Open Letters FROM Reformers I Know. Part 1: Michael Johnston

Links to the rest of this series here

Here is a response from Michael Johnston (I told you that I know these people!), the first response I’ve gotten from my open letters.  You can read my letter to him here.



Thanks for your thoughtful letter and invitation to respond. I also consider you a friend and an invaluable resource as I have used your instructional materials often both as a teacher and a principal.  In addition to your leadership as an author, there is another way in which I have attempted to follow in your footsteps since TFA: you were one of the first people to successfully stake out the middle ground of being both practitioner and policy thinker.  One of the great gaps that I saw in the profession when I first started teaching was that none of the practitioners spoke to the policymakers and vice versa.  Each side was frustrated with the other, as practitioners saw policymakers as out of touch and impractical, and policymakers couldn’t understand why practitioners couldn’t implement good policy with fidelity.  Since my experience in TFA my goal has been to bridge the worlds of policy and practice, believing that well-informed practice would make better policy, and day-to-day practice would be improved by a good understanding of state and national policy. In that too I think you may have surpassed me as you successfully found a way to remain in the classroom even as you expand your voice in the national debate.  One of my major disappointments about becoming a state senator was that I could no longer stay on as a principal.  Although education remains my day job (I work for America Achieves, a non profit Jon Schnur, Peter Kannam, Bethany Little and I and others founded together) I was unable to negotiate a balance where I could stay on the ground in schools and serve a full time policy role at the same time.  But I think these truly “bimodal educators”, people who speak both policy and practice, are the critical piece to an informed education debate, and it is one of the reasons why I think yours is a particularly important voice in this national conversation.


I don’t believe that the education world is divided into two camps, or that there are good guys and bad guys: this is not an old western with white hats and black hats, it is much more like a Cormac McCarthy novel or a Quentin Tarantino film.  In fact I find the notion of bad guys in education muck like the notion of bad guys in politics, I have yet to find someone in education who wants to build or propagate a bad system as I have yet to meet someone in politics who wants to disserve the American public.  And the public opinion is very much the same: people hate congress but like their own congressman, they believe American education is broken but love their own teacher and principal.  When they have a personal relationship with someone in that system they find them to be working hard and trying to do what’s right.  I have never worked with a teacher or a principal in the education world who didn’t want good things for kids.  Nonetheless, in education, as in Congress, it is possible to have good people working in a system not capable of delivering the results we expect and deserve.




I agree with you that teacher evaluations are not by themselves the silver bullet: Fixing teacher evaluations alone will not fix our education system.  I do believe, as the research supports, that the single most important thing we can get right in education is the people: attracting great people, retaining great people, and developing great people.  And I think that critical to any ability to developing great people requires having a meaningful evaluation system that helps teachers grow.  Like you and many others, I never got good feedback or support as a teacher, and like all the teachers I know, I wanted to get better but didn’t always know how.  Hanushek and others have demonstrated the impact on our system that can be achieved through helping low performing teachers improve to the middle of the curve or replacing them with teachers at the middle of the performance curve.  The power of this lever makes spending a great deal of time on teacher quality and teacher performance worth it. It is not that teachers are the problem, it is that they are the solution.


I also don’t believe that this means America can or should fire its way to greatness. To achieve success at scale we will have to help the people in the profession improve. That means developing and implementing meaningful metrics for how we are doing in reaching our goals for kids, and for kids those goals often require demonstrating outcomes. We knew at MESA that when our kids left and entered college they would have to take a standardized test, the ACCUPLACER, to determine what college courses they would enter and if they had to take remediation courses.  As you know Gary, those remediation courses are often not covered by financial aid, and so kids have to pay out of pocket to take remedial courses before they can start their normal coursework.  Being unable to pass that standardized test has direct financial impact on our kids, not to mention academic and emotional impact.  So we came to believe early on to that these measures mattered, both practically and philosophically. We then built systems where we tracked student data weekly and modified instruction based on our results. We shared that data and asked people who were achieving real student growth to help lead professional development for other educators to model what was working.  It was hard for us at the beginning because it required real honesty and exposure, but in the end we found it built the much deeper bond that comes from taking on something difficult with honesty and passion, not making excuses or passing judgment but never being satisfied until every child was successful. The result is new systems that are meaningful to both the kids and the adults who teach them.


