Michael Johnston’s Education Hero Principal Hammered by Johnston’s ‘Growth’ Metric

A few weeks ago, Colorado State Senator Michael Johnston, a leading ed ‘reformer’ because of his law that made teacher evaluations based 50% on student ‘growth’ on standardized tests, spoke at Harvard University.  There was a lot of resistance to this selection, and various students and alumni unsuccessfully petitioned to have the invitation rescinded.  Before Johnston delivered his speech, he was interviewed by someone at Harvard for something called Harvard EdCast.  This fawning interview did not challenge Johnston at all on why so many students and alumni were upset about his positions on education policy.

I’ve tried to ‘engage’ Johnston in debate since I’ve known him for quite some time, but have not gotten much response from him.  So I was a bit amused when he described his approach to opposition like this:

I’ve tried to throughout my work, you know, even when we disagree, not be disagreeable and always be the first one to extend a hand and to sit down and to talk through problems.  And I find in debates, policy debates or school debates, I try to spend the most time with the folks who disagree the most with what I’m proposing because I find you learn the most from them.

A few minutes later, Johnston spoke about why he prefers to meet critics in person rather than debate through twitter or emails.

I find I always learn the most and get the most from face to face conversations.  It’s hard sometimes to get a thoughtful comment into 140 characters.  It’s a lot easier to get it into two hours.

Later in the interview, the interviewer asked Johnston who he looks up to in the education world.  The first person he said was Marcia Fulton as “Maybe the best principal I’ve ever seen in Colorado.”  Fulton is the principal of a K-8 charter school, of course, in Denver called The Odyssey School.

The most controversial thing about Johnston’s education politics is his firm belief in the accuracy of the Colorado Growth Model.  This model is used to compare different schools based on ‘growth’ rather than just ‘achievement.’  Colorado has quite a good website for exploring data like this.  So I thought I’d see how the Odyssey School did on their ‘growth.’

The Odyssey school got different scores for elementary school and middle school.  For elementary math, the Odyssey school did very poorly:


Notice that they are in the ‘Higher Achievement, Lower Growth’ section, really the lowest ‘growth’ for any school at their achievement level or higher.  For the middle school they are, at least, average:


In this case, the numbers say that this school missed its ‘growth target’ by a little, while the elementary school just met its growth target.  On reading the middle school did much better, though the elementary school still lagged on ‘growth.’

I wonder how Johnston’s hero feels about these ‘growth’ scores.  It is pretty ironic that he seems to blindly follow these sorts of metrics when they contradict his first-hand experience in seeing a person who I don’t doubt is an excellent principal.

I wrote to Johnston to tell him about this.  He didn’t write back.  I guess he’s waiting to set up a two hour face to face meeting with me.

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8 Responses to Michael Johnston’s Education Hero Principal Hammered by Johnston’s ‘Growth’ Metric

  1. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

    • TeacherSam says:

      That happens because there are only 25 students at each grade level (see this PDF from the district: http://media.dpsk12.org/enrollmentsnapshots/ES211.PDF). That’s not a large enough sample size to be running these kinds of growth models on. They’re highly unreliable even on large sample sizes; with a single class of students you just get nonsense. Which of course makes makes all of us fear for our jobs, because we are being judged on exactly that.

      • Tom Hoffman says:

        I’ve spent a fair amount of time with Rhode Island’s version of Colorado’s growth browser, and even for small sample sizes, that’s the most extreme example I’ve found.

        Actually here’s a similar but more extreme story from RI, our 2012 state principal of the year had the lowest math growth rate in the state: http://www.tuttlesvc.org/2013/05/2012-ri-principal-of-years-school-posts.html

        It is a bit frustrating that it is difficult for teachers and their unions to embrace using data tools like this more offensively. This data browser makes it fairly easy to illustrate the volatility of SGP, especially if you had teachers adding context to create a story. Without context, if the scores are swinging wildly around, you don’t know if that’s reflecting at least in part real changes, or just noise. Having people in the school community saying publically, “No, this was the same people doing the same things,” (or not) would mean a lot.

        For what it is worth, the SGP’s do seem *reliable* with large sample sizes (i.e., districts, 3 or more years of school data). Whether or not it is *valid* is another question.

  2. Tom Hoffman says:

    If nothing else, the growth browser seems sufficient to obliterate the idea that there is an abstract “teacher quality” because there is so little correlation visible between math and reading scores for a given teacher or even whole scores. It should be an easy point to make visually.

  3. Don Batt says:

    I’ve had personal dealings with Senator Johnston and can support Gary Rubinstein’s observations that his appearance of reasonableness covers entrenched beliefs that he acquired from Teach for America. One fallacy of these metrics is that the higher achieving a student rates, the lower her “growth” will be.

  4. Joe Nathan says:

    Perhaps he’s waiting for you to publicly criticize the super exclusive school you teach at – where it’s not possible for many students with special needs to get into the school. Here stands Gary – who acknowledges he does not like the way his school keeps most kids out – and uses his considerable energy to criticize what others do.
    Many of us would not teach in such a school, which appears solidly inconsistent with the principles of public education. But Gary loves privilege for the tiny number who can pass that standardized test.

  5. Allie_Wall says:

    Diane Ravitch criticizes the policies of Colorado State Senator (& ex-TFA) Mike Johnston here:


    Ravitch refers to a Denver-based magazine article here:


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