Michael Johnston’s speech at Harvard

Colorado state senator and sort-of friend of mine (I liked him better before he fell into the wrong crowd) Michael Johnston recently spoke at the Harvard GSE graduation.  Harvard GSE has spawned many ‘reformers’ including Michelle Rhee, so it did not seem like it should be so controversial for Johnston — a Rhee in sheep’s clothing — to be invited, but it still did cause a number of students and faculty there to protest this choice.

Johnston is known as a hero in the ‘reform’ community for getting a horrible bill passed SB-191 which tied teacher evaluations to standardized test scores for 50% of the evaluation.  Even in DC, where their IMPACT model was once 50% test scores, has reduced that component to 35%.

I don’t know how Johnston is on other issues besides education.  He is a very passionate guy and he’s been known to be a very comforting presence when tragedies have happened in Colorado, like the shooting in Aurora.  I’d guess that most citizens in Denver like him — all except the teachers.

Well, despite the protests, Johnston’s invitation was not rescinded so there was a lot of pressure on MJ to make the speech of his life.  He is not used to a hostile audience as he’s generally asked to speak to groups of like minded ‘reformers’ who adore him and his ‘courage’ to make 50% of teacher evaluations based on the ‘Colorado Growth Model.’

I had planned to give him some advice about what, and what not, to say in this speech.  I seriously think that these ‘reformers’ are in such denial about the harm they are doing that they don’t even understand what everyone’s so upset about.  I didn’t get a chance to do this, and he probably wouldn’t have listened to me anyway, so the speech happened a few days ago.  According The Vail Daily’s headline Johnston inspires Harvard groups that protested him and resulted in his receiving a standing ovation.  Michael Johnston managed to pull a last second ‘Hail Mary’ and scored a touchdown in the way that Denver Broncos quarterback Payton Manning was unable to in the recent Superbowl.

I hadn’t heard any eyewitness accounts from people who were unhappy about him being there, but Harvard did post the text of the speech so I got to read it.  I’ll analyze it a bit here, but if you want the short version — it was lame.  My sense is that the standing ovation was not as enthusiastic as the Vail Daily would have us believe.

Johnston’s speech had three refrains.  The first is that he believes in the ‘Right To Know.’  The second is that he believes in the ‘Power To Decide.’  And, finally, he believes in the ‘Will To Love.’  Each section was weaved around the story of an actual student who benefited from one of these things.

Reading this speech, it makes me wonder who is more dangerous:  Michelle Rhee or Michael Johnston?  Sadly, I’m beginning to think it is Michael Johnston.  I mean, with Rhee you know what you’re getting.  She thinks most teachers are ‘crappy’ and she’s not afraid to say it.  Rhee’s star is fading, I think.  I just don’t see her on TV as much and my sense is that she is deliberately keeping a low profile as she decides how to re-invent herself to be relevant again.  It will be tough.  But Michael Johnston is a smooth talker who can make speeches that make you believe in the garbage he is pushing on you.  By the end of his speech you’re in tears and applauding wildly even though he was speaking in ‘Vailed’ terms about how he was going to destroy you.

So ‘The Right To Know’ part is centered around a student he knew who, because she knew her ACT scores, and they were very good, she applied to a better university than she would have had she not had ‘The Right To Know.’

Students have the right to know early and often how they are doing academically and how they compare to kids around the corner and around the world. Not just when its good news — like in Raquel’s case — it opens up worlds of possibility they didn’t have space to dream before, but even when its hard news, like when an early diagnostic showed our own boys had speech delays. It gives us the power to make changes, and gives us back ownership over how to make them.

