Sen. Mike Johnston, sounding more like a preacher than a politician, on Wednesday exhorted graduates of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education “to finish the work that has been started” to ensure that every child achieves the American promise “that all are created equal.”

Johnston, a 2000 graduate of the school, made no direct references to the students and alumni who had protested his selection as commencement speaker because they feel he “embraces a vision of education reform that relies heavily on test-based accountability while weakening the due process protections of teachers, a vision that we believe ultimately harms students and communities.”

Instead, the Denver Democrat repeatedly asserted what he called “the fundamental right to know … how we’re doing” in education.

Without using education jargon like “data,” “accountability” or “evaluation” Johnston argued that students and parents should have the “fundamental right” to know early and often … how they compare to kids around the corner and around the world.”

Johnston continued, “We have to defend fundamentally the right to know … how we’re doing.”

Fear of change is “not a reason to stop. Take the information and make decisions about it.”

In another oblique reference to criticism, Johnston noted, “What we have to do is realize that we share the same goal and that we only differ on how to reach it.” Rather than debate among each other, he said educators need to face “the real enemies of injustice and inequality that continue to run rampant,” he said, adding, “Reach out first to those who disagree with you.”

And those who objected to Johnston’s presence at the ceremony, if they attended, were quiet and respectful. No visible protests were held around the commencement and Johnston received a standing ovation at the end of his speech.

Johnston wove the 30-minute speech around the stories of three young people he and his wife know – Raquel, a student from a poor family who made it to Stanford; Flavio, an undocumented student who joined the Army, and Jerome, a homeless youth who ultimately went to prison.

“The right to know, the power to decide and the will to love” are the message those three “would share back to you,” he said.

“You must lead us out of a world of compliance and into a world of creation,” he told the 644 graduates. “In this world clear standards and clear expectations are not constraints, they’re invitations.”

Johnston, a state senator since 2009, has been a leading figure in legislation on teacher evaluation, early literacy and resident tuition eligibility for undocumented students. He also authored a massive 2013 rewrite of state school finance law that remains on the shelf because voters rejected the tax increase needed to pay for it.

He’s a familiar figure on the education reform circuit, traveling frequently to give speeches and attend conferences.

Additional reporting provided by Michela Dimond.