To the Editors:
Making former Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty, OC ’92, a “distinguished visiting professor of politics” at Oberlin College to “co-teach an introductory politics course … that will draw on an original case study [he] is writing about his mayoral administration, with a focus on the politics of educational reform” (1/20/11 press release) appears to sacrifice academic objectivity for the glow of a celebrity politician and his celebrity appointee, ex-Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Why is a self-promotional account of his role in a confrontational version of school reform, in which he remains active, accorded the appearance of objectivity as a “case study”? Why are D.C. public schools’s math and reading gains being touted as “unprecedented … under mayoral control” when National Assessment of Education Progress scores since 1998 under his predecessors showed continuous and mostly greater gains?
Even the increases in the 2008 and 2009 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System standardized test scores (on which teachers’ value added scores are based) were tainted by the unorthodox practice of posting the “technical blueprints,” which signaled which of the math and reading standards would be tested, and, by process of elimination, which ones didn’t need to be taught!
When the posting of the blueprints for the revised 2010 D.C. CAS was delayed until January, many of the 2010 scores actually went down.
Fenty’s delegation of authority without oversight or restraint allowed Rhee to punitively transfer or fire hundreds of highly regarded teachers. An early victim was Fenty’s fellow Oberlin alumnus, my highly regarded colleague, biology teacher, Arthur Siebens, PhD, OC ’72.
Art Siebens majored in biology and sang in the Oberlin Choir. In 1983, he completed a PhD in physiology at George Washington University, followed by post-doctoral research at the Yale School of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. He changed careers from research to teaching and, in 1990, came to Wilson High School and revived Wilson’s AP Biology course by setting high standards, as 15 years of students’ scores attest: 317 passing scores of 3–5 out of 450 (70% pass rate), of which 125 students earned 5! To aid students’ mastery of biology concepts, he composed two CDs of “Biosongs” set to a range of music genres.
In 2008, after failing to meet NCLB math and English improvement goals, Wilson faced restructuring. For this top high school, Rhee ordered the most draconian form of restructuring — faculty reconstitution — requiring all to reapply for their jobs. To everyone’s shock, Siebens, who taught neither subject, was involuntarily transferred to a school where he and other teachers were assaulted by unruly violent students. Wilson students initiated a reinstatement campaign, testified before the D.C. Council and posted a petition that quickly gathered over 550 former students’ and parents’ signatures.
Rhee was unmoved, Fenty, unresponsive. Meanwhile, D.C. government agencies were very responsive to Fenty’s fraternity brothers, approving multimillion dollar construction contracts, despite a lack of qualifications.
With America’s need for effective science teachers, why was Siebens separated from the students who benefited from his teaching?
Rhee deceptively claimed she couldn’t discuss personnel issues, but there wasn’t a single personnel action. With Siebens’s permission, D.C. Council Chairman (now Mayor) Vincent Gray, examined his personnel file and reported:
“I know firsthand there is nothing in that file which even remotely approaches justification for a decision not to reappoint him. He is a first-class teacher, a real gift to our children.”
This Oberlin Morality Tale offers students a real case study of school reform, as well as the potential consequences of empowering smooth-talking subordinates with unlimited, unrestrained and unchecked authority.
Washington D.C. Public School social studies teacher