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Superintendent Johnson challenges State Board on Read to Achieve

Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson challenged the State Board of Education on their policies related to Read to Achieve on Wednesday, which was the first day of the Board’s monthly meeting. 

He accused the Board of not following the law in its guidance to districts on how to implement the program.

“There was a law passed by the General Assembly,” Johnson said. “There were bureaucrats at the Department of Public Instruction who did not agree with that law. And through policy, they shifted what the law was intended to do. And that is the point of this conversation.” 

Read to Achieve is a law that has been in operation since 2012 and aims to make sure that all the state’s students are reading on grade level by the third grade. As part of that law, students who don’t demonstrate proficiency by the end of third grade are supposed to attend summer reading camps, and if they still aren’t proficient, they are supposed to retake the third grade. 

The crux of Johnson’s criticism is that the State Board allowed thousands of students who were not proficient to move on after third grade and not be retained.

“Rather than actually retaining students who were not reading at grade level, the State Board’s policy placed a hollow label of ‘retained’ on these students’ school records. They were labeled ‘retained’ but kept being advanced through grades, almost all of them falling further and further behind grade level each year,” Johnson said in a memo.

After Johnson explained his issues with the Board policy, JB Buxton, a Board member, invited local district leaders, including Superintendent Patrick Miller of Greene County — a state Superintendent advisor to the board — to talk about how they implement the program in practice.

Miller explained that in Greene County, following the guidebook created by the State Board, a student who isn’t proficient by the end of the third grade summer camp can either be retained in the third grade or sent to a fourth grade transition class. The latter, Johnson argued, isn’t appropriate under the law.

“Per Read to Achieve Guidebook instructions to local school districts, if a 3rd grader does not display reading proficiency, the student can still advance to the 4th grade but is tagged with a ‘Retained Reading Label’ on their student record. These students are in 4th grade classrooms, engage in 4th grade classwork, and take 4th grade tests. Sadly, most of these students did not show reading proficiency by the end of 4th grade either, but they were moved along to 5th grade,” Johnson’s memo stated.

Buxton said that he welcomed the discussion as a step towards improving Read to Achieve. An analysis of the program from The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation found the program to be largely ineffective and said that it wasn’t being implemented uniformly in districts around the state. Legislation championed by Buxton, Johnson, and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, was intended to reform Read to Achieve. However, that legislation was vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper.

Buxton said in an interview after the meeting that he didn’t see a big discrepancy between the State Board’s actions and the Read to Achieve law.

“I think there is substantial alignment but recognize there may be some areas to tighten it,” he said.

Berger weighed in with an emailed statement on the second day of the Board meeting, calling the promotion of a child to fourth grade who isn’t proficient in reading “malpractice,” and an example of the “‘soft bigotry of low expectations.'”

“Promoting a child to fourth grade who cannot properly read is one of the most harmful and cruel actions the education bureaucracy can take. A student who cannot properly read is unlikely to learn at grade level in subsequent school years, setting that child up for failure. It must stop now,” he said in the statement.

Charter school report

The State Board also heard details of an annual charter school report which has been the subject of some controversy since the Charter School Advisory Board had a section taken out that examined the contributions of charter schools to racial segregation.

Alex Quigley, chair of the advisory board, said that section was removed because it was confusing.

“The way this is presented is kind of confusing and at too high of a level to do any real analysis,” he told the Board. 

Board member James Ford pushed back on the absence of that data. 

“It’s inherent for us to make sure we hold our feet to the fire,” he said, referring to equity data. 

The original charter school report delved deeper into charters’ racial compositions, explaining that 25% of charters had white student enrollment within 10 percentage points of the white student enrollment of traditional school districts, and 43% of charters had a black student enrollment within 10 percentage points of the traditional school districts.

According to the general statutes on charter schools, the schools are supposed to “reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the general population residing within the local school administrative unit” that the charter school is located in. 

“Charter schools whose demographics were +/- 10 points of the district or county were considered to ‘reasonably reflect’ the comparison group,” the original draft report stated. 

This data was removed from the final report which went to the State Board. 

The following line was added to that report: “To give appropriate insight on the extent to which charter schools reasonably reflect the areas in which they are located, significant research would need to be conducted to disaggregate the racial and ethnic breakdown of traditional schools and charter schools serving diverse communities within all LEAs in the state.”

Quigley said that he does think the time is right to do a deeper dive on the data surrounding charter schools, particularly since next year the state will have over 200 charters, more than doubling what it had before the 100-school cap was lifted in 2011. He said, however, that he didn’t think the annual charter school report was the place to do that deeper dive. 

Educator preparation programs

The State Board also received a presentation on the new weighted accountability model for educator preparation programs developed by the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC). 

Under the plan, educator preparation programs would be judged based on the performance of an EPP, its retention rate, and stakeholder perceptions.

The new criteria are an attempt to circumvent a potential problem written into Senate Bill 599, which created the commission. The law establishes the sanctions EPPs should face if their scores for these performance measures fall short. 

The law as written essentially says that if EPPs fail on any one of the current required accountability standards, they would be sanctioned. If EPPs repeatedly fail, this could lead to probation and eventually revocation of state authorization for the EPPs to produce teachers. All the criteria are weighted equally, so the end result is that an EPP could do great on two criteria and less great on a third and still face sanctions.

Additionally, the law requires not only that EPPs as a whole meet certain performance targets, but that subgroups do as well. However, some EPPs have relatively small gender, racial, or ethnic subgroups, meaning that poor performance by these groups could lead to EPP sanctions.

The new accountability model would give different weights to different performance targets. Originally, the plan was to have a fourth criteria upon which programs were judged — demographics. 

Ultimately, the commission decided to make that criteria a two-year pilot domain so that the state could collect data about the potential consequences of actually incorporating it into the accountability model. Under that plan, demographics wouldn’t impact the score an EPP receives.

Ford challenged the rationale behind making the demographics criteria a pilot program.

“This is my bias here. I just feel like so long as we can all agree that this is important and it’s a priority, but we fail to put accountability measures behind it, I feel like it communicates a lack of urgency,” he said.

“Your sentiment has surely been shared over many months in these conversations,” said Andrew Sioberg, the director of educator preparation for the state Department of Public Instruction. 

Sioberg explained that there are concerns about the ability of educator preparation programs to reasonably affect their demographic outcomes. For example, if an educator preparation program was pulling from a college population that wasn’t very diverse, then that program might not be able to meet the demographic criteria target through no fault of its own. 

PEPSC had also decided on how the three criteria would be weighted. Under their plan, EPP performance would account for 55%, retention 10%, and stakeholder perceptions 35%. 

Sioberg showed how current programs would be assessed under that breakdown. Two programs would achieve the highest level — level four. Twenty seven would be at level three, 16 would be at level two, and no schools would be at the lowest level of accountability — level one. 

Buxton worried that the weighting developed by PEPSC might be too lenient.

“Creating incentives for them to improve, we seem to be starting at a fairly low clip,” he said.

The weighted accountability model comes back before the Board in February for a vote.

Editor’s note: Patrick Miller serves on the board of EducationNC.

Alex Granados

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