A Portrait of the Reformer as a Young Man

Michael Johnston is the TFA alum state senator from Colorado who sponsored the most extreme test-based ‘accountability’ law in the country.  Whereas ‘reformers’ debate whether the proper weight for value-added is 20% or 35%, Johnston’s SB-10-191 tortures teachers with a full 50%.

The first time I met Johnston was in 1997 when he was at his TFA training institute.  I had come to the institute to do a workshop and he attended it.

Three years later, we met again at the Teach For America 10 year alumni summit.  I found him and his girlfriend Courtney (now his wife) to be charming and a lot of fun.  I had just gotten my first book ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian’ published, and I was sitting at a booth trying to sell them, but I was too shy to make any sales, and Courtney offered to help and she singlehandedly sold all fifty books I brought.

I ran into them a few more times over the years at different TFA functions and always enjoyed hanging out with them.  At the 20 year alumni summit, just as I was becoming a reform critic, Johnston made a speech, along with another alumni elected official, where he described the emotional fight he participated in to get his bill passed.  At that time, I didn’t know anything about Race To The Top or Arne Duncan.  When Johnston explained (Watch from 5:30 to 8:00 on the video below) that an opponent of his bill argued that teachers shouldn’t be evaluated on the ‘growth’ of their students since some teachers have students who are tougher to help ‘grow’ than the students of other teachers.  That opponent made the unfortunate analogy that it would be unfair to a baker to judge his product if he was forced to use flour infested with maggots.  Actually the opponent had a good point, though his bad analogy made him the bad guy that Johnston defeated when he got this bill passed.  I cheered loudly at the end of the speech.  This was before I studied up on the dark side of ‘reform.’

In 2002, when Johnston was in Yale Law school, he published a book ‘In The Deep Heart’s Core’ about his two years teaching high school in the Mississippi Delta.  When he was doing a book signing in New York City, I went to it and when it was my turn to get my book signed, Johnston wrote something very gracious.  “To Gary — To the man who paved this path to TFA authorship & inspired me & made me laugh long before I got to the classroom.  All Best, Mike”


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I read the book back then and thought it was great.  Mike really had a way of making his characters, his students, real.  His story was not about what a hero he was.  He didn’t get many of his students into college.  But he immersed himself in his school community and truly got to know his students.

But sometime between 2002 and 2010 when Johnston got his ‘accountability’ bill passed, something happened to Michael Johnston.  Over the past four years I have communicated with Johnston a bit.  Mostly I write to him, but he sometimes writes back.  He was even a recipient of one of my ‘open letters,’ and was one of the few to write back.

Most recently, Johnston was invited to speak at the Harvard Education school graduation.  Harvard is where Rhee got her start and it is where Thomas Kane works so they are pretty ‘reform’ happy, I figured.  But evidence is starting to mount against the ‘reformers’ and the announcement of Johnston as the speaker made many alumni very upset.  Some alumni petitioned to get his invitation rescinded, but the deans there would not do it.

Reading about this story gave me the idea to dig up my signed copy of ‘In The Deep Heart’s Core,’ and read it again, 12 years later.  But this time I’d search for clues in trying to figure out how a guy as thoughtful and as smart as Johnston could become a state senator who is pretty much universally hated by teachers there (I lived in Colorado for 6 years and still have lots of friends who are teachers there) and who, I’d argue, is a ‘teacher hater,’ himself, as anyone would have to be to believe that teachers are so lazy and negligent that the only way to get them to try is to base 50% of their evaluations on an inaccurate student ‘growth’ metric.

In chapter 3 we see the first mention of ‘bad teachers.’

each class was more than one hundred minutes long, nearly the length of a standard motion picture.  This was a coincidence that I would later see many teachers use to their advantage.

