Exit interview

State Sen. Michael Johnston reflects on six years of education reform as term ends

PHOTO: Denver Post File
State Sen. Michael Johnston with his children on the Senate floor at the start of the 2012 session.

When Colorado lawmakers come together on Jan. 11, one of the most influential — and controversial — legislators to work on education policy this decade won’t be there.

State Sen. Michael Johnston, a Democrat who was first appointed to represent northeast Denver in 2009, is term-limited and won’t be back. He is, however, considering a bid to run for governor.

Before everyone begins focusing on the next legislative session (and the 2018 governor’s race), we sat down with Johnston to discuss his work on teacher evaluations, school funding, the future of the reform movement and why some people consider him the enemy.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You ran your landmark bill that fundamentally changed the way teachers were evaluated and dismissed, Senate Bill 191, your first year in the legislature. Why was that your No. 1 priority? Were you afraid of losing any political capital?

I had been a teacher. I lived through the world of having evaluations that were meaningless and I couldn’t improve my practice. And I came into the legislature straight out of being a high school principal for six years. I felt I had the chance to learn a lot about what was working and what wasn’t working.

Evaluations felt sort of like health care — everyone knows the system is broken, but they didn’t agree on how to fix it. It seemed like the purpose of serving in the legislature was to get big things done. And that was more important than preserving political capital.

There are many facets to 191. One portion of the bill actually had its day in front of the state Supreme Court last week. What’s working with the law and what isn’t?

The thing we always knew would take time would be developing the culture of gathering and evaluating student data. We left a lot of flexibility for districts to do that. We figured some districts would be really innovative and find better ways than others would.

So unlike other states that mandated tethering data to a single test, we gave more flexibility about what test could be used.

One thing I’m convinced that is not working is schools that are using one single indicator for all teachers’ growth measures. So if they’re just using a fifth-grade English score to drive the growth metrics of a third-grade art teacher or an eighth-grade science teacher — that to me is not in the spirit of the bill.

It’s supposed to be about improvement and to improve it has to be about your own performance. So I’m more encouraged by the districts who are working with their teachers to find a way to measure growth in art in third grade and science in eighth grade.

Amy Erickson, policy director of the Senate majority office, left, listens to remarks with Sen. Mike Johnston, right, and his wife Courtney during an Amendment 66 watch party at the Marriott City Center in Denver on Nov. 5. Amendment 66 was defeated. (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)

Do you still believe a teacher’s evaluation should be based on how well students perform, even as some supporters of that idea have backed off?

I do. I think the notion that you can separate the success of adults from the success of kids — I don’t find that to be meaningful to the educators I know who are interested in making an impact.

Now, are there nuances of how you measure that? It’s as much art as it is science. Do I believe one score on one day is ever the picture of a student’s performance? No. But what teachers have done for generations, at the end of every semester, they give a student a grade that is the result of a complex analysis of a combination of skills and performance and demonstration of those skills.

There’s a similar complexity we want to gather about teachers. I think there is lots of work to do on how to fine-tune that, but I think that basic principle is as important today as it was then.

Talk to me about Amendment 66, which would have raised about a billion dollars in taxes for schools. Was that the biggest setback in your career?

I think so. Certainly, biggest failure. I have a lot of wise friends who say you learn more from your failures than your successes. That was certainly true.

What did you learn?

There is a reason we haven’t passed a statewide tax increase during the last 25 years of the TABOR era. People are very, very skeptical of taxes in a general application. And people are very, very skeptical of statewide taxes.

What does SB 191 do?
Senate Bill 191 rewrote many of the state’s laws regarding teacher evaluations, and hiring and firing practices. Here’s a look at some of what’s in SB 191.
  • Requires annual evaluations for teachers and administrators to “provide a basis for making decisions in the areas of hiring, compensation, promotion, assignment, professional development, earning and retaining non-probationary status, dismissal, and nonrenewal of contract.”
  • At least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation must be based on the academic growth of students, and at least 50 percent of a principal’s evaluation is to be determined by the academic growth of students in a school and the effectiveness of the school’s teachers.
  • Probationary teachers must have three consecutive years of demonstrated effectiveness to gain non-probationary status and non-probationary teachers who receive two consecutive years of unsatisfactory evaluations return to probation.
  • A teacher may be placed in a school only with the consent of the principal and the advice of at least two teachers who work at that school.
  • Effective non-probationary teachers who aren’t placed in a school will go into a priority hiring pool.
  • Non-probationary teachers who lose their jobs because of staff reductions will be given lists of all available jobs in their districts.
  • A non-probationary teacher who doesn’t find another job within 12 months or two hiring cycles will be placed on unpaid leave.
  • Teacher effectiveness, then seniority, will be considered when layoffs are made.

