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Following Up on the Art Siebens Discussion

Thanks to everyone who's participated in the spirited discussion below on the Art Siebens case. Commenters have raised a number of important questions, among them:

1) Will eliminating tenure increase the quality of teachers in DCPS? Where will this fleet of new exceptional teachers come from? Do principals have incentives to keep the best teachers? Will principals nix “bad” teachers, or will teachers who are outspoken take the fall, too? Might it not be prudent to make investments in improving the teachers that we have, rather than just replacing them in large numbers?

2) What are the implications of arbitrary firing for the teaching profession overall? As John Thomspon wrote, “It does not take many arbitrary decisions to destroy a career before you poison the entire well of teaching talent. Would you commit to a career and buying a house etc. if you had a 2 or 3 or 5% chance per year to run afoul of someone who could destroy your career?”

3) What do we learn from examples like Art Siebens? Is his experience reason enough to abandon the idea of eliminating tenure? How many mistakes are too many? And what kind of appeals system should be in place?

4) When the budget gets tight and the private money runs dry, who is going to pay for six figure teacher salaries?

So join the discussion. I'll leave you with some of the moving testimonials about Art Siebens, of which you can find many examples here and here. And if you'd like to learn more about the effort to reinstate Art Siebens, you can visit this website.
He didn't just teach us the material, he sang it to us. Dr. Siebens, in all of his excited glory, would break out his guitar, forcing us groaning teenagers to sing to the tunes of "I heard it through the Grapevine" (The Nephrons like a Grapevine about the adrenal system) and "Poor wand'ring one" from the musical the Pirates of Penzance (Poor Wandering Bun- a song about digestion). Junior year, Biology was everywhere- in the class, on the radio, and even in my dreams. Can you name a teacher in your lifetime that had this power? - Devorah Flax-Davidson, valedictorian, 2005

When I was a first-time teacher nine years ago, Dr. Siebens took the time to provide me with demonstrations of each Biology lab that I had to use for the entire year. He also provided me with all the teaching materials I needed as D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) did not have a Biology curriculum at the time....Now entering my ninth year as a teacher, I still use his well-crafted and creative Biology songs to engage students with the content of my lessons. To say that Dr. Siebens is a valuable resource to Wilson's staff and students is a gross understatement. - Damian Kreske, Former Biology teacher at Wilson High School

This was not a decision about the children and what they learn; that much is certain. This might be a decision about adults and pecking orders, power over the union, an attack on contract rights, but it is without any doubt not about getting the best teacher in the classroom and giving the students the best possible education. Dr. Siebens is the best example of teaching excellence we encountered in 15 years of experience with DCPS. - Ross Eisenbrey, parent of former student

If a man like this is not a fit, then who is a fit? He obviously, you know, if we listen to the lyrics, he loves his job; He loves kids. I mean, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist or a nuclear physicist in order to understand the commitment that he has to young people. - DC City Council Chair Vincent Gray

Letting Dr Siebens go is a very bad thing for the school in many ways. It shows teachers that being great teachers does not matter, it will go unrewarded. It shows the parents that you have no understanding of what they think is important - which is the education of the children. But most importantly, it shows the students that you and other grown ups do not really care about them or understand what they think is important when they think about school - that is, good teachers who care about them as students. - Susan Churchill, parent of two current students

I've actually followed the Art Siebens debacle, and I haven't actually seen someone say "He wasn't rehired because of X." Does anyone know what the official reason was?

Morgan is 100% spot on, this is a very incomplete anecdote. The story, while interesting, is sliding into propaganda territory each time it's repeated without all the facts.

It's silly to base decision-making on anecdotal evidence. To try to prove whether tenure makes sense, you need to show with strong data that the overall costs of some bad teachers getting tenure are less then the overall costs of some out-spoken teachers getting fired.

You write, "Might it not be prudent to make investments in improving the teachers that we have, rather than just replacing them in large numbers?" Your question is spot on.

Take a look at Elena Silva's article in the most recent Phi Delta Kappan: http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k_v90/k0810sil.htm.

She examines the success of the Benwood Initiative in Tennessee and attributes much of the initiative's success to support for--rather than replacement of--existing teachers.


But I think you are forgetting that the Benwood Initiative began with principals in the targetted schools identifying their weakest teachers. These teachers were then sent to the suburbs (which they could do because it was a county school system) and higher performing teachers brought in with lures of tuition subsidies and home down-payments.

Morgan has a finger on the problem...no one in the DCPS administration will SAY what the reasoning is...hiding behind "personnel matters" as an excuse.