Equally important to us at MESA was that every young person also become a good citizen of the world. Not just working on their letters and numbers, but helping young people become the kind of person you want to live next to or work next to or be married to. This meant developing habits of work and social skills and measuring and monitoring those skills in the same way we did their core academic skills.  It meant understanding what made teachers brilliant in the art of teaching as well as the science; respecting, celebrating and learning from the ways great teachers built personal relationships, established rapport, found ways to inspire kids to love coming to school and to dig deeper in themselves to find something more.  Doing our job well meant being good at both of those things, and we built a feedback system for kids and adults built around that dual commitment to improve the skills of the student and the qualities of the person.  Our framework for our teacher evaluation system in Colorado is built off of the same belief – 50% of evaluation based on student growth and 50% based on professional practices that help teachers build great young people. Half of the evaluation would be linked to the intangible characteristics not linked to student performance, but that half of our goal should be about making sure we’re helping kids develop the hard measurable skills we know they will need to be successful.


Some of the commenters to your initial post are absolutely right – there is no “one size fits all” approach that can effectively evaluate every teacher in every subject based on a checklist from the state. That’s why we have asked education professionals across Colorado to help work through the details to develop that system, and they have made the system dramatically better. It is also why, as you noted, we have put in place a measured timeline for implementation that will allow us to gather data on the system and improve it as we go. We had our first pilot year last year, are doing another pilot year this year and then next year.  The first year of implementation teachers are not at risk of losing tenure, it is only in the 4th year of the pilot that teachers begin their first year of exposure to negative evaluations having long term impact on their job protections.  Other important details: our system does not link directly to compensation and our bill never requires the firing of a single teacher or principal, it always leaves that final decision to local leaders, superintendents or principals. The only consequence the teacher faces after 2 years of ineffective performance is the removal of state sponsored job protections (tenure), but a teacher can always earn those protections back based on improved performance and a principal can still choose to keep that teacher on if she believes that she has a plan to help her improve.





As I said before, I don’t believe there are any bad guys in this work. I’ve  never met someone in the education system who goes to work every day trying to make childrens’ lives worse.


But I do believe we are not getting the results we need for kids and to get those results we will have to change the system. Change is hard for any organization but harder for some than for others. But all of these organizations are radically heterogeneous which is why no one voice speaks accurately for all of them.  Every education bill I’ve supported has had significant support from teachers, principals and superintendents, and each of them has been supported by one or both of our statewide teachers unions.


And there are similar examples of political courage where unions and reformers are working side by side to pass good policy.  Our Great Teachers and Leaders Bill, SB 191, was just such an example.  The Colorado AFT, led by Brenda Smith, very courageously endorsed our bill early, as did Randi Weingarten who frequently talks about our Colorado effort as one of the prime examples of places where the AFT is supporting bold reform. While the NEA opposed the bill, many of their members supported it.  In fact when Dennis Van Roekel came to testify against the bill, three teachers who were local NEA building representatives testified in favor of it immediately after him.  In addition, the NEA has been a critical and positive partner in the implementation of the bill, working tirelessly to implement the bill fairly and robustly.  In fact the two CEA members who were key leaders on the Governor’s council to implement the bill, were just elected as the new statewide president and vice president of the CEA in part based on their leadership on the governors council.


All of the reform work we did in Mapleton we did thanks to strong and courageous support from the union. Holly Cook, our union president in Mapleton, was one of my teachers at MESA and of the single best partners I’ve ever had in any professional endeavor.  I would follow her into any burning building anywhere.  We built a strong and supportive school climate that I think was a safe and enriching place for kids to come to school and a rewarding and respectful place for adults to work.  I believe there are schools and districts all over the country where the partnership between teachers and administration is similarly strong and these partnerships ought to light the path towards collaborative and courageous school reform.


