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Lemon musical chairs

Posted by Feb 8th, 2010.

In another sign that antiquated and harmful education practices once thought sacrosanct are starting to fall, Denver’s “Dance of the Lemons” — the process by which the teachers no principal will hire are forcibly placed into a classroom somewhere in the public school system — may finally change.

Last year, the Denver Post noted:

Nearly three-quarters of unassigned veteran Denver Public Schools teachers who have not found jobs are forcibly placed into schools with the poorest students… Under union and district rules, these direct placements are made without regard to the desires of the teachers, school principals or parents.

On Friday, DPS superintendent Boasberg announced his intention that the District’s lowest performing schools — almost all with high poverty student demographics — become exempt from receiving any of these teachers.

This is a significant move by DPS, and also long overdue.  Now the music still plays, and lemon dance is not over yet, as under the DCTA contract these teachers will have to be placed somewhere, but the seats are going to be a little harder to find, and far better illuminated.  When higher-performing schools, which generally have a stronger culture and leadership, and more engaged parents, get stuck with lemons, you can bet the chance the system undergoes change increases, because the tolerance for bad teachers will be far lower.  I’ve written about the power of affluent parenting previously — if some of Denver’s best schools suddenly face the forced hiring of several teachers, expect some parents and civic groups to finally take a stand on this deplorable practice.

There is increased agreement that education hiring should be by mutual consent (both the teacher and the principal agree to the hire), an approach that was embraced by the rest of the employed world, oh, just a few decades ago.  Changing the lemon dance to a game of musical chairs is a good first step, but far better would be to turn the music off entirely.

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10 Responses to “Lemon musical chairs”

  1. [...] But I’m too young to give up, and you should be, too! Writing at the Ed News blog, Alexander Ooms lauds what DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg is trying to do: “Changing the lemon dance to a game of musical chairs is a good first step, but far better wou… [...]

  2. Elisa Cohen says:

    As a parent of a child in one of the highest poverty and lowest performing high schools and another child in one of the lowest poverty and highest performing schools in Denver, I will not be happy until the music stops. What helps one child should not hurt the other.

  3. Jeff Buck says:

    I also believe that a system of mutual consent has the best chance of leading to situations that are productive both for students and for their teachers.

    However, I wish we would not apply universally derisive language to a situation that is far more complex that pushing ineffective teachers around the district, especially given the serious contraction of the budget (and therefore the workforce) we expect to see this year.

    The process has barely started and I already know one teacher who has been RiBed and will probably have a hard time finding a job in DPS because she is a librarian, not a lemon. When money gets tight, people like librarians (and other specials/electives teachers) are often the first to go. If they’re being reduced everywhere, chances are, they will end up on the direct placement list regardless of how effective they are.

    In fact, there are many reasons one might end up on the direct placement list. I have not seen data but let’s imagine that ineffective performance is the most common one. It is still unacceptable to paint all teachers in this situation with the same negative brush in the same way it unacceptable to paint all students in a difficult situation with the same negative brush.

    A stereotype is a stereotype is a stereotype and it severely limits our ability to understand a person or a situation when it’s the only lens we can see through. And solutions grounded in stereotypes will more often “throw the baby out with the bathwater” than not.

    • Alexander Ooms says:

      I believe Jeff teaches math, and after reading his post I have no doubt he is excellent, for when confronted by a system that routinely takes unwanted teachers and places them with a District’s poorest students who are most in need of top professionals, it takes a precise and nuanced calculus to determine that the best source for outrage is the “derisive” and “stereotype” of that awful word, um, “lemons.”

      The foundation of his post is perhaps more serious — when inane and objectionable policies are applied broadly and without distinction, many teachers suffer the reputations of the worst performers. I have no doubt that there are good professionals caught up in the Very Nice Fruit Dance; what I don’t understand is why the majority of the profession tolerates this and other objectionable practices. I find it hard to imagine that, if a strong majority of the DCTA demanded from its leaders a system of mutual consent that it would not happen. If Jeff really believes in a system of mutual consent, to focus on the descriptive “lemons” while leaving the practice untouched is a curious exercise of professional responsibility.

      While is perhaps unfair to single Jeff out here, he has acknowledged on these pages that he is a Founder of Denver Green School. It is then worth asking if DGS has a system of mutual consent in place for hiring; and if not, how many direct placement teachers they plan to take next year. I suspect that the answers are “no” and “none.” Thus does an unjust system perpetuate, not from an excess of citrus.