I don't think anyone is arguing that Dr. Siebens' case disproves the need to improve the teacher corps. The argument is that improving the teacher corps needs to concentrate on the improving the worst-performing end of the teacher performance curve, and not destroy the best-performing end of the curve in the process. Don't penalize the successful for the inability of the unsuccessful. Work with the unsuccessful to improve their performance.

Morgan, As Citizen W says, no formal reason was given. In a restructuring process, the school can rehire those teachers who are a good "fit" with the restructuring plan.

Dave is right that we need more information about the effects of ending tenure. A good place to start is by looking at the supply of teachers. DC still had 90 vacancies 2 weeks ago.

Claus/Margo - Thanks for bringing up the Benwood initiative. It is a good example of an alternate path to improving teacher quality.


Thanks for your comment about Benwood.

Benwood Schools actually rehired over 2/3 of the teachers who had been in those schools before the initiative took effect. Only a handful of teachers were actually shipped off to the suburbs.

Silva argues that Benwood teachers, most of whom were not superstars lured in from other places, became more effective than their suburban counterparts (on value-added measures) as a result of the professional development and other supports they received.

Silva argues that incentives played a role in this transformation, but not the major role for which they often take so much credit....

The problem with the debate about Art Siebens is that the reasons for his being "reconstituted" out of Wilson are not allowed to be shared because of the confidentiality of personnel issues.

So, the story on its face SOUNDS like a real injustice. However, the whole story would be more balanced if it could be told.

By virtually all accounts, this is the best year Wilson SHS has had in many years. It is moving ahead in a direction that bodes well for students at all levels--AP students included. One of the things that has struck me about this situation is the focus on one AP teacher. We should have so many outstanding teachers that the pros and cons of one teacher dismissal could be balanced without the angst this has caused. For that to be true, for excellent teachers to be recruited and retained, the atmosphere at Wilson needed a lot of rehabilitation. This is happening, something some believe would not have been as likely if the status quo were maintained.

Wilson Parent - as mentioned in the first discussion of this matter, Siebens' personnel file is an open book. Quoting myself: "Siebens signed a release giving the Chairman of the DC City Council permission to review his personnel file. It was filled with 'outstanding' evaluations, one tardy notice and one letter from a former principal '…admonishing him for asking workers to stop mowing the lawn outside his classroom while he was teaching.'"

You mention that "By virtually all accounts, this is the best year Wilson SHS has had in many years."

Could you give some specific examples, and how that success has been measured?

These posts have been interesting but feel a little like gossip reading. Do we need more data before tenure is ended? I think of the data with tenure. Look at what has been represented here: Teachers who are scared to speak out and unions pushing for teacher's rights above student needs. It seems the teacher's unions have endorsed the nation to elect change, so why is this change not going to get a vote in DC?

With one stroke of the pen a teacher can change a student's educational placement. Parents can go thru due process and depending on how it goes or where you live, the student may or may not get to stay in their current placement until it is settled. Not much media reporting there. This teacher got to stay on the payroll and didn't have to worry about regression from transition or losing benefits or services and if the staff are trained, and seems popular to the point of not needing a FBA or plan. If the teacher's want to fight amongst themselves or jockey for good pr, go ahead while others seek a way out.

Hi. I am a current Wilson student and I had Dr. Siebens as a teacher last year. I have been following this issue very closely and I am thrilled that people are listening and responding to eduwonkette's post, which is very accurate.

However, I am shocked to hear that someone is saying this post is "sliding into propaganda territory." The fact of the matter is, these are all of the facts. Had anyone ever provided a reason for why Dr. Siebens was let go, the reason would be reported. However, NO one is willing to give an explanation.

For the people who believe this to be biased in any way, I recommend you try to email Michelle Rhee or the new principal at Wilson or anyone who could've possibly made this decision and ask them why this happened. You will get the response that this was a "personnel decision" that they cannot discuss.

I would also just like to point out here that Dr. Siebens is the best teacher I have ever had. Just yesterday my friend (one of the few who decided to take AP Biology this year even though Dr. Siebens is no longer available) was studying for her test on cells and I helped her study by singing Siebens' song "Every Body's Made From Cells" (an original blues tune by Siebens himself). She will now be using his CDs for all of the tests to come.

I guess the question I ask you now is, don't the students at Wilson deserve his talent? Doesn't the new AP Biology teacher (who was actually going to be trained by Siebens) deserve his guidance? This was clearly not a decision made with the students in mind. I will never understand why this injustice occurred.

I'm a little puzzled about this case. This teacher was brilliant and inspiring, but he was let go by Wilson and then had a hard time getting hired anywhere else? Maybe DC has different issues, but in NYC, if an experienced and brilliant science teacher were available, principals would rush to grab him/her. Qualified science teachers are hard to find.

