The Meeting I Never Anticipated

Op-Ed By: Michelle Antoine
Johnston County Board of Education Candidate

When Board of Education member, Tracie Zukowski, requested a meeting with me, I thought it was an opportunity to discuss the framework of the current school board. A friendly chance to get to know one another. I had briefly met Mrs. Zukowski at a few events and she seemed approachable and outgoing. When she asked to meet in a Restaurant it was clear to me this wasn’t a private discussion, Mrs. Zukowski was open and loud enough for those around to hear the conversation. Our meeting lasted about an hour and twenty minutes, it took a turn I never anticipated. I thought the citizens of Johnston County should be made aware of the plans Mrs. Zukowski has, as they will directly affect their children and schools.

She started by saying she didn’t know me, but after watching the Platforms at the Podium forum I stood out and she knew she had to speak with me. She asked, “Why do you want to be on the Board of Education?” I said I didn’t want to be, but the disarray of the board, the budget, and most importantly the failing schools compel me to do this. She retorted, “these are not reasons to be on the board, you need a better answer.” I was taken aback. From this point forward she became extremely aggressive, demanding, and it was clear she was going to talk and I was brought there to listen.

Stop Talking
She demanded I stop talking about budget gaps or underfunded schools. “JCPS requests all kinds of wants, but true needs are being addressed, commissioners are working on more funding, STOP saying funding gap.” I was dumbfounded and responded with the obvious information that our schools were not funded to meet operating expense, in fact we were still millions short, and that will impact kids. She said, “Title 1 schools receive more funds than non-Title 1 schools, no disparity of funding needs exists.”

It was weird, I just had to stare at her while she prattled on loudly with more utter nonsense regarding budgets. I got the good sense of who I was dealing with, and I realized she was sent to tell me how I should behave. We ended the conversation about funding sources with her telling me I should be running for the legislature not the school board, then laughing loudly at me. I assured her I was in the right race.

The conversation turned to curriculum. She spoke at length about her campaign focus two years ago which included this very issue. She insisted, “curriculum is being handled and you can stop saying it is a problem”, I disagreed, as we don’t have Math, Science, Social Studies core subject material and haven’t for over 10 years. She insisted, “Teachers and students can’t handle more than one new curriculum being implemented per year.” I suggested children need these materials, and if teachers were given proper ongoing support and training, instead of brief training and materials handed over days prior to school, we could have different results. She responded, “teachers have been given training on the new English Language Arts curriculum, and with teachers, you can lead a horse to water…”

I Was Quietly Outraged At Her Arrogance
I was quietly outraged at her arrogance. She continued with talking points, directed specifically at my platform.  I thought, I’m just a face in a crowded primary field, why do they give a lick about me?  Then it struck me, I’m getting too close to what they don’t want the public to know. Central office has been trying to persuade and encourage my positions through private messages but it hadn’t stopped me from questioning, researching, and writing.

Inform And Intimidate
I guess Mrs. Zukowski was being sent to inform and intimidate.

I’m in that restaurant seat for all of Johnston County now.

Citizens that have been denied access and information, shut down and silenced at meetings, I’m settling in for all of us, I am here to listen.

Office of Equity
JCPS created and staffed a central Office of Equity in July 2019, while schools were underfunded by $20 million dollars. I’d written about this issue, central office employees asked me to stop talking “unfavorably” about the office of Equity, I may hinder progress. She seemed to know I’d been talked to and explained the Board’s equity initiative was to, “hire teachers and principals that [physically] look like the students in the school. It is supported by research,” she assured.  I pushed back, when you hire based solely on the way someone looks, that is a discriminatory principle. Recruiting qualified candidates of all races and genders proportionately, that is equity. We refocus to Central office spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on staff in central office in the name of equity while at-risk students have no curriculum, “It is part of the plan to bridge the achievement gap” the Mrs. Zukowsi insisted.

The equity agenda isn’t implemented with the students, but with training of staff, leadership training in white privilege is ongoing, “this is good” I was told.   I listen, understanding that Equity is core to the bigger vision. Not to create opportunities through education success for students of color, but instead by lowering the bar of achievement and directing those students away from college and into vocational placements. Removing gifted programs and selling short the educational dreams of all students, using adapted Proficiency Learning models which actually grow the gap in achievement, having the equity piece gives cover to implement a model that will hurt minority and low-income kids.

She began talking about Competency Based Education sometimes referred to as Proficiency Learning, I wrote about this just days before our meeting.  The failed 90’s Outcome Based Education (OBE), which was rooted in the 1970’s educational failure of Mastery Learning, is being repackaged today and sold to schools as Competency Based Education (CBE). It focuses on end goals through systematic levels of demonstratable knowledge. Test and retest, add some extra help for students not advancing through Differentiated Instruction. Meet the child with a lowered achievable goal for the standard and repeat the testing. It is goal focused and vocational minded for New World workers, analytics of the student will drive secondary placements. The original Massachusetts Company that sold worksheets and curriculum for Mastery Learning and OBE is Curriculum Associates. They have since created a digital platform called i-Ready, which is being used in some of our JCPS schools today.

