Looking ahead

Michael Johnston, architect of Colorado’s teacher evaluation system, considering bid for governor

PHOTO: Denver Post File
State Sen. Michael Johnston

State Sen. Michael Johnston, a former principal who designed the state’s landmark teacher evaluation law and is a prominent figure in Colorado’s education reform movement, is considering joining what could be a crowded Democratic primary field for the 2018 governor’s race.

Johnston’s name has appeared in early reports speculating about potential candidates, and he has confirmed to Chalkbeat and other media that he is weighing a run.

Other Democrats whose names have been floated as possible candidates are former U.S. Sen. and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, first elected in 2010, is term-limited. 

“The question for me is, ‘Where can you make the most impact on the issues you care about?’” Johnston said in an interview Thursday. “(It’s) not ‘What is it that you want to be?’ But, ‘What is it that you want to change?’”  

Johnston, whose state Senate tenure will end next month because of term limits, declined to identify possible positions or campaign themes. As a legislator, he focused on a variety of issues besides education, including criminal justice reform, and — to a lesser degree — energy and the state’s rural economy.

Johnston, a Denver Democrat, is considered a rising star in his party. He’s been recognized by TIME magazine and The New York Times. And he’s well-known in education circles inside and outside of Colorado. But his name recognition across the state can’t compare to Salazar’s or Perlmutter’s.

“I have tremendous respect for all the folks who are thinking about it,” Johnston said, but added that potential opponents would not factor into his decision on whether to run.  

Democrats in past election cycles have coalesced around one gubernatorial candidate and avoided prolonged primaries, said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.

“It’s been awhile since we’ve seen the Democrats go at it in a primary,” he said.

But that could change now that voters have approved an open primary system in which unaffiliated voters may be able to participate in primary elections. In Colorado, about 36 percent of registered voters are not affiliated with any political party. They make up the state’s largest voting bloc.

“I don’t think we have a good sense of what that means yet,” Masket said. “You may get a wider range of people with different backgrounds. We might see more outsiders throwing their hats into races.”

One challenge facing a potential Johnston candidacy is his work on teacher evaluations and other reforms, which has put him at odds with the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. The union and other labor groups play a large role in Democratic politics.

Johnston, 42, was born and raised in Vail.

After graduating from Yale, he joined Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to teach for two years, typically in low-income neighborhoods. Johnston taught in Mississippi and wrote a book about the students he met.

He later got a master’s degree in education from Harvard and a law degree from Yale. During this time he consulted on a number of political campaigns, including Tom Strickland’s unsuccessful 2002 Senate bid.  

In 2005, he was hired by Mapleton Public Schools to lead a new high school in Thornton, a suburb of Denver. The school served mostly low-income black and Latino students.

In 2008, he was an education adviser to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Obama delivered a key education speech at Johnston’s school.

Johnston was  appointed to the state Senate in 2009. He won his seat in 2010 and was re-elected in 2012.

Johnston currently runs Traverse, a policy consulting firm. He also helps manage a nonprofit that focuses on training civic leaders. He lives with his wife, Courtney, and three children in northeast Denver.

FAQ

Goodbye, focus and priority schools: Hello, new ways of supporting Indiana’s struggling students, whether their school is an A or an F.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at Phalen Leadership Academy at IPS School 103. The school was on the priority school list for 2016.

Under new federal law, Indiana officials will no longer only have a responsibility to step in to help the state’s worst-performing schools — they’ll be responsible for rooting out problems in high-achieving districts as well.

Currently, Indiana education officials siphon off the state’s most-struggling schools each year for more support or other kinds of state intervention, based on their A-to-F grades. Schools that receive Fs or have graduation rates below 65 percent are called “priority schools,” and schools that receive Ds are called “focus schools.”

The categories serve as a watch-list for both federal and state accountability. Only D- and F-schools that receive federal poverty aid, known as Title I funding, are be eligible to go on the lists.

But going forward, the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act makes some pretty big changes to this system. The law replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, and the state is currently overhauling its education policy plan to meet the new requirements. The plan is due to the federal government for approval in September.

Below, we break down the new rules and answer some questions.

So what will happen to focus and priority schools?

Those categories will go away, and two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

Targeted support schools are ones where certain group of students are doing poorly on state tests. It’s a distinction that’s focused on trying to close test score gaps between students from different backgrounds, a key aspect of what ESSA was designed to do.

Civil Rights advocates and educators have praised this part of the new law, which they hope will highlight inequities within schools and no longer allow “good” schools to overlook small groups of students who need more help.

“There needs to be a focus on these subgroups specifically because sometimes, when you’re looking at these schools as a whole, it can mask subgroup performance,” said Maggie Paino, director of accountability for the Indiana Department of Education.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools.

Which schools would qualify?

Targeted support schools would be ones where groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Technically, schools that have high overall grades could still fall into the targeted support category.

Schools that require comprehensive support include those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

There’s also a way that schools could transition from targeted to comprehensive support: If a subgroup remains in bottom 5 percent for longer than the state deems appropriate (based on a timeline it gets to create) they will be considered as needing comprehensive support as well.

When do the new categories go into effect?

Beginning in 2018-19, using test results from 2017-18, the state will identify the schools that fall into the two categories, with one exception: Schools requiring comprehensive support based on how subgroups perform wouldn’t be identified for the first time until 2020-21.

