The Fight over a Science Teacher

By Sean Cavanagh — August 25, 2008 2 min read
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In the No Child Left Behind era, it’s hardly unusual to see teachers “restructured” out their jobs—basically, fired or reassigned as part of the major changes that the law allows administrators to make at continually poor-performing schools.

But not many of those teachers have as devoted a lobby as Art Siebens.

Siebens, who until recently worked as a science teacher at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in the District of Columbia, lost his job as part of what has been described as a school restructuring effort under NCLB. He had taught biology, anatomy, and physiology at the school for 18 years and is a “remarkable, dedicated, and inspiring” educator, according to a description posted on a Web site created by his supporters, many of them parents. In particular, they point to Siebens’ skill in helping students master Advanced Placement science material. (A high percentage of his students ended up scoring at least a 3 on the AP’s 3-5 point scale, his followers attest.)

Siebens’ interests stretch from the pedagogical to the musical. He’s written and recorded at least 30 songs aimed at helping students master biology concepts, according to the Web site. (You can check out “Bio-Rhythms I, II and III” here.) Wilson is located in an affluent neighborhood in northwest D.C., though it serves students from a diverse socioeconomic and racial profile. Students in a recent incoming class hail from at least 70 different schools, and its population includes students originally from 85 countries, the school’s Web site says.

Siebens’ backers argue that his case is an example of a No Child Left Behind-driven overhaul gone awry. While it’s hard to know all the factors that go into any personnel decision, at the very least the situation reflects the deep discords that often emerge during school restructuring, when administrators make decisions that at least some of the community of parents and students vehemently oppose. How is the teacher being judged? By test scores? By the ability to motivate students? By some other standard? Are they being judged fairly and objectively?

The principal at Wilson, Peter Cahall, did not return a call late last week about the matter, and an employee at the school later referred my questions to the D.C.'s district administration. A spokeswoman for Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, Mafara Hobson, told me that the decision to remove Siebens from Wilson High was “made at the school level, with the support of the chancellor,” and declined further comment, saying it was a personnel matter. In her first year on the job, the hard-charging Rhee has shown a willingness to remove or reassign school employees whose performance she deems unsatisfactory, for which she’s drawn both praise and flak.

Siebens’ lawyer, Beth Slavet, said he has been assigned to a different school, but that he still hopes to return to Woodrow Wilson.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.