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Q&A: State Senator (and Former Principal) Mike Johnston, on Advancing Colorado Education Reform

By Matt Barnum | November 22, 2015

Mike Johnston, a state senator from Denver, is a former principal and teacher who was joined  the Colorado legislature in 2009. As a lawmaker he led the successful push for a controversial state-wide educator evaluation system, which based half of teachers’ scores on student assessment growth. In this wide-ranging phone interview conducted earlier this fall, I asked Johnston about how the evaluation system is going, what other policy issues he’s working on, and his future political plans:
The Seventy Four: How is Colorado's teacher evaluation law that you passed going, five years in?
Johnston: I think right now we're very pleased with the way the roll-out is going on the evaluation system. I think one of the wise decisions we made during the passage of our legislation was to create time for design, as well as implementation on this massive of a change because when you're talking about completely redesigning the way every teacher and principal in the entire state is evaluated — and doing it at the same time that you're redesigning all the state standards and all the state assessments — you want to try to do that in a deliberate way. So we had a couple of years where we had a group led by teachers and educators and experts around the state to design the standards that we were going to use for teacher evaluations and principal evaluations.
Once that rubric was built we then spent the time piloting those evaluation and piloting both the qualitative side of them, as well as the student-growth measure side. And we have a number of pilot districts that took on this work early. And then we did a first run last year of both the quality standards as well as the student growth metrics. And then this year because we have a brand new set of data coming in with the new PARCC assessment, we'll have a fully live evaluation system where students and teachers will see all the growth metrics.
But that data won't currently count towards, say, the loss of tenure or any negative impacts. But the data systems will be all up and running so teachers and principals can use them; they can see exactly where their growth metrics are. But they can do that in a place where there aren't high stakes attached this year. I think we've done a good job of going fast while also going deliberately towards getting quality implementation so we actually have teachers and principals using the tools and finding them meaningful.
As you know the biggest controversy related to the new teacher evaluation laws across the country has been about test scores. In New York, there's a teacher who's suing the state about how much of her evaluation is based on test scores. What do you make about some of the arguments that it's not appropriate to use test scores to evaluate teachers?
I think the key part of our conversation and our belief is that we ought to care about outcomes. That's true for kids, that's true for adults, that's true for systems. We ought to care not just that a student went to one of our schools for twelve years, but that when they leave, they're actually ready for college or for career. I think that's true in almost all of the work that we do in education. In my work as a principal and a teacher, we always cared about outcomes. We want to make sure that kids know more when they walk out of our class than they did when they walked into our class. That's what great teachers do. And so I've yet to find any serious disagreement that we ought to care about our students' outcomes. There is a small fringe of folks who think that certain kids can't learn or certain kids shouldn't be expected to make progress. But I think most folks agree that of course we should expect our students to be making real growth in terms of outcomes.
I think the only question is how do you measure those outcomes. I think there are a lot of questions about what tests are reliable and what tests aren't reliable. What we've done here is we've said in Colorado we're going to require that there be multiple measures of student growth. We're not talking about one test, one day — we're talking about multiple measures. And there's flexibility in how they weight those measures. So if they have a really great local assessment they've built — if you're talking about a fourth grade art assessment — then they can use that as their predominant variable, but there has to be conversations about outcomes.
That's what we're finding has been really healthy. For the first time in a lot of districts and a lot of schools, teachers and principals are having hard and honest conversations about what do we expect kids to know and be able to do when the semester's over and how will we know if they can do that. I think that's always going to be the right conversation. And yet that leaves a lot of room for us to talk about what exactly do we want them to know and how exactly will we show that? And we might show that in multiple formats. One might be a state assessment. One might be a student portfolio of work. One might be a classroom-designed assessment that the the principal and the teacher agree on. There's lots of flexibility on the how. I think we all share an urgency around the what, which is that students are actually making growth.
It seems that there might be tension between on the one hand having multiple measures of student growth and on the other hand concerns about overtesting. When I was a teacher in Harrison 2 school district in Colorado Springs, we definitely had multiple measures of student growth. We had a lot of benchmark assessments. But there was also a lot of testing and a lot of concern about too much testing because of those multiple measures.
