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State Senator Mike Johnston, a Democrat from Denver, was influential in pushing a new teacher effectiveness bill signed into law this week in the state of Colorado after a month of drama and controversy. The law ties teacher and principal evaluations to student academic growth and it changes the way teachers are granted tenure.
Johnston, a former high school principal and Yale educated lawyer, served as an education policy advisor to President Barack Obama before he became a state senator in Colorado just one year ago. The bill is being hailed as a model by education reformers, but it created rifts in the Democratic party and teachers unions in Colorado and led to everything from protests to tears.
Under the new law, a governor’s council will now define what makes an effective teacher and principal and will develop a statewide evaluation system with performance standards for each category of licensed educator. Student academic growth based on their work, tests or annual assessments will be used to determine half of the annual assessments of teachers and principals.
The Hechinger Report spoke with Johnston to get the story behind the new law:
HECHINGER REPORT: There seemed to be enormous uncertainty around this bill before it became law last week. The Colorado Education Association opposed it, some Democratic lawmakers attempted a filibuster and others were apparently sobbing before the vote. Tell us how the drama unfolded and what the end result means.
JOHNSTON: There definitely were very deep emotions on both sides of the bill. And I think whenever you make a change this fundamental – we are talking about changing the evaluation system for forty to fifty thousand educators – it is always hard for adults.
But the status quo is even harder for children and we needed to find ways to improve the system. People lost the fact of what was in it the bill and got caught up in the emotion about what it represented. When we talked about the actual bill and the protections and the timeline, it was helpful.
HECHINGER REPORT: What was the turning point?
JOHNSTON: There were a few. One was when we first introduced it, the state commissioner of education came out in a high profile op ed and endorsed it, and then the governor came out for it…the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) support was a big game changer.
We built a long and wide coalition of supporters, from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to Hispanic organizations to the Chamber of Commerce… Business leaders and foundations all stood behind us and said this is the right thing. We had a powerful coalition behind this.
HECHINGER REPORT: Under the bill, elementary- and high-school teachers would need three consecutive years of positive evaluations to earn tenure, which guarantees them an appeals process before they can be fired.
Educators rated “ineffective” two years in a row would be stripped of tenure protection and revert to probationary status. They could earn back job protection after three straight years of satisfactory evaluations. What do these new provisions represent now that they will become law?
JOHNSTON: I hope this re-establishes a sense of what is politically possible in this climate. If you have a deep focus on what is right for kids, you can get things done. I hope that is part of the statement that this bill makes. Our goal was to do what was best for Colorado.
What made the situation unique was we have a strong coalition of political support within the Democratic Party for these reforms. We had a majority of Democrats supporting it on the final passage, and we’ve had some leadership from Democrats who have said we believe our fundamental obligation is to do what is best for kids.
I think the components of this bill that are really significant that make it more ambitious and comprehensive is the number of items, including the linking of teacher and principal evaluations to the linking of how one earns and keeps tenure. It is performance based… so no one will ever say we are protecting low performing teachers…. We are the first state to say we want hiring by mutual consent, so no teacher is placed where they aren’t wanted and no school is forced to hire a teacher they don’t want.
HECHINGER REPORT: What has been the reaction nationally since Colorado passed the bill?
JOHNSTON: We are getting lots of calls from people saying this is great, how did you do it? That’s been exciting and I do hope it has a strong impact on moving the ball nationally. The president has laid out ambitious goals for schools – can they rise [to the occasion]? I hope we are part of the proof that states will rise.
There is real urgency around dropout rates and achievement gaps, and if we have any chance of making every kid graduate it is by having is a great teacher and principal in every school. How do we get enough great teachers and principals to have the effect [we want them] to have? That’s the only force strong enough to have that impact – it’s not a curriculum and it’s not class size. The only variable powerful enough are teachers and principals.