Craig: Sen. Johnston’s better vision for education
I recently had the opportunity to take my 8th grade class for a tour of the state Capitol and to meet with two of the younger, more energetic members of the state Senate: Dan Gibbs (D-Silverthorne) and Michael Johnston (D-Denver). While I cannot be disingenuous and suggest that my students were all singularly rapt by the experience, it was clear that both senators made a significant impression upon them.
Of particular interest to me, and to many of them, was speaking to Michael Johnston regarding Senate Bill 191 which he was co-sponsoring with Nancy Spence (R-Centennial). Although we entered through the side entrance on Colfax Avenue, it was impossible not to notice the throng of protesters on the front steps. When the students asked Sen. Johnston about this, he smiled and told them that these were teachers protesting his bill to promote teacher effectiveness by holding teachers to greater accountability in terms of their students’ performance.
The thing that immediately impressed me about Sen. Johnston was his willingness to acknowledge that the bill had challenges attached to it and that the teachers had a right to be concerned. After all, the legislation would make serious inroads into the institution of tenure that has become so ingrained in American public education. Moreover, it could require additional onerous testing and little financing to pay for it.
Still, the concept, as Sen. Johnston has envisioned it, is a good one. We need greater accountability in education, and this means, by the way, also more praise and acknowledgment of the fine work done by the vast majority of our educators. While teachers should never be fired based upon their personal or academic beliefs, they should, as in other occupations, be monitored and eventually fired for not performing adequately in their professional capacity. Though rare, poor teachers can have a dramatically detrimental effect on the academic development of numerous students, and we simply have to have a system for removing them from the classroom.
We must also remember Sen. Johnston’s personal background in considering his proposal. Michael Johnston is not an outsider as so many would-be educational reformers of late have been, those who have never taught but are all too eager to tell a teacher how to. After earning a master’s degree in education policy from Harvard, Johnston worked with education advisor John Schnur to found New Leaders for New Schools, an organization dedicated to training and recruiting leaders for urban schools. Later, impressed by the impact of Johnston’s education leadership as principle at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts where he oversaw a rise in the senior class’s college acceptance rates from 50 percent to 100 percent over three years, then-candidate Barack Obama visited the school in May of 2008 and even used Johnston in one of his campaign ads regarding his vision for the future of education.
So when Sen. Johnston reaches across the aisle to create meaningful educational reform in our state, we must trust that his sole interest lies in improving the learning experience of every student. The challenge the legislation poses is that it places the bulk of the implementation in the hands of a “governor’s council for educator effectiveness.” Wisely, this is intended as a panel of education experts, not politicians. Having established guidelines for the results of meeting performance expectations or not, the bill trusts this council to settle the more difficult and all-important question of what these expectations will be and how to measure them. Speaking on the Senate floor just before passage of his bill, Sen. Johnston said: “We will absolutely measure our success by how many of those children get across the finish line. … We as adults will hold ourselves accountable.” And it is exactly this standard by which we will have to judge his legislation moving forward.
Steven Craig is a Silverthorne resident, husband and father of two, educator, and vice-president of the Summit County Library Board.
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