Why Should Mr. Ed Johnson Be Elected to the Atlanta School Board?

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The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. Martin Luther King

Mr. Ed Johnson is one of the candidates running for Atlanta Board of Education (Board) District 9 At Large. His candidacy is just the opposite of the title of this post. His views on charter schools, Teach for America (TFA), and the Race to the Top (RT3) run counter to most of the other men and woman running for the Board. I’ll come back to Mr. Johnson a bit later in the post.

Atlanta is under siege from corporations who see the possibility of helping pick board members who are not only sympathetic to the corporate reform model, but will be bound by their acceptance of money and other resources in their campaign to grab one of the seats on the APS School Board. Even the mayor of Atlanta has teemed up with “élite businesspeople” to set up the political action committee, Continue Atlanta’s Progress. The mayor will support those candidates that backed his ideas over the past several years.

dollar-256x256What we see happening in the Atlanta School Board elections is an influx of special interest groups with money and influence that occurred last year when the Georgia Legislature passed a bill to change the State Constitution so that a Central Committee (State Charter Schools Committee) could be resurrected from the ashes. Remember. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled the Central Committee to approve the establishment of schools in local school districts unconstitutional. Our state legislature wouldn’t have it. They came to town and wrote a bill to change the constitution. The byline of the Georgia legislature was, “give us charter schools or we’ll amend the Georgia Constitution.”  And they did. The funds poured into support the legislation, and most of the money came from corporate special interests and people outside of Georgia.

And it’s happening again.  But this time it is to influence who gets elected to the Atlanta School Board.  Special interest groups are hard at work trying to get their candidates elected, and one special interest group has four candidates.

Funds are pouring in again. Sitting here in Georgia is a large urban school district that has suffered one of the biggest school scandals of all time. And the fundamental reasons that created the environment leading to the test scandal are still here. An education environment where students are pawns in a corporate led reform environment based on competition, sanctions, punishments and rewards.

There is a lot of money to be made by groups itching to influence which Board of Education candidates gets elected. There are so many conflicts of interest that one wonders if compassion, morals, ethics, and civility are at play.

What do the following have in common: Race to the Top, Teach for America and Charter Management Companies?

The simple answer is that, in combination, these three entities are part of a corporate-led model that pushes professional and highly qualified teachers to the side, and instead uses the Federal program, Race to the Top, to create a data-driven system of education in reduces learning to teaching to the test.

The Atlanta Public Schools is one of 26 Georgia school districts participating in Georgia’s $400 million Race to the Top program.  In this program, Teach for America (TFA) and charter school conversions are significant factors in the state’s efforts to punish students and teachers who do not meet the absurd performance standards that are highly questionable.   The education model that many of the candidates embrace labels schools based on high-stakes tests and then measuring the results against performance levels that are not based on sound science, evaluates a school’s worth.   And here’s another thing: these tests measure the narrowest and possibly the least important aspects of schooling, namely the ability to answer multiple choice questions on the lowest level of content in math, or science, social studies or English language arts.

Many of  the labeled “failing” schools end up being closed, in others the principal and at least half the teachers are replaced by unlicensed teachers from Teach for America (TFA). Closing or labeling schools alters the ecology of these communities, and instead of providing resources, and creating opportunities for curriculum innovation and advanced staff development, these plans fail to discuss the real problems–poverty, recreating uninteresting curricula, and using punishments and rewards to control the system.

But Atlanta and the RT3 program in Georgia have a solution.  Turn around our lowest-achieving schools by either replacing the principal and half the faculty, convert it a charter management organization, close the school, or transform the school (replace the principal and use mysterious combination of reform strategies.  Follow this link to RT3 page which describes these choices.

Special Interests and the Election

There are many special interest groups that are working hard to influence the Atlanta school board election.  Two of them stand out.

  • Teach for America
  • EMOs and CMOs

In a recent investigative report, Stephanie Simon at Politico, uncovered a form of political control perpetrated by Teach For America.  In an audacious move, TFA lobbied to support a change in the law that would define teachers still in training, including TFA recruits, as “highly qualified” to take charge of classrooms.  Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig discussed this development on his website, and the conclusion that TFA is a special interest group with political as well as education ambitions is of great importance to the Atlanta School Board election.  According to Simon, TFA has an endowment of $100 million and annual revenues of over $300 million.

I did an investigation of the Georgia Race to the Top budget, and if you follow the money, you will see that my contention that the formula for reforming low achieving schools is a combination of charter conversions and hiring cadets from either Teach for America or The New Teacher Project. TFA will be paid nearly $16 million and TNTP will earn nearly $10 million to supply teachers with no experience nor a teaching license to teach in our lowest achieving schools.  And they only sign a two-year contract.

