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In the Name of Reform? A Lesson About Michelle Rhee's Big Plans from Art Siebens

Reporter: “The teachers’ union is saying that their concern is arbitrary firing…. that it just isn’t possible to give everyone sort of a level of fair scrutiny.

Rhee: “It’s interesting because, I mean, the bottom line is that people are saying, ‘Well, great teachers could be fired arbitrarily.’ My answer to that is, ‘Why would I ever create a system where we were arbitrarily firing great teachers? That would not benefit me or the school system.’” - Michelle Rhee on NPR
All along the Eastern corridor, folks are buzzing about firing teachers. In New York City two weeks ago, the New Teacher Project once again called for the district to put excessed teachers who have not been hired after a year on unpaid leave. Last week in his Washington Post column, Jay Mathews also sang a paean about the virtues of principals firing teachers at will. And in Michelle Rhee’s proposed contract, teachers would give up tenure in exchange for performance pay. Now, she’s moved to “Plan B,” which involves giving “bad teachers” 90 days to improve, or else face dismissal.

In all three cases, the assumption is that principals know best, that they make decisions based on the best interest of students, that “kid issues” will be put before “adult issues” in hiring decisions, and that concerns about fair treatment are retrograde - even passé.

Yet right under Michelle Rhee’s nose, her own theory of action – that principals will always pick the “best teachers” – has been tested by the case of Dr. Art Siebens. Few things manage to keep this groggy, dissertating kid awake once my head’s hit the pillow. But the case of Siebens, a biology teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, DC for the last 18 years who was not rehired when the school reconstituted 20% of its staff last spring, is haunting for the glimpse it offers into the brave new world of unchecked principal autonomy.

By all accounts, Michelle Rhee should be carrying Art Siebens around on her shoulders, because he exemplifies all of the qualities she desires in DC Public Schools teachers:
* Rhee wants to recruit more highly qualified alternate route teachers. With a PhD in Biology and post-doctoral work at Yale and NIH, Siebens has credentials that leave most TFA corps members in the dust.

* Most important to Rhee are test results: “To work here,” she says, “you've got to be a bottom-line person.” In that spirit, Siebens outdid every other AP Biology teacher in the district. During the 13 years in which Siebens taught AP Biology at Wilson, 72% of his students earned passing scores on the AP test (i.e. scores of 3-5). Across DCPS in 2007, 95% of DC Biology AP students with scores of 3-5 were taught by Art Siebens. This is all the more impressive because his courses were no less diverse than other AP courses at Woodrow Wilson High School, and almost all of his students took the AP test. Because of these achievements, Siebens has received an Advanced Placement Recognition Award from the College Board.

* Rhee, often drawing on her own chaotic first year of teaching, speaks of the need for high expectations for student behavior. Siebens was widely known to be a steward of order and discipline, even taking it upon himself to maintain a database tracking compliance with Wilson’s behavior management system, as well as truancy. Moreover, Michelle Rhee personally gave Siebens password access to student attendance data so he could track Wilson’s truancy and tardiness rates. When the district brought in a restructuring guru, he reviewed Siebens’ data to make sense of the school’s climate.

* Rhee wants teachers who are willing to “sweat” - teachers who go the extra mile and don’t just “follow the contract.” Siebens held lunchtime and after school review sessions. He attended his students’ sporting events, plays, and musicals. He composed and performed songs about biology to help his students remember biological processes – songs that apparently work because they’ve been adopted by biology teachers across the country. This fall, his work using music to teach biology has been featured in a five-part series on XM and WorldSpace satellite radio. (You can find archived versions of the first three parts here.)

* Rhee wants team players who will go out of their way to help their colleagues. From the letters of support from other teachers in his school, it is clear that he was the consummate colleague, one who supported new teachers and worked towards the good of the school, not just the good of his own students.
Rhee often says that her motto is, “Ensuring that adult issues never come before the best interests of children.” Why, then, was Art Siebens excessed and then involuntarily transferred when Woodrow Wilson restructured last spring and reconstituted 20% of the faculty?

Your guess is as good as mine. The only peep criticizing Siebens has come from a group of minority parents, who nonetheless maintain that they had no hand in Siebens’ dismissal from Wilson. (They did not respond to multiple attempts to contact them.) Siebens’ former students, their parents, and his colleagues have come out of the woodwork to support his return to Wilson. You can see their testimonials about how he touched their lives here.

In the meantime, we’ve now had an inside look at how Michelle Rhee’s system manages talent. Siebens applied for all open science positions at a hiring fair in June, and was not called for interviews at any of the schools to which he applied. He interviewed at several other schools over the summer, and either was not offered the position or told that “the position has been filled for us.” On the first day of school, Siebens – who has a PhD in Physiology - was assigned to teach 9th grade environmental science, a course he has never taught before. To date, he has not even received the teacher’s edition of the environmental science book, despite asking for it repeatedly.

And the kicker? The Washington Post reported a week ago that Wilson has a science vacancy. Is this what the “strategic management of talent” looks like?

"What I need is for you to have trust, in me and in the school district….I know that trust doesn't come overnight, and I have to earn that trust," Michelle Rhee recently said. What Rhee must realize, of course, is that debacles like the dismissal of Art Siebens eat away at that trust, as does her refusal to even consider that the principal made the wrong call here. Art Siebens has 18 years of data, a PhD, a gaggle of national awards, and a legion of parents and students standing behind him. If this can happen to him, it can happen to almost any teacher in the DC system.

Checks and balances, my friends, are the hallmark of the American system of governance, and I see no reason why we should abandon them in public education.

For the life of me, I can't understand how anyone can defend, in any way, shape, or form, a system that produces a 30% adult illiteracy rate in the one of the most educated cities in the world, with over 50% of certain wards functionally illiterate.

Is it news that public school systems sometimes don't allocate their resources well? No. That's endemic to all organizations. Your recounting of Dr. Siebens' experience sounds bad, no doubt. But individual cases do not indict the larger thrust of the plan - a voluntary abandonment of tenure with the possibility of a huge payoff if, you know, you're a competent teacher.

Just to repeat, wards 7 and 8, which have the highest concentration of DC public school students, have adult illiteracy rates ABOVE 50%. One case of a teacher getting lost in the bureaucracy doesn't mean the larger goal of accountability and rewards for good performance doesn't mean the effort to fix that gross inequality should be abandoned.

Corey said:

"voluntary abandonment of tenure with the possibility of a huge payoff"
I think the word "possibly" is where your idea confronts reality. Do you really think privatizing education will work better? Because that is what you are saying. Nothing about how it will fix education. Vapid!

Hey Corey,

I think your point is predicated on three assumptions:

1) The primary reason why there is high illiteracy in DC is because of the school system. In other words, you are saying that if we swapped DC kids into schools in Chevy Chase or Bethesda, places with high literacy rates, DC kids would be substantially more literate. Do you believe this is true?

2) Eliminating tenure would increase the quality of teachers in DCPS. I am having a hard time understanding where this fleet of exceptional teachers is coming from. Might it not be prudent to make investments in improving the teachers that we have, rather than just replacing them in large numbers? Yes, there are teachers that cannot, or will not, improve, and they should be removed. But I do not think - given the size of DCPS - that you are going to fire your way to a great school system.

3) "Competent teachers" are going to be rewarded, and incompetent teachers are not. The lesson of the Siebens case is that even teachers at the top of the distribution - those with demonstrated effectiveness, national awards, etc - can fall through the cracks. Why are you confident that principals will always - or even often - pick the "best teachers?"

"Why would I ever create a system where we were arbitrarily firing great teachers? That would not benefit me or the school system."

Michelle Rhee seems to forget that she doesn't have complete control over everything. Her statement is akin to saying "why would a pitcher ever walk a batter with the bases loaded in a tie game?" They're not trying to walk the batter -- they just don't have complete control over where the ball goes and things don't always happen as planned.

p.s. Where'd Evil Corey come from?


I have seen articles about this case before and I have yet to see any plausible explanations for the man being excessed from the teaching staff. Could it be, for instance, that given the needs of the student body AP biology was not a priority--and despite this man's accomplishments in that class, he was a complete dodo in working with students who had greater remedial needs? This seems to me more credible than simply that the principal is an idiot who cannot recognize a good thing when s/he sees it--or has some kind of personal vendetta (although, I have mostly worked outside the public service sector, where personal vendettas are 100% legal and allowable).

