Colorado

DPS tackling forced placement of teachers

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg told principals Friday that he is limiting the “forced placement” of teachers in the district’s lowest-performing and highest-poverty schools.

Boasberg, in an email to principals Friday afternoon, said “it is our intention” not to place any unassigned teachers at year’s end into schools now on probation under the district’s school rating system.

He also said DPS “will seek to limit forced placements” in the district’s poorest schools, or those receiving Title 1 federal grant money based on student poverty rates.

Under Colorado law, teachers with more than three years of experience are guaranteed jobs. Those who lose their positions and can’t find new ones through the district’s hiring process end up on the direct placement list each spring.

Then DPS places them in schools with vacancies – whether or not the teacher or the schools believe it’s a good fit.

But district data shows direct placement teachers are disproportionately placed in Title 1 schools, where at least half the students qualify for federally subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty.

While about 65 percent of DPS schools are Title 1 schools subject to direct placements, they receive about 75 percent of those teachers.

“If we are going to close our achievement gaps and dramatically increase our graduation rate … we cannot allow forced placement to continue to disproportionately impact our students in poverty,” Boasberg said in his email. 

The move would exempt 19 of DPS’ 25 schools rated “red” or on probation, the district’s lowest rating. The other six “red” schools are either closing at the end of this year or are charter schools not subject to teacher placements.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg

All 19 also are Title 1 schools. In addition, another 70 of DPS’ total 140 schools are Title 1 and would receive some protection from direct placement based on Boasberg’s letter.

DPS has more than 100 Title 1 schools this year but fewer than 90 are subject to teacher placements because they’re charters or they’ve sought innovation status, meaning traditional district hiring policies don’t apply. 

“The net effect is that our non-Title 1 schools will receive a higher proportion of forced placements than in past years,” Boasberg wrote. “This is likely to result in significant limitations on hiring … We will be doing whatever is possible to minimize the impact.

“This is not in any way to undervalue the extraordinary work our non-Title schools do or the moral imperative we have of educating all our students,” he added. “It is simply a deep concern that we cannot continue to disproportionately impact our neediest students and schools.”

Henry Roman, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association, said the teachers’ union has concerns about the change.

In an email to teachers, Roman said the DCTA has been talking with DPS about a goal of ensuring that all hiring is by “mutual consent” of teachers and schools.

“But, I would like to make it clear that we have not reached consensus on how this goal could be attained,” he wrote.

Roman said Boasberg’s action seems to assume that direct placement teachers are not good teachers when there is little evidence of that.

Experienced teachers may find themselves without jobs because of school budget issues or school closures – no fault of their own, he pointed out.

He said many factors may contribute to poor performance in struggling DPS schools, from poor leadership to high numbers of new teachers.

“We do not agree on placing blame for student low performance on teachers who are involuntarily transferred,” Roman said, “especially when these transfers are not because of teacher low performance.”

Boasberg said he’s not making a statement about the quality of direct placement teachers.

DCTA President Henry Roman

“This is not an issue about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ teachers or about trying to play the blame game,” he said. “This is about the fundamental principles of successful organizations, that there is a shared culture and a shared mission and a shared commitment to that organization …

“And when you are, by definition, forcibly putting someone in an organization who by definition either doesn’t want to be there or is not being asked to be there, it just runs contrary to that fundamental principle.”

Some national groups have urged school districts to move to “mutual consent” hiring practices and districts such as New York City have done so. Both The New Teacher Project and the National Council on Teacher Quality have urged an end to the forced placement of teachers. Kate Walsh, the head of the National Council, urged Colorado legislators to put a statewide mutual consent policy into law.

DPS, with a teaching force of more than 4,000, typically hires as many as 500 new teachers each year. That number may fluctuate as Colorado school districts grapple with projected budget cuts in coming years.

Boasberg said he believes the district will have enough openings for any unassigned teachers this spring. They will be able, as they have in years past, to interview for vacancies over the next two months.

“It is our intention to try to find jobs for every tenured teacher,” he said.

But Roman said he is worried that the poor economy may mean fewer teachers retiring or moving this year, resulting in fewer openings.

“We’re making another assumption here, we’re assuming there will be vacancies,” he said. “What happens if there are no vacancies, what are we going to do?”

 By 4:30 p.m. Friday, Roman said he already was getting an earful from teachers worried about the change. Many believe they’re being made scapegoats for the larger issue of poor performance in DPS’ “red” schools.

“Definitely, we are going to monitor this very closely,” he said.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.

To learn more:

Click here to read a Denver Post story from August 2009 that examined the issue of teacher placement.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.