Michael Johnston is one of the highest profile ed reform heroes in the country. As a state senator in Colorado his teacher evaluation bill SB-191 mandated that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on standardized test ‘growth.’ The continues to be the highest percent in the country with even Washington D.C. lowering it to 35%. Johnston was even an education advisor to Obama during the 2008 campaign. In 2014 he was featured in a New York Times article called The Trouble With Tenure.
Michael Johnston, or Mike, is also someone that I have known for 20 years. I first met him in 1997 when he was training at the TFA summer institute. His trainer was a good friend of mine that I had worked with the summer before when I was on staff at TFA. Over the years I would see him at TFA alumni summits and he and his girlfriend at the time, and now his wife, were always so nice to me. They even helped me to sell my books at a booth I had set up at the 10 year alumni summit in New York City. When Mike wrote his own book, I attended his book signing at a New York City Barnes and Noble and he was extremely gracious and inscribed something very flattering in my book.
A few years back I wrote a series of ‘open-letters’ to various reformers, some who I knew and some who I didn’t. Of all the letters, only three people ever responded to any of them and he was one of them. You can read my letter and his response here.
Education reform hit its peak of popularity about 7 years ago with the celebrity of Michelle Rhee. With Obama and Arne Duncan at the helm, politicians could be proud education reformers and spread the word with the typical playbook. But things are different now. The public has awakened somewhat to the false promises of the reformers so politicians who are inclined to the Michelle Rhee doctrine generally are not so vocal about it. I think the most dramatic example was two years ago when Rahm Emanuel, of all people, made a speech in which he said “I am not an education reformer.”
One of the things that used to be popular six or seven years ago was to hail a school, usually a charter school, as a ‘miracle school’ that got ‘turned around’ by replacing the staff. I used to spend a lot of my blogging time ‘debunking’ such miracle schools. One of the easiest ways to do this would be when some high school boasted a 100% college acceptance rate. While this is something that sounds really impressive to the casual reader, I could usually show that they really meant 100% of the students who made it to senior year which would often be just 50% of the students who were in the school as 9th graders. My first debunking was about a school that Arne Duncan claimed the 100% college acceptance rate, back in 2011. No matter how many times I challenge a claim of a school getting 100% of their students into college, these stories keep on happening even to this day. Just a few weeks ago, however, NPR did the first ever somewhat mainstream media report about a school that had a 100% college acceptance rate for seniors despite many of those graduates missing over three months of school.
Since I like Mike and appreciate that he writes back to me when I email him from time to time, I was really disappointed when I watched his two minute recent education themed campaign video.
It starts off very nicely and he makes it nearly to the end without messing up, but then there is that 8 second spot between 1:41 and 1:49 where he says:
“That’s why I became a principal in Colorado and helped turn a school where half the kids were graduating into one where every senior got into a four year college.”
I first became aware of Michael Johnston’s 100% college claim in 2011 when it was a featured anecdote in Steven Brill’s ‘Class Warfare’ book about the rise of education reform.
In what Forbes Magazine in 2012 called The Best Speech About Education — Ever, Johnston spent the first 7 minutes of that speech about how all 44 seniors at his school were accepted to college and participated in a public celebration about it. At the 7 minute mark he dramatically concludes, “Our school becomes the first public school in Colorado where 100% of our kids are admitted to a four year college.”
Even on Michael Johnston’s Wikipedia page this stat is quoted.
But when I researched this back in 2012 while writing a review of Brill’s book, I learned that 100% of 44 seniors in 2008 is not the same as 100% of the 73 10th graders who were enrolled at the school in 2006.
Mike’s decision to include this misleading half-truth is troubling to me. Though I know that politicians like to stretch the truth if it helps them get elected, there is a risk in doing this since it is so easy, nowadays, to fact check these kinds of things and to so easily let others know about it.
Mike must know and struggle with the choices he made with regards to his education policy over the years. He is a darling of the DFER group and he continues to get a lot of campaign donations from wealthy education reform supporters from outside of Colorado. In that sense, identifying as an ed reformer is something that will help him raise money which can help him get elected.
On the other hand, he must know that his history with education policy is also his Achilles’ Heel. His signature policy SB-191, which made 50% of teacher evaluations in Colorado based on standardized test ‘growth’ has been a complete bust that has not raised test scores or, ironically, increased the number of teachers rated ineffective in Colorado. If he is wise, he should distance himself from his ed reform roots.
Instead, he is retweeting things like this:
To which Mike (or his campaign social media person) responded:
What Mike Johnston doesn’t realize is that the way to be an education reformer in 2017 is to pretend that you don’t still preach the gospel of Michelle Rhee. Even Michelle Rhee isn’t preaching the gospel of Michelle Rhee (where is she nowadays anyway?) and her organization StudentsFirst has been rebranded and merged with another ed reform propaganda group. He reminds me a bit of Woody Allen’s character, Virgil Starkwell, in a scene from one of my favorite movies of all time ‘Take The Money And Run.’ In this Virgil Starkwell is in jail and the inmates have planned to break out. But they decided to reschedule the escape at the last minute and they forgot to tell Virgil. Not knowing about the new plan, Virgil is all by himself trying to do the prison break alone while everyone else is safe and sound in their cells. Here is the three minute scene.