According to Simon, TFA is “embedding” TFA “graduates” in congressional offices and high ranking jobs in major school districts.  TFA graduates (cadets, really) have five weeks of training.

According to a report by one TFAer,

TFA is at least as enamored of numerical “data points” of success as APS is. TFA strongly encourages its teachers to base their classes’ “big goals” around standardized-test scores. Past and present corps members are asked to stand to thunderous applause if their students have achieved some objectively impressive measure of achievement, and everyone knows that the best way to work for and rise through TFA ranks is to have a great elevator pitch about how your students’ scores improved by X percent. (Olivia Blanchard on Get-Schooled by Maureen Downey)

Yet, Atlanta hires TFA cadets and places them schools that are often classified by the state as failing.

And one more thing, four of the candidates for the school board are TFA graduates.  They are Courtney English, Matt Westmoreland, Eshe Collins and Jason Esteves.  TFA has a strong connection to the charter school movement, so if these four are elected to the board, they’ll represent a near-majority, four of nine.  In a report on the Washington Post education blog, Valerie Strauss, listed the amounts of money these four received from powerful people and groups outside of Georgia.

What will this mean to the APS?

Chartering is a growing enterprise in Georgia, in Atlanta, and in particular the metro-Atlanta area.  According to the Georgia DOE charter schools annual report, there are 11 Educational Management Organizations (EMOs-for profit) or Charter Management Organizations (CMO-not-for profit) operating in Georgia, 2011 – 2012.  Leading the way are KIPP, Edison Learning, Charter Schools USA,  & Academica.

Although the state will have you believe that charters do better than non-charters, the data do not support this contention.  There is no significant difference, such as, in reading scores over the past five years.  Both have improved, but there are no differences.   The same is true in mathematics, although non-charters scored a bit higher, but not significantly.  Charter schools have been unleashed on public schools with false claims and lost of money.

Even when we look at the data here in Georgia to see that there are not significant differences in charters vs non charters, and when we couple that with data nationally, in the end regular public schools out perform charter schools significantly, we still are convinced by corporate interests, and individuals with financial backing that charters and charter clusters is the way to reform schooling.

According to an AJC article (Charter debate shapes races), six of the candidates have received contributions from charter school supporters and TFA.

The reform that many candidates will support is a standards-based, high-stakes testing model that hasn’t worked in the past, yet policy makers—who are far removed from the work of classroom educators—continue to lean on models that are more political than they are realistic.  Teaching is a human endeavor that requires a kind of dedication and knowledge that one does not garner in one or two years.  To think that we will affect the learning of our students by turning schools over to charter companies who have a penchant for hiring the elite college graduates to work in schools that need high quality education is unfortunate.

Unconvential Possibilities

The candidates for the Atlanta School Board are well meaning and qualified citizens of Atlanta.  There is one candidate, however, who holds the opinion that K-12 public education should  embody the zeal for sustaining and advancing democratic ideals in service to the public good.  He also unequivocally rejects education for the purpose of engineering a workforce.  He would say that a workforce must be allowed to emerge as a consequence of education, not by explicit demands placed on education to produce a workforce.

Many of the claims that American education graduates are not nor will be able to compete in a global environment simply are not based on facts.  To suggest that student’s achievement test scores are a significant factor in a country’s competitiveness is not supported in research.  If you look at Iris C. Rotberg’s research on global education, student achievement test scores are not factored into the 12 pillars of a country’s competitiveness.  Business ethics, lack of trust in political leaders, how institutions are audited, and public indebtedness are on the list, not student achievement scores.

An unconventional possibility would be to ban high-stakes testing, and return the decision making into the hands of educators (not policy makers).  We should also stop grading schools on the basis of test scores, and get rid of the A-F assessment of schools.  If APS really wants to improve education for its students, it would need to think differently about the goals of education, and think carefully about the purpose of education in a democratic society.

Which candidates running for the Atlanta School Board would support these kinds of changes?  There may be several.  But I know for certain that there is one, and his name is Mr. Ed Johnson, who is a candidate for the Atlanta Board of Education (Board) District 9 At Large seat.

I met Ed Johnson online, and have carried on a close collaboration with him over the past several years.  I have referenced and quoted his ideas in many of my posts, and he published several guest posts on this blog, here and here.

In one of his published posts, which was a letter to Ann Cramer, Chair of the ABE Superintendent Search Committee, he describes some of his ideas for education. To understand the kind of thinking that would move the APS away from the current test mania, here is part of that letter.  Mr. Ed Johnson says:

Recent news that two Bunch Middle School students were honored in the “” Essay Contest underscores why your service, Ann, as SSC Chairperson represents for you, as well as for the committee members, a formidable challenge.

You, and they, may ask: “How come?” Kindly allow me to explain, or at least try to explain.

