How to kill innovation

The Denver Post reports that the DPS Board is split on allowing two schools to adopt different practices under the recent School Innovation law.

A battle is brewing over two Denver schools that are seeking freedom from a host of state laws and regulations — most notably the hiring and firing of teachers.

Monday, Denver’s school board will vote on whether Montclair Elementary and Manual High schools can become “innovation schools” under a statute put in place last year. The board appears to be split.

Three members will probably vote against the proposal, and three members are staunchly for it. Jill Conrad, an at-large member on the Denver Public Schools board, appears to be the swing vote.

This debate, apparently focusing on teacher hiring and firing, comes shortly after Post reporter Jeremy Meyers’s piece calling the district out both on zero teachers being fired for performance last year, and the continued practice of “direct placements,” where teachers are assigned to schools even if principals do not want them.  Apparently, changing the hiring and firing process to put more control in the hands of the school principal is anathema to a system where there is not a single performance-based dismissal in a district of 4,5oo teachers where students lag the state proficiency averages by thirty points.

The problem here is simple accountability: One cannot in clear conscience hold a principal accountable for a school where s/he does not choose the teachers (imagine if a professional athletic coach could not choose who played and who sat on the bench).   Without control over who is in the classrooms with students, the ability to make a meaningful impact to a school is badly diluted.  Who of us in our professional lives would not argue for the ability to choose the people we manage?

The Innovation Schools Act was first weakened, and a watered-down version finally passed.  Intended to serve as a catalyst to innovation, its core principle is simple: allow school leadership to make changes that they believe will help student achievement under a careful process of application to the local school board.  All of just three schools in DPS have risen to this challenge (Bruce Randolph, Montclair Elementary and Manual).

Rather than allow two of these (Montcalir, and Manual for an expansion of waivers from its application last year) to continue to experiment with school-based reform, we now have board members who believe both that the status quo in teacher hiring and firing is sufficient, and that their views should trump those of the school’s leaders.  The irony of school board members, usually the most voracious proponents of local control, choosing to overrule school leadership — in just two of 140 schools — is apparently lost.

I am now of the opinion that — in contrast to both the national stage and Denver’s burgeoning charter movement — education reform in Denver’s district schools is dying, and will likely be dead within months.  Should these innovation proposals fail — and they arehalf-pregnant reform strategies — it will serve as one of a long line of exhibits of how the traditional interests that line public education kill innovation and reform.

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