Who should make decisions regarding the composition of school staff? If the alternative (to principals making decisions) is that the only thing that qualifies as sufficient reason to move a teacher is "buggering the bursar," as Michael Caine put it in Educating Rita, then how are we ever to achieve any level of flexibility to be able to respond to the needs of students in schools?

I have recently been moved by the protests of students in Philadelphia, who have noticed that contractual obligations mean that more experienced teachers are concentrated in "more desireable" schools--and the reverse in "less desireable" schools. It's very powerful that they are able to stand up and say, "what about us?"

Working in DC, I am somewhat familiar with the firing of Mr. Siebens. I'd like to add a few points based on my conversations with a parent of a Wilson High School student.

One, it does not appear that Wilson's principal fired Mr. Siebens. According to the parent, there was no principal at Wilson when the restructuring occurred - they were between interim principals. The parent believed the restructuring decisions were made by a representative from the District's central office who had little or no personal knowledge of the teachers.

Two, the parent (who had talked with other parents about this) was equally baffled at why Siebens was let go during the restructuring. There doesn't appear to be any understanding of this in the Wilson community.

TFTeacher - no one's talking about privatization. We're talking about teachers who are confident in their abilities being able to voluntarily abandon their tenure in exchange for six figure salaries after the probationary period. In other words, the DC Teachers' Union has decided to block its members from becoming the highest-paid teachers in the country just to avoid even the slightest bit of accountability.

I can understand higher illiteracy rates in DC. I can even understand illiteracy rates 2 or 3 times the norm, given socioeconomic factors. Schools can't fix everything and I didn't suggest that they could.

When half of the adults in the areas most dependent on the DC school system cannot read or write, that's an order of magnitude higher than mere socioeconomics. That's a failure of the school system. And yes, I think if you bussed DC public school students away from schools in Anacostia and NE to MoCo, Arlington, or Fairfax, you'd see higher achievement, although not on par with students from those localities for obvious reasons.

I'm not going to defend the limbo that this particular teacher is in, given that all I know about the situation is what is written in this post. My point is that one example of an accountability regime not functioning properly, is not grounds for indicting the effort entirely.

If this were the only example then maybe Corey would be right. There are many examples of quality principals and assistant principals not being retained either.

Anyone who sticks their neck out isn't really safe.

I think I'm pretty smart, etc., although not a teacher, and my directness makes it very difficult to get/keep a job in a govt. agency/by a govt. funded entity.

If I thought Chancellor Rhee had a plan and it was fair, open, and transparent, were I a teacher I might sign off on the new plan.

But Chancellor Rhee has not yet demonstrated a commitment to open, fair and transparent processes, and she has denied the need for a plan (see the GAO report).

Most of us agree that something needs to be done. But what needs to be done needs to be more than throwing bombs at all levels, across most schools.

Give me a John Deasy any day. Contrast the difference between he and Rhee. And I think his #2 will likely accomplish more in his place than Rhee will, whereas she has almost no restrictions and a full checkbook that most school districts don't have access to.

Hi everyone,
Just a quick follow-up on Attorney DC's comment:

- In the spring, the district brought in a restructuring officer to Wilson who interviewed teachers and made the first decision about who should be cut. He interviewed Siebens for 5 minutes, and in June Siebens learned he was not rehired.

- The new principal (Peter Cahall) interviewed Siebens following this decision. He did not offer him the job.

- There was an outcry from the Wilson community, and Cahall interviewed him again. He again did not offer him the job.

It is not clear to me the extent to which Cahall was given the authority to make these decisions alone, or if central office staff played a role in making these decisions. The party line is that the principals have full hiring and firing authority, but one can imagine that after this blew up - kids testifying before city council, articles in the neighborhood papers, etc - that the central office had a voice as well.

Yes, Corey, you are talking about privatization. It is the next step. We teachers are going to have to teach you reformers a lesson!

George Soros' explanation of the financial mess applies here. If you have ten containers of water, and only one is poisoned, then they are still worthless. 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?

Why will there always be enough unfair decisions in a system with unchecked power? Its human nature. We're all supposed to learn that in Government 101.

tfteacher, how on earth does restructuring tenure to increase accountability lead to privatization? The two concepts are completely different.

For the record, let me make sure I understand your position: you're against giving teachers the choice to suspend their own tenure and be evaluated over the course of a year, with the possibility of a significant pay raise if they pass the evaluation. Not only are you against this, you believe that the successful implementation of such a program will lead to "privatization". How?

Eduwonkette: Thanks for clearing the decision-making steps up for me regarding Sieben's termination. Like I said, this is all second-hand information I got from a concerned parent (I don't have any direct involvement with Wilson High School).

I think that decisions like firing Mr. Siebens do a lot to cut away at Ms. Rhee's contentions that at-will firing by school principals will be (1) for the benefit of the students and (2) based on logical criteria, the most important of which is the teacher's ability to teach. Situations like the one at Wilson really leave me wondering what teachers would accept Rhee's contentions that terminations will be done appropriately.

Rhee is doing what she is doing under pressure from the faction that considers "Government Schools" a disaster, meaning teachers suck.

In order to create more accountability these folks would have you believe that all children are the same, can be tested, and those test results inform one on the efficacy of the teacher.

No, it is about removing the union, taking the power from teachers and giving it to strong government officials who can then fire anyone they want and never be held accountable for the disaster that is the bureaucracy of Education Administration.

Your holding to "they are totally separate" meme is nonsense. Nothing is really separate. Teacher quality, poverty, union power, boards, superintendents, voters, all these have influence over the issue of "Education". For you to say, Corey, that there is no overlap is to deny reality!

Let's be clear. Dr. Siebens did not "fall through the cracks" of a big bureaucracy. Michelle Rhee got early notice of what was happening and personally supported it. I talked to her 2 months ago and she warned darkly that if I knew what she knew, I'd support his termination, too. It was utter BS and a nasty way to try to damage a fine person's reputation. I wouldn't trust Rhee with any teacher's rights.

Well, I may be a teacher, but I'm not stupid. Six figure salaries? And where is THAT money coming from year after year? Same dry well as all that money for National Board Certification?


But the question remains, what did Michelle Rhee, or anyone else (including the two other people who apparently interviewed Dr. Siebens), have to gain by damaging this fine person's reputation? And is it possible to ever make personnel changes without damanging reputations? And who, and by what process, should such decisions be made?

I do not know the details of the Siebens firing, but I do know that administrators do not take kindly to teachers calling them out on their nonsense.

Good teachers are difficult to get to go along with the new curriculum, for good reason; they are good teachers! They have seen curricula come and go, and principals come and go, and superintendents and board members come and go. Yet the teacher remains, and the kids learn, and life goes on.

To think that teacher accountability is the answer is just so narrow and misguided.

Look, I would be very happy with merit pay, because my kids' scores are very high. But maybe I am an exception. Or maybe I got lucky with a class full of brainy kids. Or maybe it is me.

But to ask us teachers to use a new curriculum because "we said so" is no good. Teachers know just as much about curricular materials as the morons who write them, sell them, tout them, and support them.

Teachers, take back your profession, or ask for hourly wages and overtime!

The biggest, gaping hole that I see in Rhee's plan is that I don't believe she has the funding locked up to insure that the teachers who abandon tenure will be able to get these giant raises year after year, and if the budget calculus comes down against them, and they've given up their continuing positions.....that's dangerous.

Does Rhee have a Plan B for the budget?

tfteacher - you said:
"Good teachers are difficult to get to go along with the new curriculum, for good reason; they are good teachers! They have seen curricula come and go, and principals come and go, and superintendents and board members come and go. Yet the teacher remains, and the kids learn, and life goes on."

I don't know how I could make this any clearer: the kids are not learning in Washington, DC. Life is not "going on". 50% of a population most likely to be products of that system cannot read or write. The system has failed to educate these people at the most basic level.

This isn't just a liberal desire to achieve fairness. The fact that half of the adults in an area can't read is a hindrance to the economy, it precludes any meaningful change in places like Anacostia, and it reinforces the socioeconomic cycle that teachers seem to think they're so powerless against. In short, it's the failures of teachers a generation ago that's created the current mess, and this current mess will create more failures down the road unless something drastic is done.

