New NC superintendent: Urgent changes needed to fix 'outdated' school system

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— North Carolina’s newly elected Superintendent of Public Instruction says urgent changes are needed to fix the state’s “outdated” public school system and said his first order of business will be to embark on a year-long listening tour across the state.

Mark Johnson said he plans to meet with teachers, parents, students, lawmakers, business owners and others to get their thoughts on public education. He promised to “take good notes” and said he will “present a vision of action items that we can go forward with for the next few years.”

Johnson made the announcement during Thursday’s State Board of Education meeting, which marked his third day on the job, and said he plans to rely on three guiding principles as superintendent:

  • Urgency: “Every day that we don’t take bold actions for our students is a day that our students lose. Every day that we don’t take bold actions for our teachers is a day that our teachers lose,” he said. “Complacency is the antithesis of urgency, so I ask that we act with urgency and not be complacent in anything that we do. If we don’t act with urgency, we will continue to betray students and we will continue to lose teachers and have difficulty retaining them and recruiting them.”
  • Ownership: “We have a lot of issues and challenges facing us. We have to own them,” he said. “We have to own that we need to do something about testing. We have to own that there are students graduating from our schools that we are giving diplomas to that are not prepared for college or the workforce. We are the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. It is our job to own those challenges and find solutions. We must be innovative to find solutions.”
  • Innovation: “Innovation will lead to the true transformation of public education,” he said. “Our current system is outdated. I will be generous and I will say this system was designed for students in the 1950s. I say that is generous because you could probably trace this system we are using today back to the 1920s or even earlier.”

Johnson is beginning his new role as superintendent during a turbulent time. Although he and State Board of Education members appeared to get along during their meetings this week, they are at odds over who should be in charge of North Carolina’s public schools.

Lawmakers passed a bill last month that takes away power from the state board and transfers it to Johnson. Under the new law, Johnson will have more flexibility in managing the state’s education budget, more authority to dismiss senior level employees, control of the Office of Charter Schools and the ability to choose the leader of the new Achievement School District, which will oversee some of the lowest-performing schools in the state.

Those powers have been under the State Board of Education’s control.

The board filed a suit to challenge the law last month, and a Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the new law from taking effect. Another hearing is scheduled for Friday, when a three-judge panel will determine whether an injunction should be put in place to block the law until courts determine whether it’s constitutional.

Johnson has publicly supported the new law and said the changes “will help usher in an era of greater transparency” and create a system of state oversight of public schools “similar to how local superintendents and their respective boards of education work together across North Carolina.”

State Board Chairman Bill Cobey has criticized the law, saying it threatens the working relationship between the board and Johnson. However, during Thursday’s state board meeting, Cobey was supportive of Johnson’s ideas to improve schools.

“I join you in supporting your vision and those guiding principles,” Cobey said. “I have felt a sense of urgency ever since I started sitting in this chair … Let’s get on with the task. It’s important. It’s extremely important.”

A special thank you to our friends at WRAL for helping out with this post.