Open Letters To Reformers I Know. Part 3: Michael Johnston

Links to the rest of this series here

In the early days of TFA, when the size of the corps each year was fewer than 1000, it was a pretty small world.  Unlike now where 6,000 new TFAers attend about twelve different institutes, back in the early and mid-90s, there was just one institute, and I participated in every one from my own in 1991 until around 2002.  My workshop on classroom management was always well attended and appreciated.

Back in 1997 my friend Stephanie Kitz recommended that a new TFAer she was training, Michael Johnston, attend my workshop.  I don’t remember if we spoke afterwards, but somehow at the 2001 ten year alumni summit in 2001 I spent a good amount of time hanging out late at night with Mike and his girlfriend (now his wife) Courtney.  Over the next five years, I’d run into them from time to time at TFA events and always enjoy my time with them.

In 2003, Mike published a book about his two years teaching in Mississippi called ‘In the Deep Heart’s Core.’  It was an excellent and realistic book about the small victories and also the larger losses when trying to help kids overcome so much.  I remember going to the book signing at the Barnes and Noble in New York City and when it was my turn to get my book signed, Mike graciously said “The man in whose footsteps I walk” referring to the fact that I had published my own story about my TFA experience a few years earlier.  I always found Mike to be a very likeable and gracious guy.

In 2008 while Mike was a principal of a high school in Colorado, I had read that he was one of now-President Obama’s education advisers.  Right after the election I asked if he was willing to pass my name onto the new Secretary of Education, whom I had never heard of, Arne Duncan.  It never amounted to anything, but I don’t doubt that my name did make it onto some kind of list.

In 2009 I was thrilled for him when he was elected to be a Colorado state senator.  At the TFA 20 alumni summit, I heard him speak about how he had gotten some kind of education reform bill passed.  I cheered for him at this announcement.

After that alumni summit in February 2010, I started learning about what was really going on in ed ‘reform.’  Until then I was always a little suspicious of charters, but I thought them to be relatively harmless.  I wasn’t thrilled by ‘Waiting For Superman,’ but really didn’t think much about education policy.

Then, as I learned more, I realized that much of ed ‘reform’ amounted to punishing teachers for not being able to work miracles.  And these punishments were justified because of ‘miracle’ schools and ‘superhero’ teachers who were proving that any teacher who says “this is unrealistic” is simply making excuses.

As different players came into my radar over the months, many of them were TFAers.  But most of them weren’t people I had hung out with much.  So it was with a lot of surprise when I read Steven Brill’s ‘Class Warfare’ and found Mike described as on the ‘reformer’ side while that bill that I had cheered about was an example of using value-added to rank teachers and close schools.  I then learned that Mike was supported by Democrats For Education Reform (DFER) an organization that pushes ideas that have little basis in research, but they have the money to push them anyway.

Brill’s book described how Mike had become a principal and how he had taken his first 44 tenth graders and had beaten the odds by having all 44 graduate high school and get admitted to a four year university.  As a researcher I had the uncomfortable task of ‘investigating’ someone that I like.  I learned that Brill’s depiction was not accurate.  There were actually 73 tenth graders who had dwindled to 44 seniors — a pretty relevant detail.  Whether Brill misunderstood or whether Mike implied that he had gotten a 100% four year graduation rate, rather than what is sometimes called ‘graduation rate’ but is just the percent of seniors who graduate.  Since most dropping out occurs before students make it to senior year, this type of graduation rate should generally be pretty high.

Recently, I read on Whitney Tilson’s email blast about an article from Forbes magazine called ‘The Best Speech About Education — Ever.’  When I hear something like that, I know where it is going, so I got my notebook out to start listing the lies.  To my dismay, it was Mike making the speech, and though there were many moments of humility, he did begin with the story of the 44 students that I had read about in ‘Class Warfare.’  Though he doesn’t directly say that the 44 students were all the students that had started, I think that it was somewhat implied, at least I believe that everyone in the audience understood it that way, particularly at minute 6:55 where he says “Our school becomes the first public high school in Colorado where 100% of our kids are admitted to a four year college.”  He then admits that there were a lot of failures too, but doesn’t list any explicitly and the impact of what is implied has already happened.

Now every story gets embellished.  Whether it was 73 kids becoming 44 graduates or 44 kids all graduating, it is still a story about kids beating the odds.  But in today’s fierce climate around ed reform, the story as most receive it is not just about the potential of students, but about how a new principal with new teachers prove that ‘poverty doesn’t matter’ and that all it takes is youth and enthusiasm to work miracles.

