74 Interview: Denver’s Mayor on Testing, Hillary Clinton and America’s Fastest-Growing Urban School District

See previous 74 interviews: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio, Newark superintendent Cami Anderson, former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Colorado state senator Mike Johnston.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock was elected in 2011 and overwhelmingly re-elected in 2015. Although the Democratic leader has no formal control over the city’s school system — which is governed by an elected school board — he has emphasized education issues, generally supporting the growth of charter schools and teacher quality initiatives, including performance pay. Denver students have made above average growth on standardized tests, relative to the rest of Colorado students, according to state data.
In a recent phone interview with The 74, he discusses how Denver is trying to strengthen its schools, recruit more teachers of color, and maintain a strong relationship not often seen in other cities between charters and district schools. Hancock, 46, also talks about the presidential election and what Hillary Clinton told him about her vision for public education.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
The 74: Why do you think a strong public school system is so important for a city like Denver?
Hancock: Well we know that a lot of the folks who are moving to the city are younger in terms of just starting their careers, many of them don’t have families yet. Ultimately, as they move to our city, we want them to stay. And by staying it helps us to drive our investments, as well as the growth in our city. But you gotta have good schools to do that, and obviously it helps us attract the jobs necessary to retain them if you have good schools.
Do you find that more Denver residents are enrolling their kids in Denver Public Schools?
Denver Public Schools has become, in the last five years, the fastest-growing urban school district in the country. And a lot of that has to do with people who are coming back to the school system, folks who are moving into the city. At the same time, we’ve seen a decrease in the number of kids who are enrolled in private school. So we’re seeing more and more kids enrolled in public schools. There are a variety of factors driving that, but you’re talking about the fastest-growing urban school district in the nation.
So how is Denver trying to make the schools stronger? How are you trying to improve your schools?
First and foremost, we’ve elected a Board of Education that is accountable and committed to making sure that every young person in the city of Denver has access to quality schools, starting in their own neighborhoods. That’s been critical because we’ve attracted some award-winning programs to communities, many that have been underserved. Some today that were quite frankly mired in perennially failing schools five, six years ago now have some of the leading schools in the state and that has made a difference.
Secondly, as we grow, being able to recruit the best administrators and teachers to the school district makes an awful lot of difference. We certainly have seen that with the partnerships through Teach For America, and other innovative programs that are helping us to drive new energy and innovation to the classroom.
We’ve also had quite a few state and local laws that have passed that have aided innovation and injection of creativity into the classroom. Those things have made a difference in Denver.
I read in your biography that you yourself are a graduate of the Denver Public Schools. Do you think the schools have improved a lot since you were in the system?
Yeah, I think so. I think every school district across this country has had to find new innovative ways of educating young people, particularly now that we’re measuring where young people are and where they’re not. So it’s made a difference to be able to quite frankly look at the schools of the past and build off of that but also prepare young people for the future. And that’s what our schools are designed to do today.
“You can’t improve what you can’t measure. We’ve got to be able to know where our young people are and to be able to use those indicators as benchmarks to improve”
Speaking of the measuring issue, in a lot of places, including in Colorado from what I’ve read, there has been some pushback against testing and against the measurement of student achievement. What do you make of that? Where do you think that’s coming from? Do you think there are valid concerns? Do you think there are issues that need to be addressed?
You can’t improve what you can’t measure. We’ve got to be able to know where our young people are and to be able to use those indicators as benchmarks to improve. The ultimate objective and goal is to improve the education and the attainment of pertinent knowledge of our young people. I do agree that we shouldn’t be over-testing, and teaching to tests. But I do believe it’s important to measure where our kids are and make sure they’re being properly prepared.
In Denver you as the mayor don’t have the legal authority over schools, unlike in some cities like New York, so what do you do personally as mayor to support Denver schools considering you don’t have an official say?
Not having an official say has probably been a benefit for us. There’s no greater bully pulpit in most cities across the country than the mayor. And if we can elevate the issues of education, the issues of housing, the issues of safety then we use the bully pulpit to do that. When I came in as mayor, I came in very clear: I thought there was no issue more important than the issue of educating our young people properly. And really dealing with the issues of equity in terms of access to quality programming. That really resonated with a lot of people. I ran on education — people knew I didn’t control schools but they recognized that if you’re willing to elevate and use your bully pulpit then we’re going to be willing to engage and lean in on the issues.
