04/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Worlds Collide

Last Friday's announcement that Denver Public Schools will do its best to avoid forced placement of teachers into the district's worst and highest-poverty schools is a kid-centered decision sure to anger some adults who spend a lot of time mouthing the platitude "it's all about the kids."

The move means that starting next school year, teachers who lose their positions should be placed only in the district's non-probationary schools - which most often are schools with more affluent students.

As Nancy Mitchell explained the situation in her story last week:

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.

Common sense might lead one to believe that DPS has always put its best teachers where they are needed most and kept its weaker teachers where students have other resources to fall back on. In reality, the district has, until now, taken the easy way out. As Mitchell pointed out, the 65 percent of DPS schools with enough poor kids to qualify for federal Title I status receive 75 percent of direct placement teachers - more than their fair share.

Most force-placed teachers aren't the "lemons" we hear about, dancing from school to school. But, according to DPS' Department of Human Resources, about one-quarter of force-placed teachers over the past couple of years have been force-placed multiple times. That begins to raise questions about those teachers.

Here are the numbers:

* In 2008-09, of 100 total force-placed teachers, 24 teachers were force-placed for the second consecutive year.
* In 2009-10, 23 teachers were force-placed for the second time (nine consecutively, 14 non-consecutively), and seven additional teachers were force-placed for the 3rd straight year.

By no means are all, or even most force-placed teachers bad teachers. They lose their positions for a variety of reasons, many having little to do with job performance. Often, however, force-placed teachers either don't want to go to the school where they're assigned, aren't wanted there or both. Not a recipe for success.

What makes this new move by DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg so fascinating is that it will expose different constituencies' raw self-interest, normally hidden behind a veneer of benevolent altruism. Of course it's easy to be benevolent and altruistic when you don't have any skin in the game. That's about to change. Denver's more affluent public school parents may soon feel they're being asked to ante up their children's education to the greater good.

I don't mean to sound too cynical here. If I were a parent at one of Denver's higher income, more successful schools (as I once was), and I learned that almost every open teaching position for the foreseeable future would be filled by a teacher no other school wanted, I'd be irked.

And that's exactly what is about to happen, if Boasberg gets his way. Since this particular policy change does not require a change in the collective bargaining agreement, or, apparently, a vote of the school board, Boasberg should indeed get his way.

"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 Friday e-mail to principals.

This sounds eminently rational and reasonable. But let's not forget, this is urban public education we're talking about here. Reasonableness and rationality are often the first attributes jettisoned when controversy erupts. And make no mistake, this will be controversial. Here are the likely sources of opposition:

* The Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Colorado Education Association. Already, DCTA President Henry Roman has said his organization is concerned and will monitor the situation "very closely."

* Groups of affluent parents. Schools like Bromwell, Cory, Slavens and Southmoor have active, engaged parent groups that provide tremendous value to their schools. In some cases, they raise money to fund extra teaching positions. These parents believe in public education, even though many of them could afford private schools. Affluent parents also tend to be fierce and effective advocates for their children's schools. They should be. So, they won't be happy to learn that a cohort of stigmatized teachers will be entering their kids' classrooms starting next year.

* Some school board members. According to the Denver Post, southwest Denver board member Andrea Merida immediately called Boasberg's proposal "a P.R. move. I want to underscore that none of the teachers who were directly placed last year were done for deficiency or for being a bad teacher."

Merida is quickly distinguishing herself as the board member who is to Boasberg as Republican leaders in Congress are to President Obama. Say no first and think later, if ever. Still, her reflexive opposition in this case is baffling, coming from a board member who professes at every turn to hold the interests of low-income children close to her heart.

In the coming weeks and months, Boasberg will come under tremendous pressure from different groups and individuals to waffle on this new policy. Let's hope he has the intestinal fortitude to hold his ground.

Some will raise the specter of New York, which did away with direct placement and now must pay thousands of unassigned, tenured teachers millions of dollars each year not to teach. If some Denver teachers lose their positions, but can't be force-placed into low-performing schools, DPS may face a similar situation, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Boasberg says this shouldn't happen. But it could. "Our intention is to find places for all teachers," he said Monday night. "But that will depend on the number of vacancies compared to the number of tenured teachers who lose their positions."

You know what, though? In the case of the bad direct placement teachers, I would rather have them paid not to teach than inflicting bad practice on classrooms of kids.

Maybe this situation would bring into starker relief the absurdity of current tenure laws, and build quick pressure for sensible change - protecting the rights of teachers while really and truly being "all about the kids."