Sen. Michael Johnston Stirs Controversy At Harvard

UPDATE: Sen. Michael Johnston responds magnanimously via Facebook:

I was honored to be invited as the convocation speaker at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and I am even more excited to keep that commitment. In this moment, perhaps more than ever before, American education needs to foster open dialogue between people who share values but differ on strategies, and my speech will focus on our efforts to find that common ground. I have always found I learn the most from those who disagree with me, and because learning is more about listening than talking, I have also asked Harvard to setup an additional space and time for open dialogue so that I can hear from and learn from students on all sides of the issues. That spirited back and forth was what I loved about Harvard, and is one more reason that I am eager to return.


Sen. Michael Johnston (D).

Sen. Michael Johnston (D).

Bloomberg's Dan Hart reports via the Denver Post:

Students, faculty and alumni of Harvard's Graduate School of Education are protesting the school's choice of a Colorado lawmaker as commencement speaker because of his stance on education reform that relies on so-called test-based accountability.

State Sen. Michael Johnston, a Democrat representing northeast Denver, was chosen last month by Dean James Ryan to speak. The school is being asked to rescind Johnston's invitation and to create a more transparent and inclusive process for choosing future commencement speakers…

The Washington Post explains what has students and alumni at the Harvard Graduate School of Education so upset with Sen. Michael Johnston:

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…

From the statement signed by students and alumni opposing Sen. Johnston:

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.

There's no question that Sen. Johnston's signature education reform law, SB10-191, has proven both divisive among Democrats and troublesome to implement–as legal action over the law at Denver Public Schools shows. On the other hand, many of the battles presently taking place over education in Colorado concern very basic matters of adequate funding for public schools after years of cuts, and Sen. Johnston has consistently been on the pro-funding side of those. Beyond education, Sen. Johnston has been by accounts a strong and articulate liberal Democrat–befitting the urban electorate he represents.

That said, the changes to education policy Johnston has championed in Colorado, particularly with regard to "teacher accountability," aren't considered "reforms" at all in some education circles. We'll be very interested in seeing how Johnston responds to his critics at Harvard.

22 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. Diogenesdemar says:

    Silli(er) season . . .

    Regardless of where anyone stands on "reforms, it seems to me that until our so-called institutions of higher learning can can begin again to matriculate a crop of more emotionally mature and open-minded graduates, that perhaps they should just dispense with graduation ceremonies altogether  . . . 

    . . .  For any graduate so easily offended, I say — mail those diplomas home to their parents, just like they used to with these kiddies grade-school report cards. 

    • BlueCatBlueCat says:

      Amen. Today's students seem to believe they have a right never to be offended by being presented with views with which they don't agree. Enough already. I'd say as long as a speaker isn't advocating for racism, the suppression of ethnic, gender, sexual orientation or religious groups or proselytizing then just deal with hearing something you might not like from someone you might not support. Or stay home with your delicate, entitled sensibilities and get your diploma in the mail. Few speakers will be approved by all graduates.  

      #3 isn't a bad idea if students could be induced to attend such public forums. I think they'd mostly rather just whine without inconveniencing themselves. 

      • gaf says:

        Dio and BC, I think you are both missing something here–it is the student's graduation, not the Dean's. "[A] more transparent and inclusive process for choosing future commencement speakers" that invovles students in decisions about their own ceremony makes sense to me. Or are they supposed to graduate as docile pawns of their exhalted institutional leaders? Why is speaking up for your beliefs and values considered to be whining?

        The students–thinking for themselves–have identified the problems with Johnston's educational policies. And this is the Graduate School of Education, so his "strong, articulate liberal Democrat" creditials on other matters–for which I commend Johnston–are not relevant.

        The graduates are not trying to muzzle Johnston, as their point #3 calls for extensive public debate–on Johnston's vision. But a graduation ceremony is not a discussion–it is an honor and an exclusive forum for a speech. Let that happen elsewhere, let Harvard honor and spotlight speeches elsewhere, and let the graduates decide what values they want to highlight for their ceremony.

        Of course not everone will agree on a speaker. But if the students have a significan role in selection, I expect they would accodate that much better than one imposed by the dean.

        • BlueCatBlueCat says:

          I noticed that the article refers to "dozens" of students and faculty. Dozens? And how many, I wonder haven't voiced objections?  

          I don't think that point 3 was meant as making the commencement ceremony itself a forum for discussion as it takes long enough to get through the speeches and handing out of diplomas as it is. 

          It would be interesting to know what percentage of the student body we are being asked to look upon as representing the student body as a whole. I may be over reacting due to a general distaste for the kind of excessive pearl clutching over anything that might offend liberal sensibilities I see on so many college campuses. And I say that as liberal. A liberal who can take it as well as dish it out.

          • gaf says:

            The student's point on #3 was that discussion should happen, but of course elsewhere, and not honor Johnston at graduation. A minority of students? Perhaps. My point was that students were not asked. This was the Dean's decision, to honor what/whom the Dean wanted to honor, at the student's graduation. That's normal operating procedure, of couse–administrators not considering–not even thinking to consider–what students might want. You can call it whining or pearl clutching, or see it as some students felt disrespected by that and spoke up for themselves.

    • CaninesCanines says:

      Were it just easily-offended, emotionally-immature students! From reading the article, it sounds like faculty and alumni have voiced opposition, as well.

  2. itlduso says:

    I think there is a difference between hosting a speaker on campus where Q&A happens versus a commencement speech where there is no opportunity for comment.  Commencement activities, including speeches should be focused on offering advice to the graduates, not offering implicit support for controversial issues and speakers.

