Displaced teachers: Denver's struggle to make lemonade

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On paper, Denver principals appear to have a pretty good deal: they get to choose their own teachers and, when positions must be cut, they get to select the teachers they want to transfer out. Most districts in the United States don't technically allow teacher performance to be a factor in who gets displaced--though in reality savvy principals have long found ways to manipulate this process to move out the staff they don't want.

A recent Denver Post investigation reveals that not all principals have an equal say in whom they have to take into their building and not surprisingly, it's the most challenged schools that get saddled with the most forced placements.

Why this happens: The toughest schools are likely to have the highest turnover and consequently the highest number of vacancies in need of a teacher. They are also less appealing to new hires and internal transfers, who are likely to snatch up the few vacancies at the higher performing schools early on. As a result the teachers in the excessed pool who aren't hired by a principal at the few high performing schools will be forced placed in the schools where there are remaining vacancies--likely schools serving poor kids.

Since 2005, the Post found that three quarters of the displaced teachers got their new assignment in the poorest schools. They also found that 117 out of 592 teachers excessed over a four-year period had been forced out by different principals in two consecutive years and 22 had been forced out three years in a row.

And there you have it: the proverbial "dance of the lemons."

The obvious solution is that there shouldn't be ANY force placements. All teachers should be hired by schools that want them and teachers who can't find a job within one year--max--should be terminated.

If a district can't find a way to terminate teachers who don't land an assignment in a year's time, there seem to be three alternatives, but not one of them is without pitfalls:

  1. Place teachers who don't find an assignment in a "rubber room" a la New York. However, it's expensive and an effrontery to taxpayers that people are paid to do nothing.

  2. Stick to seniority, not performance, as the basis for cutting teachers from a staff. It's not exactly an approach en vogue with reformers, but it's ultimately fairer to both teachers and schools: it helps eliminate the "bad teacher" stigma associated with the excess pool, giving teachers a better shot at gaining a principal's attention and being hired. To keep it working right though, districts have to track who is getting displaced and their performance, to make sure principals are not using routine staff fluctuations as a means to pass off poor performers.

  3. Implement a closed-door principals' session in which principals collectively decide where to assign displaced teachers. Such an approach tends to spread both the talent and the problems more evenly as principals wheel-and-deal to get the staff that best suits their needs. Unless it's managed fairly, though some principals will always get stuck with more teachers. Importantly, the schools with the most vacancies (read: schools serving poor kids) will still get stuck with the most excessed teachers.

Denver ultimately ended up implementing the third, "horse trading" approach and has reduced the number of forced placements made in the past three years, going from 214 teachers in 93 schools in 2006 to 107 teachers in 63 schools in 2009. Whether it reduced the number of low income schools having to take excessed teachers is for another investigation.