Finally, I couldn’t agree with you more that this work is incredibly hard, and that its easy to forget how hard it is when you’re out of the classroom. Teaching was by far the hardest job I have ever had, being a principal was a close second.  I would grade myself as a mediocre teacher and a mediocre school principal, but I had the privilege of working alongside brilliant and committed educators and being able to share their success was a personal and professional gift for which I am eternally grateful. So if in my rhetoric or my actions I give the impression that this work is easy, or that I have all the complexities of good practice figured out, I am probably wrong, and like any good partner teacher I would expect you to call me out on it, and you would be right.


“To earn the respect of honest critics” — that is my favorite line of Emerson’s famous paragraph on the definition of success.  In public life we are often encouraged to ignore our most vocal critics, but I find that feedback from honest critics is the best way to get better.  It is what we are asking our teachers to do, and it is what I will always expect myself to do.


In that spirit Gary I will continue to work hard to earn your respect.

Your friend,


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16 Responses to Open Letters FROM Reformers I Know. Part 1: Michael Johnston

  1. Educator says:

    I admire Mike for giving a response.

    However, I don’t think he addresses your particular concern with test metrics well, as he backs 50% test metrics (a.k.a. student growth) and 50% other stuff. And he uses a typical reformer argument (at least the reformers I’ve met and read about): Well, there are tests in the world. Deal with it.

    Do we know that higher test scoring students are better for society? Are high PISA/TIMSS/Etc… scores what has made America what it is today? Professor Yong Zhao seems to disagree with the focus on testing in this video (he starts at about 18 minutes:
    and he uses compelling evidence from the education systems of other nations. There are side effects to such a drastic focus on testing, he argues. And what has made this nation great isn’t high test scores. (It never has. America has always been behind.) Other nations, such as South Korea, are trying to get their public education systems to be more like America’s!

    I believe that 2 education issues are getting mixed up that are actually separate, real issues: 1) The difficulty in educating low-income students and 2) The low test scores compared to other nations. Much of the reforms seem to be in response to problem 1), yet they’re spilling over to problem 2), which I don’t believe is as big a problem as what the politicians make it out to be (again, reference Professor Zhoe’s arguments). So well intentioned folks, like Senator Johnston and others in the reform community, see low-income students struggling to reach the middle class, so they’re throwing a bomb into the education sytem, claiming it to be failing, when, in fact, the real failure is to a subset of the population. I believe we should be focusing on how to change things in education for low-income students, and implement reforms and supports that help these particularly difficult areas in education. Instead, what’s happening now is that all schools, even schools with high test scores, find themselves implementing reforms that are hurting us as a nation. (again, reference Professor Zhao)

    Anyhow, I do appreciate that Senator Johnston replied and I hope many other reformers respond to these respectful, well written posts.

    Gary, I believe you are in a unique position, as you have personal relationships and a history with many of these reformers. Additionally, as evidenced in Senator Johnston’s response to you, they actually do read what you write and hopefully they’re listening too. I hope you can keep your integrity and positive spirit so that they don’t have an excuse to easily dismiss you as another one of those status-quo educators who doesn’t like change. Stick to your solid arguments, wait for solid counter arguments (if any), and then respond with solid arguments. If they don’t respond to your solid arguments or they ignore you, speak truth again and again! Repeat as needed, and get louder if required.

  2. Michael Fiorillo says:

    While Mr. Johnston’s statement that “… I have yet to find someone in education who wants to build or propagate a bad system…” may be true, it misses the point and creates, and then banishes, a straw man.

    So what if most so-called education reformers don’t wake up in the morning, rub their hands together and consciously plan the destruction of public education? The deeper truth is that they go about their (well-funded, publicized and uncritically accepted) business with certain embedded premises, assumptions, world views and habits of mind that in practice are highly deceptive and destructive to universal pubic education, while also being quite advantageous to a very limited class of people.

    By confusing subjective outlooks with institutional and systemic behavior, Johnston gives himself and his cohort an undeserved free pass to continue their assault on the public schools, teaching as a career and teacher’s unions.

  3. skepticnotcynic says:

    It is my contention, that the new crop of reformers have had their opportunity to improve the system. I think 10 years is long enough, and they have done far more harm to the educational system than good for our country. They have repackaged reforms that were tried in the early 20th century with a fresh coat of paint and new acronyms. It’s nothing new or innovative.