    • SocialisticatProgressicat says:

      I'm not sure if I disagree with the first part of what you say, but what thinking person could be invited to give a speech at an event like this with the standards you seem to imply?  If we assume that giving a commencement speech is an implicit ratification of all of the speaker's points of view, nobody who has ever taken a position on any issue would seem to be able to speak.  You would have to exclude every Diane Ravitch or Arne Duncan, Obama, Bush, Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton.

      At what point do we rely on speakers to have something to say because they understand a discipline or the pursuit of life goals in an interesting way and to say what they have to in way that is policy/politics neutral and supports the graduation ceremony as a whole.  If Johnston had given a speech telling them all to bag the union, join TFA and teach at a charter, and Test Data Test, I think that would be an appropriate target for criticism.  While some of the students may disagree with his positions on some issues in education, he's also been a teacher, a principal, a legislator focused on education, the unsuccessful face of an education initiative, oh, and a graduate of the school himself.

      • gaf says:

        "…he's also been a teacher…" Well, my (admittedly arbitrary) standard for applying the honorific of "teacher" (and I do claim "teacher" as an honorific) is a minimum of five years in the classroom. Anything less is too short to really know what the life of a teacher is like. Johnston did two years with Teach for America. No more classroom for him–grad school, training "leaders for public schools," "education advisor," law school, principal. Poster child for Teach for America, which acknowledges they want to build "leaders" [in their own image], not teachers. And this, he thinks, makes him an expert on how teachers should be trained and evaluated. Nothing in his resume and his policies is surprising, given his history. And nothing shows he understands public education as a teacher. The graduates of Harvard Graduate School of Education are right to reject him as a speaker for their ceremony.

        • ajb says:

          Ummm…by your measure, I suspect that nobody at HGSE knows diddly about education because they don't have the requisite 5 years of classroom experience. 

          You may well be right, but I don't think the conclusion follows from the argument.

  3. itlduso says:

    Yeah, I was probably too broad in the second part.  I'm trying to establish a standard that prevents selecting and paying commencement speakers who can spout controversial positions without opportunity for discourse.  I think you are agreeing with me on that point when you suggested it would be inappropriate for Sen. Johnston to promote bagging unions, etc.  

    So, are you/we saying that a commencement speaker's address should be vetted beforehand?  And, what standards should exist to exclude a speaker?  I wouldn't exclude people on your list, but for example, I would have a problem enriching Condolezza Rice who I believe was an utter failure in government.


    • SocialisticatProgressicat says:

      If what you expect from a speaker at commencement is a diatribe, that person probably shouldn't be hired.  I also agree with the idea of giving students (less faculty, tbh, it's not their graduation) a say in who is chosen to speak.  As for who should speak, I'd say that if the administration and students pick together, the answer is who they pick (and I think some of them should have participated in Harvard's selection, if they didn't).  That's probably going to result in a lot different speaker at Liberty University versus Oberlin.  Btw, folks at the school who disagree with the choice should be able to do exactly what these folks Harvard did and protest the choice.

      I wouldn't support vetting the speech.  I think you make a reasonable pick and hope for the best.  The vast majority of thoughtful speakers of all political/policy persuasions understand that a commencement is not the time to spout ideological nonsense of any sort.  I wouldn't expect Diane Ravitch to rail against charters, although her speech might have some emphasis on the "public" part of public education, any more than I would expect Johnston to rail against unions, although his speech might emphasize the new graduates' potential roles as change leaders.

      As to who should speak and who shouldn't: I'll be honest, it's not a business I want to be in.  Should Don Rumsfeld or John Yoo be excluded?  Bill Ayers or Noam Chomsky?  Yeah, I think I'll let schools pick who they want and enjoy the opportunity for student civic engagement the protests present.

  4. NoelleGreen says:

    I am so thankful Harvard students and faculty are taking a position against education reform when it seems like the media is in a coma. This issue WILL DECIDE THE 2014 ELECTIONS. 

    Here is why:

    1. Those of us with older children see that Common Core is dumbing down the education for our younger children. We can compare and see that our younger children are getting short-changed.

    2. We can't homeschool or supplement with a traditional education for our younger children because all those textbooks are out of print. We are FORCED to buy only the Common Core aligned textbooks. 

    3. The technology requirements are expensive and overly burdensome to school districts. This money would be better spent on quality materials and teacher training.

    4. The new "blended learning" model is such a scam. It's not teaching 21st century skills. Look at the Rocketship Charter schools sponsored by e Waltons and Bill Gates Foundations. These models have as many as 130 students spending 2-3 hours at a time practicing their test taking skills in the computer lab. Teachers are not necessary so a couple of minimum wage paid workers are hired to manage for technology lab. A school can save $500K with these cost cutting measures. These schools do not offer foreign language, music or art. It's about mass producing education at the lowest cost. 





    • NoelleGreen says:

      – continued . . .

      We have all sat idely by while we have watch the corporate takeover of America. But now, the Walmart model is in our classrooms. I can't believe our leaders are so sick to let greed take priority over children. I am so disappointed! 

  5. CaninesCanines says:

    …SB10-91, has proven divisive among Democrats and troublesome to implement…

    I'm wondering if the "D" beneath Johnson''s photo above stands for his party affiliation or the grade that his legislation gets.

  6. gertie97 says:

    Who cares? I couldn't come up with the name of my college graduation speaker if my life depended on it.


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