Somehow this is supposed to justify the fixation on standardized test score data including his controversial bill to tie 50% of teacher evaluation to Value-Added scores.  It is quite a stretch.  I certainly think that kids have the right to know their ACT scores.  Who doesn’t?  The issue is whether it is useful to ‘Know’ something that is invalid, like the teacher Value-Added scores.  This is something he stays clear of.
The second prong of his pitchfork is ‘The Power To Decide.’ He tells a story about an undocumented immigrant student who can’t afford to go to college because Colorado law prohibits him getting discounted tuition.  Then the kid has to go back to Mexico and when he gets his papers approved he returns to Colorado and joins the army.  It is not so clear how this is going to relate to school choice until Johnston makes an abrupt segue.
We must build a profession that ensures stakeholders retain the power to decide and that means allowing parents and kids to decide what school is best for them. This means a world of teachers who lead and leaders who teach, a world where school leaders and teachers have the POWER TO DECIDE how to spend their resources, how to build their programs and school culture, how to support their own professional development, and — most importantly — about who gets the privilege of working alongside them.
So after getting the audience misty eyed we hear about school choice and about ‘who gets the privilege of working’ — in other words, how we can easily fire teachers.
School choice does have a nice ring to it, but is is not very practical.  Most parents would prefer to send their child to the school that is most convenient — the neighborhood school — as long as it is considered to be about as good as the other schools that are further away.  And when the department of education is providing ‘information’ (The Right To Know) about how the charter school a few miles away is so much better than the ‘failing’ nearby local school, of course people are going to choose a different school.  School choice has been taken to its extreme in New Orleans and based on what is going on in Newark, people are getting wise to the chaos that too much ‘choice’ causes.  Denver is pretty spread out and there is not much in the way of public transportation — some buses and a light rail — I don’t think that school choice is a big part of the reform movement over there anyway.
The final part of his speech ‘The Will To Love.’  In this he speaks about a troubled boy, currently in jail for shooting someone, that has no family and who calls Johnston’s wife ‘mom.’  Johnston uses this story to bring up his big final point:

this calling, more than any other, is fueled by the WILL TO LOVE, and to love so recklessly that you are willing to break your heart into 180 pieces and send it home in every ratty little backpack that comes into your classroom, and sometimes you have to drop it into a plastic sack because they don’t have a backpack, or shove it into their jean pockets because they don’t have a lunch box. That WILL TO LOVE is exhausting, and it is the most important thing you will ever do.


I have yet to meet a practitioner or parent or policy maker who wants students to fail, no matter their ideology or approach. I have yet to meet one who wants teachers to be miserable, parents to be disrespected, or students to be bored. Those images are paranoia, not people. To realize that is to admit that we all share the same goal; we only differ on how to reach it. There are no enemies in foxholes, and we are all in this foxhole together. That does not mean we have to agree, it means we should always be mindful of how much energy we spend fighting each other versus the energy we spend collectively fighting inequality and injustice.


Improving our system will require debate and disagreement, it will require a commitment to evidence and not ideology, but that debate must begin with a willingness to listen.

The old ‘When adults fight, kids lose’ argument.  No, the teachers and the ‘reformers’ are not in the same foxhole together.    If I’m in the foxhole and one of the commanders starts picking off my platoon one by one, you had better believe I’m going to do something about it.  I’m actually obligated to.  And the energy that some of us spend fighting is quite a good use of energy as it is finally beginning to pay dividends all around the country.

Johnston lies when he then says:

The WILL TO LOVE means calling on that love first, so when you disagree with a teacher, or a principal, or a policy maker, talk to her and not about her, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the productive thing to do. To reach out first to those who disagree is a rule I have always kept, whether on this trip to Harvard, or in my work in Colorado.


I know from personal experience that I have written to Johnston over ten times over the past few years and he has only answered me twice.  My last time hearing from him was nearly a year ago.  So for me with Johnston, this has not been a very ‘productive thing to do.’

All in all, this speech was predictable and unfortunate.  Whether or not he got a unanimous standing ovation, I don’t know.  Perhaps if I were there hearing the speech in person rather than reading the text, I too would have been seduced by Johnston’s passionate prose.  But getting to read it carefully at my own pace and read between the lines, I’m still waiting for Johnston to get real.

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4 Responses to Michael Johnston’s speech at Harvard

  1. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

  2. Michael Fiorillo says:

    The Right to Know… buzz, whirr, click… The Power to Decide … buzz whirr, click… The Will to Love… buzz, whirr, click…

    More simulacrums of concern from a Stepford so-called educator.

  3. patrickwalsh says:

    This person Johnson reminds me of Obama — a slick bullshitter hired to destroy the very things he is claiming to represent.

  4. Kelley says:

    I find the right to know ironic, considering that neither teachers nor students in NYS receive their high-stakes test scores until the middle of the summer. Ugh.

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