But the bigger question for me is this: who can best make decisions about staffing within a school? I can't understand why it would be anyone other than the principals. In reading some of these comments, one would think school districts are filled with nefarious, scheming leaders who are uninterested in the success of their students, who just want lackey teachers who will do as they're told. That's not my experience in schools. Principals have a huge set of payoffs when they retain great teachers: better stats, happier kids, happier parents, happier colleagues, a more professional community, etc.

I don't know if not rehiring Mr. Siebens was a bad judgment by the principal (or whomever ultimately made the call) but I can't imagine that without tenure, principals will cast away their great teachers. It just doesn't make sense.


I am not certain that the hygiene of Dr. Siemen's personnel file is pertinent. As I read through the minutes of the LSRT team--thoughtfully and completely posted on the school's website--I note that they recommended against using the existing evaluations as as the basis for staff selection--suggesting that they were either missing or not valid.

This group was allowed to send an observer from their personnel committee to observe interviews--pretty good indication of transparency, if you ask me.

But, selecting new staff--essentially the process involved in reconstitution--is essentially different from firing. While the official answer to the question of why (or why not) a particular candidate was selected would in fact be a "personnel matter." This does not indicate that there is some hidden smoking gun--only that the process of hiring and firing personnel is almost always conducted out of the public eye. As someone who has participated in hiring decisions, the question of "fit" is often considered--that is does this person have assets that balance weaknesses on the team, are there team assets that can compensate for any weaknesses that the candidate brings? None of these things make an overlooked candidate a bad person or a bad worker--just not the best of the available pool to fill the slot.

I also note, in reviewing some of the copious collection of documents posted, that ensuring that AP class demographics were more representative of the school population, was a goal associated with meeting AYP. The current principal has also indicated that he wanted the AP (and general) classes to be differently distributed amongst the staff. The teacher who had staked out the AP turf in Biology may or may not have been an advantageous member of the team.

Janie writes,

"In reading some of these comments, one would think school districts are filled with nefarious, scheming leaders who are uninterested in the success of their students, who just want lackey teachers who will do as they're told."

No! No! No! No!

The lesson is the opposite. The people who oppose Dr. Seimans from the best of motives are the prime reason why we need checks and balances. People like Margo/mom are intensely committed to their children. They want every political and legal right for their children, and they address issues from that perspective. Other peoples careers need to be judged by neutral third parties.

But if you want sustainable progress for children, you must respect the rights of their teachers. All sides have biases - that's a given. The intensity here is just one more reason why the time-tested methods of checks and balances and collective bargaining must be preserved.

On the other hand, I do believe that bureaucratic dynamics tend to become overwhelming. The prime value of an employeee in this situation is not "rocking the boat." Do we really want educators who are afraid of their shadow? Can we really produce shortterm benefits for kids by sacrifising the longterm principles of educational values (including the professional autonomy of teachers, intellectual freedom, and the integrity of contracts)? The logical outcome in many (most?) cases tends towards sycophancy.

I'm reminded of a parent who challenged me in my third year of teaching saying "You are not listening. You are talkng about the best interests of all of your students. I'm talking about the best interests of my son."

Three years later after that student and I realized that we had been talking for nearly three hours after school, he said, "You are the coolest White man I've ever seen. You respect my mind. Here we've been talking about the New York Review of Books for hours." I brought up his mother's comment and he said that I had no idea what he caught at home. So, in that case the checks and balances worked. But today, I would have never given that student the F he deserved, and thus intitiated the constructive confrontation. Maybe I have compromised too much since then,or maybe its best to roll with the punches like I do now and inflate grades.

But I have to ask people not to prejudge. Would you want to always choose the doctor that gives the most optimistic prognosis to your son or daughter?

Sometimes, its hard to believe that we are having this discussion. The entire system of American constitutional democracy is based on the principle that nobody has a monopoly of righteousness and that "power corrupts."

Margo - The illegality of divulging "private personnel matters" was used by the Chancellor herself as a reason for not discussing why Siebens was dismissed. Two members of the city council and one parent report that the Chancellor told them that this private information would explain the action against him. Siebens gave permission to have his folder released to the city council. There was nothing negative in it to warrant any action.


There are many things that are not contained in a personnel file. One would be the verbatim transcript of interviews. Another would be all letters--positive or negative, received from parents regarding the issue. The ongoing demographic make-up of the AP classes would be another.

It's good to hear input from actual Wilson students (or former students) and parents.

