by Jordan Green
An entrenched incumbent at the state Department of Public Instruction draws three challengers, including a 32-year-old corporate lawyer from Winston-Salem.
Mark Johnson has only served on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board for a year, but the 32-year-old Republican feels a calling to serve as superintendent of public instruction — the highest elected position for education policy in the state.
Johnson, who serves as corporate council for Inmar, worked as a teacher at West Charlotte High School before winning an open seat on the school board in 2014. In the year since, he has worked with fellow school board members to design a bond referendum that will likely go before local voters next year.
“I’m seeing frustration about what’s coming from the department of public instruction,” Johnson said. “This frustration in many cases isn’t partisan. The frustration is about looking for new leadership.”
In particular, Johnson said he wants to focus on reforming high-stakes testing.
“We need to reform the system; the pendulum has swung to where we have too many tests,” he said. “We need to reform the system to take the emphasis away from high-stakes and end-of-the-year testing.”
June Atkinson, the Democrat who has held the position since 2004 and is seeking reelection to a fourth term next year, indicated she actually agrees with Johnson in many respects.
“Our integrated end-of-course tests are 20th Century artifacts,” the 67-year-old official said. “Through technology we have another way and a better way of assessing what students learn. With Proof of Concept, we’re piloting a different way of assessing children. I feel very confident that will yield some great improvements. My big goal is that this assessment is integrated into instruction. It’s like playing a video game: You go from one level to another, but you’re not really thinking of it as an assessment; it’s just that to get to the next level you have to go through the assessment.”
The race has also drawn two other challengers: Dr. Rosemary Stein, a pediatrician with a practice in Burlington who is running in the Republican primary, and Henry J. Pankey, a retired high school principal from Durham whose name will appear on the Democratic ballot.
As a pediatrician, Dr. Stein said she has observed an increasing number of children who are suffering from dyslexia and are not able to read at grade level. An American citizen of Dominican heritage from a family of educators, the 51-year-old Stein argues that the classical education method in place when she was young is what children need to succeed.
“We’re feeding children information at developmentally inappropriate times,” she said. “The curriculum is requiring that children analyze before they have knowledge. You can’t build a puzzle without puzzle pieces.”
Stein takes a critical stance against the Common Core State Standards, and said if elected to lead the NC Department of Public Instruction she would work with the state Board of Education to revise them.
Last year, the General Assembly appointed a commission to recommend changes in the standard course of study.
“We are very open to their recommendations,” Atkinson said. “As an example of the kind of changes we’re looking at, the Common Core standards might talk about ‘information text’; in hindsight, maybe it should have said ‘nonfiction.’ We are open to seeing what will be recommended, but in the end we want the best for each child.”
Stein said she wants to promote engaging parents in her campaign.
“Right now I don’t think the educational system is doing a good job to engage parents,” she said. “Parents are instrumental to the success of the child. We used to have very strong parent-teacher associations. They’ve been weakened.”
Acknowledging the growing gap in economic inequality, Stein said she believes parents can overcome adversity to effectively support their children’s educational development.
“I’ll cite a presidential candidate who I admire — Ben Carson,” she said. “His mom had two jobs. He in essence grew up without a father and his mother engaged those two boys. We find a way. We look for time on the weekend. Sometimes you have to get up early to spend time working with the child. It’s not just teaching classroom material at home; it’s developing character at home. When we do that, their minds are more able to develop through good learning habits.”
Henry J. Pankey, who is challenging Atkinson in the Democratic primary, could not be reached for comment for this story. The candidate’s website noted that Southern High School in Durham moved from low-performing to exemplary status under his leadership as principal. An active member of the NC Association of Educators, Pankey supports teacher tenure, adequate funding of schools and increased pay for educators — all under the control of the Republican-majority General Assembly. His campaign also emphasizes character education, parent involvement and computer technology.
Johnson, the Republican challenger from Winston-Salem, said new leadership is needed at the Department of Public Instruction as the state reassesses high-stakes testing.
“All tests need to be up for consideration on reevaluating and reforming how we measure students,” he said. “I’m going to make it my main priority. Asking the current leadership to solve this problem they created doesn’t make sense.”
Atkinson said she would be the first to acknowledge that North Carolina has more work to do in improving education, but she touted the improvement of graduation rates from 68 percent to 86 percent under her leadership.
“I’m not interested in another elected position,” she said. “I’m not distracted by other issues, other than what’s best for each child.”