Mike recently wrote to me and told me that usually in his speeches he makes it very clear that he didn’t have a 100% 4 year graduation rate, and even that many of those kids who did graduate and went on to college were not able to remain there.  He was upset, though, that I seemed to be belittling what he and his staff did accomplish with their students.  He also seemed concerned that I was spreading the word that significant change is not possible in education, something that he very much disagrees with.

It is with this background that I compose my third open letter to reformers I know.


Dear Mike,

Though we’ve only met a few times, I think of you as a friend.  Certainly we’re friends in the Facebook sense as I sometimes enjoy your family pictures when they appear on my newsfeed.  I also have great respect for you.  You are a true ‘mover and shaker,’ getting elected to state senator so young and doing a lot of good there in Denver, which has a special place in my heart, having lived there for six years.  I think of all the people I know, you have the best chance of being President of the United States one day — I mean that.

But I’m concerned about what’s going on with education around the country and I want to clear some things up about how I see you fitting into it.  From what you once wrote to me, it seems like you view ed reform as if there are two ‘sides.’  There’s the side of the ‘reformers,’ people, many of them TFA, who believe in the unlimited potential of students.  And then there are the other people — maybe they can be described as the ‘union.’  These are pessimists who see change as a threat to their comfortable lifestyle.  They don’t think education can be improved much until “poverty is fixed” first so why bother?  I think that if I thought those were the only two sides, I would side with the ‘reformers’ too.

But I don’t oppose the proposed reforms of DFER because I don’t think schools can be improved.  My fear is that since the DFERers have little idea about how schools actually work, they propose reforms that will, in my opinion, make schools worse.  A big example is the overuse of standardized test ‘growth’ as a measure of school and teacher quality.  Though it seems like a good idea in theory, these ‘growth’ scores are too inaccurate.  I already see places like D.C. backpedaling and reducing the percent from 50% to 35%.  One day it will be down to 20%, I expect.

I don’t know a lot about the bill you got passed, but I know that it does put a lot of faith in these metrics.  But I think you have made a time table where things don’t get implemented until 2014.  To me this means that you are not just rushing into something that is not ready yet.  You could have easily just taken D.C.’s IMPACT model, and the fact that you didn’t, to me, shows that you are trying to do something that is fair.

Though I do think that schools can improve, I will admit that I do think there is a limit to what can be accomplished by just ‘fixing’ schools and ‘fixing’ teachers primarily by ‘fixing’ teacher evaluation.  I have not seen much evidence that this type of reform is working anywhere.  It certainly isn’t working in D.C..  But the ‘reformers’ never seem to want to face the mounting evidence that the reforms aren’t improving achievement and are, instead, encouraging teachers change their teaching so they might ‘game’ the new metrics.

I’ve been teaching now for fifteen years, and some of my best lessons are the ones where I insert something into the curriculum that won’t be part of any standardized test, but will inspire my students to like math more.  If my salary and my ability to support my family were heavily weighted by my ‘value-added’ I’d have to think carefully before risking doing something that won’t be on the test.

I think it is easy to forget, after leaving the classroom, how tough teaching is.  I hope that whatever school and teacher evaluation system you eventually adopt, you take the time to see how your own school that you were principal of would have fared on the system.  Though the test scores at MESA were very low, you know that your teachers were working hard and ‘making a difference’ despite some computer saying that the students were not getting enough ‘growth’ and the teachers were not adding enough ‘value.’  I think that there can be great schools that score low on these types of metrics and other schools that are not really so good, but manage to rank high when measured by these same formulas.

I encourage you to see that there are not just two sides that you have to choose from.  There is a full spectrum.  If you are not an extremist, let us know that.

You are the fourth person I’ve written an open letter to.  The first three, Tilson, Levin, and Feinberg have all written me back short private emails.  Nobody, yet, is willing to go on record with ‘the enemy,’ I guess.  I’m hoping that you’d be willing, though, to answer publicly.  It might encourage the others to do so as well and then we can really get a chance to have an honest discussion about what is working, what isn’t, and what to try next.



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10 Responses to Open Letters To Reformers I Know. Part 3: Michael Johnston

  1. Leigh Campbell-Hale says:

    I live and teach public school in Colorado, so unfortunately, I’m all too familiar with the bill Johnston sponsored and got passed in 2010, SB191.

    I currently serve on a district committee where we’ve all dedicated over forty hours of our own time (and there will be more of the same next semester) trying to work out the “details” of the bill, which includes 50%-yes, that’s right, 50%–of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on student test scores. Even though those tests measuring the 50% don’t even exist, within two years, this is how all of Colorado’s public school teachers are supposed to be evaluated.

