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.

End of an era

Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg is stepping down after nearly 10 years

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Denver Public School's Superintendent Tom Boasberg eats lunch with students at Cowell Elementary's Summer SLAM Program in 2016. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Tom Boasberg, who has earned a national profile as Denver schools superintendent, is stepping down.

Boasberg announced Tuesday he’s leaving his post after an unusually long tenure – nearly 10 years at the helm of Denver Public Schools, a 92,600-student urban district nationally known for its innovative approaches to school improvement.

Boasberg will continue to serve for 90 days, as his contract with the district requires. The Denver school board will be tasked with choosing his successor. Boasberg, who is earning $242,125 as superintendent this year, said he does not have another job lined up.

“It’s been an extraordinarily difficult decision because I love this place, I am extraordinarily committed to our work and our mission, and I believe in it with all of my heart and soul,” Boasberg said in an interview Monday, a day before the public announcement. “I am going to miss it terribly, and I also know this is the right time for me and my family.”

Boasberg, 52, and his wife have three children, ages 17, 15, and 14. He said his decision was personal and not driven by the politics of the district. His oldest daughter, Nola, graduated from high school this year – a milestone he said made him stop and think about his commitments to his family, as well as his commitments to the district and to Denver students.

“I think we have lots of momentum and we’re in a strong place,” Boasberg said. Ultimately, he said his choice was born of a “deep desire to spend more family time with my kids before they’re all gone, and a very strong confidence in our board of education, our leaders in the Denver Public Schools, and our ability to have a successful transition.”

He did not offer an opinion on who should succeed him. When he took a six-month sabbatical in 2016 to live abroad with his family, the board appointed longtime district administrator Susana Cordova as acting superintendent. Cordova has since been named deputy superintendent.

The makeup of the seven-member Denver school board has shifted several times during Boasberg’s tenure, but he has always enjoyed the backing of a majority of members – a factor that has been key in advancing his vision. In the most recent election last year, however, two candidates critical of the district’s aggressive improvement strategies and its growing number of charter schools won seats on the board, breaking up what had been unanimous support.

But Boasberg said the latest political shift didn’t play a role in his decision. He called the board “strong” and “committed,” and he said he’s confident its members will continue the district’s momentum when he’s gone. Over the past 10 years, Denver Public Schools has seen its enrollment grow, its test scores improve, and its graduation rate increase.

Boasberg said he’s proudest of the fact that the numbers of black and Latino students graduating high school and going to college has nearly doubled in that time. In 2006, 1,706 black and Latino students graduated high school, according to the district. In 2017, 3,148 did.

However, the graduation rates and test scores of students of color and those from low-income families continue to lag behind the scores of white and affluent students. That has fueled sharp criticism in a district where 76 percent of the population is made up of students of color, and 67 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

Closing those gaps continues to be the district’s biggest challenge, Boasberg said.

“We’ve been absolutely focused on that – and our data says we haven’t done enough, and we need to do more, and we need to do better,” he said. “For my successor, and likely my successor’s successor, that will be the No. 1 challenge.”

Boasberg joined Denver Public Schools in 2007 when he left a job as a senior telecommunications executive at Level 3 Communications in Broomfield to become the district’s chief operating officer under then-superintendent Michael Bennet, a childhood friend of his.

At that time, Bennet was two years into a plan to radically transform the district’s low-performing schools. When Bennet was tapped in January 2009 to fill an empty U.S. Senate seat, the Denver school board quickly decided that Boasberg should replace him as superintendent and continue the reforms underway, which included closing or replacing struggling schools.

Boasberg has refined those strategies and added plenty of his own. He has made Denver Public Schools into a national model whose tactics are revered by some and criticized by others. The latter group includes some local parent organizations and often the Denver teachers union.

The strategies the district has deployed include:

• A policy that lays out strict criteria for when low-performing schools should be closed or replaced. The rollout of this policy was rocky, and the school board recently announced it’s suspending the policy for a year while it conducts a community-wide “listening tour.”

• Creating a common enrollment system that allows families to use a single form to request to attend any district-run or charter school in Denver. The district also shares tax revenue with its independently run charter schools and allows charters to compete for space in district buildings. That has led to many charters sharing campuses with district-run schools, an arrangement that has at times sparked backlash from students and parents.

• Giving schools more freedom from district rules. This has taken several forms, including embracing a state law that allows district-run schools to be designated as “innovation schools” and freed from certain rules and regulations. The district also recently expanded its experiment with “innovation zones,” which are groups of schools with even more financial and organizational freedom. In addition, every district-run school may choose its own curriculum, teacher training programs, and school-based testing regimens.

• Allowing teachers to take on leadership roles. The district’s biggest initiative is its “teacher leadership and collaboration” program, which designates teachers in nearly every district-run school who spend part of their day teaching students and another part observing other teachers, providing feedback, and helping them plan lessons.

“That investment in people is by far the most important factor in our success,” Boasberg said.

Reflecting on his tenure, he said Denver Public Schools “is in a fundamentally different and better place” today than it was when he became chief of Colorado’s largest school district.

Asked about his best day on the job, Boasberg recalled a pair of championship basketball games in which the district’s two biggest high schools, East and South, were competing for the top place in their respective divisions.

The South team’s game was first. Boasberg, who as a young man played semi-pro basketball overseas, was there in the stands. In the waning seconds of the game, South lost in what Boasberg described as “an absolute heartbreaker.” But it was what happened next that still makes him smile when he thinks of it.

“Both the South and the East cheering sections starting chanting, ‘D-P-S,’” Boasberg said. “Not South. Not East. But DPS. And seeing our kids, this extraordinary diversity of both the schools and their sense of pride and joy. … It was an amazing moment.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Tennessee Votes 2018

Early voting begins Friday in Tennessee. Here’s where your candidates stand on education.

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Tennesseans begin voting on Friday in dozens of crucial elections that will culminate on Aug. 2.

Democrats and Republicans will decide who will be their party’s gubernatorial nominee. Those two individuals will face off in November to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Tennessee’s next governor will significantly shape public education, and voters have told pollsters that they are looking for an education-minded leader to follow Haslam.

In Memphis, voters will have a chance to influence schools in two elections, one for school board and the other for county commission, the top local funder for schools, which holds the purse strings for schools.

To help you make more informed decisions, Chalkbeat asked candidates in these four races critical questions about public education.

Here’s where Tennessee’s Democratic candidates for governor stand on education

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley hope to become the state’s first Democratic governor in eight years.

Tennessee’s Republican candidates for governor answer the big questions on education

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, businessman Randy Boyd, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and businessman Bill Lee are campaigning to succeed fellow Republican Haslam as governor, but first they must defeat each other in the 2018 primary election.

Memphis school board candidates speak out on what they want to change

Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Shelby County Schools board this year. That’s much higher stakes compared to two years ago when five seats were up for election with only one contested race.

Aspiring county leaders in charge of money for Memphis schools share their views

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners and county mayor are responsible for most school funding in Memphis. Chalkbeat sent a survey to candidates asking their thoughts on what that should look like.

Early voting runs Mondays through Saturdays until Saturday, July 28. Election Day is Thursday, Aug. 2.