The disease of direct placement

Tomorrow, the Denver Board of Education will hear public comment on and discuss Superintendent Boasberg’s proposal to limit forced direct placement for Title I schools.  While I continue to believe this policy — which turns a free-form dance into musical chairs — is a good first step, it does little to address the root cause.

Data on DPS direct placements is fascinating: the disparity for Title I schools — which house a higher proportion of students in poverty — is well documented.  Less well known is how specific grades are affected: if you looks over the past three years, each DPS traditional middle school averages 6 direct placement teachers, compared to high schools (4), K-8 (3) and elementary programs (2).  That seems a tough burden to continue to sap DPS’s struggling middle-school sector. Also little known is who does not take DP teachers: both Charter and Innovation Schools.  That the proponents of education reform both outside and within the DPS establishment both believe it is a bad idea is as clear a signal as I can imagine.

Aside from the specific DPS proposal — which does not even forbid DP’s at Title I schools, it just tries to limit it — is the greater context of forced direct placement.  For this practice is a disease, and while Denver is not as sick as other cities, it would be an error not to understand the full extent of the illness.

Read, for example, this LA Weekly article titled “LAUSD’s Dance of the Lemons.”  What is fascinating here, apart from the sheer injustice of the practice, is that among LA’s public employees, the inability to terminate poor performers is unique to the school system:

Just a few blocks from LAUSD’s skyscraper headquarters, Los Angeles City Hall’s approach to firing public employees provides a stark contrast to protections enjoyed by teachers, also public employees. Despite civil-service protections, City Hall fires from its 48,000-plus workforce of garbage, parks, street-services, engineering, utilities and other employees more than 80 tenured workers annually. During the past decade, in which LAUSD fired four failing teachers, 800 to 1,000 underperforming civil service–protected workers were fired at City Hall. City Personnel Department General Manager Margaret Whelan says nobody is paid to leave. She was dumbfounded that LAUSD is paying to dislodge teachers, saying, “That’s ridiculous. I can’t believe that. Golly, it makes no sense. Some are not even mediocre, they’re horrible.”

Also worth reading is the New Yorker essay — generally recognized as one of the best long-form pieces of journalism last year — on New York City’s rubber rooms.

Lastly an Op-Ed from NYC Chancellor Joel Klein — who found that prosecuting Microsoft for monopoly practices was a cakewalk compared with trying to fire NY teachers with a history of poor performance.

Denver is not LA or NYC (thank goodness).  The problem of forced direct placement here is — like the city itself – smaller and more manageable.  However just because the harm is on a lesser scale is not a reason for inaction.  At least one member of the board has already dismissed Boasberg’s proposal as a PR stunt.  But until Denver and other cities do away with forced placement altogether and move to a system of mutual consent, the disease of direct placement will continue to claim as its primary victims the one group that has no say in the practice and does not participate in the debate: children.

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