    Here’s a concrete example. Most years I teach AP US History. I think that’s a great test, but what’s my pre-test? It’s $85 bucks a test, and AP doesn’t offer a pre-test anyway. What am I supposed to base my 50% on? How can I show improvement? (The state will get back to me on that.)

    Colorado’s state department of education (a department that has swollen from three to fourteen members, thanks to Gates’ grants) officials are now mandating that at least part of each teacher’s 50% test portion has to be a “collective” measure. For example, all the students in the high school will take a standardized test, and I’ll be assigned a percentage of their scores, even if I never taught, much less ever laid eyes on those students. Sounds fair, yes?

    I think it’s beyond bizarre that politicians somehow have the idea that they can suspend reality for everything except education. (Maybe all laws are this stupid, but I just don’t know it because I don’t understand them so well.) The No Child Left Behind mandated that every child would be at grade level by 2014. That’s really worked out well. Johnston seems to believe that by passing a bill that says teachers will be evaluated using tests that don’t exist, even in a state like Colorado that doesn’t tax its citizens much, his law can somehow will those tests into existence. Then, education will improve.

    Johnston’s SB191 also creates a “mutual consent” clause that is eliminating public school teachers from Denver as Denver Public Schools (DPS) eliminates “low performing” (high poverty) schools and replaces them with the recently name-changed Strive schools. Most of those Strive teachers are (you’ll not be shocked) TFA. DPS’s union membership, as a result, has dropped from around 75% since 2010 since the law passed to around 55% today.
    Here’s a link to an article today about mutual consent:
    Here’s the co-location link:

    Thanks to Johnston, Colorado is now busting unions more effectively than ever, all in the name of “reform.”

  2. Jack says:

    Novelist / Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo described those named names during the blacklist, and those whose cowardice enabled the blacklist:

    “It’s a dilemma as old as time… yield up your principles and ye shall be rich… hold fast to your principles and… well, you won’t be as rich as you would if you yielded them up… ”

    Okay, that’s not an exact quote a I don’t have it handy. However it applies to (COUGH! COUGH!) “Senator” Johnston.

    Yield up your principles and do the bidding of DFER and the Billionaire Boys Club, and ye shall be rich, Senator Johston.

    This guy wouldn’t know The Truth if if went down on him. Isn’t it nice of him to confirm to you in private about the 100% graduation stat is bogus, while allowing it to travel around the world?

    That leads to that great quote from Mark Twain: “A lie will travel half way around the world while The Truth is still putting on its shoes.”

    • skepticnotcynic says:

      Jack you are a wise man.

      • Jack says:

        Merci beaucoups.

        The billionaire privatizers go after and “buy” progressives to do their bidding… much like a john in the living room of a whorehouse. You pay whores for sex… you pay political whores to vote, give speeches, promote policy, etc. that the johns want.

        L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa—a former teachers’ union organizers… they bought him.

        State Senator Gloria Romero—a pro-union progressive… they bought her.

        Davis Guggenheim—a pro-union, progressive, film maker… they bought him, and he made the most vicious anti-union film ever… shot through with lies from beginning to end

        The douchebags who made “WON’T BACK DOWN”… DITTO

        L.A. School Board Members Monica Garcia, Nury Martinez… and the worst sell-out of all… Yolie Flores-Aguilar… “poor Chicanas from the barrio representing and promiting the interests of other poor Chicanas/Chicanos from the Barrio… THEY BOUGHT THEM LIKE TARTS AT A TIJUANA BROTHEL TO PERFORM ACTS DEMANDED OF THEM

        DITTO… Senator Johnston

        and the list goes on…

        The billionaire privatizers have no facts or truth on their side… JUST LOTS AND LOTS OF MONEY, and human nature being what it is… people will accept that money in exchange for doing their bidding.

      • Jack says:

        Listing these sell-outs is kind of like doing an Oscar speech… “There are so many condemn that I can’t hope to remember to condemn them all… ”

        That’s said, here’s some more:

        Jonah Edelman of STAND FOR CHILDREN, son of a noted Civil Rights leader, who engineered (what he thought at the time was) the annihilation of the Chicago Teachers Union… at some right-wing conference, he was videotaped bragging about how he was able to buy off politicians, monopolize all the lobbyists that CTU would otherwise have used, duped the Illinois state leaders into backing a bill that would in effect destroy any power that union might have… (well, Jonah, we all know how well according to plan THAT turned out; the best laid plans of mice/ privatizing vermin and men oft go astray)

        (try watching that video of Jonah; he looks and sounds like Reinhard Heydrich at the “Wannassee Conference from the Kenneth Brannagh movie)

        Washington Teachers Union George Parker… who, after losing an election, got his forty pieces of silver from Michelle Rhee and her Students First sham organization, to call for the destruction the union he once led.