In that same chapter, though, I see that the young Mike Johnston was not a fan of what would eventually be a hallmark of the ‘no excuses’ charters

The students waited in submissive rows to be called out, one by one, to form a line and move — well guarded — to their next holding tank.  None of the teachers spoke to the students, as if signs of fraternity might confuse the inmates.

Johnston explains how good it is that two of his classes have only 17 and 18 students in them compared to his other class, which has 35.  Of course nowadays ‘reformers’ insist that reducing class size is an unnecessary waste of money.

Johnston’s goal with his class, back then, was not to maximize test scores, but, as he explained

I wanted to explain that in my classroom we would seek more than an understanding of prepositional phrases and literary devices, and that we would measure our success by more than the number of chapters we completed or the number of vocabulary words we memorized.

Unlike modern ‘reformers’ who claim ‘Poverty is not an excuse’ (or whatever version of that they are saying nowadays), Johnston’s book very clearly argues that it is the root cause of the problems in school.  At the start of chapter 5, he writes about how one student wrote an essay about how her father beat her mother to death and another student watched her mother’s boyfriend pour gasoline on her mother and set her on fire.

Johnston taught the older grades and had students who came to his class after being released from prison.  These were not students that he miraculously saved by the end of the book.

We hear more about bad teachers including one who was a drug addict and was selling grades to his students for $150.  That teacher got caught but “was finally removed amid the scandal and transferred to a new position at the alternative school.”

Johnston has a wayward student named Corelle.  He goes to the students home, and in chapter 6 Johnston writes “it was obvious that I was the first teacher ever to visit the house.”  Corelle’s mother is stoned, however, but even she knows, “I tell ya this sho’ as I’m sitting here, he a had some more of you way back when, he sho’ wouldn’t be acting a fool the way he is now.  Dat’s a truth too, they need more teachers like you up over there.”  I don’t think Johnston was suggesting that he accomplished much with his visit however.  The idea that he was going to ‘save’ that kid was not likely, and did not happen.

An ironic section happens where Corelle is going to fail the course unless he makes up fourteen assignments in one day.  The student shows up at Johnston’s class and sits in a desk and works through the day, cutting his other classes, and completes the fourteen assignments.  It is a bit of a precursor to ‘credit recovery’ which goes completely against the ‘high expectations’ mantra we hear today, but credit recovery has helped pump up graduation rates.  Still, it wasn’t enough.  Corelle was part of a food fight that got him expelled, eventually.

Though Johnston has a small victory when, in chapter 7, he teaches a student how to play chess and uses chess as a metaphor for the student’s life, when we get to chapter 8 that some students are not at school to learn

For some students, their refusal to acquire school supplies articulated their attitudes toward school in general:  They would agree to show up each day as the law and their parents mandated, and they would sometimes agree not to keep others from learning, but this did not mean they had to expend their own time and energy to help the process run more smoothly.

At the end of chapter 8, Johnston learns that one of his toughest students has been socially promoted since second grade.  In a line that means more now than it did then, he wrote

As his mother finished her story I sat enraged, wanting to burn public education to the ground and start again just for Jevon.

In chapter 9, one of good kids, Oron, gets pushed past his breaking point after being beat up at a football game.  The kid ends up putting another kid in the hospital, beating him with a chair.  There is no mention of this being the fault of negligent teachers, though.  The entire book is about how the external factors outweigh all else.

In chapter 11, Johnston writes about teen pregnancy and teen mothers.  He befriends a student who comes to him for tutoring and they have pretty explicit conversations about sex and birth control and much else.  I think he treads pretty dangerously in his description.  I hope that there was some guidance counselor that he also referred her to.

In chapter 12, Johnston takes a jab at standardized tests

It was during one of our innumerable state testing sessions that I first met Marvin Griffin.  In a furor to try to improve test scores, the administration had set aside the first forty-five  minutes of the school day for test preparation.  Although the ninth grade was the only class to be tested, the entire school was put on hold, sent to homeroom, and forced to wait while math and English teachers scurried from room to room tutoring ninth graders.

