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N.C. Procurement Raises Questions of Vendor Selection, Dyslexia Screening, and State Reading Policy

North Carolina officials' switch in reading-test vendors just weeks before the new school year gets underway is spotlighting the often murky process of contracts and procurements for K-12 services—and how they can affect every district's approach to instruction.

The complicated situation can be summed up like this: A department panel recommended choosing one vendor to help administer required early-reading diagnostic exams. But state education leaders later cancelled their request for proposals—and ultimately awarded the $8.3 million, three-year contract to a different vendor than the one the panel selected, according to documents released to Education Week and others through an open-records request.

Far from the deep-in-the-weeds processes that typically characterize procurement, North Carolina's situation has produced accusations of vendor favoritism, debates about best practices for screening for students with dyslexia, the appropriateness of computer-based assessment, and concerns from dozens of superintendents about the sudden shift in reading policies. It also comes on the heels of a scandal in Puerto Rico over education contracts allegedly being steered to well-connected consultants.

Potentially, the fallout from the incident could even influence who voters pick as the next state superintendent in 2020.

There's a long back story to this contract. In 2012, North Carolina joined a number of other states in passing a so-called "3rd grade reading law." Under the law, students in K-3 must be given diagnostic reading exams; some students receive summer school if they're found to be falling short of benchmarks. By the end of 3rd grade, students can be retained if they're not reading at grade level. In 2017, the state also required school boards to screen students for dyslexia and other learning disabilities, though it doesn't specify a grade level at which this should occur.

For the past few years, the state contracted with the company Amplify to supply the diagnostic assessment, teacher training, curriculum, and online supports for teachers. Then, under a 2017 budget bill, North Carolina was directed to hold a new competition to award the assessment contract, which had been extended. 

The request for proposals went out in mid-2018—and here's where things gets messy.

Amy Jablonski, a former North Carolina Department of Public Instruction employee, said that an internal committee convened by the department in 2018 got together to rank the four proposals that came in, putting Amplify first out of the four. (Only internal staffers, including Jablonski, were to be voting members, but they got feedback from outside reading experts and teachers.) 

But shortly thereafter, state officials suddenly cancelled the RFP, entered into negotiations with the two top vendors directly, and ultimately selected Istation, a Dallas-based provider, which had come in second in the committee ranking, not first.

This is pretty unusual for a decision of this magnitude.

So what happened?  

The Fallout

The documents obtained through the public-records requests, posted below, show that the committee felt that Amplify was the best, if the most expensive, of the options. They also show that a majority of the original committee's voting members recommended entering into negotiations with Amplify. 

This would appear to contradict a spokesman for North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson, who has in earlier news stories said that the committee did not reach a consensus.

Several months later, after the RFP was cancelled, the department put a second, smaller committee together—without any outside teachers or educators to act as advisors—and it made a very different set of judgments. 

The department decided that Istation's approach was more adaptive and "personalized" to students than Amplify's. On the other hand, Istation was deemed weaker, not stronger, on its ability to screen students for dyslexia. 

Dyslexia advocates are concerned about the decision; the Charlotte Observer did a good story on the differences in the two vendors' sub-tests for dyslexia. Among them is whether it's possible for a computer-based exam to measure all the components of early reading and oral fluency. (The dyslexia community in the United States has been a powerful advocate for universal screening for reading disabilities and for better early reading instruction, as Education Week has reported for PBS News Hour.) 

In an unusual cover letter accompanying the release of the documents, Superintendent Johnson said that they "might not present a full picture" of the procurement process. He also referred to "misstatements" made by committee members and errors in the documents that aren't corrected, and promised that the department would release additional documents in the future.

The documents do show that one of the department's lawyers said that one of the original committee members had "breached confidentiality," threatening the legality of the procurement, but it didn't specify who.

"DPI and the state board have adhered to all laws, policies, and rules during this procurement to ensure fairness and objectivity," Johnson said in a statement.

Before the documents came to light, Amplify had sent a formal letter of protest notice to the education department. Istation, meanwhile, has vigorously defended its new contract, via advertisements it's taken out in North Carolina newspapers.

Amplify is waiting to see how the department responds to its challenge, but hasn't ruled out potential legal action down the road, CEO Larry Berger said. An Istation spokesman said it's confident that the company followed all the state's rules, and that it couldn't weigh in on the state's decision to cancel the original RFP.

Superintendents Weigh In

There is an important instructional difference in the two vendors' approaches worth considering. Both vendors' original bids are hundreds of pages long, so this is a bit of an oversimplification, but Amplify primarily uses a tool requiring teachers to observe each child's reading skills one on one. Istation, on the other hand, uses an all-computer-based assessment approach, in which students match letters to sounds online and are recorded reading a passage. An entire class can be assessed in just 40 minutes, Istation says. (Johnson said in an announcement when the Istation contract was revealed that it would "allow more time for teachers to teach.")

That difference wades directly into current debates over assessment and computer-based learning. 

Meanwhile, district leaders have been concerned about getting all their teachers ready to use a brand new system and interface for making use of the data, said Jack Hoke, the executive director of the North Carolina School Superintendents' Association. Eighty-eight of the state's 115 superintendents asked the state to delay implementation of Istation by a year. In response, the state board of education has delayed by six months the date by which results from the exams start to filter into school ratings.

Rhonda Schuhler, the superintendent of the 8,300-student Franklin County district, said it's not that teachers are necessarily opposed to the change in approach. They just want to be trained to use it well, and the six-month delay came as a "relief," she said.

"I think that teachers are open minded to change if they can understand how it can benefit their students. They're still trying to take that in," she said. "One of their concerns is that it's a student interfacing with technology and we're committed to making sure that regardless of what the tool looks like, the teacher is a vital part of that, and they're there with the student and there's that interaction that takes place. It's just an important part of reading development."

Now we come to the potential political implications.

Jablonski, the staffer who managed the first internal evaluation, has announced plans to challenge Supt. Johnson in the 2020 elections. (North Carolina is one of just a handful of states whose state superintendent is elected, rather than appointed or selected by the state board.)

Although her new campaign website doesn't discuss the procurement issue, she said in an interview that the whole situation sets a bad precedent for teachers, disregards their input into the procurement process, and potentially discourages them from sitting on other panels.  

"The experts made the decision, recommended the decision, and then a different decision was made," she said.

We are interested here in District Dossier about procurement and supply in K-12 education. Email me directly at [email protected] to share your stories—good, bad, and ugly—about getting materials and supplies to your classrooms.

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