You're right that there's a lot of factors that can go into the test scores of a small sample of students. Luckily statistical methods exist to determine teacher efficacy in light of those factors.

And that's not even what we're arguing about here - no one wanted to force that accountability on the teachers! It was to be their choice!

Corey: I have a hard time believing that "poor teachers" are the cause of the low academic achievement in inner-city DC. When I was a teacher, I observed (or worked in) several different schools. In each school there were "good" teachers and less good teachers. Overall, I'd say there were more "good" teachers in the higher income schools, b/c teacher generally preferred to work there - thus more competition for those jobs.

However, the large test score and graduation rate differences that existed between one school and another had little to do with the staff, and everything to do with the composition of the student body. It was easy to predict school achievement based on the SES data about the students. In general, students from low-income, single-parent homes, with uneducated parents, did not perform as well in school.

Swapping all inner city teachers with teachers from Montgomery or Fairfax Counties might have some positive effect on the DC students' scores (or might not). But I doubt it would do much good, unless the students themselves took the initiative to apply themselves wholeheartedly to learning.

Any "good" teacher who is subjected to poor working conditions and verbal abuse from the students year after year will probably eventually become burned out. With regard to my example, above, if we took Fairfax or Montgomery County teachers and forced them to work in DC schools for 15 years, how energetic and effective do you think they would be by 2023?

Corey says: "You're right that there's a lot of factors that can go into the test scores of a small sample of students. Luckily statistical methods exist to determine teacher efficacy in light of those factors."

Interesting. What are those methods? How reliable are they? Are they being used now in DC? Have they been used successfully in other school districts? Please provide references.


Sara F - As an amateur statistician I'd suggest creating a composite student for each ZIP code (which would incorporate most s-e factors) and comparing classroom achievement to that composite. If a teacher's scores are significantly below that composite for, say five years running, they should get canned. Not perfect but that's what margin of error and the multi-year timeframe are for.

Does that mean that occasionally a teacher will get sacked when poor achievement isn't their fault? Yes. People in the real world get fired all the time for things that aren't their fault.

I have personal experience with Dr. Siebens (my daughter took his AP Bio class). He is among the best of the best teachers, no question. Ms. Rhee and Principal Cahall refuse to divulge any of the reasoning they used in their decisions. It defies logic that the documented, stellar 18-year career of this teacher is cut short in this manner. This is purely counter-productive. And Wilson High is currently short a Science teacher due to un-filled vacancy. A lose-lose-lose-lose situation if I ever saw one!

Attorney DC - I don't disagree with anything you said, although I will reiterate that I think increased achievement could come from DC school students actually being bussed to suburban schools, rather than the teachers from those districts being imported to DC. And I agree completely that those teachers would get burnt out very quickly. But that's an academic debate because it'll never happen.

I'm most interested in avoiding catastrophic results like 50% adult illiteracy (not to hammer that in my comments, but if that statistic doesn't indict an education system, nothing will). I don't think schooling alone can fix poor SES, which is why I said I could tolerate rates like 20% or 30%. But if schooling produces rates of 50% or higher, that brings into question the value of schools themselves.

Corey Mull - Are you the same Corey who said that "statistical models exist?"

If so, I'd like to know what those models are and would still like responses to my other questions.

"Models" was probably the wrong word. "Methods" is better. I explained those methods in my post - comparison of student achievement to a composite, using zip code to control for SES, with MOE and multi-year timeframes to minimize statistical anomalies. I'm not a professional but I don't see why that rough outline wouldn't produce a mostly-accurate measure of teacher performance relative to a norm.

Put another way - under what circumstances could a multi-year picture of student achievement, controlling for SES, be significantly inaccurate in judging a teacher's performance?

Corey - Thanks for explaining. You are not a statistics professional. You haven't mentioned any tested models or methods for judging teacher performance based on student achievement.

No doubt that not much data exists to support any particular model or method of controlling for SES in measuring teacher effectiveness. Let's not pretend that those methods don't exist, though.

It's hard to get a big enough sample size when dealing with organizations like the DC Teachers' Union, which refuses to allow its members to be evaluated using those models.

The evaluation of a teacher, like so many other variables in education, is a very complex issue. Many citizens assume that the school principal, if given the opportunity, would fire the least effective teachers. After 42 years of teaching, I found this not to be true. In my opinion, the first teachers to lose their positions if tenure were eliminated would be the vocal teachers and the teachers who cost too much money. There is a situation, now taking place in my former district, that is a perfect example of what could happen:

A successful teacher of many years decided to speak to the board of education. While asking for a raise, she made a comment that offended a board member (She said the district was no longer like a "family.") The very next day she was called into an angry principal's office and told that she had "embarrassed herself." She was told that her teaching was "unsatisfactory." This became her formal evaluation, which she contested in court. After three years, the court of appeals for our state found in her favor and overturned her poor evaluation. However, this angered the superintendent who declared, "If they want to fight, then that's what we will do." A few days later a new principal, who had given this woman a good evaluation the previous year, started to "write her up" again. The teacher is now undergoing extensive evaluation procedures. The district is obviously retaliating against her and trying to pressure her to quit. Firing her will be difficult because tenure requires "due process."

I will admit that I am not objective about this case as I worked as a partner with this teacher for several years and learned much from her. It's difficult for me to believe that she is "unsatisfactory." The superintendent himself pronounced her to be "one of our best teachers" in front of a roomful of parents. Strangely, this occurred in the fall after she got the poor evaluation. (My guess is that he was angered after losing the court case and feels that he must support the administrator.)

It would make for some very interesting journalism to have a reporter follow this teacher's odyssey. The public needs to understand why so many teachers are fighting the termination of tenure. Basically it would grant the right of administration to rid themselves of outspoken and expensive teachers.

That said, no one wants a poor teacher to remain in the classroom. We DO need a fair way to evaluate these people. My suggestion would be a committee of educators from outside a school district . Perhaps retired teachers and administrators could sit on these committees. Yes, bad teachers are a problem but simplistic measures will just result in more of the good ones leaving the profession.

Linda: I sympathize with the ordeal your co-worker is going through with her school district. As a former teacher, I agree that principals and administrators do not always base their hiring/firing decisions on the teaching abilities of the teacher.

It seems to me that evaluations, "write ups" and dismissals are often done based on the principal's personal relationship with the teacher, or other factors like pressure from the school board or parents. Sometimes a teacher will remain at a school because he or she is useful as a coach or club leader - even if he or she is not a very effective teacher. I think people who believe that principals make unbiased decisions about their staff based solely on teaching skills are not very familiar with modern day schools!

I've written a lot here about estimating teacher effects and the methodological problems that we run into in doing so - if you want to geek out, you can see links to most of these posts here.

A central problem with Corey's suggestion is that we always have some uncertainty around estimates of teacher performance. These are represented by confidence intervals, and they are quite wide. For example, in the DOE value-added teacher report example released last week, a 65th percentile teacher has a confidence interval ranging from the 46th to the 84th percentile. This is inevitable when teachers only teach ~25 students in any year. In providing this range, the DOE is formally acknowledging that we do not know if this is a below average, average, or above average teacher. What happens to this teacher under Rhee's system? Should she be eligible for a bonus? Or fired?

And I am not sure what Rhee plans to do with middle and high school teachers - estimating their value-added is complicated by the fact that students have many teachers.

I have as much confidence in M. Rhee today as I have in the financial system today. Very little and dropping. And no one even seems to be trying to bail her out. Even M. Rhee herself. She has "responded" as arrogantly, obdurately, and cluelessly as the CEOs of the now defunct financial institutions.

Transparency and accountability ought to permeate an entire organization... not just some parts. As parents, and as citizens, we INSIST. We will not be trifled with; the stakes are too high not to get it right.

It's never good to be commenter #31 in a long string of what Sarah Palin might call verbiage, after local school politics, statistical methods and the personal reputation of an individual teacher have been given plenty scrutiny.

But--let's go back to Michelle Rhee's remark on NPR: "Why would I ever create a system where we were arbitrarily firing great teachers? That would not benefit me or the school system.”

