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Well, despite the protests, Johnston’s invitation was not rescinded so there was a lot of pressure on MJ to make the speech of his life.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.
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.