    Most of the reforms they have advocated do nothing more than put a bandaid on the problem and are so riddled with unintended consequences that I doubt anyone who isn’t currently in the trenches would recognize the harm these reforms are doing to our educational system.

    Why do we continue to think that standardization leads to higher achievement? If anything, it incentivizes the best and brightest teachers to leave our most challenging schools or to leave the classroom for administrative positions within their districts. How is this a good thing? We all know the most impact you can make in regards to raising academic achievement is in the classroom.

    The 80/20 rule applies in every school district, company or organization. 20% of your staff does 80% of the work. The geniuses at the policy level think that micromanaging and evaluating intelligent and productive people is going to raise student achievement across the board. They are delusional. These teachers leave for greener pastures where they can be left alone to be productive. They don’t need roadblocks in their way to get things done.

    I prefer to work with competent administrators; however, the skill-set of a highly-effective administrator and teacher are very different. I have seen this firsthand having worked in both traditional and high-performing public charter schools.

    Michael Johnston, keep pushing these type of reforms, and you will see a shortage of highly-effective teachers in our most challenging classrooms. If you actually believe that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation should be tied to tests that are so poorly written, don’t address the differences among our student population and have little bearing on teacher effectiveness than you obviously didn’t teach long enough to know how unbelievably inaccurate this metric is.

    If you understood how incentives work, you would recognize that the policies you advocate do more harm than good. Furthermore, your policies deprofessionalize teaching. Of course, you would never support these types of reforms for attorneys like yourself, or doctors, but you seem to think that experienced and highly-effective teachers need to be micromanaged by bureaucrats and administrators who lack the understanding judgement and expertise about teaching to be effective evaluators.

    You even admit that you were a mediocre teacher and principal, yet you have the expertise and skill-set to advocate reform and policy for a profession that you consider yourself average in. This is madness.

    It’s obvious you are either advocating these type of reforms to help your career or that you are completely clueless. I’m probably going to guess that it’s the former.

    I suggest you watch this video by Daniel Pink on what motivates us. I’m sure you’ve read his book, but it’s clear you haven’t taken it seriously.

  4. I don’t know how he can claim to respect the job that teachers do and then ignore them completely when they point out how destructive his education policiearame. or do Colorado teachers actually support this stuff?

  5. Leigh Campbell-Hale says:

    I, too, am glad Sen. Johnston wrote. He’s becoming a better politician all the time.

    He didn’t address any of the specific points I made after your open letter to him. Still, since I’m probably the only person from Colorado who’s responding on this blog, I thought I’d point out a few things about his letter that people in other states might not know.

    The evaluation system he praises at Mapleton schools and specifically at the school at which he was principal must not be working very well. Their academic performance has been dropping steadily since 2010. To see for yourself, go to this link, choose Mapleton 1 in the top box, and Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts in the box below it. On the next page that pops up, click “details.”
    (By the way, in 2008, candidate Barack Obama visited Johnston’s school and declared it a “miracle school” because 100% of the students went to college. Gary, you won’t have a very hard time figuring that one out.)

    Johnston praises AFT union president Brenda Smith for supporting SB191. AFT had one union contract in the state. All others are with the NEA. What did the lone AFT president and her members gain for supporting his bill? Their ideologically driven board discontinued its contract with them in June then instituted a bizarre, “market-driven” pay scale for its teachers. I’ve got a link below showing the five “buckets” of teachers’ salaries posted on a site hosted by parents who are unhappy with their school board’s “reforms.”

    Johnston correctly states that the Colorado Education Association opposed his bill, but that after it passed, the organization supported it. It’s closer to say we’re trying to make the best of a done deal.

    As I mentioned in my previous post, the “details” of implementation are falling to districts, but there was no additional funding in the bill to pay for that work. Therefore, it robs money from the classroom.

    There are still no tests for the 50% of a teacher’s evaluation that will be measured by test scores, but it looks like the new America Achieves (the organization he just founded for his “day job”), and other organization like it, will help fill that gap. It’s Marketing 101: Create a need and then fill it.

