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Sen. Mike Johnston: Districts have “a lot of freedom” under SB191

Sen. Mike Johnston speaks at a 2012 event.
Sen. Mike Johnston speaks at a 2012 event.
Sen. Mike Johnston

Sen. Mike Johnston has been at the forefront of reform efforts in the Colorado legislature since his appointment in 2009. His signature measure, the overhaul of the state’s teacher evaluation system that kicked into gear this year, has received mixed reviews, especially from rural districts.

Recently, Holyoke, a small district in northeastern Colorado, signaled its intentions to apply for a waiver under the 2008 innovation schools law that would free the district from a key portion of the evaluation law – basing half a teacher’s evaluation on student academic growth as measured by state and local tests.

Chalkbeat spoke with Johnston by phone recently to discuss the Holyoke waiver and the implications of education reform for rural districts, as well as what reformers can learn from rural educators.

(The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Let’s start with the recent push from Holyoke to apply for innovation status. Speaking to Superintendent Bret Miles, I think their feeling on the test scores is there is already a high level of accountability for teachers. They release their state scores in the newspaper and they know exactly who is responsible for those test scores. Does that do the same thing in your mind as the state system?

The purpose of any good evaluation should be improvement, so giving people feedback they can use to get better. And our initial belief behind the design of Senate Bill 191 was that you want that evaluation to consist of two components. One is an agreed-upon set of quality standards about what effective teaching practices look like. And then a link to actual student outcomes so we know the work we are doing with adults is having an impact on the learning of students. The law as it exists already allows a great deal of flexibility about how one measures student growth measures. So I don’t think we would want to depart from the notion that students’ actual improvement ought to be a significant part of what our work is focused on.

In the Kit Carson context, it was more about providing full autonomy to all the schools in a way that innovation schools have sought. That’s a pretty significant overhaul of how the district operated before. [The Kit Carson district in eastern Colorado received an innovation waiver from some SB 10-191 elements in 2011.]

When the original innovation bill was passed, it was before we had passed other state performance bills like 191. So it was somewhat silent on whether you could innovate out of other requirements. The Kit Carson example seemed to be in the spirit of both innovation and accountability because they wanted to give schools and districts more autonomy, which often meant more control for principals over budget and hiring and firing and program. If in fact that’s the case with the Holyoke proposal, I’d be interested to see it.

One issue I’ve heard about SB-191 is the question of how much time it takes to fill out the paperwork, struggles that come down to some pretty practical considerations. And in Holyoke, they felt that those actually took away from teachers’ time with students and principals’ time in the classroom.

I’d be curious to learn more about what that is. One of the changes that exists is that people should be evaluated every year, instead of every three years. I don’t think it’s unnecessary paperwork to say that a professional ought to get good feedback once a year on how their work is. I think that that seems to be meaningful interaction between supervisors and teachers.

If they’re talking about what the evaluation system is itself, they have plenty of room to innovate in terms of how they design or use an evaluation system, without adjusting the balance of student growth measures and teacher quality standards. So I think a lot of freedom is in place within the law. So I’d be very curious to know what is the paperwork burden that they see and how do we make sure that that aligns to actual student outcomes.

What feedback did you get this spring from districts? We’re now several months into SB-191 implementation.
The most feedback we got this spring was, “We need more resources to support implementation of this,” which is why we spent all of the last year working on the school finance issue. People said, “This is the right work. We think it’s important but we need additional resources to provide that support.”

So we talked a lot about how we want to provide dollars for professional development, we want to provide dollars for technology so they have resources to provide assessments. And they all very clearly said, “Don’t target any of those resources to specific needs like professional development or technology, but rather give them to us with flexibility and we the local districts will determine what the best way is to use those.” So that’s exactly what we did. We invested almost $450 million into K-12 this year. So now the really important thing is to see how exactly are we going to develop and support this implementation. What are districts doing with the resources that are effective and making an impact and what lessons can we learn to share statewide?

How do you prevent flexibility from turning into overwhelming complexity?
I think that’s why we tried to set some guardrails around some common forms of practice. For instance, that’s why we’ve had educators work over the past two years to build the common evaluation rubric. I think we prevented districts from feeling like they have to reinvent their evaluation system on their own, if they don’t have the time or people to do it, and so there would be some commonalities. How you measure growth is up to you, but the fact that we have a shared commitment that growth is 50 percent of the evaluation is one of the things that keeps the statewide system common. I think the same fact that all the evaluation systems will roll up to the same basic effectiveness measures means we can start the process a little bit of making sure there’s some common and consistent feedback for educators and common language around what success looks like across the state, while still allowing for local flexibility.

I think that is one of the key challenges of statewide action is how to both preserve local flexibility and maintain some sense of statewide coherence.

It seems to me like you could have districts doing so many different things and having to come up with so many different solutions that the question becomes how much of a value is this for districts and how much of this is truly a change.

The nice thing about local control, like federalism in our federal system, is you’ll have different districts who’ll find different ways to revise and innovate. That means we’ll really learn from some innovative practices we hadn’t anticipated before. I think that helps the state grow strong. I don’t think we ever presumed the state was going to have one hard and fast best answer and everyone else was going to have to comply with it. We built the system with a common set of outcomes and a common set of standards, but with flexibility for districts to implement with their needs the best. The needs are so different from an 80,000-student urban district to a 120-student rural district. You have to allow for some flexibility.

