Legal fight won’t stop NC from training teachers in controversial new reading program

State Superintendent Mark Johnson has worked out a deal to continue using a new reading program even as the legal fight continues over whether the multi-million dollar contract was properly awarded.

North Carolina elementary schools have been uncertain about what to do since the state Department of Information Technology granted a temporary stay last week blocking the new three-year, $8.3 million contract for the Istation program.

On Tuesday, Johnson announced he had signed an agreement with Istation to continue training teachers for free while the contract is under review. Johnson,a Republican, also continued his attacks against the decision made by DIT, which reports to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

“I want positive change for our student and educators, and I know Istation does, too,” Johnson said in a statement. “Today, I am announcing that Istation believes in supporting public education in North Carolina so much, they have agreed to continue training teachers at no additional cost during this ridiculous DIT review.”

Maggie Bizzell, a DIT spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the agency is going though the administrative review and following the law for that process. DIT Secretary Eric Boyette will hear the appeal filed by Amplify Education, which lost out on the reading contract to Istation.

Since the Read To Achieve program began in 2013, K-3 students have read out loud to their teachers while the teachers use Amplify’s mClass program to assess their skills. Under Istation, students will be tested on a computer program, with the results being provided to teachers.

In June, Johnson announced he was awarding the new Read To Achieve testing contract to Istation.

The decision to switch has been controversial, with teachers across the state questioning the change.

Public records show Johnson went against the recommendations from an evaluation committee, which he had formed, that said the state should continue to use mClass.

Johnson has accused the evaluation committee of “employing biased procedures” that benefited Amplify and having made false statements about Istation. He also said that some committee members violated the confidentiality of the procurement process by discussing it with outsiders.

“Istation is the best reading diagnostic tool for NC educators, students, and parents,” Johnson said in Tuesday’s statement. “More-of-the-same is what the Establishment political system prefers, but the old tool was a burden on our teachers and failed to help our students. Change was needed.”

Ossa Fisher, president of Istation, said in a statement Tuesday that the company is committed to continuing the training, especially now that the new school year has started.

“While stirring fear, uncertainty, and doubt continues to be the strategy of the losing vendor, we will continue to uphold our commitment to North Carolina: helping students across the state develop critical grade level reading skills,” Fisher said in the statement.

A spokeswoman for Amplify did not immediately return The News & Observer’s email requesting comment.

The contract has also been questioned by groups who are critical of Superintendent Johnson.

“Supt. Johnson’s allegiance to Istation is setting himself up for failure,” Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, tweeted Tuesday. “His rhetoric makes it sound like Istation will turn around our plummeting 3rd grade reading scores. That’s an unrealistically heavy lift for a diagnostic tool.”

Several Senate Democrats unsuccessfully asked Senate leader Phil Berger to launch an investigation into how the contract was awarded.

N.C. Families For School Testing Reform and the N.C. Association of Educators are asking state Attorney General Josh Stein, State Auditor Beth Wood and state lawmakers to review the contract.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.