Question: Margo's post said that Wilson had a goal of "ensuring that AP class demographics were more representative of the school population." I take this to mean that Wilson would like the classes to be more racially and socioeconomically diverse, even if this meant that the students enrolled n the AP classes were not really prepared to take an AP level course.

This is the wrong way to approach high level courses: Students should enroll in these courses when they (1) have an interest in the subject and (2) are prepared to handle the higher level material and increased workload. Is Wilson really trying to place people in classes based on their race rather than their academic interests?

Attorney DC:

No--there are also discussions of preparedness. But, recall, the problem that they are facing has to do with not all groups meeting goals of AYP. You can't solve that problem without bumping up against some discussions of why that is and what to do about it. Including some examination of the course-taking patterns among groups.

Margo: I see your point. However, I think anytime we discuss the need to "examine" enrollment patterns, we need to guard against the impulse to lean toward quotas. I think it's a short step from "examining" course enrollment patterns, to setting a "goal" of having X number of students from each racial group in third period AP Biology. Sounds like we're sliding down the slippery slope to quotas...

Janie: I'm intrigued by your assumption that a "good" teacher shouldn't have any trouble being snapped up by another school. While that might make logical sense, I found that teacher hiring rests an awful lot on the teacher's last position and recommendation from their most recent principal. It's entirely possible that other schools in DC would be wary of hiring someone who'd been let go (presumably w/o a recommendation) from his last post. Schools don't have much to go on in evaluating a candidate other than his resume and recommendation of former principals.

A longstanding strength of the Eduwonkette blog is attention to the selection and meaning of statistics.

Last year only 73 DC public HS students not in Siebens' AP class took the AP Bio exam. 65 earned a "1", the minimum for signing up and showing up for the exam. (2 of Siebens' 54 students earned a "1". The fraction who earned a "4" or "5" exceeds national norms by statistical test.)
In DC, as elsewhere, participation is being promoted over achievement. We are to take on faith that success for black and brown students will come from doubling and tripling AP course enrollment, no matter absent preparation which enables students to learn and earn at a higher level.
But, the statistics above are evidence that students elsewhere in Rhee's DCPS HSs, 97+% of whom are black or brown, are getting woeful preparation and educational security in middle schools and high schools to 1)keep them enrolled in DCPS schools, and 2)prepare them for courses and AP tests such as the third most taken exam, the one in Biology. If it were otherwise, if the AP teacher was the missing link and most of what mattered to AP success, then DCPS HS principals with integrity would have hired Siebens to replicate his AP success at their schools.

Statistics: The College Board, for-fee purveyer of tests, course guides, and test-prep materials will continue, Big Pharma style, to encourage and celebrate test-taking and test prep. Which is cheaper, and a goal hard to miss? Enrolling more students in semester and year-long AP courses; or enrolling the same number of students in 2-4 years of coursework that would enable them to score even a "2" on an AP test, signaling real learning at that level?

Art Siebens is an inspired and inspiring teacher; but in AP courses he built on the success of other teachers and students who shared and actively supported his aspirations with their own successful work. That is a difference between a good school and just a good teacher.
The tragedy of the Siebens case, is that he was part of success that was as extensive as it was intensive, teaching AP Bio to an extraordinary fraction of students at Wilson HS, to perhaps 1 in 5 of those who will eventually graduate from college. And that was just one third of his courseload.

(More on preparation: In the neglected history of Jaime Escalante's success with AP Calculus, selection and years-long preparation of students enrolled in his course was essential. Escalante insisted on well-taught pre-requisite course availability and the prior success of his AP students. He quit his HS when the prep program was axed for budgetary reasons. Rhee knows that.)

Like other Superintendents, Rhee will push and celebrate the salience of the statistics she can produce at minimum cost: AP test takers. Rhee will collect her performance bonus for increased minority participation even as the fraction of public school students who neglect or abandon her DCPS for charter schools increases.


The question of a "good fit" has rather murky implications for hiring decisions. The term is vague enough to lend itself to all sorts of subtle abuse. It is one thing to hire people with a distribution of talents; it is another to judge applicants on the basis of personality, personal life, opinions, and so forth.

My best teachers (throughout my life) have differed widely; excellence in teaching is by nature idiosyncratic. Many excellent teachers would not be considered a "good fit" by school that defined the concept narrowly. A wise principal welcomes differences and recognizes what a teacher can offer. A less enlightened principal will look for teachers that fit a specific profile.

There have been attempts to define the ideal teacher profile. For example, the Haberman Star Teacher Pre-Screener is an automated tool designed to identify those who would be "star teachers" in an urban setting. Many districts use this tool or similar screening techniques. I wonder how many talented teachers have been denied jobs because they did not pass the automated screening.