Certainly, applaud Do the Write Thing’s aim to help stop youth violence. But why would DtWT make it a contest when the aim of a contest and the aim of an act of violence usually are one and the same, which is to “win” at somebody else’s expense?

More importantly, why does such a pathological win-lose culture continue to persist within our Atlanta Public Schools as if APS’ massively systemic CRCT cheating scandal of 2009 offered no lessons to learn?

Why would anyone believe the APS win-lose culture does not transfer to other aspects of students’ lives and, in some instances, show up as youth violence?

Why does APS seem to embrace inculcating within children competition and adversarialism more so than cooperation and collaboration?

It seems the more the mostly “Black” ABE and APS top administration perceive a particular population of children to be mostly “Black,” the more likely they are to believe and provide for subjecting those children to competition as if competition offers the children salvation. It does not; it only offers more competition.

In the letter to Ms. Crammer, he also suggests that the moral compass that should guide education is one born of cooperation and collaboration, something that cannot possibly happen with competition and adversarialism where it truly matters.  And, in his words, “it truly matters for educating today’s children with the aim of sustaining democratic ideals in service to the public good.”

Ed also wrote a letter to President Obama, which I published here, and as part of the letter, he asked the President,

Has our emphasis on competition and winning races, titles and medals, created a culture that is conducive to an uncivil, undemocratic, and violent society?

An Advocate for Education

Mr. Ed Johnson, an education advocate in Atlanta, and a student of W. Edwards Deming, has worked for at least a decade to raise questions about the kind of education that is being put upon the children and youth of Atlanta, and the district’s policy of closing schools in poor neighborhoods.

In an interview posted on YouTube in 2012, Mr. Johnson discussed the Atlanta Public School (APS) closing proposed by Superintendent Dr. Errol Davis.  Ed Johnson opposes the closing of any of the schools in the system.  His interest is in how to improve Atlanta schools, rather than the effort to turn the schools over to private charter organizations.

Public schools should be sustained and improved, not closed.  Simply closing schools to save money (and Mr. Johnson agrees that the APS is in financial need) is a shallow way of thinking about school improvement.  Johnson, from his work professionally as a student of Deming explains that a school is part of a community, and to simply cut or close schools will result in consequences to the entire community.  Closing a school disrupts a community to such an extent that even though the district might save $5 million over a ten-year period, the real effect will be losing money.  Not only do parents depend on the neighborhood school as a public place to educate their children, but the school itself, being part of a community, is connected to many entities that make up the community.  Johnson recommends that instead of operating a school at full capacity, we might consider a variable capacity school that makes adjustments to the student population.  By keeping the schools intact, and reducing the overall costs to run the school based on enrollment, the school remains a vibrant part of the community, and with community leadership can begin to rebuild and improve the school.

Johnson explains that a system (such as a community) is more than a sum of its parts.  He says that if we get the parts (of a school & its community) working together, it will result in much more than the sum of the parts.  Narrow thinking will lead to the closing of schools because the central office looks only at short-term savings of money, where the kind of deep thinking that Johnson is advocating might create an environment for school improvement, rather than closure.

And one more thing.  Mr. Johnson tasks the school board with telling us what they think is the purpose of schooling in Atlanta.  As he points out, asking nine school board members this question several years ago resulted in nine different answers. As Johnson says, if they can’t agree on the purpose of schools, how can they function to improve the district.  Why do have public schools?  What is the purpose of school?  If we can not answer such basic questions, how can we possibly make serious decisions about people’s lives such as shutting down their children’s schools.  And indeed Mr. Johnson’s ideas about purpose of schooling are in sync with Edward Deming’s ideas when he says:

People are asking for better schools, with no clear idea how to improve education, nor even how to define improvement of education (Deming 1994).

I think you might find it valuable to watch Mr. Johnson’s interview which appears in this video. View the second part of his video interview here.

checkI am Asking You to Vote for Mr. Johnson

I worked in downtown Atlanta for 32 years as a professor of science education at Georgia State University, and lived in Atlanta for a decade.  During those years as professor I had the privilege of working with educators in the Atlanta Public School district from 1969 – 2003.  If I were still living in Atlanta (I live now in Marietta) I would not only vote for Ed Johnson, but I would feel unusually well represented by a man of integrity and creative ideas.  Parents and students will be not only protected from outside forces by Mr. Johnson, but he will forge a discussion among the Board that will bring civility and care into the room.  He also will be a champion of experienced educators, and will make sure that the views of experienced teachers are integral to reforming education in Atlanta based on the ideals of a democratic society.

If you are a citizen of Atlanta, I urge you to vote for Ed Johnson.


The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.  John Adams as quoted in  Ravitch, Diane (2013-09-17). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Kindle Locations 30-32). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University