Did you support candidates in the most recent school board election?
And were your candidates successful?
We’ve won all but one of the races I’ve endorsed in since I became mayor.
What’s the relationship like between charter schools in Denver and district schools?
I think it’s better than cities across the country. We actually have some co-location strategies where traditional schools have charter schools co-located with them. And I think Denver Public Schools has become a national leader in terms of charter school programs operating successfully and harmoniously throughout the city.
Have you seen or do you know if the charters and district schools are sharing best practices and cooperating together?
I know firsthand that they are. Absolutely.
What’s your relationship like with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the city teachers’ union?
I don’t work very closely with them. It’s not intentional; it’s just that I’m not called to work with them very closely. We’ve had some interaction with them. We’re working with them now to help recruit teachers of color into Denver. In terms of intimate engagement, it doesn’t exist with the mayor’s office.
How are you working to make sure there’s a diverse workforce of teachers?
We have a great working relationship with the superintendent and the Board of Education. We really believe, as you’ve pointed out, an independent Board of Education governs the schools and it hires the superintendent. So we take their lead on what’s going on on the inside of that school door. So if they call us and say, ‘Hey, we need your support and engagement here,’ we will. One of the areas they really want to focus on — and they’ve called and asked for our support on — is the recruitment and retention of administrators and teachers of color. We’re leaning in to engage.
What strategies do you think are particularly important to get teachers of color to enter and, just as importantly, get them to stay in the classroom?
I think it’s important to get them to understand that we want them in Denver. I think that’s important. Two, as a mayor of color who was educated in the school system, I think it’s important that they leverage this opportunity with me in office, and that’s why I’m leaning in and engaging. So that’s important. Thirdly, I think the quality-of-life issues, the cost-of-living issues, are real. We’re doing everything we can to make sure we produce as much affordable housing as we can, to make sure that the cost of living in Denver doesn’t increase too exponentially — where teachers can be in their city, in the city in which they’re educating kids. So I think those things are just as important whether you’re a teacher, a police officer, or you’re coming in as a junior executive — what’s the cost of living and can I live comfortably?
I know Denver has created a unique pay system for teachers. Do you think it’s important that teachers are paid based partially on performance?
Absolutely. You’re paid for performance; I’m paid for performance. The reality is you’re a professional and I think that should be part of the equation. I’ve supported laws on the state level that have done that and they’ve been implemented here in Colorado and I think it has helped us to recruit and retain as well as to put before our young people the very best educators
Going back to charters for a second, one of the arguments you sometimes hear about charters is that they drain money from the public school system and they privatize the system. Do you have any concerns about that or have you tried to address it to make sure charters don’t hurt the public school system?
I think initially I was on that platform and then I realized, these are the same kids. And I think the most important thing is the focus on the kids and not the politics around charter schools versus traditional schools, but the focus on the young people who are sitting in those classrooms. And to make sure that the resources are allocated to support their presence, wherever they may be, to access quality education.
I imagine you’ve been following the presidential election closely. Do you wish the candidates were talking more about education?
Absolutely and I think people ought to tune in and ask those questions if they get the opportunity. I’ve had the chance to talk to all the candidates on the Democratic side of the ticket and we talked about education and where they were on education. I think that’s important for us to do with all of our candidates.
Have you endorsed a candidate?
I endorsed Hillary Clinton.
What about her education vision appealed to you?
Actually it’s very consistent with mine and that is that we, one, have a platform of providing and presenting to our young people quality educational opportunities in their neighborhood. Choice is very much a part of this. I think you’ll see with Hillary Clinton, and she has stated to me personally, carrying the advancement of a lot of the same values that President Obama brought forward with his unprecedented investment in public education. Those things were exciting to me.
Do you see there being a divide in the Democratic party about some education issues, including charter schools, choice, and some of the teacher accountability and teacher evaluation initiatives?
I think it’s on the latter that you just mentioned, in terms of teacher accountability and evaluation, as well as testing. I think those are things that have to be dealt with and rectified. I don’t see them as being enormously disruptive or to stop the agendas going forward. But clearly those are issues of contention. But in terms of choice and charters, there’s enough out there now, proving that some of these programs are enormously effective at helping young people, particularly free and reduced lunch students to advance. And I think people are now at least anesthetized, if you will, to those concerns. We need to continue our efforts around that. I don’t hear that as much as I do around the testing and teacher evaluation elements.

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