        A.J. Duffy, the former head of United Teachers Los Angeles, was lured into fronting for a Charter chain to give it legitimacy, only to be thrown aside after being used to get the chain approved… the “emeritus” position he was promised for his support never materialized… the charter honchos cited their tight budget as the reason, but the truth was that they’d gotten what they wanted out of him, and didn’t need him any more;

        Illinois Educators Union President Audrey Soglin, who inexplicably backed Jonah Edelman’s bill (SEE ABOVE); later we found out why: she was annointed by and paid off by the union-busting, privatizing Bellweather organization as one of its “Bellweather Fellows” (look it up… I’m to busy right now)

        there’s more… but I’m off to see a movie

  3. Dan McGuire says:

    This is another great letter, Gary, which I doubt will receive a public response. Johnston now has too much to lose to engage with you in the discussion as it it currently framed.

    Johnston is ‘reforming’ parts of education. You are pointing out the flaws in his reforms without explaining how reform can be done with less flaws. By not taking that next step, you’re implying that the reforms aren’t needed. I know you’ve said that you believe education can be reformed, but you’re not saying explicitly how.

    It’s not a fair dilemma. The reformers are saying ‘something’ needs to be done besides fixing poverty and all of the other things that contribute to the ‘gap’ and all of the other shortcomings of our public education system. The value added measurement thing is too enticing not to use. Lots of people will think that the VAM thing makes sense, because on a very superficial level it does sort of make sense. You and I both know,though, that education will not be meaningfully changed with superficial measure.

    The alternative to the VAM scam is not to change nothing. Instead of using standardized summative assessments we need to use non-standard formative assessments that can be reported widely. All teachers do non-standard formative assessment and always have, we just haven’t yet developed a practice of reporting how we do that assessment. We need to articulate that process to offer an alternative to the reformers. Until we offer a clear alternative reform process, we will be labeled as guardians of the status quo.

    • NewarkTFA says:

      Why should we accept so easily that the “something” that should be done must not focus on “fixing poverty”? Or, to put it in a more nuanced way, at least ameliorating its effects? Don’t we have every reason to to believe that if the working poor had better access to the resources that other families take for granted, their children would do better in school? And why should we even frame the debate in terms of assessments? Yes, there should be some assessments in, and of, the students in the school system at some point, but there were already “assessments”–standardized and otherwise–in place when I was a kid. I don’t see that increasing their number, obsessing over them, and teaching to them in recent decades has created a more educated this citizenry in this country. Honestly, I think if most of money spent on education reform in the last 15 years had been into anti-poverty programs such as Food Stamps or the Earned Income Tax Credit, to take just two examples, we would have seen more bang for the buck. Focusing on schools assumes that the most important factors contributing to poor educational outcomes originate from the schools themselves, which is simply not the case. Even if–for some arbitrary reason–we choose to focus on the school site, I would argue that wraparound services–making sure that all the kids have plenty of healthy food to eat, good, medical, visual, and dental care, etc. etc. etc, would be more beneficial than other “reforms.” As for what Gary Rubinstein should advocate, well, I would argue that pointing out that the emperor has no clothes is a valuable service in and of itself. If he’s naked, he’s naked, and there’s no need to sew him all whole new wardrobe before pointing that out.

  4. Pingback: NCTQ Letter Grades and the Reformer Agenda– Part XIII « deutsch29

  5. Steven Wozniak says:

    If the CSAP accurately measured the academic progress of Michal Johnston’s students then MESA (and Mr. Johnston) fall into the category of “fails to make adequate progress” based on the low scores of his students. If Mr. Johnston was a successful administrator, then the test failed to accurately assess the great academic success of his students! Senator Johnston needs to choose one or the other – both cannot be true. Was he an unsuccessful administrator, or are these types of tests a waste of time and money?
    If these tests are not accurate measures of student progress, then why do we waste hundreds of millions of dollars each year (nation wide) on assessments that do not accurately measure the progress of our students? We would be practicing bad science if we tie unreliable assessments to teacher performance.
    If the tests are reliable measures, and Mr. Johnston was not a successful administrator, then what makes him qualified to lead education reform? What makes him qualified to be an education advisor?

  6. Pingback: A Portrait of the Reformer as a Young Man | Gary Rubinstein's Blog

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