I think that's fair. What we've seen — and there was a Center for American Progress study on this last year — is that by far the great majority of the testing burden is local testing and it's not state or federal testing. About seventy percent of all testing burden comes from school districts or the schools themselves.
But often because of the state evaluation system, incentivized by the feds, right?
In some instances, yeah; they're building their own interim assessments that they think are predictive of the state assessments. But as you know there are lots of ways to go about comparing to take assessments well. If you look at the most successful schools in the country, they're doing it traditionally by doing really high-quality, rigorous instruction throughout the year.
And those include measures of growth. You look at a great teacher, they often have an exit ticket every day already. The exit ticket is an assessment. If you look at weekly quizzes. If you look at dipsticks of learning. If you look at clickers. All those are feedback mechanisms to get information about what your kids know and what you need to help them learn. So I don't think assessment by itself is a terrible thing. I think that assessment without real information that can help shape practice, than can provide opportunity for kids — I think people are frustrated by that. The assessments that feel random and non-useful and perfunctory — I think those are what people are really frustrated by.
We took steps in Colorado last session. We reduced the overall testing burden of students more than of the other 49 states in the country last year. And yet we did it in a way that preserved what we think is really important about testing, which is we'll have longitudinal growth data on language arts and math. We'll have statewide mandatory English and math assessments from grade three all the way through grade eleven. That's really important for us. We'll have some good benchmark data on social studies and science in different years. But we reduced the overall frequency and intensity of those so that did create more time for instruction.
I do think there are some real concerns about overtesting. For us the challenge is how to make sure the testing is meaningful and useful to parents, and to kids, and to teachers. When we do that with testing, people appreciate it and when we fall short of that, they push back — rightly.
How have teachers and their unions in Colorado reacted to your teacher evaluation law? And I'm also particularly interested in your reflections nationally on teachers unions and teacher evaluation, particularly because AFT president Randi Weingarten had supported the law you passed in Colorado, but I think it's fair to say that she has backtracked on some of her support in general on teacher evaluation, particularly as it’s connected to test scores.
When we originally proposed the bill — we have two unions in Colorado, the AFT and NEA — and as you mentioned the AFT supported the legislation and the NEA didn't support it during the proposal. After we passed the legislation, we started this really deep engagement around designing the evaluation tool, and two of the leaders of that commission to design the evaluation tool are now the president and vice president of the state-wide NEA. And they opposed the legislation but they worked really hard in a diligent way on trying to design a world-class evaluation and are now trying to support teachers in having access to quality training and support in how to use metrics.
There are still things on which we disagree. They still have concerns about the idea that the evaluation and the testing, but I think they've been a part certainly of implementing and trying to make sure the implementation goes well. And that's very encouraging. They were a part of our compromise last year on reducing some of the assessment burden. They obviously would have liked to reduce more assessments. We felt like it was important to keep the basic functions of accountability and transparency that not just parents and students need, but that the taxpayers deserve.
I think there is some disagreement still on what the right route is here and how you get there.  I think we still share the same agreement on what the end is, which is let's build a world-class system that attracts and keeps great teachers and great principals, and let's get a clear sense so we know our kids are improving. I think that we're really sound in the implementation phase right now. The policy debates take a back-seat a little bit. We're really working on what do we do to execute this well. That allows more collaboration on outcomes than some of the arguments we get into over policy.
Do you still think that 50 percent is the right number that test scores should be incorporated into teacher evaluation?
I believe that you want to have a real balance between a focus on the more subjective components of our work and the quantitative outcomes of the work. Philosophically to me that should be an even balance. You should, yes, be focusing on what kind of pedagogy am I using, what sort of content knowledge and expertise do I have, how am I developing my leadership. All of those in some ways are inputs. They are the thing that add to your skill and capacity of what you bring to the classroom, what you bring to the school leadership. But those inputs we believe are valuable because we think they have an impact on helping students grow over time. And I think you want to keep a healthy part of that focus on what the outcomes are. We don't ever want to be in a spot where we're the old adage of "I taught it, but they didn't learn it."