I am always amazed by readers who believe that loosening constraints on firing teachers is a good thing. Usually, they bring up the "fact" that it's easy for managers to fire unsatisfactory employees in other settings. If the commenter can be fired at will, then, doggone it, teachers should be fired at will. Even if the district has invested considerable time and training in employees, we need to make schools' hiring practices more like businesses' (i.e., erratic).

The thing is--we don't have a clear definition of ineffective teaching performance (although we do have lots of statisticians modeling their hearts out). And there is some evidence that we can improve weak teaching in those who are committed to working in our most difficult schools. Isn't that what we really need? Better teaching?

EW's point that there aren't a dozen great teachers lined up to take the place of someone who gets sacked is the core argument here.

EW - margins of error are a part of any measurement and won't be avoided in any workable accountability system. The goal should be to shrink those confidence intervals as much as possible and look at patterns rather than individual data points.

For instance, how much would the margin shrink if the snapshot were taken over five or ten years, rather than one? What's the process for judging value added, and what kind of error does that introduce to analyses of the data?

To make a political comparison - if one poll came out and said Obama leads by 7, when the rest say he trails by 2, no campaign would take the seven point lead as gospel. But if the polls today show him leading by 7, and the polls yesterday said 6, and the polls the day before that said 5, then that's evidence of a pattern one can reasonably put stock in. It's possible that all the polls are wrong, but highly improbable.

Oh, and no one's defending teacher dismissals without due process and standards. Teachers should be judged according to fixed benchmarks, not personality or salary. But efforts to remove all uncertainty from those benchmarks are mathematically futile and only serve to delay accountability.


It is true that most of the population outside of education is subject to employment at will laws. This is not to say that this is right, far from it. But those within education need to understand that they are not going to get a lot of sympathy from a crowd that has experienced either the threat or reality of job loss at the caprice of someone up the food chain. There is no job protection outside of the opportunity to demonstrate to the unemployment people that your loss of employment was not due to either personal choice or poor job performance.

What I would argue is that the "business model," if, in fact there is such a thing, if employing what is known about employee supervision and evaluation, acknowledges that firing an employee is a very expensive proposition, and the wise money is on providing opportunities and support for improvement. But this involves some other things that teachers are not generally eager to buy into: such as performance reviews, improvement goal setting, observation, etc.

Personally, I'm not big on firing people to solve most problems, and it disturbs me how quickly this conversation becomes a conversation about firing (particularly since Dr. Siemens was not "fired," but rather moved from his position), with the assumption that such decisions (if allowed) would be made solely on student test scores. What would interest me more is a discussion of how teachers ought to be supervised, how deficits ought to be addressed and how ought staffing decisions be made? Should any teacher who can marshall a crowd of satisfied customers be allowed to over-ride staffing decisions made by restructuring staff? Are there ever times that call for restructuring? When are they, and who ought to make the decisions?

Margo: I'm reluctant to apply "business models" for hiring and firing to the school setting for the following reasons.

Having had experience in schools and in the business world, I see that businesses have a vested interest in retaining quality employees because it helps their bottom line. If a company has an efficient secretary or top notch accounting team, they will be more likely to satisfy their clients and have a successful business.

In my experience, companies are less likely to make hiring/firing/promotion decisions based on factors other than job performance. Of course, there are always problems with nepotism, "good old boys" networks and other factors that influence hiring/firing decisions. But there's always the bottom line to consider.

In a school (similar to other non-profit or government organizations), there is no bottom line. There are no customers or clients. The school doesn't make more money if Mrs. X is a great math teacher or rake in more clients if Mr. Y is a wonderful physics teacher. I've seen in my own experience that in businesses, an employer will be more likely to keep an effective employee because it's better for the business.

In a school, there is little or no incentive for a principal to keep a good teacher - if that teacher "rocks the boat" or causes other problems for the principal. For instance, as a teenager, a math teacher at my friend's high school was let go because he refused to lower his standards. A few parents complained vociferously to the principal. Result? The principal decided it was easier to reprimand the teacher than to deal with a few disgruntled parents. In the business sector, a law firm would not fire a high performing attorney because he stepped on a few people's toes in the courtroom.


I am convinced that we are not likely to be able to unearth the specific details behind the reconstitution of Art Siebens. If he's a rotter, that's protected personnel information. If there was a conspiracy, well...

But I did poke around the Woodrow Wilson High School website and came away a bit impressed by the transparency and inclusion of their restructuring process--at least as it is revealed in plans, worksheets and minutes of meetings. (These are things that simply don't exist, or can't be found, in my own district). In short, it would appear that there were some actual parents, teachers and other stakeholders who met together regularly and reviewed data and discussed the future direction of the school. There are some notes (June 3 minutes) concerning a discussion of the process of selecting teachers for "reconstitution" (limited to not more than 20%), criteria to be used, etc. While it was a district employee who conducted interviews, there was a committee member who was in attendance as an observer. Something of a check and balance situation, I would suggest.

The new principal (June 17 minutes) appears to have rejected a review of both positive and negative stakeholder commentary prior to interviewing teachers who appealed and were re-interviewed. His primary stated criteria had to do with determining what they had to contribute to the job of restructuring. I agree--he could have been pressured from "downtown." Not likely to know that unless e-mails surface or something.

But, as I look at the PROCESS, it would appear that there was at least as much sense to it (or more) as letting teachers interview in order of seniority--and all existing protections in contract remained in place regarding the rights of reconstituted teachers to apply for other vacancies, etc.

It looks as though the next brouhaha coming down the pike is going to be sparked less by the need to get rid of bad teachers than by the need to get rid of SOME teachers, due to declining enrollments. According to the Washington Post article, Plan B consists of using some existing contractual provisions to make those decisions with a greater weight on performance and a lesser weight on seniority.

One of the strange things about education is that managers are often suspect of employees who are enthusiastic about what they do and who lobby hard for their clients, the students. A manager in a poor neighborhood might find it particularly odious being told (by the employee) he or she needs to spend money on the top five percent of the clientele when it is well known that the bottom quartile must advance by fifty percent in two years or the manager will lose his job. Bear in mind that the language staff is now twice its original size and the math staff nearly that because of the need for remediation.

Employees for their part do not appreciate the manager who is usually not in place for more than a couple of years telling them about the quirks of their client community with whom they have been working, often for over twenty years in an effective partnership.

Public discussions of effective performance, though deadly earnest at the community level, are seldom about the effectiveness of the management.

In a district with over a hundred schools, poor student scores have predictors that have little to do with the teachers or the curriculum. The best predictor is low family income as a proportion of school population. The second, family reading habits.

Finally, it is unclear what strategies are effective as NONE of those touted over the last ten years can be proven to work in other than isolated situations.

Common sense solutions are most frequently supported because they make sense! BUT making sense seldom proves anything in a moderately complex system. In fact one thing you can say with certainty is a particular input will NOT have the desired output. Not when a variable has three influences that express themselves in a nonlinear way, each acting on the other and having an unpredictable outcome.

How do you get success? By putting every single variable you can influence in one place, giving it optimal parameters. Unfortunately for public education, getting control of some of the critical parameters is forbidden. Lack of funds or lack of political capital and community will are critical to the ability to control how effective education is delivered.

Education is in a lose-lose situation. The person who interviewed Siebens knows it and is trying to make his own life easier in the short term. He will do exactly and precisely as he was told because he knows that the likelihood of anything working is very low.

Principals held accountable must be given full authority to hire and fire. No business or organization can run effectively without leaderhip in charge of figuring who should be on the bus.

I fully agree that some principals will make terrible decisions and fire great teachers. However, my experience is that more often mediocre and good urban princpals are unable to find great teachers and stuck with inexperienced and/or mediocre teachers and have some terrible ones they cant get rid of.

Great teachers are like jewels in schools now.

Ineffective principals that dont try to retain their best and even their average teachers wont keep good staff anyway -- and it will show in test scores eventually.

Michelle Rhee Rocks !!!!!!!!!!
UFT same old same old failure and excuses.

Michelle Rhee Rocks !!!!!!!!!!
UFT same old same old failure and excuses.


This *is* a conversation on firing teachers, and recent newsworthy stories on the trend toward getting rid of bad teachers--which presumes that we know who's effective and ineffective (because we have new statistical models that reliably tell us) and we have a plan in place for better replacements, neither of which is true.

We will never know the real story on what happened with Art Siebens. My guess: he was outspoken. Unwilling to follow orders. In other fields, we would call him a maverick.