I don't really understand the whole of your comment. The way I see it (as a former principal), there are checks and balances in a school. In many cases (as it appears to have happened at Wilson), there is a committee that considers staffing. Even if there is not, principals have bosses and communities to answer to, and ultimately, they are accountable for the success of their schools. In addition, there are unions in most places that ensure another set of checks and balances around teachers' rights.

But the idea that a third, neutral party should come in and make staffing decisions--I think that's what you're saying--seems to take the locus of control away from the folks that best know the needs of the school and students. I think it deprofessionalizes education once again. If we assume that principals are hired because they have worked hard and developed expertise (and if that's not true, can't we fix THAT?) and that there are systems in place to protect teachers, then why would we bring in outsiders to make staffing decisions?

I don't understand the connection of your anecdote, so maybe I'm missing something.

I don't think anyone is arguing that Dr. Siebens' case disproves the need to improve the teacher corps.

What it does suggest is how ambiguous the idea of "improving the teacher corps" can become, when a teacher, who by all accounts is the opposite of "deadwood teacher" stereotype loses his job in the process.


I'm not sure that we disagree--and as I chose the word "fit" I heard echoes in the back of my mind of times that fitting in has meant "people like us," and based on socio-economics, race or political persuasion.

Nonetheless--as your computer example points out, hiring does involve something more nuanced than looking at test results and popularity--even though these things are important. These things are on the table because these are the things that are known. What is not known is what happened during three interviews with two different people--one of whom spent a good bit of time in the school prior to the interviews. It may have been something that he said, or something that he didn't say. Again, I have participated in interviews in which the person, although highly qualified, was not the right person for the job.

I think about auditioning for the school musical. The students have an assumption that the leading roles should go to the star singers (and often the most popular students as well). What a director has to consider is different. The top two singers (male and female) may not blend well together, or may be mismatched in height. Or there may be concerns about whether one of them can handle the dance steps in Act II, or the comedy schtick in the opening. Sometimes there are lots of kids trying out and the script can be altered to be more inclusive and troublesome parts can be handed around to other kids with more specialized talent. Sometimes the talent pool is very limited and its better to take an OK singer who can dance and deliver lines and use the stars to beef up the chorus.

There is a big picture to consider, and somebody has to consider it. It seems as though principals are the logical choice. There are other, more inclusive, scenarios, in which parents and teachers play a greater role. I lean toward those kinds of processes. But I don't know that we can ever get there from a focus on Art Siebens and whether the process delivered appropriately in his case.

Correct - focusing on one person won't solve a big problem. Neither will ignoring or diminishing the situation of one person.

Insight on how something like this could happen, however, could be extremely useful in understanding and preventing future such problems down the road.


You wrote: "If we assume that principals are hired because they ... developed expertise ... and that there are systems in place to protect teachers ..." Would you agree that plenty of principals are not fair-minded? Remember, we are not talking about adding new protections, but deciding how many protections to retain. Or more precisely, how much more authority do we cede to the principals and administrators we have, not those that we would like to have? We are talking about the reliablity of the test-driven statistical models we have, not those models we can dream about. (in fact, Rhee won't put those cards on the table either. why assume she would even attempt to develop a fair model?)

I desparately want to negotiate procedures for principals to efficiently remove ineffective teachers, but that is not what we are talking about. I am talking about protecting the checks and balances that exist, while upgrading the teaching profession. But it takes two to negotiate. Demonstrate a respect for the integrity of collective bargaining, and together we can devise sustainable reforms.

Either Michelle Rhee has not thought through the entire chess game or she is not dealing in good faith. Otherwise, she would have accepted the unions demand for a nuetral third party. Principals, teachers, parents, and central office administrators all have biases. None can stand alone as judge and jury. That was the point of my anecdote. (and Rhee could have accepted the offer of the ACLU last year to help expedite the process of terminating ineffective administrators.) I would never seek to rob students or educators of their due process rights. Why think you can help students by stripping teachers of the legal rights? A house divided can not stand. Why try to split the union? Why undercut the reform president of the union? If Rhee wants to destroy reformers so she can fight it out with people who want old-fashioned bread and butter unionism, then her policies make sense. If she is willing to discredit data-driven decision-making by using bogus data-driven accountability as a blunt instrument, then her approach makes sense. But how can she help students by creating a civil war in D.C. schools? How much toxins of deceit and vicious infighting is she will to pour into kids environments? Why is she so confident that she can destroy in order to save?