Now I think the profession, to their credit, really sees this as, “I only taught it well, if they learned it well.” And you have to have the second part of that equation to understand the first part. The way that I was principal — and we used to do four-week assessment cycles for all of our teachers at our school — the way we knew if the lesson we designed really worked was when we looked at whether or not the students actually mastered that content at the end of the four-week unit. And what our great teachers did was they designed great lessons, delivered them, came back and looked at the data and said, "Actually what I thought was great about this lesson turned out not to be, because they all missed this component, whereas my colleague across the hall designed it differently and had great outcomes. And so let's look at how I can refine my lesson with her feedback." I just think keeping our focus on outcomes is the way we help shape the best practices because I don't think any of us want to believe that if you designed a great lesson and taught in the woods where no student heard it, that it was meaningful.
To me that balance seems right. We're always open to feedback and modification and we'll look at how the implementation goes in these first couple years, but I think philosophically that balance seems fair.
Turning away from evaluation, I love Colorado because there's so much going on with education, so I'm wondering what other education initiatives are going on in the state that you're excited about?
You're right — we have a lot. We're undertaken a big third grade literacy push, as of two years ago, that was designed to help make sure that we identify kids early on in kindergarten who have reading deficiencies and right away target them with interventions and support to make sure we get them literate by third grade. We're already seeing real growth in literacy rates in those places and so that's been big part of it.
We have also just passed this year a piece of legislation on pay-for-success financing, or social impact bonds, as a strategy to try to help expand funding and drive outcomes in early-childhood education. Essentially it's a public–private partnership that allows us to partner with foundations or other private sector investors who want to put dollars into early childhood education. The simple idea is you have a philanthropic partner who puts in the up-front dollars to provide early childhood education. What we know is that if you do that, you're going to save all sorts of money on the back end, when you don't have special education referrals or literacy remediation or the rest of those costs that are so significant.
So when the state generates those savings, based on the kids proficiency, we then pay back the upfront investor out of that state savings. You have the "I'd rather pay for preschool than prison" adage that we all know about, but state budgets are not capable of looking at things that way. What this does is private investors pay the upfront costs and when the state generates the saving we can pay them back. You now have a recurring cycle of investment and a real proof point that these investments aren't just good, moral investments — they're actually very sound financial investments for the state to make. We just passed that last year, which is just about to get up and running in a pilot we're excited about.
Obviously there are some amazing things happening in the school choice world, in places like Denver, moving beyond the old debates of is it district schools or charter schools, where now they have really high-quality district schools that are in such great demand that they're replicating the way that high-quality charter schools replicate when you have so much demand. We have innovation schools, which are essentially a hybrid between district and charter schools. They're district schools where teams of teachers, school leaders, and parents say we want more autonomy from the district and from the union regulations than a normal school has, so we can do longer school days, longer school years, we can do more professional development and instructional focus. I think we see a really mature choice environment there.
Denver Public Schools have a district and charter compact and a unified application process — is that going well?
This has been a great step where our charter community has said, you're right, we think there were some systemic advantages that charters had. When I ran a district school you take one hundred kids on the first day of ninth grade, and by the end of ninth grade I've registered two hundred kids. I've turned over the entire class one time. Charter schools were taking in their ninth grade class, and then they would never take a new student the next four years. If kids left, no kids were backfilled. If someone came into the district, they couldn't get into that school. The result was you had real advantages in building culture, if you had never had to retrain folks on culture.
Led by some our charter schools like STRIVE, they said listen, yes we'll take every kid in the zone, we'll take our share of any new kids who move into the district because we know these are mobile communities. If a kid shows up in November or March, we'll take them. We'll run self-contained special ed programs within our schools, we'll take the highest-needs and the most mobile and the most unpredictable student populations there are, and we'll do this one unified enrollment system. It's been really, really impressive I think in terms of their philosophical commitment to equity. I think the early results have been encouraging in terms of it being a much easier system for parents to navigate and a much fairer access point.