I was following your line of reasoning 100% until you said this:

"But this involves some other things that teachers are not generally eager to buy into: such as performance reviews, improvement goal setting, observation, etc."

What about the 100,000 American teachers who sat for voluntary performance assessments through National Board Certification, knowing they had less than a 50% chance of achieving? Goal-setting, both personal and collective, is the norm in most schools, due to mandated student assessment and contractually stipulated evaluations. And most teachers would be eager to have qualified collegial observations, especially if they involved sharing best practice and working in teams.

I'm not trying to position teachers as uniformly exemplary employees here--but teachers, over the past few years, have had their practice scrutinized in dozens of new ways. If a teacher isn't cutting it--then they should be relieved of their duties. But let's not put the blame on teachers by insinuating that--as a profession--they're not interested in productive professional growth or improving their practice.

Nancy: I noticed you surmised that Siebens may have been fired for being too outspoken. This goes along with some of the scuttlebutt I've heard from my acquaintance whose child attends Wilson. Apparently Siebens was not one for kowtowing to the powers that be...


I think it is very important to pay attention to the words that we use and what they mean. While I may not be a huge fan of the word "reconstituted" (sounds like adding water to frozen orange juice), it has a meaning within the school restructuring process, and it is not the same as "fired." Fired means 1) you no longer have a job; 2) you are not longer on salary; and 3) you were asked to leave due to some incompetence and may not collect unemployment.

What happened to Art Siebens occurred within the union contract and afforded all typical union protections: he is able to apply for other positions within the district (presumably following the seniority rule), he continues to draw a salary--as a matter of fact, my understanding is that he has another position. It is not AP Biology. There is some logic and research to support the notion that the best teachers should be matched with the neediest students. The logic of the current system is that the best teachers should be matched with the classes that they most want to teach. This tends to place the most experienced teachers in schools with the lowest poverty rate and in classes like AP Biology.

As long as we are speculating, one wonders if perhaps this was a point of disagreement between Dr. Siebens and the band of conspirators which appears to include a parent group, a restructuring coordinator (BTW--the restructuring "experts" that oversaw the process have some impressive credentials: drawn from former principals of the high school, but with some research and other creds since that time), the newly hired principal, the restructure planning team that included teachers, parents and community people, and of course Michelle Rhee, everyone's favorite villain. Perhaps what stood out in the three interviews that Dr. Siemens had with two different people is that he is deeply committed to educating a fairly elite group of students in small classes, and to protect that experience by only admitting those students most likely to succeed. I understand from the meeting minutes that the new principal was less concerned with a high percentage of students passing AP classes than using those classes to provide a more intensive learning experience to students. This would be a point of conflict for someone whose reputation has been made on his 72% passage rate on AP exams. So--the man is not a part of the current team who is working to make changes to provide a better education for all students at that school.

But again--I have to point out what is coming down the road--which is layoffs (not firings)--based on declining enrollment. I have seen this process in operation in my own district--where the union protected the right of a unilingual (English only) teacher to take a position in a foreign language immersion school. Hiring in an appropriately credentialed teacher to fill that slot would have put her out of a job (or actually, back on the waiting list for call-backs for the next opening). But hey--this isn't about educating children, it's about protecting the jobs of adults.

So, Michelle Rhee will be faced with a similar set of decisions. What she has proposed, that is absolutely revolutionary, is that seniority not be the primary determining factor in who stays and who goes. Teachers will be laid off. That is not likely to change. The current contract allows for a period of evaluation, goal setting and improvement for teachers who have identified needs. Her proposal is to use this existing situation to inject a little rational bias into decisions that will need to be made anyway.

I'm a parent. When it's my kid, I would rather have someone thinking about who is the best teacher to keep around--not only the most expedient based on seniority. This isn't an endorsement of Michelle Rhee--I don't know her. But as a parent, I hope she succeeds in improving the educational outcomes of the DC schools. There's an awful lot of kids involved.

Margo: I have to take issue with one of your points, above. You appear to disagree that highly qualified and experienced teachers should teach courses like AP Biology in schools with lots of college-bound students. You appear to be pleased that Siebens is now teaching 9th grade earth science in a school across town (and probably in a lower-income neighborhood).

I ask you: Does it make any sense to take a teacher with a PhD in Biology and forbid them from teaching biology? If no special knowledge of biology is required for teaching earth science, why put a biology specialist in that position? In particular, Siebens seems particularly talented at inspiring college-bound students to perform very well in biology. There's no particular guarantee that he would have great success inspiring low-income students to love earth science.

In my experience, teachers with expert subject matter knowledge are more valuable teaching higher-level courses, which by design require a teacher with more subject matter expertise. Why squander this man's biology expertise by removing him from his field and placing him in an assignment where someone with more general science credentials would be fine? It's like a college taking their renowned Nobel-prize winning literature professor and forbidding him to teach English Literature.

Atty: Specialized knowledge is actually a boon to low performers because the teacher can recognize the errors in thinking that were instilled in elementary and middle school by people who did not understand the so-called big ideas in science. The reason we don't have these people teaching is that you are allowed to put a non-science major in a many science positions, so there is a huge pool of low ability talent.

Margo/Mom has an admirable grasp of the vocabulary. Let us ask why a teacher with an impressive truancy tracking database needed it to teach a tiny and elite group of students. (Was it done for the school's benefit?) Why is it that most of the passing AP scores in the district passed through his classroom? Was it because he taught an elite and carefully pre-selected group? You don't need to compose songs for kids with high IQs, they don't need that kind of help. That's an awful thing for me to say, and far too broadly painted but you get the idea.

Everything about the guy screams "Hire Me!" The sly asides (generally recounted in the discussion - not generated by M/M) about his demeanor are really over the top in terms of passive-aggressive oratory.

The fact is the school has a new shape that should be suited to its role in the system, whatever that may be. If you look at the years of experience of the teachers, you may see a clue. A school in my own district with all teachers having under five years experience can increase staff by nearly a third thereby reducing class size.

This is one of the most powerful tools a new principal can wield but it is a one-time roll in strategic terms. I know a principal who rolled and lost.

Bob: I have to disagree with you. From my years as a teacher (and also as a student), I saw little benefit when teachers with highly specialized subject matter knowledge were given general education courses that did not require their expert knowledge. For instance, a physics teacher in my high school was very brilliant and worked wonders with his AP Physics students. But he was pretty poor at teaching physics to the average student. He had trouble understanding difficulties experienced by his students, was not able to break down concepts for people who did not quickly grasp the physics basics.

I have no personal knowledge of Dr. Siebens' teaching abilities or style, but I cannot agree with your statement that teachers with expert knowledge in a field will be especially good at teaching entry level students. In my experience, it has more often been the opposite. Where is your evidence and data (anecdotal or otherwise) to support your point?

Margo/Mom – while you’re looking around on websites, check out the ReinstateDrArt site for answers to some of issues you raise. Regarding teaching a variety of students, you’ll see on the home page in the first paragraph, that - “Over 64% of Dr. Siebens' students over the past five years were in classes other than his AP classes.”

Regarding relevant but private personnel matters, click “Press” to find a 7/27/08 article stating that 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.”

Specialists tend to do better when working in the area of their specialty... that seems rather obvious. Of course, we COULD have Michael Jordan coaching swimming, and Michael Phelps coaching basketball, and, maybe, they'd even do a decent job. But bare logic says the reverse would make more sense.... but that'd be assuming that making sense was our objective....


I have been to the reinstateDrArt site--this is where my first spate of information came from. There is an obvious bias to this site, those of Dr. Sieben's supporters. I am very uncomfortable with Dr. Siebens becoming the poster child for maintaining the pre-Rhee status quo for making staffing decisions in the DC (or any other) schools. There is just too much conjecture, too much unknown. A teacher who is regarded by many as the cat's pajamas was among those who were identified for moving on during a restructuring. Those who believe that principals, superintendents and other management types are by definition not to be trusted can fill in the blanks with a scenario that suggests that Dr. Siebens was a "maverick" (another ill-defined term, if one has been watching the news lately) who, while doing heroic deeds of education, got in the way. Case closed, bias supported.

I would suggest that there are alternate scenarios, equally plausible that would add up to Dr. Siebens not being selected to be a part of the new team, but not prove any stupidity or ill-intent on the part of management.