Worst, after her heavy-handed effort to insinuate herself into union politics, she implicitly threatens to impose the same evaluation process through the licensing process. If she thinks that the union places obstacles in her path, wait until she meets the full force of the judicial process. Mass firings based on evidence based just on test scores will be laughed out of D.C.courts. (its one thing to fire people for no reason at all. Its another to fire people on trumped up evidence. Even the most conservative judges would find Rhee's methods as an affront to the dignity of our legal process.) Just wait until her test score matrix meets the discovery process. Given the flimsiness of her evidence, I'd anticipate judges ordering the D.C. schools to pay the legal fees of aggrieved teachers. And that's before issues of racial and age discrimination, and the motives of some administrators are raised.

In this case, as is so often true with NCLB reorganization, D.C. apparently sought to use the reorganization process to change the rules of the game. You can use reorganization as a ethical tool to help kids or as a tool to break unions and fire teachers while sidestepping due process, but you can not do both. I can not see why a sincere reformer would try. Rhee, I believe, is sincere. She's just so convinced of her righteousness that she has forgotten the fundamental principles of American constitutional democracy. She reminds me of the old Troskyists who never had to defend a real country so they were free to ridicule anyone who faced real-world compromises.

Principals have a full range of developed and undeveloped talents, and a full range of integrity. We need a Marshall Plan to develop principals and teachers before widespread firings. In the meantime, though, the AFT is pushing the Toldeo Plan which would efficently remove the 10% of teachers who are most ineffective, each year.

D.C. clearly needs to remove even more teachers and principals and others. But in the real world, democracy is the worst of all systems except for the others.

Margo - regarding personnel information-it was my understanding that public employees had access to all the information about themselves upon request.


i think it is wonderful that you are a principal of integrity, who makes all decisions based on what is best for the students. however, as many teachers can tell you, not every administrator is even remotely similar.

i worked in a low-performing school in the bronx as a math teacher for half a year. i was popular with my students, gave extra help every day after school (which students actually came to!), worked to form a girls soccer team, and more. i was a first year teacher, and though i may not have been the best or perfect, i worked incredibly hard and i truly gave everything i had to my students.

however, in the course of my enthusiasm, i crossed my ap and ended up on her bad side (maybe because i insisted that i believed the students needed math every day - we were only offering them math three times a week!...or maybe because i asked for a 6th grade workbook for the third year freshman who couldn't pick out the division symbol on the calculator and begged me for an easier math class???).

she began targeting me. i received a u in my only formal observation. the write up is the most ludicrous thing i've ever read. i got a u for not "following the text book," even though i followed it exactly, but inserted three easier d = r*t problems before a difficult uniform motion problem involving two trains leaving at different times to help scaffold for my class of level 1s and 2s .

my classroom environment was also rated unsatisfactory, even though it was not my room (the teachers changed rooms, as the school is in lockdown) and i shared it with every other subject the students had. math was the most prominently displayed subject, including a math word wall, student work, posters detailing addition and subtraction of signed numbers, etc. i'm not sure what else i could've done?

less than a month after receiving my only writeup, i was excessed, supposedly because they just didn't need me when they redid the programs for spring semester. i was heartbroken. the other teachers in the school wrote a beautiful letter of protest, and 75% signed it. the principal insisted that it was not a political decision, but the fact that 75% of teachers signed this letter shows that we all knew otherwise.

i was very very very fortunate that a nearby school was in desperate need of a math teacher, and within a week i was able to get a new job. at my new school, my ap thanked me nearly every week for coming. when he observed me, he thanked me for a great lesson. i still spent the entire year terrified that i would be fired at any moment, or that my file would arrive from the old school and they'd decide that they'd made a terrible mistake.

although my students were primarily 1s and 2s and had been without a math teacher for over 2 months, over 50% of them passed the regents (though i was deeply disappointed that it hadn't been more). i was rated satisfactory for the year and hired back. this year i am starting a math club - our first meeting is next week.

i thank god that i was able to find a school with supportive administrators. sometimes it seems like i never really taught at the old school - it must have been a bad dream, it couldn't really have been!!!

i think that all those who have said that principals look for teachers who don't rock the boat is absolutely true. having an opinion can be a dangerous thing. i'm absolutely sure that dr. art said something unpopular...i'm also sure it was TRUE (just like it was TRUE that my students needed math every day).

one last thought:
in the business world, if new management comes in, they often want to clean house - get rid of the old staff and put in their guys, people who will kowtow to them and go along with whatever they want. tenure is part of the system that fights against this cleaning house mentality.

I'm not going to comment on whether Dr. Siebens should have been let go or not, because quite frankly I'm not sure.

