proficiency.

House legislation that would eliminate NC final exams

Wednesday, the same House education committee also discussed, but did not vote on, legislation that would eliminate NC final exams in many academic subjects.  “As long as we’ve had school, we’ve had testing. And we will continue to have testing,” Johnson said. “But something that I’ve seen here in action with technology is how we change it from high stakes assessing to low stakes assessing. How do we build it into the classroom so that the teachers still get the data they need for those formative assessments to know where their students are and where they need to bring those students, while at the same time just making it a fun lesson that students don’t even know its part of the data being collected to let us know where they are.” 

State proposals to raise teacher pay

Governor Cooper proposed increases in teacher pay by five percent over each of the next two years. Last week, Republican lawmakers proposed new incentives for teachers, particularly in science, technology, engineering, math and special education. Superintendent Johnson said he hopes to find ways to improve the teaching experience beyond pay scales.

“It’s my job to look into the details — what is it just beyond pay that can really help improve the teaching profession — and that’s why I’m here at places like Ephesus and seeing how is technology helping the teacher in the classroom. How does the technology make it so that the teacher doesn’t have to bring a stack of papers home every night and grade the stack of papers? How is it that the technology, which I’ve seen here, can help the teacher engage more with the parent, get more parental involvement? How is it that the technology can be presented so that the teacher has lesson plans all ready to choose from?” 

The battle with the State Board of Education

In June, a three-judge panel is expected to a rule on a suit by the State Board of Education against the state of North Carolina. The State Board is trying to block House Bill 17 which would transfer many of the State Board’s powers to Johnson. 

Until last week, the Office of the Superintendent was not a named party in the lawsuit. The State Board amended their complaint to add the superintendent’s office as a party on Friday, according to Johnson. A temporary restraining order presently in place keeps the State Board as the administrative head of the Department of Public Instruction. 

“I’m working with the State Board as they go through and decide who they want to hire to fill key roles. I’m working with them, giving them suggestions on how we can revise the organization chart to make the department run more smoothly,” Johnson said. 

In the present configuration, Johnson does not have the authority to select his staff. “I’ve been working with them, but unfortunately, things like a chief of staff, that role is still unfilled, and they have made it clear that they aren’t going to let me choose who my chief of staff is going to be. That is a decision they will make.” 

Johnson said he offered the possibility of mediation to the Board chairman. “Chairman (Bill) Cobey said if I want to appoint the student advisor to the Board, they’re fine with that. Now, that’s one of the governor’s appointments. So they’re fine giving that away,” Johnson said. “But he has made it clear that the State Board will not budge on them having the authority to appoint the top leadership at the department.”

Watch the full press conference below:

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.