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NCTQ Letter Grades and the Reformer Agenda– Part X

February 5, 2013

I have researched and examined the associations and activities of 20 NCTQ advisory board members to date, and of that 20, Michael Johnston is the one who has the farthest reach and who is being groomed by “dark forces” to have– get this– a global reformer impact.

He doesn’t fully have them yet, but Johnston is developing his international reformer tentacles. And like other reformer “power names” who are his contemporaries, Johnston is willing to fashion facts into lies, all in the name of self-service just beneath a glossy label of corporate reform.

I give you, complete with NCTQ promo bio, Michael Johnston.

Michael Johnston

Michael Johnston is a Colorado State Senator, and the founder and former principal of MESA (Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts), a 7-12 Gates funded small high school in north Denver.  His experience teaching English in the Mississippi Delta with Teach For America led him to write his best selling education memoir, In The Deep Heart’s Core. Michael co-founded New Leaders for New Schools, a national non-profit that recruits, prepares and places outstanding urban school leaders; he continue to serve New Leaders as their National Director of Policy.  He previously served as the principal of two alternative high schools for students held in state custody, the Joan Farley Academy, and the Marvin Foote Youth Detention Center.  He is an adjunct professor of Education Law at the University of Denver and serves as an education advisor to state and federal political campaigns around the country, including spending the last year as education advisor to Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.  Michael holds degrees from Yale College, the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Yale Law School.

In his NCTQ bio, Johnston presents himself as, “the founder and former principal of MESA (Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts), a 7-12 Gates funded small high school in north Denver.”  It is increasingly common practice for former TFAers to become instant leaders and entrepreneurs, opening and leading schools without a solid educational foundation but with funding (in the case of Johnston’s school, Gates money). Johnston is a TFAer from Yale, and TFA really likes Yale. His Yale bachelors degree is in a generic major (philosophy); so, like many former TFAers “on the climb,” Johnston made a quick stop to the Broad-financed Harvard Graduate School of Education for one of those educational policy masters degrees TFAers are increasingly fond of brandishing.  And make no mistake: Harvard educational policy is all about data driven assessment of supposed “teacher effectiveness.”  The Harvard Center for Educational Policy Research is funded by a cadre of now-all-too-familiar reformer foundations, including Broad, Gates, Joyce, and Rodel.

As for Johnston’s New Leaders for New Schools (NLNS) mentioned in the above NCTQ bio, it was the brainchild of Johnston and several up-and-coming corporate reform minds attending that corporate-reform-favoring Harvard Graduate School of Education. Among those sitting on its board with Johnston is Josh Bekenstein of corporate-reform-friendly Bain Capital (Mitt Romney’s “former” company).  NLNS is also linked to the US Department of Education website as “Innovations in Education: Innovative Pathways to School Leadership.”

Translation:  “Innovative Pathways” = Two years of temporary “teaching” via TFA or TNTP, then Harvard Graduate School of Education and/or Broad Superintendents Academy, then placement (perhaps via Gates money) as a “principal.”

According to the Harvard Business School review of the Harvard Graduate School of Education-birthed NLNS, well, the results are great, but we only get it in one sentence, and, of course, it is to be spread as indisputable truth:

Early research shows that students in schools led by NLNS principals are
outperforming their peers….

I’m not sure how “early” the research is since the same paragraph notes thet NLNS had been around for eleven years by that time.  Where is the solid, longitudinal study on this? Nonexistent, apparently. There is some reporting of test score increases, but these are not in themselves evidence of an effective principal, or even of learning gains, for that matter.

The corporate reform “elephant in the room”:  Sustained gains documented over time, clearly and openly published.

You’ll have to pardon me; I’m a real researcher, one who has trained over the course of years, one who knows of the dangers of both “hypermeasurement” and “instant miracle stats” and who has no test-score-promoting agenda whatsoever.

I am not the “they” of corporate reform.

They say its all about the data and that the data favors reform.

That’s what they say.

The first detailed account I ever read about Michael Johnston concerns Johnston’s “success” as MESA principal. It was an entry on former TFAer Gary Rubenstein’s blog.  It was part of his “open letters” series, written to other former TFAers who are now prominent in the promotion of corporate reform.  What stood out to me was the characteristic fact and numbers manipulation for which corporate reformers are becoming well known.  Here is a very telling instance in which Johnston “shapes the facts” in order to promote a remarkable lie:

Brill’s book [Steven Brill’s pro-reform book, _Class Warfare_]  described how Mike had become a principal and how he had taken his first 44 tenth graders and had beaten the odds by having all 44 graduate high school and get admitted to a four year university.  As a researcher I had the uncomfortable task of ‘investigating’ someone that I like.  I learned that Brill’s depiction was not accurate.  There were actually 73 tenth graders who had dwindled to 44 seniors — a pretty relevant detail.  Whether Brill misunderstood or whether Mike implied that he had gotten a 100% four year graduation rate, rather than what is sometimes called ‘graduation rate’ but is just the percent of seniors who graduate.  Since most dropping out occurs before students make it to senior year, this type of graduation rate should generally be pretty high.