However, I would like to clarify something that Margo/Mom brought up. The process of choosing who was retained and who was let go was in no way, shape or form transparent. The "interview" took all of 5 minutes, was done during the last 2 days of school with almost no notice, and could not have contributed in any real way to knowledge about who did and did not belong at Wilson. There was a personnal committee member there, who correctly observed that the same two fluff questions were asked of all participants.

It was extremely clear that the school improvement officer had created or been given a list of people to let go. The interview, such as it was had little or nothing to do with the firing decision.

Bronxteach: I, too, had both positive and negative experiences with administrators in my teaching career. While I worked with several people who tried their best to create a good school for their students and teachers, there were also administrators who were well-intentioned, but clueless or flat-out obnoxious and power-hungry. Principals have many motivators in their hiring/firing decisions, many of which have little or nothing to do with the quality of teaching. I think it's important to have some outside check on administrators' power to fire teachers without any reason or documented history of inadequate teaching.

Wilson and Atty:

It would appear that there are protections against being fired. Dr. Siebens was not fired. He had a right of appeal of the decision not to hire back at Wilson, which he did. He then had two additional interviews, with the same results. And he remains a teacher in DC schools.

He remains a teacher. This gives him a salary, but it does not serve students, whom Chancellor Rhee says come first.

His current students have a teacher with no experience teaching that subject and no chance to prepare in advance for it. His former students lost a teacher who is highly skilled and experienced in his subject.

Thanks for clarifying. I don't know enough about Rhee and what's going on in DC to comment on that, but I do get your point, and I certainly concede that in the current reality, there are plenty of principals who should look for other work. I just think we should fix THAT problem rather than bringing in another set of folks to try to staff a school. If the principal is not capable of developing a strong community of teachers, there should be some system for firing the principal.

Yeah, you're right and your note was a good reminder of what I know is out there. But still--there ARE protections for teachers (I know of several egregious ones who managed to keep their jobs with union support despite the principal's best efforts).

Again, if we find ways to measure a principal's work, that seems a better solution than adding "neutral" parties that would come in to make staffing decisions once a year. If the principal is horrific, that once a year visit is not going to be that effective anyway.

One last thing: the idea of a principal being "power hungry" always amused me a little. My experience as principal made me aware of how very little power we had. Budget rules made it impossible to really have much choice in spending (you may buy this desk, not that one, etc), the union severely limited power in hiring, firing, scheduling, etc, and the administrative folks above made all kinds of decisions about curriculum, pedagogy, and discipline. What's left?

Janie: It's interesting to get a principal's perspective on these issues. Thanks for your comments. However, I noticed that you were "amused" by the idea that a principal could be power hungry. Since you appeared to be referring to my earlier post, let me respond that, from a teacher's perspective, a power hungry principal is NOT funny at all.

From your point of view, a principal doesn't have much "power." However, for a teacher (especially one without tenure) a principal has absolute power. He has the power to not recommend your return to the school (e.g., fire you). He has the power to issue a bad recommendation when you apply to any future teaching job. In addition, in California, a principal has the option of recommending to the Board of Education revocation or suspension of the teaching license of a teacher who leaves or is fired during their first year teaching in the school system.

I once (briefly) taught under a very power-hungry, vindictive principal in California. Believe me, she made it very clear to the new teachers that she had the powers above, and was not afraid to use them. Few teachers remained at the school once they were eligible to apply for a transfer. But she made teachers' lives hell while they were there by threatening to fire them and refuse them a good recommendation for future positions if they tried to leave.

I'm sure you're nothing like the principal above (I've never met another principal quite like this one, myself). But please think of this before you laugh at the idea of power-hungry principals. They are not funny at all to teachers.

you make a good point and I should have used a different word. I was humbled by the job of being principal and was shocked and bewildered by the idea that someone else could see that role so differently. Clearly, if you see the goal as moving students forward--especially the students struggling the most--with too little funding, too many rules, too much bureaucracy, then your sense of power is sure limited. Not everyone looks at the position in that way.

you make a good point and I should have used a different word. I was humbled by the job of being principal and was shocked and bewildered by the idea that someone else could see that role so differently. Clearly, if you see the goal as moving students forward--especially the students struggling the most--with too little funding, too many rules, too much bureaucracy, then your sense of power is sure limited. Not everyone looks at the position in that way.

Janie: Thanks for your acknowledgment of my position on this issue. I congratulate you on NOT being a power-hungry principal - keep up the good work (maybe if my former principal had an attitude more like yours, I'd still be a teacher and wouldn't have gone to law school!).