At the end of chapter 12 we meet Marvin, a brilliant student, who happens to have very supportive parents.  Marvin, like his mother, is a ‘ravenous’ reader.  In a section that reminds me a bit of the ‘maggots’ comment that so enraged Johnston years later, he wrote about Marvin:

Marvin was an enigma.  He had assumed none of the distaste for life that surrounded him;  somehow he managed to develop from his rancid environment a perpetually hopeful and peaceful vision of his own world. … Marvin, on the other hand, was a wildflower that grew up through the cracks in the garage floor, never tended, never cultivated, but somehow willed toward full bloom.

One of the best chapters was chapter 14 where Johnston becomes an assistant track coach and gets to know Chico, a student who is the state champion in the 400 meter, and is courted by top college recruiters.  Chico, though, has to get a 17 on the ACT.  Johnston, you’d figure, would tutor this kid to give him his chance at getting a college scholarship with his gifted talent.  Instead we learn that Chico got a 15, and when Johnston learns this he says

“Chico, why didn’t you come in to see me for help?”  I asked him.  “I gave you the review book and you never brought it back.  You knew when I was hosting review sessions, all you had to do was stop by.  Did you ever even take those practice tests I gave you?”

This reminds me of how there is never enough time in a teacher’s day to do all the things we’d like to.  Proactively working with this kid on his ACTs might seem like an obvious thing to do, but teachers are not miracle workers and there are only so many hours in a day.

Chico wins the state championship again in the 400, but without his grades he has to go to a community college, and then he just kind of falls apart and never does much with his running again.

In chapter 15 we meet a bad sub who showed movies and a bunch of bad teachers who would let kids borrow chess boards from Johnston since, as one said, “Sure, we ain’t doing nothing right now.”

Seven pages before the end of the book, Johnston finally mentions about twelve teachers at his school who he admired for different reasons, particularly Mr. Ransom who Johnston would have philosophical discussions with.  In the epilogue, he explains that the book was about the kids and he could have chosen to write about teachers more than the brief mention a few pages earlier.

My fellow teachers and other Delta friends are absent from this book in a way that misrepresents the profound impact they had on my personal life, my work, and my love for Mississippi.  A brief mention of some of them in the final section is my paltry attempt to thank them for the incredible support and friendship they provided.

So, no, Johnston wasn’t always contemptuous of teachers.  Back then, he didn’t diagnose the problem as bad teachers or a lack of ‘higher standards’ (The title ‘The Deep Heart’s Core’ was a quote from a poem, and had nothing to do with the eventual Common Core Standards).  There are some bad teachers and bad subs throughout the book, but his list of people who he respected was long, indicating that at that time he didn’t think that more ‘accountable’ teachers measured by an inaccurate ‘growth’ model was what Mississippi kids needed.  I’m sure that those teachers would agree, like Johnston’s opponent in the senate tried to argue, that by no fault of the teacher, there are certain kids who, for various reasons, are unlikely to ‘grow’ academically.  Johnston’s book actually argues that point quite nicely.  He never blames himself for the Corelle leaving school, or for Chico not becoming a college athlete.  He also doesn’t blame himself for model student Oron’s meltdown causing him to nearly kill someone — nor should he.  This is just what the opponent of SB-10-191 was getting at with his poor choice of analogy.  I’m sure that Johnston’s teacher friends would, if they were subjected to his SB-10-191, would dislike him as much as most teachers in Colorado feel about him.

Believe it or not, I have hope for Johnston.  I suppose that he thinks that for political reasons he’s got to ‘stay the course.’  After all, he knows the President and Arne Duncan.  What’s he going to do?  But maybe the furor over the announcement of his speech at Harvard will encourage him to take a closer look at what he stands for.  Maybe the older Michael Johnston will get back to his roots one day and learn a bit from the younger Michael Johnston.