Recently, I read on Whitney Tilson’s email blast about an article from Forbes magazine called ‘The Best Speech About Education — Ever.’  When I hear something like that, I know where it is going, so I got my notebook out to start listing the lies.  To my dismay, it was Mike making the speech, and though there were many moments of humility, he did begin with the story of the 44 students that I had read about in ‘Class Warfare.’  Though he doesn’t directly say that the 44 students were all the students that had started, I think that it was somewhat implied, at least I believe that everyone in the audience understood it that way, particularly at minute 6:55 where he says “Our school becomes the first public high school in Colorado where 100% of our kids are admitted to a four year college.”  He then admits that there were a lot of failures too, but doesn’t list any explicitly and the impact of what is implied has already happened. [Emphasis added.]

In his response to Rubinstein, not only does Johnston not address the issue of the supposed “100% graduation rate”; he also does not present any hard facts concerning the “success” of those “100%” in college.  If I boasted of a 100% graduation rate and associated college attendance, I certainly would be sure to follow up on these students’ successes as solid evidence of the efficacy of the corporate reform I was promoting.  However, as Edushyster points out, the reformers are conspicuously silent regarding tracking the “success” of the reform push beyond college entrance.

Again with the no evidence of solid, sustained gains over time.

A word to reformers like Johnston:  Failing to provide follow-up evidence for one’s boasting does not neutralize one’s original lie.

Johnston is riding the wave of his “100%” lie, and he is benefitting hugely:

Johnston has a stellar record in the field of education program innovation. At age 34 he has made a journey from classroom teacher to program developer to principal to education policy advisor for Barack Obama’s campaign.

“Every school in America needs a Michael Johnston,” exclaimed Obama on a campaign visit to MESA, the Thornton school that Johnston co-founded. “We are here to celebrate MESA as an example of what is possible in education reform today.”

Johnston, with his fabricated success and his reformer-manufactured, pseudo-educational credentials, must be lauded by our president, who himself took the destruction that was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), denounced it, then renamed the same lunacy Race to the Top (RTTT), with one reformer-approved exception: Put individual states in a financial headlock and make them cry “uncle” (only instead of “uncle,” it’s “RTTT”) in order to receive federal funding that, in the end, does not come close to offsetting the cost to the states of instituting RTTT.  Whew.

Back to Johnston.

Johnston is a Colorado miracle.  He has even been recognized as such by the president.

Johnston was also elected as a Colorado senator in 2009.  A seat became vacant when Colorado Senate President Peter Groff resigned effective 2009 in order to accept a national position in the US Department of Education.  Johnston cited education as his platform and was elected to complete Groff’s term. He was reelected in November 2011 and will complete his term in January 2017.

Johnston is a reform-minded legislator, and where there is a reform-minded legislator, you better believe ALEC is involved.

Both Groff and Johnston have strong ALEC and Democrats for Educational Reform (DFER) (the name says it all) influence:

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been in the news lately for a variety of reasons. Today, Salvador Rizzo at wrote about ALEC model legislation in the Garden State. Rizzo correctly notes that Colorado’s SB-191 [teacher evaluation based on student test scores; castration of local school boards; killing teacher seniority] is now model legislation for ALEC. SB-191 was Colorado State Senator Michael Johnston’s bill, although other parties clearly helped with at least some parts of the bill [see my word about bill authorship below] Johnston is on DFER-CO’s Advisory Committee. I asked Johnston about his bill becoming ALEC model legislation. “191 is model 4 many orgs as ED is still bipartisan policy area,” was Johnston’s response (via Twitter). That is, more or less, the same answer given by BE4K’s Derrell Bradford in Rizzo’s piece.

SB-191 isn’t the only piece of DFER-linked legislation that became model legislation for ALEC. Peter Groff, a “founding member of the DFER-Colorado steering committee and 2008 recipient of DFER’s Education Warrior Award,” sponsored SB-130, the Innovation Schools Act of 2008. That bill is now ALEC’s Innovation Schools and School Districts Act.

 When it comes to ALEC legislation, it’s a matter of “chicken first or egg”:  Though Johnston might be credited with the now-model-ALEC bill, ALEC is known for anonymously authoring legislation then sending such “bill templates” out to their “task forces” 31 days prior to meeting.  Legislators are then encouraged to take credit for writing the bill; this gives the ALEC-produced bill a “grassroots” veneer. However, just as happens in public school classrooms when one student takes another student’s work and claims it as his/her own, the ALEC-connected legislators passing off the ALEC-generated bills as their own often do not modify parts of the bill that clearly demonstrate the work originated with another.  There is a lot to remember, including the legislators’ needing to fill in spaces in the model bill that read, for instance, “[name of district].” (I read about the ALEC directions sent to legislators instructing them how to personalize these generic bills and how to talk about the bills using ALEC-approved “talking points.”  All of this information I found on the Common Cause website.)

Who is ghost-authoring those ALEC model bills?  Corporations, chiefly. However, it could even be TFAers fresh off of their two-year “teaching” stints.