  4. jeff says:

    Alexander, it appears that you have more interest in righteous indignation and cutting rhetoric than in my actual point. Let me come at it from a different angel.

    During another time of year (we’ll call it October 2), some people might be talking about the thugs and burnouts we should be getting rid of. One might argue that calling a boy in a gang a thug isn’t that big of a deal but that also provokes a response from me.

    If a person fails to provide expected performance in a voluntary (employment) or compulsory (school) situation, s/he still deserves to be treated with basic dignity. If that idea is not part of your belief system, then we will have to agree to disagree.

    I don’t care what anyone has done that you don’t like. When you start calling people names, I will say something about it. And if that statement drives you to greater heights of derision or sends you to the floor laughing, you can go right ahead and think or write whatever you like about me.

    • Alexander Ooms says:

      Jeff, I don’t think our interests are that different, however our opinions certainly diverge. Part of this, like many education debates, depends for whom one is advocating. The interests of students are clearly harmed by a policy of forced placement (and virtually unaffected by the word “Lemons”); the interests of teachers are clearly quite different. I think our discussion above is a good illustration of when those two systems collide.

      While I appreciate your determination to “say something” when people are “called names,” I googled “dance of the lemons” and “education” and got 21,200 hits, which sounds like a lot of corrective effort. More interesting to me would be some positive action in the interests of students. As you avoided the questions I would assume (and feel free to correct me) that Denver Green School neither has mutual consent nor will take direct placements next year. That’s your privilege, and perhaps such direct action is asking too much.

      But as you have now devoted nine paragraphs to ridding this blog of the pejorative use of “lemons,” if you really believe in a system of mutual consent, why not spend a few paragraphs in a similar forum publicly asking DCTA and DPS to adopt a mutual consent system, and calling on your peers for support? I think that might be a lot more meaningful than our disagreement over Lemongate.

  5. Jeff Buck says:

    Students are most certainly affected by adults who believe it’s OK to call each other names when something is not to their liking. When adults behave that way, it teaches kids that is a socially condoned method of dealing with difference. Clearly, I disagree.

    I’m not sure how 21,000 hits on “dance of the lemons” adds anything to this exchange. I am not in conversation with 21,000 people, just one right now.

    If we put aside partisan and other parochial lenses, we will find that the interests of teachers and the interests of students are not all that different. In fact, I believe that our failure to grasp this simple truth lies near the root of our problems. We have a hard time defining anything except in opposition so if there are students, there must be teachers with competing interests. There cannot be one big human system that desperately needs attention. As I have stated before, I believe this seriously limits the range of solutions available to us.

    We are all human and the environment in which students learn is generally the environment in which teachers work. A system that attends to the interests of one subgroup and ignores the similar or identical interests of another, will not ultimately solve its problems. A system in which different sub-groups appear to compete is a system in which too little attention has been paid to the bigger picture.

    As for DGS, I did not respond to your question because it doesn’t make any sense to me. How can a school not have an arrangement of mutual consent AND not take direct placements? Those two are mutually exclusive as far as I understand.

    So, for the record (and Alex’s gratification), DGS does have a mutual consent system of employment. We will not take any direct placements because we will not generate any. If a teacher needs to be counseled out of the profession or fired, we will not hesitate to do so. Our teacher led school will not tolerate ineffective or otherwise sub-standard performance.

    • Alexander Ooms says:


      At the expense of more beating on this small pulpy body, I thought you were going to stand up to any use of the phrase “Dance of the Lemons.” I did not realize your objection was limited to me.

      I do appreciate you answering my two questions on DGS. Not many people on this blog get the chance to act their beliefs. I hope this conversation won’t lessen your private support for a system of mutual consent, even if DGS chooses not to embrace it.

      So very much occasioned by a small yellow fruit.

  6. Jeff Buck says:

    Of course. Substituting all similar problems for the one right in front of us is a common mistake (or tactic).

    I don’t understand the clause, “even if DGS chooses not to embrace [a system of mutual consent].” I unambiguously stated that DGS has already adopted a system of mutual consent. Did you mean to write DPS or are you suggesting Denver Green School might not stick with our decision? (not that it would offend me, I’m just curious what you meant)

    Anyway, I abandoned a comment I was writing for Alan’s most recent post. I pasted into a document and will work on it as a post of its own, offering some of my ideas on tenure.

  7. Alexander Ooms says:


    I mis-wrote (typed?) the penultimate sentence. I’m glad to see DGS embrace mutual consent, and I wish every DPS school had the same opportunity. Your ability to affect this conversion in DPS is far greater than mine – I hope you will do so.

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