Colorado State Sen. Johnston ( Colorado state Sen. Michael Johnston (

Dozens of student and alumni at the Harvard Graduate School of Education issued a statement (see below) protesting the selection of Colorado state Sen. Michael Johnston (D) as the school’s 2014 commencement speaker because, they say, he “embraces a vision of education reform that relies heavily on test-based accountability while weakening the due process protections of teachers.”

The group is asking university officials to rescind the invitation and to make the process of speaker selection more transparent in the future. It also asks the leadership of the Harvard graduate school “to be more vocal in asking hard questions of the type of reforms Sen. Mike Johnston and others are pushing.” It says:

Too often, HGSE provides a high-visibility platform to ed reformers who claim the mantle of the civil rights movement, but who hold positions and take actions that are anathema to the spirit of that movement, including dismantling teachers’ collective bargaining rights, incentivizing teaching to standardized tests while competing against colleagues for better VAM [value-added-method] scores, and decimating public education in favor of corporate-backed, anti-democratic, market-based systems.

Johnston, a former Teach For America corps member in Mississippi and a high school principal in Colorado, received a masters degree in education at the graduate school and was a co-founder of the reform organization New Leaders for New Schools.  He became an informal education adviser to then-Sen. Barack Obama during the 2008 election campaign.

As a state senator in Colorado, Johnston has pushed legislation to promote corporate school reform and was behind a 2010 law mandating that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation come from student standardized test scores (through a method known as the value-added method] that has been sharply criticized by assessment experts.

He was announced as speaker in late April. In a release, Dean James Ryan said:

“I am delighted that Mike Johnston will address our graduates and their families at Convocation this year. As a teacher, principal, and entrepreneur, Mike’s leadership has made a real difference in the lives of countless students.  As a legislator in the Colorado State Senate, he is a nationally recognized advocate for school finance reform, fair teacher evaluations, and education equity. I believe that our community will be inspired, as I have been, by his passion and his willingness to find solutions to notoriously difficult challenges in education.”

Here’s the statement issued by the group, published on this Web site:

To the Members of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) Leadership and Administration:

We are deeply disappointed by this year’s choice for the HGSE alumni convocation speaker: Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston.  Given HGSE’s mission “[t]o prepare leaders in education and to generate knowledge to improve student opportunity, achievement, and success,” we are concerned with the underlying principles and values being communicated to the student body and public with this particular invitation.  Senator Johnston embraces a vision of education reform that relies heavily on test-based accountability while weakening the due process protections of teachers, a vision that we believe ultimately harms students and communities.  In addition, we feel that the choice of Mike Johnston is emblematic of an institutional direction at HGSE that seems to value the voices of policymakers and researchers over those of teachers, students, and community members, which we find extremely troublesome.

In turn, we are asking you to do three things:

  1. rescind the offer to Sen. Johnston,
  2. make the process for vetting future speakers more transparent and inclusive of a diversity of perspectives, and
  3. create more public venues where Sen. Johnston’s vision of education reform can be discussed, debated, analyzed, and unpacked.

As a state senator in Colorado, Sen. Johnston has pushed through education reforms that we believe work against educational justice for Coloradoan students, teachers, school leaders, and communities.  Sen. Johnston often claims to have been inspired by Dr. King and other civil rights leaders.[1]  However, we believe his vision and policies have been informed far more by conservative economists like Eric Hanushek[2], who promote policies where teachers are churned in and out of the profession based primarily on test score production.  As evidence, we point to Sen. Johnston’s signature piece of legislation – SB-191 – which codified into law the requirement that 50% of teachers’ and principals’ evaluations be based on growth scores, including value-added measures (VAMs).  Not only is there an increasing body of research questioning the use of VAMs for high-stakes purposes[3] but, more importantly, this piece of legislation will inevitably narrow the curriculum and reinforce teaching to the test, while requiring school leaders to put an inordinate amount of pressure on students and teachers to raise test scores.  As for the other half of the evaluation, one Coloradoan educator explained to us: “the other 50% is based on a complex and complicated system of rubrics and checklists that are incredibly overbearing.”  Of course, issues of bias and fairness exist with teacher observations, as well, which should make us pause in using them for high-stakes decisions.[4]  The passage of SB-191 makes it more likely that many if not most teachers and school leaders will be hyper-focused on test score production via low-level, standardized teaching that can be easily captured on rubrics and checklists.  Another Coloradoan told us: “SB-191 is simply the worst piece of education legislation to hit Colorado.  Districts are scrambling to comply and no one, I mean NO ONE outside the DFER [Democrats for Education Reform] camp is happy about it… especially teachers!”