A person who I considered a friend was the statewide voice opposing Amendment 66 and was also the proponent of his own local district’s bond and mill levy override. So there are folks who you could get to support local districts but are much more skeptical about a statewide measure. The challenge is if you only allow a patchwork of local measures, you’re going to expand inequality across the state with places like Greeley and Pueblo that have never passed an override.

You need a really broad coalition if you’re going to do something that has never been done before — pass a large tax measure in this state. We lost the chambers (of commerce), and we lost the business community. I thought we could have won without the deep backing of that community. We were wrong about that.

I also thought one of the mistakes we made was that we were not clear about what was at stake. I think what we did was spend two years on a very complicated problem of school finance and the way it’s not equitable and inadequate, and — I’ll take responsibility for this — we didn’t think we could communicate that effectively in 15-second TV spots. So we tried to simplify the message down to the emotional resonance of what school felt like — art and P.E. and small class sizes. That was a mistake.

We need to engage people in a deep conversation around the fact that there are profound inequalities and inadequacies in the way schools are funded.

Another failure of Amendment 66 is that we didn’t just lose the vote count. It was that we didn’t use that opportunity to build a movement for further remedies of the same problem. People just saw it as the schools asked for more money. I think we failed to create the understanding of the problem, which would have kept people at the table to help solve the problem a different way.

I do think the upside is we did exactly what the Constitution asked us to do. We didn’t skirt TABOR. We didn’t play dirty tricks.

The other thing I learned is that when you’re defeated, you pick yourself back up. And that’s what we did. The next session, we came back and passed the Student Succeeds Act, which was, as far as I can tell, the single largest one-time investment in Colorado’s history. We put $400 million back into K-12. We put in one of the key improvements of the system, which was this financial transparency component. We looked for innovative ways to do what we wanted to for preschool and full-day kindergarten, which was the Pay-For-Success legislation. It will allow us to finance early ed in a different way.

People said, on some of these things, we don’t want to pay new taxes. So we went back and found ways under the current budget to find new revenue for schools and found new ways to find expansions of existing programs, like early childhood education, without adding new taxes.

Do you think there can be comprehensive school finance reform passed in the legislature without new taxes?

I think Amendment 66 (and it’s companion legislation Senate Bill 213) proved is that it’s going to be very hard to solve the problems of school funding equity with solving the problems of school funding adequacy. The reason why Amendment 66 got so expensive is because it tried to do both at the same time. I’m skeptical we can solve one of those problems without the other. And I’d hate to solve adequacy without solving equity.

The state enacted many education reform efforts between 2008 and 2012. And then, momentum behind the movement appeared to hit a roadblock. Some might say there was a pushback that led to the testing debate of 2015. What happened?

For me, it was very deliberate. It was always the conversation: Let’s build the system and then let’s adequately fund the system. So, I spent my first three years, which included the READ Act and the ASSET bill, making dramatic improvements up and down the system.

Gov. John Hickenlooper shakes hands with Sen. Mike Johnston after signing SB 13-213.

(The READ Act created a new system to identify students in kindergarten through third grade with reading disabilities. The ASSET bill provided in-state tuition for students who were born in another country but brought to the U.S. illegally as a student and graduated from a Colorado high school.)

We thought it would rebuild the public’s faith that the system should be funded more adequately. So the next phase of the work was funding, which was Senate Bill 213, Amendment 66 and the Student Success Act. Then, as I went around the state and talked to educators, they would say, “We believe this is the right work. But we also believe it’s incredibly complicated. We’re willing to be engaged and solve this. But you need to leave us alone for awhile for us to do that.”

So when people came to me in 2014 and 2015 and 2016 and they ask me what my next big crazy education idea is, I would say the idea is to help support educators in the big ideas we already have.