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11 Responses to A Portrait of the Reformer as a Young Man

  1. Amy says:

    Very interesting analysis, thanks for researching and writing this.

    Mr. Johnston, are you reading this?

    Rational people still have hope for you. Come back to the light!

  2. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

  3. Leigh Campbell-Hale says:

    You are right about Colorado teachers despising Johnston. We have to live with SB-191 every day, and this pompous Johnston speech to which you’ve provided video doesn’t make me think there will be much self-reflection going on inside his reformy head. The only reason he didn’t introduce his bill this session linking teacher licensure to “effective” teacher ratings using SB-191 as the guideline was because of the extraordinary defeat in November of Amendment 66 (it lost 2:1), which he made himself the spokesman for, which galvanized previously unorganized groups–such as school boards and superintendents–to push back this legislative session.

  4. Educator says:

    That maggots analogy (yes it was a bad choice) reminds me of another analogy people use. “If my business were run like schools it’d go out of business!” Here’s the problem – thousands and thousands of businesses close every year. Most fail I believe. From what I’ve seen, closing schools and opening up new ones then closing those down again and shifting hard to teach students out of your school in order to prove “effectiveness”….doesn’t seem to be working (think Newark). In the business world, in order for your company to be, let’s say, Apple – it doesn’t work to tell your tech employees “Be like Apple otherwise we’ll fire all of you.” That’s not good leadership. Same with schools. Rhee-type reforms don’t work in the private sector. They don’t work in public education either.

  5. Pingback: Gary Rubinstein: Who Is the Real Michael Johnston? | Diane Ravitch's blog

  6. guegreen says:

    Here’s the reality on the passage of 191. An immense amount of money was spent lobbying the bill. Including a $60,000 poll by Stand for Children that was NEVER disclosed as a lobbying expense, violating Colorado law. Rollie Heath, a state senator I have known my entire adult life (I spent months working in his basement) was perhaps the critical committee swing vote. He patiently listened to all my logic and evidence against the bill. He then produced the poll, which showed voters could make decisions to vote against his fellow Democrats based on the accountability message of the bill. He voted for 191, after making a substantive amendment or two. The story of 191 is money, money,money. Not bad metaphors.

    • Leigh Campbell-Hale says:

      Dear guegreen,
      I can’t tell who you are from this online name. My name is pretty clear, and since I work for Boulder Valley School District, I’m very easy to find. Will you contact me and let’s talk?

  7. Denver rules, Vail drools. says:

    Like most school reformers, well intentioned people, driven by some manifest destiny of education, bent on destroying the mythical evil doers, while the darkness lurks within their own hearts.

  8. I bet Johnston is making a lot more money now that he has gone over to the Dark Side.

  9. chemtchr says:

    God, this depresses me.
    “I wanted to explain that in my classroom we would seek…” but he was just feeding on his students all along. It’s personal, getting that close up just so you can write another one of those books about the dead-ends, the cliffs, the broken hope. Here’s the thing. If you were actually IN CHILDREN’S LIVES, you’d have to be part of it, one way or the other.

    I’m so sick of “idealistic” TFA parasites. All of you, I think. Otherwise unemployable, you avail yourselves of this nepotism racket to get a job you don’t even deserve, that promises a foot on the privilege ladder. Then, you’ll pick up on some kids that embody the narrative you imagine, and you’ll get up on those students and ride around in big hats promoting yourselves. The others, that you don’t see or hear, are road kill.

    Your own fundamental detachment reflects the brutal indifference of your class. This guy was a piece of work, all along.

  10. Leigh Campbell-Hale says:

    I’ve been following this Johnston convocation speech controversy closely (and throwing in my two cents’ worth), and today the online Harvard newsletter summarized his speech, but in the introduction repeated–again!–the 100% Mapleton graduation “fact” that you so successfully debunked. However, I can’t find that link. If I could, I’d post the refutation myself. Here’s the link to the Harvard story if you, or somebody, would care to respond to that myth:

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