The initial identification will happen in the fall, and then schools have the rest of the school year to plan. The state will also publish a list each of year of “at-risk” schools that are in the bottom 6 percent to 10 percent and high schools with graduation rates 70 percent or lower.

How can schools shake off the new labels?

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support.

For schools in targeted support, they have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Both types of schools must also create a “strong plan” for how they will maintain their progress and how funding and other resources might change after they no longer need state support.

Do these schools get any extra money from the state to make their plans happen?

They do — multiple grants will be available.

Comprehensive support schools qualify for one to two years of extra Title I dollars to support their work improving their school. The money will be distributed by the state during the schools’ planning year after they are first identified.

Districts with four or more schools in comprehensive support can apply for additional grants to help them put in place bigger turnaround projects, such as transformation zones or innovation network schools.

How long can a school be labeled as comprehensive support?

Four years — the same as the state’s current accountability limit for F grades. After that, more serious consequences come into play.

At that point, Indiana State Board of Education can:

  • Merge the school with a nearby, higher-performing school.
  • Assign a special management team to run all or part of the school.
  • Allow the school to become part of a transformation zone.
  • Allow the school to become an innovation network school.
  • Accept recommendations from the Indiana Department of Education.
  • Delay action for another year if it thinks the majority of students are improving.
  • Close the school.
  • Employ other options as it sees fit.

The state board will continue discussing Indiana’s ESSA plan at its meeting next week.

You can find the state’s entire ESSA plan here and Chalkbeat’s ESSA coverage here.

Feedback loop

Colorado’s education plan earns cheers, jeers from national reform groups

Miguel Rosales, 8, middle, does as many push ups as he can while friends David Perez, 8, left, and Julio Rivera, 9, right, watch during PE class taught by Chris Strater at Lyn Knoll Elementary School on December 14, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Reviews of Colorado’s federally required education plan are beginning to trickle in from national observers. And they’re mixed.

What’s there to love, according to national education think-tanks? Colorado is taking seriously new requirements to include more information about how students are succeeding in school.

What’s there to gripe about? The state’s plan is not very detailed and lacks strong goals for student achievement, which critics say raises questions about how it plans to improve schools.

Colorado was one of the first states earlier this year to submit its plan to comply with updated federal education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act — to the U.S. Department of Education. The State Board of Education and state education department officials spent more than a year developing the plan with scores of teachers, advocates, parents and business leaders.

While state officials wait for an official response from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — who must approve the plan to keep federal dollars flowing to the state’s schools — there’s no shortage of commentary from the education reform class.

Here’s what you need to know about three reports released this summer on Colorado’s education plan:

The Collaborative for Student Success has the most detailed look at the state’s plan — and is the most critical.

While this organization, which worked with Bellwether Education Partners, praised Colorado for its commitment to rigorous academic standards and data reporting, it raised several red flags that are consistent with some early criticism that the federal education department has shared with other states.

Chiefly: Colorado’s long-term academic goals are based on a confusing percentile system and make no sense.

Instead of setting a goal to increase the number of students reaching proficiency on state exams, the state wants to increase its average test scores during the next six years.

While that sounds simple enough, the goals are muddled because the state has set the same goal for different student populations. Students with disabilities who historically earn the lowest test scores are expected to raise their achievement to meet the state average. Meanwhile, Asian students who historically outperform the state would need to lose ground in order for the state to meet its goals.

The goals, the organization says, are “difficult for parents, educators and the public to understand, (do) not set strong expectations for all schools and all groups of students to improve, and may not be ambitious” enough.

The group also raised serious concerns about the state’s lack of detail in several areas, including how the state would weigh different factors that determine school quality.

Throughout the development of the plan, Colorado officials repeatedly said that they intended to provide limited responses to the federal education department’s questionnaire, which guided the plan’s development.

That’s because they believed the new education law’s intent was to provide states with greater flexibility and less federal oversight. Therefore, Colorado officials reasoned, the federal education department didn’t need an excessive level of detail.

What’s more, the federal law does give states the opportunity to continually update and amend their plans. That’s something Colorado plans to do as it receives guidance from the federal government and the state legislature.

Colorado’s plan continues to garner praise from the center-right Fordham Institute.

The folks at the Fordham Institute can’t say enough good things about Colorado’s plan. The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit came out early with an editorial praising the plan’s development. Now they are giving Colorado strong marks across the board.

Fordham graded state plans in three areas regarding school quality ratings: were they clear, focused on all students and fair to schools that serve mostly poor students?

What really gets Fordham revved up is Colorado’s switch to a normative approach of rating schools. Most states rate schools based on how many students meet or exceed a certain proficiency standard on annual English and math tests. Colorado rates schools based on a school’s average score on those tests. The closer the school is to the overall state average, the better the quality score.

Fordham and state officials believe this move requires schools to focus on the performance of all students, not just those who are near the proficiency line. Critics argue that the measure can be misleading.

Colorado is one of eight states to include a variety of “promising practices.” But it’s not the leading the pack.

A third group, Results for America, took a slightly different approach in critiquing the first batch of state plans. Working with the Council of Chief State School Officers, Results for America identified 13 strategies states could use in their plans as ways to improve student learning.

Strategies include giving federal tax dollars only to schools that are using proven reform methods and creating a state system to support school turnaround efforts.

Colorado’s plan included four of the 13 strategies. Meanwhile, New Mexico is using nine and Tennessee is using seven.

Colorado’s plan was recognized for requiring schools to create annual improvement plans that are based on proven techniques and consolidating multiple grant applications for school improvement work into one.