Now I will say there have been some small dips in those charter school performances, but the amazing part is they've now taken that as a challenge to come back with better and stronger efforts, and I think you're going to see those scores rise even higher this year. I think that's been a really great acknowledgement by that sector that they want this to be an entirely level playing field.
Changing gears, at least in the education world, and I imagine even in Colorado and among your colleagues, you're known as the education guy, but are you working on any policy or political issues unrelated to education that are interesting?
I'm glad you asked because I've spent the last two or three years working on a lot more stuff outside of education than in. Two big pieces of legislation I ran last year. One was this pay-for-success program, which is the social impact bonds, but this is also a big strategy for everything from recidivism prevention to health care efficiencies. So this is a general government efficiency strategy where we're going to find opportunities where the state is losing money by paying back-end services. Fifty percent of folks who come out of prison go back to prison within three years. They cost forty thousand a year. With a five-year sentence, that's a $200,000 cost. If we can find a way to prevent those lost expenditures it's big opportunity for us.
I've done a lot of economic development work around rural Colorado, and passed a bill last session called “jump start,” which is a way to try to spur economic development in rural regions across the state.
I did a lot of criminal justice work. We passed our first felony DUI law in the state. In Colorado you get could eight, nine, ten, eleven DUIs and never face a felony charge. I worked on that.
You can't be in Colorado and not be involved in the marijuana work in some way. So we're working on labeling for edibles for medical marijuana because right now you could be a high school principal and have a kid walk in with a bag of gummy bears in the cafeteria, and you don't know if those gummy bears have pot in them or not, because you can't identify them outside of the package.
I did a lot of work last year on racial profiling and police–community relationships around the existing criminal justice challenges in terms of overrepresentation of people of color in the criminal justice pipeline. We built the first data system to track disparities throughout the entire pipeline, from stops to arrests to charges to conviction to parole rates. This will be the first time we can now look at where exactly the biggest disparities are coming from and how we address those two different kinds of strategies.
So a lot of other urban equity issues that have been coming up that are connected to the needs in my district but are different from just the pure education stuff.  
What are your next steps politically? Colorado has term limits, so are you term limited out soon? And what are your next steps after that?
Good question — my wife asks me the same thing. We do have term limits. Next year will be my last year, so I'll be done at the end of 2016. I don't know yet what I'll do next. There are lots of options. I feel like there's important work left to do, and I feel like there's good work to do in politics. I also feel like it's not the only place to make a difference. There's always other nonprofit and higher ed and other places where I feel like there's a lot of work left to be done. I'll look at a bunch of options and see where I can make the biggest impact, and try to make a decision from there. But I don't know the answer to that yet, but I will keep you posted.
I wanted to ask about the state ballot initiative from a couple years ago that you helped lead to try to increase revenue for schools. It wasn't successful, and I'm wondering what lessons did you take from that?
Colorado is the only state in the country where you pass tax increases and then go to the voters. So in any other state once the legislature passes it, you're done. If we were in another state, we could have been done as well.
And Coloradans don't like their taxes raised.
It's true. We've never passed a general tax in state history. We do sin taxes, marijuana and cigarettes, but not general taxes.
I think there were a lot of lessons learned. I do think we still have a structural challenge in the state about how to provide the right investment in regards to accountability and transparency that we have to come back and address. Some of the mistakes we made where I think we tried to build a very complicated and sophisticated change to the state formula and that's something you can do in a legislation where people have a lot of time to study and engage in it. We didn't do a good job communicating to the people of the state why this dramatic change was necessary and why this investment was worth it. I think that was our failure.
I think the next time we'll have to do better at making the case for what the need is, why we need to modernize. We did come back after we had lost that and the next legislative session we passed a $400 million investment in K–12 with a lot of the major education reforms we wanted. For instance we have this financial transparency, which we got passed in legislation the next year and which now this group America Succeeds just published a white paper on it as the kind of template for what every state should do around financial transparency and student-based budgeting. So I think we got a good half a loaf — we got some of the funding and a couple of the key reforms we wanted. We tried to get as much done as we could. But I think we're just going to have do a better job in the years to come making the case to the state why we need this modernization and why people should see that as their top priority.
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