I think the question for a lot of folks in rural areas is, can you even ask the same thing? Can you even ask for an evaluation system that goes statewide?

Well, I think you have to ask the question. Can you even ask for rural teachers to be evaluated? I think you can say yes. Can you even ask for rural students to make growth every year? I think you can say yes. I’ve never talked to a rural educator who said their students couldn’t do that. I’ve never heard someone say I think we can’t expect our students to make progress each year or I don’t think we should give our teachers meaningful feedback each year. I’ve never heard them say that. I’ve never heard the argument that we should abandon the basic value that all students should be expected to grow and professionals are entitled to good feedback.

I think one of the questions is not whether this work is hard but whether this work is useful. I think if we are building a system that gives educators really good feedback and helps them improve their practice, gives really strong support to kids and helps them learn, then I think it’s worth doing. And I think that becomes the most important question now.

What kind of supports can the state provide to help rural districts recruit teachers?
One of the biggest challenges we find in retaining staff in rural districts is compensation. This is why when you look at my efforts on the school finance reform two years ago on Senate Bill 213, Amendment 66, we tried to change the measures on the school funding formula that really disproportionately hurt rural districts and made it much harder to get competitive salaries in those districts. I think we need to find ways to attract and incentivize teachers to stay in rural districts. And I think that’s one ongoing challenge we’re going to have to work on.

What about changes to licensure?
We’ve worked on it some. We’ve heard a lot from rural districts who’ve said, “We want more flexibility in being able to choose the folks that we think are best and we can train to support our needs.” I think that’s an issue that still remains. We have to figure out how to provide more opportunities to recruit and hire high quality staff for some of the tougher to serve regions of the state. I think they’re going to need some more tools in the toolbox than they have now.

What do you think larger districts can learn from smaller districts?
I think that smaller districts have a tremendous sense of intimacy and sense of teamwork that comes from the adults in the community because they all know each other so well and they all work well together.

No kid is a number. Every student is not just a name, but is a name with history, with brothers and sisters and cousins and parents and grandparents that they know. I think there’s a real sense of teamwork and collaboration in rural districts. Not that you don’t find that in urban districts, but it’s just not as familiar. I think that when you talk to career educators who’ve worked in rural districts, they’ll say they’d never do it anyplace else because it’s everyone at the grocery store they know and then everyone at the football team that they know. That sense of community is really, really powerful. What you find is a lot of urban schools are trying to recreate structures that make the community come closer, that really wonderful sense of community that a lot of rural parts of Colorado have.

What about innovation? Do you think small districts are able to be more nimble or are they going to run into resource issues?

Some of our rural districts are some of our most innovative. Sometimes they’ve had to be by necessity because they didn’t have the resources or they didn’t have the people and so you don’t find a lot of urban districts in which the principal is also the bus driver or the custodian. I remember one district in particular where we were coming to do an event. All the bleachers and all the setup for that was all done by the high school students because they had practice right afterwards and they didn’t have paid staff to set up and break down the gym. So they came in and got the whole thing set up and got ready to go.

There’s just a sense of all hands on deck and we’ll figure out what we need to get done and do it, instead of saying there’s going to be a set procedure or policy or process for everything that’s done. There’s going to be more of a sense of teamwork and innovation. I think some of our rural districts will probably come up with some of our best innovations on all of these.

Was there anything else you wanted to talk about?
An issue I wanted to raise that I’ve talked to a bunch of rural educators about, what I’ll continue to focus on, is they’ll say, “We think early literacy is important. We think evaluations are important. We think college readiness is important. The problem is we have all these other things on our plate, that we’re asked to do five or 10 or 15 years ago that aren’t as important as these things.”

We pushed them on this and said, “Well, what would go?” They said, “Well, it’s not that we think we should stop doing early literacy support or stop doing teacher evaluations. It’s that there are other things that take up hours in the day that aren’t so useful and aren’t so directly linked to student outcomes.”

So one of the things I’ve been asking people is what would put on the “stop doing” list. I think that there’s increasing sense that standards and evaluations and outcomes are all important. But when there are reports that are taking up a lot of your time and energy that don’t have a direct link to student outcomes that we are asking you to do because of legislation a long time ago, I think we should take a look at what some of those things are and what are some things we can take off the list.

So I am in full support of saying, can we simplify the work and let educators get back to the core work that draws them to schools?

I think the core work that draws us to schools are finding ways to support students to improve their learning and finding ways to support adults to support their practice. That’s what this system focuses on so I don’t think we should take our focus off of that. I think we should see if there are other parts of the system that are more distracting and more disconnected from actual student learning that we should take off the plate. I think that should be part of the conversation, absolutely.

Is there any area that comes to mind specifically, that you are potentially looking at?

I’m just asking every superintendent, principal, educator that I meet to make that list for me. They’ve all said they’re going to do it and going to send it to me so we can start building our own list of things that are burdensome and not linked to impact.

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