06/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Will Colorado Move to the Head of the Class?

Senate Bill 191, the Tenure Reform Bill (officially the Great Teachers and Leaders Bill) is the hot bill in the legislature this session. And it is by far the most important bill for the long-term future of our state. So I sat down with Senator Mike Johnston to get his take on the bill (I'm interviewing someone from the CEA next week on this).

I commented about the large number of lobbyists just outside the Senate chamber while they were in session.

Senator Johnston replied that he appreciates having the lobbyists and others here to discuss the bill with. First because he finds that when he discusses what the bill truly does, and doesn't do, "a great deal of the fear is allayed." And those discussions have also lead to "some great improvements to the bill." He spoke very highly of the CEA and how he has made this a collaborative effort with them. He spoke to the fact that they do not agree 100%, but that it has been an effort together to improve the bill.

My $0.02: This is how a citizen legislature is supposed to work, and in the case of Mike, he is using this robust discussion to both improve the bill and to insure people truly understand what it will do. Working through something this complex where it will bring about significant change is difficult to do with all the stakeholders, but it is critical to do so to create a bill that will bring about significant improvement and will get the people that have to implement it to do so well.

I next asked him, why did you shoot for this Senate seat?

He started off teaching, and found that he could positively affect kids' lives for the hour he had them in class. So after a number of years he stepped up to be a principal where he found he could positively affect kid's lives for the school day he had them at his school. He then got involved in education policy, both in Obama's campaign and at the state level as he's seen that at this level he can positively affect kid's lives in all our schools.

Which led to the question, why did you introduce this bill?

Senator Johnston replied "When you look at schools across the country and see what they're doing, the successful ones, they have two things in common. One is they attract and keep great people, and the second is they're relentless about setting really high goals for kids and using data all the time to monitor how kids are doing." He also discussed how the research shows that the top two items that have maximum effect in the school is first the child's teacher and second the school principal. That all the other items like class size, etc. is rounding errors compared to the impact of these first two items. And the principal impact is primarily their insuring they have quality teachers.

Next up, I asked how important is this bill.

This got me a very direct answer - The most important bill for this state. This bill will determine if we have the leaders and workers to keep this state competitive. We have to grow our future. If we don't pass it, we will "perennially disadvantage Colorado in the talent pool with other states." Without this we will have the same or decreasing number of kids prepared for work, prepared for college, etc. Businesses in Colorado are already having to hire in people from out of state because of our existing K-12 system.

Mike also discussed how some states are stepping up to fix their K-12 systems. As this happens, the states that climb out of this mess will be the economic future of this country. And he wants Colorado leading that future.

Senator Johnston at this point said what I think is the single most important argument for this bill - "we hold these truths to be self-evident that all are created equal... no matter what place you live in or how much money your parents make or what the color of your skin is. Whatever public school you walk in to in this state, you'll walk out college ready."

Mike then discussed how this is an issue of global competitiveness and national security. That "we're beginning to lose that engineering edge that we kept for so long." He has a clear picture of how we're now competing world-wide, and it requires a strong K-12 system to be competitive with other countries. He had an interesting observation that one of the key signs of a declining empire is that we have to import our best thinkers. And if we lose the edge we presently have, it's very hard to get it back.

My $0.02: This is where Senator Johnston made the two key arguments for the critical importance of this bill. First, this is fundamental to the American Promise, that no matter who you are, you have an equal chance to be successful in this country. At present, that promise is a lie to every child in a sub-standard school. This bill delivers on the fundamental promise of what it means to be America - and does so to every child.

Second, that the world is now competitive on a global level, that the needs for educated workers is ever increasing, and that without this change we will fall behind not just other states, but other countries. At my company we sell world-wide and interact with programmers world-wide. We're still a generation ahead here in the U.S., but other countries, P.R.C. and Eastern Europe in particular, are catching up fast not just on numbers of highly educated workers, but on numbers of very innovative people.

The Boulder area has the highest percentage of high-tech workers in the country (Silicon Valley has a larger total, but a lower percentage). Colorado has a shot at being the green energy center of the world. We're in a very good position. But if we don't improve our K-12 system we will piss away our existing advantage.

I then asked him about the argument that you can't reduce a teacher's performance to a single grade for the year. Yet teachers reduce the efforts of their students to a single grade for the year. Why shouldn't this work for teachers?

First he said that this is a question that the bill opponents have not spoken to. Second he listed out how the bill uses multiple measures to determine the effectiveness of each teacher - it won't be a single CSAP score. He then summed it up beautifully - that the bottom line is a student needs to walk out the door May 30th knowing more than they knew when they walked in September 1st. We spend 42% of the state budget on education because we think we can make kids smarter.

I then asked the key question that concerns many - If this bill is effective, it will lead to the firing of bad teachers.