Johnston’s defenders may point to the use of “multiple measures”, including teacher-developed assessments, as part of the “academic growth” portion of SB-191.  While we agree that teacher-created assessments are important when used to inform instruction, we believe that these measures should not be used for high-stakes evaluations, given that they are likely to be even more biased, unreliable, and invalid in terms of their psychometric properties than standardardized tests for making inferences about teacher effectiveness.  Though the CEA leadership – specifically, new president Kerrie Dallman[5] who, incidentally, provided recommendations to Johnston when crafting SB-191 – has come out in favor of the evaluation portion of the bill, teachers’ attitudes toward the evaluations have become noticeably less supportive since implementation of the law, including a 12.5% drop between 2011 and 2013 in the percentage of teachers who agreed with the following statement: “The teacher evaluation process improves teachers’ instructional strategies.”[6]  Furthermore, because of significant backlash from teachers, school leaders, and community members who don’t feel ready or supported to implement SB-191, Johnston and Dallman have had to push for legislation delaying the implementation of stakes attached to the evaluations by a year.[7]  As one Coloradoan educator told us: “There is tremendous buyers’ remorse on both sides of the aisle about the bill.”

In addition, Sen. Johnston’s signature piece of legislation attempted to severely weaken teachers’ due process protections, which has resulted in veteran teachers with good evaluations unable to find jobs, as well as a lawsuit by the CEA.[8]  Through SB-191, Sen. Johnston ensured that teachers’ due process protections would be subject to the flawed evaluation systems mandated by the law, with teachers losing these due process protections after two years of ineffective evaluations, while only being able to regain those protections with three consecutive years of effective evaluations.  In addition, if teachers – even those with good evaluations – lose their jobs for any reason (which is becoming more and more common as schools are shut down or “turned around” based on test scores in CO), they only have one year to find a job or they are put on unpaid leave.  As one might have predicted, one district – Denver Public – appears to have relied heavily on this provision of the law, laying off and placing on unpaid leave dozens of teachers.  In speaking to Denver’s removal of effective, veteran teachers, CO representative Joe Salazar stated: “By their own admission, these are good teachers.”[9]  In turn, the CEA – supported by the national teachers union, the NEA[10] – has filed a lawsuit claiming that this provision of SB-191 violates the due process protections guaranteed by state law.  An independent arbitrator had previously ruled in favor of the teachers who have filed the lawsuit: “Those nonprobationary teachers who are constructively dismissed by virtue of the school-based hiring provisions of SB-191 have been unconstitutionally deprived of their vested contractual and property rights without due process of law.”[11]

Finally, Sen. Johnston attempted to strike a further blow to due process protections when he proposed legislation that would eliminate licensure requirements based on completion of an accredited teacher preparation program or alternative certification program, and instead would tie licensure to the evaluation requirements of SB-191, meaning that licensure could be revoked based simply on two years of ineffective evaluations.[12]  Johnston and his co-sponsors have pulled this legislation back for now because of a backlog of other bills[13], but it is likely only a matter of time before this bill resurfaces.  One of the teachers in the aforementioned lawsuit appears to see through Johnston’s and other education reformers’ strategy: “Not only are older people wise about things within their job, they’re also kind of wise about things in the world,” she says. “And if you want to pull off something that is only advantageous to certain people — not the kids, not the teachers — then you need to get rid of all those people that are going to go, ‘Wait a minute! That won’t work! Wait a minute! That’s not right!’….Young, brand-new teachers would never in a million years rock that boat.”[14]  In addition, younger teachers who spend only a few years in the classroom either by choice or because of the provisions in SB-191 are considerably cheaper, as their salaries are lower and they won’t require pensions. This type of cost-cutting measure appears to be of primary concern to many in the business community[15] with whom Mike Johnston aligns himself, who see pension obligations to teachers as part of a “crisis” requiring “reform”[16] and view funding of public education through a lens of “return on investment”[17], instead of being solely a matter of educational and societal justice.

We will give credit where credit is due, and applaud Sen. Johnston for his advocacy for undocumented immigrants and his support for increased funding for early childhood education and literacy programs.  However, Sen. Johnston has taken far too many actions antithetical to improving teaching and learning for students, teachers, school leaders, and communities for us to remain silent in the face of his invitation to speak at HGSE’s convocation, a special honor that should go to someone who reflects the school’s values and mission.

In turn, we, the undersigned group of HGSE students, alumni, and faculty, urge HGSE leadership to reconsider and rescind its offer to Sen. Johnston to be this year’s alumni convocation speaker.  A far more suitable invitation for Sen. Johnston would be to engage in a debate with other Coloradoan educators who have experienced the negative effects of his brand of education reform. (In the meantime, we encourage you to read the testimonials of Colorado educators and community members in the comments section of HGSE’s online article about Sen. Johnston and Convocation).

We further call on HGSE leadership to be more vocal in asking hard questions of the type of reforms Sen. Mike Johnston and others are pushing. Too often, HGSE provides a high-visibility platform to ed reformers who claim the mantle of the civil rights movement, but who hold positions and take actions that are anathema to the spirit of that movement, including dismantling teachers’ collective bargaining rights, incentivizing teaching to standardized tests while competing against colleagues for better VAM scores, and decimating public education in favor of corporate-backed, anti-democratic, market-based systems.