She detailed a trip in 2019 to Westminster School District in Colorado. She represented her Technology employer and JCPS.  She photographed and touted meeting Dr. Marzano, the Tony Robbins of CBE, who reaps millions from his books, lectures, and consulting. The Implementation arm for his trainings milked the Detroit Public Schools for $6 million dollars while their at-risk population sat in failing classrooms of 40+ kids. She explained, Westminster has used CBE for 10 years. Achievement of standards is measured on a 4-point scale, JCPS tried implementation in January 2019 of this Standard Based Grading, parents said NO. Students work their way to mastery, 10 levels for full mastery and graduation. No grade level seat time, no grade point averages, no time constraints. Educational material isn’t set, just name the goal, adjust, and pass through. The standards are often learned and tested on digital platforms.

Interestingly, Mrs. Zukowsi works for Renaissance Learning, selling Freckle math which some of our schools currently use. Renaissance is a data analytics digital education platform, specializing in data curriculum tools, the key to CBE efficiency.  In 2014 Google bought into Renaissance for $40 million dollars, the data mining opportunities are immense. Renaissance Learning states, “We create assessment and practice solutions that put learning analytics to work for educators, saving hours of prep time while making truly personalized learning…”

She has a personal financial interest in CBE’s implementation, we didn’t discuss this conflict. She is emphatic saying, “I don’t want another term on the Board, my Legacy is priority.”

When her term ends in two years and Johnston County is her sales region once more, she will have established through CBE a prime market to sell millions in software programming and training, that would certainly be some Legacy.

Again, I’m here to listen.

She continues to describe CBE at Westminster, “When you enter a classroom each student has a data notebook, when greeted a student will say, My name is Michelle, I’m Mastery level 3, RL 2, I’ve met my LGA and am math level 4” The board member thought this robotic speak was amazing, demonstrative of autonomous learners. She explained the teacher is no longer the authoritative leader, they are a collaborator to facilitate the child’s own self-directed learning. Struggling students will have two peers help level them up, differentiated instructional aides will also facilitate goals.  CBE is her plan for JCPS, we already have multiple layers of the programming implemented.

Dumbing Down High Achievers
Competency Based Education doesn’t work. Despite the Gates Foundation for Educational Excellence under Jeb Bush, Koch Initiative, Dell, Microsoft, and other corporate backers there are no favorable results. Yet, 48 states are charging forward with top down quick implementation. This is the final culmination of Common Core, and all political sides have joined together to push this agenda with the DeVos Department of Education.

Parents like you and I are just finding out the plan, as we become acutely aware something is very wrong. Maine’s parents stopped legislation to implement CBE statewide, noting its immense cost, dumbing down for high achievers, hulking implementation burden, and no proven successful outcomes.

The Westminster School District has been a failing school for the 10 years CBE has been in place. In 2017 the entire school district was targeted by Colorado State officials for takeover. In 2018 it moved to “Needs Improvement” due to a 2% score increase.  In 10 years, it hasn’t produced any significant results for students. They fail in equity too, not meeting English Learners needs the DOJ sued, Westminster settled and paid fines in 2018.

She Has The Votes
I question how she believes this can be implemented. A Superintendent would need to facilitate a full-scale change like this. She said, “two types of people will apply for this job, those who want to be a Superintendent, she waves them off with her hand, and those who will bring change.” She said, “We need someone to come in and clean house.” She describes a hatchet man to remove people against the agenda of equity and CBE. She states a new Superintendent contract will be one or two years in length. “We had a Superintendent that was brought in to do a similar job on a two-year contract a few years ago, we can make that happen again.” I questioned her ability to get Board consensus, she assured me she has the votes.

Research tells us successful schools require leadership, hard work, and key determiner inputs. Changing the trajectory of our schools will start with heavily funding enriched preschool programming and early elementary education. Implementing with highest level trainers, synthetic phonics and numeracy, that is where proficiency starts. If we fail in to instill proficiency early, upper grade learning outcomes will be poor.

Board of Education Member With Vested Interest As A Software Salesperson
Education is more than regurgitated “The Student Will Be Able To…” standards. Buying the latest fad in educational theory sold to us by the Department of Education and big Corporations, funneled down to State level bureaucrats, now spearheaded by a current Johnston County Board of Education member with a vested interest as a software salesperson, is ridiculous, but here we are. This will not improve schools or close achievement gaps.  It will vacuum up funds without results. We are already seeing its fruits.

Our schools are failing, CBE combined with a lowered bar of global Differentiated Instruction is the reason. Track increased graduation rates with lowered proficiency and you have a picture of lowered expectation to pass through students.

Mrs. Zukowsi told me to consider what she said. She hoped to talk again, I am open to further conversations.

I want all of our kids to have the highest-level achievement possible, to be afforded the great equalizer of education, changing hearts with acceptance, kindness, and honesty. The plan she has for the students and families in Johnston County should be known to them.

I hope I afforded you the opportunity to attend this meeting, so you may decide what you want for our schools.

Editor’s Note: Any candidate running for political office in Johnston County is encouraged to submit an opinion editorial to JoCoReport. Our email address is