Mike first said that he thinks the number of bad teachers is very small. And he then brought up the spot-on point that those teachers are in two groups - those that can and & will improve with the right incentives, and those that even with the incentives either can't or won't improve. And he then said that those that don't improve, we all agree should not be in the profession.

He also pointed out that there is nothing in the bill that requires the dismissal of a single teacher or principal. It just makes it possible. And it gives you an evaluation tool to make a fair evaluation of each teacher and principal. And at the same time there are strong protections in the bill "to protect against arbitrary & capricious dismissal."

My $0.02: This is where we will determine if the bill is effective - and in three ways (I'm adding one to Mike's list). First, no teacher is perfect. Even for the superb teachers, this will provide feedback on how effective they are at their job. Virtually all teachers will use this as an aid to improve on the job they do. And it will help determine what level of students and what classes a teacher does best in. All teachers will improve with the measurement systems.

Second, if the sub-standard teachers find it a major incentive to improve. If we see significant improvement in student outcomes over the next couple of years in most classes that previously had sub-standard improvement, then we have a giant win - for both the students and the state. This is gigantic.

Third, the key measure is if we see tenured teachers and principals fired. This is key both because there is no true incentive if no one is fired, and we have children left in sub-standard environments if the ones that can't/won't improve remain in their job. This is how we will know if the bill wrought real change. If firing a teacher remains virtually impossible, or even extremely difficult, then this bill will be a wasted effort and we will need to try again.

This led to the question that the students taking "son of CSAP" have no dog in the fight. Should we make the CSAP score impact a student's grade?

He supports this idea. One of the first points he brought up is the tests need to be turned around faster. Right now they are taken in March and you get the results in August. That's way too late to use in the class the student was in. Mike would like to see the grades turned around in 3 weeks so the results can be used in that class. Then it can be part of the child's grade.

I next asked how does this impact PRO-COMP (DPS system)?

Senator Johnston said this will have no impact - PRO-COMP will be Denver's system to implement the requirements in this bill. They may have to add a couple of small tweaks, but it should be no significant change. And Denver will use PRO-COMP, they do not have to have to add a second system.

I then asked him to speak to the issue that the number 1 influence on how a student does is the mother's educational level (more than the teacher). Can you do anything to improve this?

Senator Johnston lead off with a superb answer - that getting this right means the next generation of children will have mothers with a much higher educational level. And that resolves this issue - in 20 years. As to trying to improve this today, he had a really interesting response - "when we have 8 to 4 perfect, and every kid walking in the door is getting an outstanding education... then we can go start telling parents how to parent." I asked if almost perfect would be enough as you'll never hit perfect, and he said yes he would settle for that. He also talked about the parent partnership items in the bill, how some schools have parent contracts, and other efforts to draw in parents.

My $0.02: I think it speaks very well of Senator Johnston that he understands how this is a very hard problem and it will take a generation or two on some parts of this (at which time we will have new problems). And it also shows an amazing level of humility (for a politician) that he is not willing to tell others what they should do until we can lead by example with the schools running well. That's a very strong point.

The Bill

Personal story: Many years ago I was on a school district committee in Plano, Texas. We were on an evening tour of some schools where we walked in one classroom and you could tell from the empty classroom that the teacher was sub-standard. A couple of the committee people mentioned that and the school principal commented that this teacher was a dead year for kids - but she should be retiring in 4 or 5 years. No child should face a "dead year" in school.

How important is this bill? Name another bill that has had every living Governor come out in favor of it? This bill is where we determine the long-term future of our state. With it Colorado will increase its economic position in the world. We will increase the number of high-paying quality jobs in industries that haven't even been invented yet.

If this bill does not pass, then when do we address this question? Yes this bill, like health care reform, is a leap in the dark. If effective, it means significant change in our educational system. But any bill to fix our K-12 disaster (and it is presently a disaster for Colorado) will be a leap in the dark. With that said, there has been a lot of work done to make this bill as good as possible. And it will be tweaked in the following years as we see it in action.

I understand why many in the educational system oppose it - change is scary. But I ask of you the following - why did you go into teaching? What is that fundamental core reason that drew you to a job where most of your day you talk to no other adults, where most parents show up only to complain, and where you have to somehow draw kids in who would rather be doing something else. Fundamentally the decision to be a teacher makes no logical sense. For all of you that were drawn in to educate children, to help them grow up to make full use of the incredible potential each child has - this bill is important. No, not important, this bill is essential. Every child that had a "dead year" before your year makes your job that much harder, and frustrating. This bill will eliminate that. With this bill the children entering your classroom will be better prepared. I think this is change that you should embrace.

And to the legislators opposing this bill I have two questions. First, do you think the economic future of Colorado is imperiled by our existing K-12 system? (If your answer is no - you're an idiot.) Second, what's your alternative to avoid the economic decline we are facing with our existing system that you are introducing as a bill this session?

Podcast: Mike Johnston Interview