But again, I put it to the detractors: how ought personnel decisions be made? Given that all we have is human beings, who are fallible, to make decisions, is the seniority (except for cases of "buggering the bursar") system the best possible way to ensure that the needs of students are met from the available pool of teachers? Should such decisions be put to a vote of staff? of parents? What criteria are important?

BTW--AttyDC and others--yes, I do champion appropriately educated teachers for those students at the lowest levels. There is research, at least in mathematics, to indicate that "generalist" teachers at middle school and elementary level do less well in teaching mathematics than teachers who have a secure grounding in mathematics at the college level, as Bob suggested. My personal experience, as the parent of a child with special needs, indicates that the lower on the totem pole one is as a student, the less likely they are to have such a teacher. My son was "taught" biology by a tenured teacher with certification in special education and a long tenure in the school. There were no songs, no labs, not much learning, just lots of worksheets.

Margo - The information provided above from the site is factual: he taught more non-AP than AP students; his personnel record is clean.

Margo: I understand your point about your child's experiences in science class: We all want a teacher who "knows his stuff" in every classroom.

But my experience as both a teacher and student is that expert knowledge (e.g., PhD in a subject) is not very relevant when teaching lower level classes. When I taught 9th grade English to struggling inner city students, they didn't need me to have a PhD in English Literature to teach them. They needed basic reading and writing instruction. A teacher with a strong reading education background would be more useful than one with a PhD in Literature.

On the other hand, when I taught high school honors students, it was very apparent that the students would benefit from an expert instructor. The students knew the basics already, they knew how to read the material - they needed a teacher to go the extra distance and add the higher level information that someone with a PhD or similar credentials could bring to the class.

Therefore, I agree with CitizenW above in believing that it is most logical to place a specialist in his or her proven area of specialty.

Atty: There are two studies that I think apply. The first was research on the elementary math level. It specifically targeted the necessity for understanding and conveying key knowledge. Two out of five elementary teachers were found not to teach place value properly. Children's advancement in the next grade was retarded as a result. This study is the principal one in use to prove the need for teacher remediation. It was used in a workshop led by Leon Ledermann (In the 2005 AAAS meeting in DC of all places!) as an example of how targeted key knowledge was supplemented in Puerto Rico in what is the only successful implementation of a system-wide school improvement plan. Ledermann has some interesting speculations on how the ability to analyze complex systems relates to education management.

The second was a study of eighth grade project-based science - MAST. Teachers in high performing countries prepared their students and debriefed them properly after a project in order to enforce explicit understanding of learned concepts. In the U.S., far less of this behavior was detected. As M/M remarked, there were lots of worksheets. The implied criticism is that there was no thinking involved. The conclusion was that Singapore and other countries were far more successful teaching science because they required a science teacher to have a science degree. The science educated teacher connects the "activity/worksheet" to the student's understanding of the world. The performance by country tracked the average education level of the teacher closely.

This is not to say that people with huge brainz are necessary to the k-12 world. Ordinary people are perfectly adequate if given the proper education. That said, my school has a few huge-brained individuals on staff who are to all appearances, good teachers.

I was gratified to see that my speculation about the mix of students in Siebens' classroom was not unfounded.

One additional point. Sherman Dorn posted this link to the minority parent's association letter to Council regarding their opinion on the recommendation to rehire. http://wilsonminorityparentsalliance.blogspot.com/2008/07/letter-dc-council-on-rehiring-art.html

Margo - Interesting site - I notice that it mentions "assertions" but doesn't specify what they are. And there's nothing negative in his personnel folder. Also the site doesn't list any of the names of its members and Eduwonkette mentioned in her article that her efforts to contact this organization failed.

Quite a mystery.

The reason that this case is so important is there are two responses nationally to the need to improve teaching quality. Michelle Rhee is the model for the approach that says "change the personnel." The other approach says lets "nurture good teaching and begin by promoting an understanding of what good teaching is." If the DC Chancellor had a plan for making teaching better, and a process for credibly removing teachers who aren't doing a good job, I could buy it. But the fact that there is no pretense here of creating a system that defines and nurtures good teaching, but only one that expeditiously makes arbitrary personnel decisions and strikes fear into the hearts of teachers is extremely dangerous. The Chancellor seems to have eschewed every opportunity to build a professional growth system and skillful teaching. The Seibens case is simply an exemplar of the result. It deserved the attention Eduwonkette gave it.

I agree with Mark that there needs to be a system that defines good teaching so that the dismissal of a teacher will not be arbitrary or capricious. As I said before, many of the teachers that were forced to resign in my district were people who made waves or had conflicts with the principal. Often these teachers were the "thinkers" on the faculty. For example, last year a highly intelligent teacher received a formal reprimand when she dared to disagree with the district's plan for teaching English as a second language. She became angry and resigned.

In my former district, teachers had to be interviewed by a panel of educators in order to become mentor teachers. If they passed this step they were observed by several members of the panel. Some teachers became mentors and some were turned down but were able to apply again. The teachers who wanted this position often asked other educators for help in honing their skills. This process provided a system of checks and balances and an incentive for teachers to improve. Something similar could be used to grant tenure or to dismiss an ineffective teacher. Allowing one person the authority to do this would result in losing even more good teachers than we do now.

I don't know anything about Michelle Rhee but I'll bet she's never been a teacher!

Here is the exact text from the aforementioned letter of the Wilson Minority Parents Alliance (WMPA).

"We the members of the Wilson Minority Parents Alliance unanimously decided not to support the rehiring of Dr. Siebens because of assertions of his mistreatment of African American and Latino students. Attached is a copy of the original June 30, 2008 letter detailing our concerns regarding this matter that we sent to Principal Cahall, Chancellor Rhee, council members and others during the Wilson staff appeals process."

The June 30 letter was never released, because we don't talk about ethnic tensions and how they play out in public education. I do so here:

The WMPA surfaced and its web page first appeared last June, 3 months after the African American "Special Assistant" to the Chancellor was sent to and effectively put in charge of the school; and 2 months after he carried out the edict Rhee declared in frustration and anger over disorder leading to daily police arrests at the school. (Yes, Rhee responded to bad press.) Rhee's edict? Lunch-time lockdown and zero-tolerance for student-caused altercations at Wilson HS. Result: More than 30 students expelled or forcibly transferred, all of them African American or Latino. (All of the school's 15 security guards were also African American or Latino.)
Rhee's edict was not a bill of attainder or post-facto writ punishing students harshly for old infractions; that would have been illegal. But, when parents and advocates appealed expulsions, the Special Assistant supported them by finding most of the perpetrators/victims on old disciplinary-action lists, repeat offenders. Those were from the same disciplinary action data base he, like other Wilson HS administrators before him had not acted on, the one Siebens maintained in a clerical capacity.

During the 4 months Rhee's Special Assistant was at Wilson HS, some of those who later created the WMPA lobbied him to distrust the disciplinary-action-tracking database,alleging bias. They also also filed, off the record, the allegations of ethnic-based mistreatment that are presumably contained in their June 30 letter. Summary: The database Siebens maintained supported actions the Special Assistant was forced to take because he'd been misled about its validity by parents. They exacted their revenge when Rhee threw a tantrum over her embarrassment at failure to keep another HS under control and out of the news. Don't blame Rhee; don't blame her negligent and credulous Special Assistant; don't blame Rhee's previous school administrators --all of them replaced in June; No, blame Siebens, the stickler who maintained records, and who probably insisted from first meeting with Rhee's Special Assistant on his arrival that conditions in the school that brought him were due to failure to follow through with the stages of disciplinary enforcement, whatever the racial and ethnic composition of the students OTHER responsible adults in the building had submitted reports for.

(Irony here: Rhee was upbraided last month by a DC Superior Court judge for repeated failure to process special education students per consent degree.)

Following an educational audit of Wilson HS, (which many, including Siebens, found cursory, unsupported with specifics or documentation and laughable in overall quality) Rhee's Special Assistant was given the assignment of assessing the quality of the staff. No template of staffing requirements has ever been presented by which individual teaching or departmental effectiveness was matched to deficiencies and needs of the to-be-restructured school. Not to disrespect Rhee's Special Assistant's other skills, but not even Siebens' detractors thought he had a talent or methodology to evaluate personnel. (Nor did Rhee appoint him to turn around any of the majority of DCPS's failing high schools.)