Finally, we urge that a broad cross-section of students have a voice in choosing future speakers at Convocation and other special events, and we encourage HGSE to design more interactive formats for invitees (e.g., debates) so the ideas of ed reformers like Mike Johnston can be critically questioned rather than uncritically celebrated. We close by seconding Professor Eleanor Duckworth’s concerns about the types of reforms that Sen. Johnston embraces:

“As a teacher and a member of the human community I make certain assumptions… I assume we want students to develop a sense of community, responsibility, democratic commitment, and social justice. So I am very disturbed by the current policies labeled ‘school reform.’ More and more time taking tests; less and less time learning. More and more simple right answers; less and less complexity. More and more intellectual orthodoxy; less and less diversity… Needless to say, students are being deprived of their right to a good education, and… teachers are being deprived not only of their professional dignity but… even more regrettable, of knowing the joy that their work could bring them.”[18]


List of Endorsers:

(If you are a HGSE student, alumna/us, or faculty member and you would like your name added to the list of endorsers, please fill out the googleform at this link.)

  1. Timothy Argetsinger, Ed.M. (‘12)
  2. Daniel Barto, Ed.M.(’10)
  3. Mildred Boveda, Ed. M. (’11)
  4. Barbara L. Braden, Ed.D (’73)
  5. Kristina Buenafe, Ed. M (’08)
  6. Chris Buttimer, Ed.M. (‘10), Ed.D. candidate
  7. Jennie Carey, Ed.M (’09)
  8. Keith Catone, Ed.M. (’06), Ed.D. (’14)
  9. Annie Chang, Ed.M (’13)
  10. Theodore Chao, Postdoctoral Fellow, (’14)
  11. Laina N. Cox, Ed.M (’02)
  12. Ernesto Cuadra, Ed.D (’90)
  13. Natalia Cuadra-Saez, Ed.M. (’14)
  14. Yusef Daulatzai, Ed.M. (‘13)
  15. Heidi Fessenden, Ed. M. (’12)
  16. Mike Fishback, Ed.M. (’06)
  17. Matt Fiteny, Ed.M (’09)
  18. Corey Gaber, Ed.M. (‘11)
  19. Amy Grillo, Ed.D. (’96)
  20. Houman Harouni, Ed.D. candidate
  21. Audrey Harris. Ed.M (’14)
  22. Kelly Henderson, Ed.M (’06)
  23. Nicole Hewes, Ed. M (’13)
  24. Jenny Jacobs, Ed.M. (‘03, ‘11), Ed.D. candidate
  25. Arpi Karapetyan, Ed.M (’13)
  26. Lisa See Kim, Ed. M (’14)
  27. Teddy Kokoros, Ed.M. (‘11)
  28. Frank Kotsianas, Ed.M. (’13)
  29. Paul Kuttner, Ed.D. (’14)
  30. Annie Leavitt, Ed.M. (’14)
  31. Catherine Marchant, Ed.D. (’88)
  32. Shane McArdle, Ed.M (’06)
  33. Indi McCasey, Ed. M. (’14)
  34. Suzanne McGlone, Ed.M. (’04)
  35. Galen McQuillen, Ed.D. candidate
  36. Christina Miller, Ed.M (’04)
  37. Donald Montgomery (Monty) Neill, Ed.D. (’87)
  38. Jahan Naghshineh, Ed.M. (’13)
  39. James Noonan, Ed.M. (’10), Ed.D. candidate
  40. Guillermo Orozco-Gomez, Ed.D. (’88)
  41. Cameron Paterson Ed.M (’11′)
  42. Nikomo Peartree, Ed.M (’11)
  43. Natalie Perry Ed.M. (’06), Ph.D.
  44. David Redfield, Ed.M (’12)
  45. Kenneth Russell, Ed.M. (’00), Ed.D. (’12)
  46. Laura Scher, Ed.M. (’12)
  47. Marc Seiden, Ed.M. (’00)
  48. Vipul Shaha Ed.M. (’12)
  49. Lisa Shen, Ed.M. (’10), Ed.D. candidate
  50. Sarah Smith, Ed.M. (’12)
  51. A. Spinney, Ed.M. (’14)
  52. Susan Street, Ed.D (’88)
  53. Reed Swier, Ed.M (’11)
  54. Jessica Tang, Ed.M. (’06)
  55. Quyen Truong, Ed.M candidate
  56. Kyle van Leer, Ed.M. (’14)
  57. Elizabeth West, Ed.M (’11)
  58. Jennifer Wharff, Ed.M. (’07)
  59. Elena Belle White, Ed.M. (’09)
  60. Yan Yang, Ed.M (’10), Ed.D candidate
  61. Sara S. Young, Ed.M. (’06)








[6] Page 5 of the report:






[12] Draft of legislation in PDF format available upon request because it is not publicly available anywhere on the web.  Here is sample language from the document: “The new act coordinates with the new educator evaluation system by using educators’ performance ratings as the criteria for issuing and maintaining professional and master licenses” and “A person will not be required to complete a traditional or alternative preparation program to obtain a transitional license”.