If you take any other profession and change the entire bulk of what you do, how you measure what you do and how you’re evaluated on what you do, all that the same time, that’s a huge overhaul.

Was it too much?

I don’t think so. There were a lot of unsung heroes in this work — like state Sen. Bob Bacon, who said, “We believe this is is the right thing to do. But let’s not pretend like we can do this in one year. Let’s give ourselves five years to implement.” Which is why this work has been gradual — and why I think it’s been more successful here than in some states.

In 2015, lawmakers took on the state’s testing system. While many of your peers were eager to cut testing, you were a staunch defender of the system. At times, it seemed like you might have been the only one standing up for testing. Did you ever feel lonely?

No. Some of the groups who came in to say, “Don’t throw this all out” were teachers. I think of the social studies test debate. Everyone said, ‘We don’t need this test.’ Then a bunch of social studies teachers showed up and said “Wait a second.” If you remember, that’s why a bill that looked like it was going to breeze through suddenly died at the Senate Ed committee. Teachers showed up en masse.

I had done a lot of traveling through the state to sit with third grade and second grade teachers during assessments. I believed they were right that there was a lot of duplicative assessments that needed to be streamlined. So I was supportive of the fact that we reduced testing by more than any of the other 49 states that year. I was glad to vote for it. I was also glad that we maintained some spine of data so we could track growth year to year.

That was a good example of how when good people are willing to work together and sit in the same room over and over and over, you get good outcomes.

Unfinished business?

There’s a lot.

PHOTO: Denver Post File
State Sen. Michael Johnston

Early childhood education is a huge piece of unfinished business. College access and affordability is a huge part of unfinished business. And I think all of the implementation that’s going to go around to perfect the system we’re trying to build is going to need a lot of time and resources.

What do you think distinguishes education reform in Colorado compared to the rest of the country?

I think we are distinctly more collaborative and thoughtful. I think we’re more patient. And I think we have a broader coalition of people who support us that goes well beyond the Capitol. It includes nonprofit leaders and civil right leaders and business leaders, people who have been engaged in this work for a long, long time. We’ve tried as much as possible to avoid it being a conversation of blame and more about improvement. I think there is just a tenor of how the conversation has gone.

Look, Randi Weingarten (president of the American Federation of Teachers) supported 191. She’s one of the most vocal union leaders in the country. But we talked to them early, we solved problems with them. They felt this was work they wanted to be a part of and work they could support. Other parts of the country, they found evaluations very hard. Here, the purpose was different. The work was lead by practitioners. We included practitioners in all the conversations. There were 205 amendments proposed to 191. Almost everyone I took was from an educator who walked through door was from an educator who said I had missed something important.

I think that’s made it very different.

How do you hope to shape the education debate from outside of the Capitol?

There’s a great new generation of leaders coming into the Capitol. I’ll be an ear or a sounding board for them as they get up and situated. I do find there are real upsides to term limits. You get more turnover in leadership and new ideas. The downside is you lose institutional memory. This year, there will be a very small number of people in either chamber who were there when we approved 191. So those new lawmakers weren’t there for the 300 people who spoke about why this bill mattered.

I want to be a resource, not just for 191, but for the much broader vision: early childhood education, attracting and retaining great teachers, making sure kids have access to any opportunity they want. It’s about situating individual parts of the debate into the bigger vision. I find when people see the bigger vision, they’re more supportive or more helpful with their feedback.

You’re a very polarizing figure. Why do you think that is?

I find I’m far less polarizing to people who know me. I think people who know me and work with me on a daily basis have a clearer sense for what my values are and that I’m going to try to get things done in a way that is respectful to everyone involved. If you talk with teachers I’ve worked with, even the folks who have come to oppose legislation I’ve been a part of, I’ve sat down with anyone who came to my door. And the more we did, the more we agreed than disagreed. I think there are people who spend a lot of time and effort trying to make a boogeyman. But people who sit down and work with me don’t have that perception. And it’s true in other policy areas. The ACLU disagreed with my work on felony DUIs. We sat down and reached a consensus. They didn’t love the idea, but they realized it was important. I was both respected and committed at the same time. But I also think I listened. I found that at close range, I’m much less of either pole.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.