Do not miss the fact that both Johnston and Groff are clearly DFER and ALEC connected and that, through ALEC, the “educational reform” that both Johnston and his senate predecessor Groff advocate is being promoted as a model for the nation.

And don’t think for a minute that either ALEC or the corporate reform movement stops at the US border. ALEC has international reach, and Johnston has been selected to move forward as a part of the corporate reform international plan as is shown in his involvement with the Pahara-Aspen Educational Fellowship (Aspen Institute):

The 24 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellows who have been selected to begin in the spring of 2013 are:

  • Jay Altman, Chief Executive Officer, FirstLine Schools
  • Susan Asiyanbi, Executive Vice President, Teacher Preparation, Support, and Development, Teach For America
  • Jim Blew, Director of K-12 Education Reform, Walton Family Foundation
  • Tom Boasberg, Superintendent, Denver Public Schools
  • Stacey Childress, Deputy Director of Education, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
  • J. Kristean Dragon, Chief Executive Officer, Citizens of the World Charter Schools
  • Mike Feinberg, Co-Founder, KIPP Foundation & Executive Vice Chair, KIPP Houston
  • Joe Ferguson, Chief Operating Officer, Mastery Charter Schools
  • Karen Symms Gallagher, Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California
  • Ron Gonzales, President & Chief Executive Officer, Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley
  • Aimee Guidera, Founder & Executive Director, Data Quality Campaign [Data Tracking without FERPA Consideration]
  • Christina Heitz, Managing Director, The Broad Superintendents Academy, The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems
  • Mike Johnston, State Senator, Colorado State Senate
  • David Keeling, Vice President for Communications, TNTP
  • Emily Lawson, Founder, DC Prep
  • Michael Magee, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Rhode Island Mayoral Academies
  • Trish Millines Dziko, Founder and CEO, Technology Access Foundation
  • Vanessa Rodriguez, Chief Executive Officer, District 79 Alternative Schools and Programs, New York City Department of Education
  • Joel Rose, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, New Classroom Innovation Partners
  • Aylon Samouha, Chief Executive Officer, Lighthouse Academies
  • Brian Sims, Managing Director for Training Academies and Teacher Development, Academy for Urban School Leadership
  • Kimberly A. Smith, President, K12 digimedia
  • Diane Tavenner, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Summit Public Schools
  • Gregory White, President and Chief Executive Officer, LEARN Charter School Network

Notice the affiliations and individuals bolded above.  These have been selected for a two-year training program to “join a powerful global community ” and “create change in their spheres of influence”:

The Pahara-Aspen Education Fellowship (formerly the Aspen-New Schools Fellowship) is a two-year, cohort-based program that is modeled after the renowned Henry Crown Fellowship at the Aspen Institute.  Its goals are to identify transformational leaders in education reform, facilitate their dynamic growth, and strengthen their collective efforts to dramatically improve public education.

 Peter Reiling, Executive Vice President, Leadership and Seminar Programs at the Aspen Institute [comments on its 2013 cohort]: “We also welcome this truly exceptional cohort of leaders into the Aspen Global Leadership Network, where they join a powerful global community of more than 1,500 other Fellows who are using their resources and talents to create change in their spheres of influence.” [Emphasis added.]

“Billionaire’s billionaire” David Koch (as in worth 25 billion in April 2012, as in one of the Koch brothers, as in a driving force behind ALEC) is on the board of the Aspen Institute. So is former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, co-author (with Joel Klein) of the now-infamous national security report that, as Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post notes, “…seems to look at public schools as if they are the bad guys that need to be put out of business, with a new business taking over, funded with public dollars.”

Michael Johnston is hanging out with some really powerful people bent on smothering all that is non-corporate-friendly education. Moreover, Johnston and his corporate reform associations are determined to do so globally.

And this is a guy who has the chutzpah to sit on a board to advise on the suitability of traditional teacher training programs.

Then I remember he has the chutzpah to tell an audience that under his principalship, “Our school becomes the first public high school in Colorado where 100% of our kids are admitted to a four year college,” and it is a sleight-of-speech.

Okay. It’s a lie.

Michael Johnston stands for all that is the global death knell of public education.  The last place he should be is on a board faking an interest in that which he is overwhelmingly committed to kill.


Previous posts in this series:

Part I: NCTQ 2012 Letter Grades and Louisiana; reformer use of the op/ed

Part II:  NCTQ Alternative Certification publication

Part III:  NCTQ Adivisory Board members Steven Adamowski, Michael Barber, Roy Barnes, and McKinley Broome

Part IV:  NCTQ Advisory Board members Cynthia Brown, David Chard, Andrew Chen, and Celine Coggins

Part V:  NCTQ Advisory Board members Pattie Davis, Michael Feinberg, Michael Goldstein, and Erik Hanushek

Part VI:  NCTQ Advisory Board members Joseph Hawkins,  Frederick Hess, Paul Hill, and E. D. Hirsch

Part VII:  NCTQ Advisory Board member Wendy Kopp

Part VIII:  NCTQ Advisory Board member Michelle Rhee

Part IX:  NCTQ Advisory Board member Joel Klein

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