I am a little perplexed that quite a few writers seem not to know why Dr.Siebens was asked to leave Wilson High. Margo/Mom solved the mystery when she uncovered the letter from the Wilson Minority Parents Alliance. In this letter the parents made it clear that they did not want Dr. Siebens at the school because of his perceived "mistreatment" of African American and Latino students.

Of course we don't know the specifics but I can make an educated guess based on my experiences as a teacher and a parent. Sometimes the "best" teachers in a school are the people who like to teach the most capable students. These individuals might be excellent with advanced students but might not enjoy teaching students who don't have the necessary background. In fact they might resent these students and try to "counsel" them out of their classes. Because many of these teachers have high standards they might give these weak students Ds and Fs. This action is greatly resented by the parents of these students and sometimes by the other teachers.

So it's possible (and maybe even probable) that the parents who wrote the letter have sons and daughters who didn't make it into Dr.Siebens' class or, if they did, they didn't do well. If most of the successful AP students are white, you can see how that might appear to the parents. It also illustrates how so many factors mitigate against keeping excellent teachers at an urban high school. Sometimes even the parents don't want them.

Janie, you sound like a fair-minded and excellent principal but believe me when I say that a principal can make a teacher's life miserable. Teachers tend to be very sensitive individuals who are easily intimidated (even with all their job protections) and principals know this. Unethical ones quickly realize this power and use it to keep outspoken teachers in line. I will admit that these people are in the minority but they are dangerous and should not be given the power to hire and fire without checks and balances.

Linda - you say that Margo "solved the mystery" when in fact she only speculated about it, just as you are doing. You really don't know if the teacher in question felt about minority students the way you've noted in other other teachers you're comparing him to. The mystery in this case and in others in the Rhee administration is the lack of supporting evidence in personnel decisions.

The letter from the Wilson Minority Parents asked that the teacher in question not be rehired. I can't imagine that the principal would hire him in defiance of these parents. The letter solves the mystery for me, although I admit it is not hard evidence.

Yes, the rest of my comments were just speculation; I was just guessing as to why the parents would reject a teacher who appears to be so well qualified. It's entirely possible that there were reasons other than the ones I gave.

Linda - on that site there are no specific accusations and no names signed to the letter, thus no grounds for administrators to act unless it's acceptable for teachers with stellar records and hundreds of named supporters to be dismissed based one one anonymous, negative, unsubstantiated, charge.

Oh, it's definitely not acceptable for teachers with stellar records to be dismissed based on one anonymous, negative charge. Aren't we talking about what can and will happen to teachers once administrators get unchecked power?

Here's some more speculation: Because the principal at this high school had the sole authority to reassign Dr.S, the administrator was free to do whatever he wanted with the teacher. So when some disgruntled parents asked for the teacher's removal, the principal happily complied. Why fight it when he knew he'd be backed by the superintendent and the mayor? Or perhaps he felt that he'd lose his position if he ignored the parents. Does anyone really think there was a sincere effort to place the "best" teachers at this school? I don't. The case of Dr.S tells us that this was probably not the case. Instead, politics and expediency won out.

Once tenure is gone, teachers will lose their jobs for some of the following reasons:

Some parents do not like a particular teacher;

Principal doesn't like the teacher because she doesn't like him;

Teacher spoke to the school board and offended one of the members;

Teacher wrote a letter to the editor that was critical of the school board;

Teacher's brother divorced school board member's sister;

Teacher tried to get help for a disabled child and went over the principal's head;

And so on. All of these stories are based on fact but thankfully the teachers were protected by "due process laws." I couldn't imagine teaching without them and I'm glad I didn't have to.

Well, there is a silver lining for Dr.S. The courts will surely give him his job back and they'll probably throw in some "damages" as well.

Linda, Thanks for your further explanation.

As a quick follow-up – it occurs to me that teachers, as a group, may be much less political than other types of employees. Sure, they’ll fight for their students and better teaching conditions, but they are not thinking strategically in terms of how to get ahead and work the system. They’re not fighting for promotions or playing up to the boss the way corporate employees often do. Most of the good ones are humanitarians who just want to teach well and have a positive effect on kids. This makes them easy prey for politically skilled administrators whose motives are often much more complex and not necessarily child-centered.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Sara F: Linda, Thanks for your further explanation. As a quick follow-up read more
  • Linda/Retired Teacher: Oh, it's definitely not acceptable for teachers with stellar records read more
  • Sara F: Linda - on that site there are no specific accusations read more
  • Linda/Retired Teacher: The letter from the Wilson Minority Parents asked that the read more
  • Sara F: Linda - you say that Margo "solved the mystery" when read more




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