    Johnston states that teachers won’t lose tenure for several years. We never had it. We had due process. Whether or not we will in the future remains to be seen.

    That’s it for the specific Colorado facts. However, I read Johnston’s letter several times and here’s what bothers me most. For the first three paragraphs, he uses the word “I” to describe his philosophy. Then, in the fourth paragraph, he shifts to “we,” in the following sentence: “To achieve success at scale we will have to help the people in the profession improve.” Who is the “we” in this sentence? He never says. And could that sentence be any more condescending? By “we” does he mean people like him and Jon Schnur and the other elites all wrapped up in the “reform” movement? That’s my greatest fear, and unfortunately, his letter did nothing to dispel that.

  6. KatieO says:

    I feel about this back and forth the way I felt about Anthony Cody’s dialogue with the Gates Foundation a while back: Nothing fruitful will come of these words. EdReformers are too sure of their righteousness. As elites, and TFAers are often the worst offenders of elitism, they will never change course.

    Nevermind the growing amounts of evidence debunking all their reforms. Nevermind the heart-wrenching stories of abuse, fear, pain, and chaos coming from students, teachers, parents, community members in reaction to these ill-conceived reforms. None of that matters. And most of these reformers will remain separate, far away from the realities their policies inflict. They will stay safely removed from the poverty and pain in their self-congratulatory elite feedback bubble where words like “poverty is not destiny” sound lovely over cocktails.

    The hubris of the elites is staggering.

    You don’t partner with these people, you overthrow them.

  7. juggleandhope says:

    Although the comments to this letter seem unanimous in distrust – and include some helpful context – I think this letter symbolizes a big step forward. A critic of market-driven-reform has been answered – in a thoughtful and often generous way – by a prominent reformer.

    Although you may not find much specific in this letter – especially in terms of self-critique of the “reform” movement – we should realize that conversations move the discussants. This conversation seems to me to have constructed a sturdy starting place for that shared movement.

  8. Steve M says:

    Johnson speaks of how our educational system is broken, and admits that there are numerous reasons why it is so. But then, at the end of his third paragraph, he states that “…teachers ARE the solution,” (emphasis mine).

    He comes up with no other ideas. So, his sole method of reforming education is to focus on teachers’ professionalism…how visionary!

    And what does this mean? Leigh Campbell-Hale, who is dealing with Johnson’s legacy, tells us that it is the ruination of working conditions and the loss of job protections. It is cutting teachers’ pay and setting oneself up to make a killing by creating an organization that will assuredly receive big contracts in the coming years.

    How’s that for selfless reform? As Leigh states, the guy has become a polished politician.

  9. Steve M says:

    Oh, and it sure puts Schnur’s (Open Letter, Part 5) participation in America Achieves in a different light.

  10. E. Rat says:

    I couldn’t read past the (citation-free) mention of Erik Hanushek. Hanushek’s research – whether he’s advocating enormous class sizes or demanding more teachers be fired – has been heavily criticized and often refuted.

    I suppose it would be possible to look at Hanushek’s researchers, read his detractors, and decide that Hanushek is generally correct in his conclusions. Mr. Johnston may have done that; a letter is not necessarily the place to recount such work. But breezily mentioning Hanushek as an unquestioned justification for reactionary, unproven and unpopular policy is a red flag for me.

    And I’ve also read Dana Goldstein’s work on the testing regime for which Mr. Johnston and his allies fought. I cannot understand how anyone could believe that what Colorado is doing will lead to better learning for anyone:

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  12. Jonathan says:

    “It is not that teachers are the problem, it is that they are the solution.”

    This statement sounds good, and, actually reflects a kind of thinking, and underlying assumption, that many reformers believe. However, the idea that teachers alone are the solution to all the challenges presented by the effects of poverty is at best naive.

    A better, and less simplistic, characterization of the “solution” comes from clearly defining and understanding the problem.
    So what is the problem underlying the achievement gap in virtually every economically depressed school districts around the country?
    Certainly it has to do with the effects of poverty, which are deep and varied.
    Those who believe that teachers are going to fix poverty by standing in front of a classroom, and teaching academics, really don’t understand the challenges these students and their families are dealing with.

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