For the record: There is no authority in law for a partial restaffing of a school under NCLB reorganization. Rhee invented the 20% trim. In fact, just 5 of about 80 teachers were fired as part of purported restructuring, 2 of them in the PE department.
Was there restructuring? There is no doubt Wilson HS is different in 2008 with a permanent (so far) new white principal, hired in June after an African American offered the job turned Rhee down. (Yes, at least two of Siebens' accusers were on the panel that recommended the offer that was declined.) But Rhee, would not wish to be subject to civil penalties from an education audit that sought to verify that it was restructured as required by NCLB. It wasn't. It is just being led by a principal with a plan.

I admire Margo/Mom's industry in searching the LSRT minutes of Wilson HS. They are a remarkable but not definitive archive. Still, if she were to read further back, she'd find that Siebens had a record of pressing for enforcement of contractual disciplinary procedures at the school. He was the Richard Clark of the school, whose warnings of educational failure were ignored.
Administration failures led Rhee to softly take over the school last Spring, and then herself to lockdown students and to issue her one-strike-and-you're-out edict when violence continued. As in NY --that's where Eduwonkette originates, isn't it? --draconian rules-enforcement measures had radically disparate impacts on ethnic/racial populations.

Siebens lost his colleagues and his job for the failures of Rhee and her Special Assistant to remediate effectively and in a timely manner BEFORE students were expelled with more radically disparate racial/ethnic impact than the enrollment in Siebens classes.

Anybody reading this blog who believes Siebens was an effective teacher without the effective work of colleagues has been trusting economists' understanding and models of learning too seriously. Time to realize that micro economists know as little about classrooms, learning, human development and education production functions as most of us still remember about photosynthesis or macro economists are reliable about....you know.

With the previously announced retirement of Siebens' senior biology colleague and another in the chemistry departments last year; and the resignation of a brilliantly effective young African American chemistry teacher --yes, that's a pre-requisite for AP Biology ,too--Rhee could not have cared much that science education would be improved at the school, even if she develops alternative statistics, by paying increasing numbers of students to take and fail AP tests they lack educational foundations for. (Do you recall President Bush's figures-of-merit 3 years ago, the number and fraction of Americans households in owner-occupied dwellings? Is we learning yet...about selection of statistics?) Rhee, this year, is also paying half of DCPS middle schoolers (handsomely) to be compliant students.** Perhaps Eduwonkette will have occasion and peers to review the College Board's claims that it is better to have (had a 3rd party pay for your having) taken and utterly failed an AP test than not to have taken it at all. It is certainly better for the College Board's revenue stream.

Siebens is a scapegoat, blamed for ethnically disparate success at DCPS's premier academic HS, when there is almost NO success in AP biology at other DCPS schools, including 3 magnets. Have you missed that all other public schools in DC produced just 2 students who passed the AP Biology exam last year? (Contrast: In private DC schools, where the AP Bio exam is the 3rd most frequently taken, just as it is nationwide, 39 African American and Latino students passed the exam).

Al Shanker fought this battle in NYC 40 years ago, and it is being fought again, now by Art Siebens and latter day Dreyfusards. The self-styled maverick Chancellor, the Palin in DC before Palin?. Unlike the successful career teacher (and principal) in this who just wants to teach, she just WANTS to be famous.

**(How, if the student earns the maximum rewardthe Rhee/Fryer "experiment" allows, does that not constitute an $1800 annual bribe to each to enroll in Rhee's DCPS, instead of a charter school? Hmmmm. Are you seeing the pattern yet?: The DC mayor throws lots of money and authority to an enthusiastic teacher- recruiter (who like Armed Forces recruiters deals in promises of vast future rewards) to run a small school system; the Chancellor promises lottery- winner's wealth to teachers to become at-will employees; students are paid to take AP tests and even just to be students. Rhee's DCPS is a school system put on stimulants, like Wall Street,paying salaries, dividends, and bonuses....all out of the capital, the principle, and the stock of trust. Does this remind you of practices that led to financial and economic fallout in October 08?)


I don't know if anyone else is still following this--but I appreciate the background. I have truly believed that this was not as simple as excellent teacher fired by idiots. The chaos in the school was something that I bumped into a few times. I don't know for sure what Dr. Siebens was advocating regarding discipline prior to all the manuky hitting the fan. I have seen both good and bad advocacy on this point coming from teachers--most often demands for early removal (rather than later) of "trouble-makers" (but removal nonetheless).

I am not a big fan of lockdowns--but I suspect that might have been a first step were I in Michelle Rhee's shoes. Eating in homerooms is something that makes sense--at least until something more sensible can be built. The bits that I have read about the new principle lead me wondering if he will be able to build something more sensible--he seems more like a regimentation kind of guy.

But my overall point is that it's not helpful to demand policy changes based on anecdote (Jay Greene had a similar post on his blog). It's easy to paint someone a martyr by looking at their case in isolation--but not terribly responsible from a system point of view.

It was my impression that this case is about a huge mistake that could have broad implications across the school district.

Even "Incredulous'" comment is conjecture; no official reason has been given. This kind of thing could happen again and again, to the detriment of many students, teachers and the entire system.

This is not about the efficacy of lunch-time lockdowns. The anecdote revealed further Palin-like pique, judgment, decision making, and ignorance of the breadth of means to get organizational improvement working with an ethnically and SES-diverse school population.

A claim or a slander was leveled against a teacher; Founded or not, neither he nor all other faculty in an ethnically divided school were put on probation or in training for it to promote "restructuring." No, he lost his job for a claim now being litigated, and then he was blackballed. Last week Rhee abruptly terminated the recently appointed non-native white principal, Galeet BenZion, from a predominantly black ES, appointing the 5th principal in 15 months.
Empowering ethnic revenge leads to Sarajevo-like debacles, not to school improvement. As Eduwonkette first wrote,career- assassination is not conducive of trust.

Disclaimer: My son was ineligible for Siebens' AP Biology course, disqualified for his late appreciation for study and course pre-requisites. I researched the latter; they were all sound. He took Siebens non-AP Botany course, and saw no signs of unequal treatment of students, some of them still slackers as he had been.


What claim is being litigated? (BTW--I still object to the terminology of losing a job. I have in fact lost jobs. When that happens, pay and benefits cease. There is no place to go to everyday. I have also changed positions as organizational needs change. The two--regardless of my preference or the equity or wisdom involved in either case--are different)

The lesson here is obvious. You can have the best qualified teacher possible in a low-performing high school, but if other factors are not in place (student ready to learn, parents supportive) the students will be unlikely to get a good education. The highly qualified teacher, as in this case, might not even be welcomed (too challenging? too political? too strict?)Sadly, Michelle Rhee could transfer the best teachers in the entire DC district to this school and she would probably see little improvement in terms of academic achievement. Perhaps there would be some improvement at first but eventually many teachers would get worn out. Research tells us that most would not stay of their own volition.

We won't see a narrowing of the education gap until we accept the obvious: the education of a child is a complex process, involving many school, home,environmental and personal factors. There is an organization called Learning First Alliance, an association of eighteen education groups that advocates a multifaceted approach by the federal government to improve education for ALL students. This organization calls for greater collaboration among the federal government, state government and districts to provide the kind of support students need to succeed in school: health care, parent involvement, community involvement, qualified teachers and so forth. Simplistic measures,we should know by now, will not do it. You can have a teacher with a Ph.D. in biology but if the student is ill, not in school, or unable to read, he probably won't learn biology very well, if at all.

A school like Wilson is unlikely to succeed because it is burdened with too many of society's problems. A new principal and some new teachers will not do it. This is a perfect example of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. However, placing one hundred kids in a small school with five successful teachers (math, science, English, social studies, arts) and a social worker and registered nurse might be a beginning. The students could visit health clinics, community colleges, museums, parks and theaters to have experiences and services not available at the small school. And yes, it would be very expensive.

If we are sincere in wanting to help struggling students we must recognize their needs and agree to address them.

Good thoughts, Linda - but Michelle Rhee disagrees with you. She sees the limitless possibilities of our children and doesn't believe that their home lives or anything but the teachers standing in front of them every day influence their ability to learn. She has no data to support that, but it's what she believes, according to a recent Newsweek article, and she's betting the DC public school system on it.

Yes, I know that's what she believes but there is absolutely no research to support it. I have looked into the amazing success stories of schools that made dramatic improvements and there is almost always a difference in a critical variable (parents stood in line to get child into the school, only high achievers accepted, school drilled students on the test entire year etc.) Also, the teachers who believe that they alone can save the child usually leave the classroom after a couple of years, just as Michelle did. These ambitious, high achievers do not stay around to dedicate their lives to the poor while collecting modest salaries. Incidentally I also believed that I was the most important person in a student's life during my first four years of teaching. Experience and motherhood taught me humility.

I do agree that each child has limitless possibilities but "it takes a village" to develop them. Unless Michelle can grasp the whole picture, she is sure to lose her gamble.


There is some research. It is difficult to within the United States to arrive at unpolluted examples, as you point out--although there are plenty of individual case studies that can be enlightening--and not all get there by cherry picking or drill and kill. Some of the qualities found in systems that tend to be more successful are flexibility in moving staff so that the most experienced teachers can be placed with the students having the highest need, along with staff collaboration, formulating solutions based on data and evaluating results. Not very sexy, racy stuff--but it has an impact.

But, in looking at other countries, the impact of SES is less profound in a number of other countries who are also doing better from an overall point of view. There is some suggestion that "family policies" (extended paid maternity leave, child credit or subsidy, universal pre-school/child care) work to equalize impact, as well as other social policies (housing, employment, etc) that work to avoid the creation of "ghetto" conditions, particularly among new immigrants. Multi-cultural/multi-lingual emphasis is also present in many of these countries, although I haven't seen anything that establishes a link to equitable academic achievement.

We do have a problem in this country because we reject discussion of many of these things out of hand--or try to apply them piecemeal through patchwork programs that have little interaction with each other, or with schools.

Those realities aside, we do know enough to be able to calm near-riot conditions in a school, using pretty much the resources available, or with minor additions. Lunchroom lock-downs is a band-aid. Eating with homerooms, however, can be a relationship-building opportunity that can be utilized to build the kind of orderly environment that (believe it or not) even DC kids crave. Based on experiences in my home district, however, the major barrier to implementing principles of Postive Behavior Support (which is not the same as handing out good behavior tickets) is a belief on the part of teachers that "discipline" is not their job. They are supposed to be able to make office referrals and the problem will be handled. This does not allow for the kind of systemic and cultural change that are required to intervene in anarchy. I have seen case studies from my district that point out ways in which individual teachers (in a highly individualized system) engage in disrespectful behavior towards students that only serve to aggravate problems. An excellent study was just done in the Cleveland schools. PBS taught, but not quite implemented--with lots of systemic barriers, some erected by teachers.

I don't know enough about Michelle Rhee to have an opinion. Certainly anyone in her position has their work cut out. There are generations of poorly functioning systems (as an example--the two year backlog of special education evaluations). But despite poverty, I can guarantee that there are plenty of DC parents who care deeply about their children, and have dreams about their future accomplishments. Don't they deserve a system in which black kids are as likely to succeed as white kids?

It is clear from the posts on this blog that Michelle Rhee and the rest of us all agree on one thing: the education of ALL children is of vital importance to us and to the strength of our nation. ALL children have the right to a quality education and we must continue to seek ways of providing it to them. Failing in this endeavor, as we have, has been extremely damaging to the well-being of our nation, and has resulted in personal, lifelong loss for many citizens. Also,the practical loss to our nation is huge when you consider the costs that uneducated citizens place on society. However, this is not foremost in my mind. Like Michelle Rhee, I want every child to have the opportunity to get a first-class education. Anything else is a disgrace to our country and to our ideals. Many of us differ in the approach we would take in our effort to "leave no child behind." Many people think the problem can be solved if we place an excellent teacher in every classroom. I do not, although of course it would make a difference. After all, research and common sense tell us that the teacher is the most significant variable in a SCHOOL (but NOT in the total education of a child.)

Margo, I am glad you brought up the suggestion of lunch with the students because that is a good example of why teachers cannot do the job alone. Teachers will immediately understand what I am saying but other people might stop and think, "I never thought of that."

I considered myself to be a very dedicated, hard-working teacher but I would have fought to the death if someone had tried to take away my lunch period even though I agree that it would benefit the students. Most teachers are in their classrooms from 8:30 to 11:30 or 12:00 and then from 12:30 to 3:00. If the teacher has "recess duty" she must go three hours without a bathroom break, food or water. If she is pregnant or over fifty, she might "solve" this problem, as I did, by not eating or drinking anything except at lunchtime. It is extremely embarrassing to have to call for help during class time. I was able to fool my first-graders ("I have to go to the office.") but high schoolers would know that the teacher has to "go." Also, many teachers, like many people in general, cannot digest food well if they are under stress. I would simply not be able to eat while on duty with the students.

That said, I do agree with Margo that a homey atmosphere, with teachers eating with students, would do much to foster healthy bonds between students and teachers. However, the whole burden could not be placed on the teacher. She would still require a "duty free" lunch and potty break just like everyone else. This would be costly.

I'd like to see Michelle Rhee try something really different. The ideal thing for me would be to start small community schools in large homes (big enough for about 100 students) across the city. These community schools would attempt to satisfy all the needs of the children and not just educational ones. To ensure the highest quality teachers, perhaps the federal government could assign teachers from the armed forces (e.g. retired West Point Math teacher) or hire "federal teaching fellows," highly qualified teachers who would earn professional salaries and be given time to plan lessons and confer with colleagues. Perhaps people in our armed forces could opt to teach in an urban school while still getting credit for military service. What Michelle is doing now (firing principals and teachers) will just have the unintended effect of scaring educators away from DC. That will result in a teacher shortage and then the district will hire anyone "with a warm body" as it always does when teachers are scarce.

Yes, we can educate all our children if we want to, but it will take imagination and lots of money.

1. Performance of Wilson HS AP test takers, by black/white, is likely not much different than these citywides.

DC public school student AP test scores SY08:


1_______4 or 5_______ N, all tests (inc. 2 and 3)




17% _______ 38% _______ 550

Reading the table: 61% of 1001 AP tests taken by black students were scored 1; 5% were scored 4 or 5. Etc. For clarity, scores of 2 or 3 are not shown, but are included in the total N.

Which of those figures would be the easiest to change dramatically if you wished to promote a statistic and claim success, a raise, a bonus, and a promotion?

Answer: Total number of AP tests taken by black students. So, that is what will be done, no matter that it will not only depress the success ratio of black students; and that it may even depress the absolute number, as AP-ready black students--most of them in de facto segregated schools--compete for scarce teacher time and focus with students who are not AP course ready.

I don't know if Dr. Art Siebens believes the argument in the previous sentence. But teachers who do, and who argue it aloud, at Wilson HS and elsewhere, have been and will be charged with racism and at risk of job and career disruption.

A middle ground: 39% (100-61) of black tests demonstrated significant learning, whether or not for college credit (3+). With sufficient resources, that fraction and the fraction of ALL students who learn significantly in AP courses might be increased. Can that happen without hindering those aiming for college credit or college credit anywhere (4+)? That is up to Michelle Rhee. But, she has not increased the odds by restructuring Art Siebens out of his teaching job at Wilson HS.

Correcting misunderstanding about success at Wilson HS.

There is in fact high achievement at Wilson HS. This Fall about 30 SY08 graduates matriculated to Ivies or highly selective equivalent private U's (eg Wesleyan, Amherst, U Chicago, Reed, Oberlin) Another 30 entered public flagship institutions, the especially selective branches for out-of-state students. That's 60 out of just 300 HS graduates. But that success is concentrated in the quarter of students who are white, the great majority of who live with both parents both of who have 16-20 years of schooling.

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Recent Comments

  • Incredulous: 1. Performance of Wilson HS AP test takers, by black/white, read more
  • Linda/Retired Teacher: It is clear from the posts on this blog that read more
  • Margo/Mom: Linda: There is some research. It is difficult to within read more
  • Linda/Retired Teacher: Yes, I know that's what she believes but there is read more
  • PSU: Good thoughts, Linda - but Michelle Rhee disagrees with you. read more




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