City Paper is not for tourists
Sousa Middle School’s revolutionary principal, Dwan Jordon, has garnered substantial attention from the press this summer. A protégé of the Rhee administration’s reform movement, Jordan was featured on the front page of the Post on July 6, and has been the subject of three subsequent articles on the Post’s education blogs, Class Struggle and The Answer Sheet. His dictatorial management style has pinned him at the center of one of public education’s central dilemmas: how do you improve chronically underperforming schools without stomping on teachers’ toes? Jordon’s answer: forget about the toes.
Two years ago, Jordon began his tenure as principal at Sousa, where only 23 percent of students tested proficient in reading and 17 percent proficient in math. After a year under Jordon, Sousa’s scores rose around 20 points each. But that was only after 25 teachers and 25 support staffers—almost the entire original staff—had been either fired or had left of their own accord.
This year’s D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS) school-by-school report, released Friday, tells a different story: although scores continued to rise at Sousa, educators didn’t see anything like last year’s success. Math scores at Sousa reached 46.4 percent proficiency, a 4.6 percent increase from last year, while reading scores topped off at 41.6, an increase of 2.2 percent. Sousa, along with 183 public and public charter schools, failed to achieve “adequate yearly progress.” (Which, of course, speaks to a frequent criticism of using test scores to evaluate teachers; it’s hardly surprising that progress slowed a couple years after the scores practically doubled.) Now many former Sousa teachers argue the scores raise serious questions about the efficacy of Jordon’s “Big Brother” approach to running a school.
The Post’s glistening July 6 profile of Jordon and his achievements incited an outcry among fired teachers and staffers. Immediately following the article’s publication, Post reporter Jay Mathews addressed some teachers’ concerns on his blog. As Mathews points out, Jordon claims to be purging the system of inadequate teachers; however, those teachers remain in DCPS, teaching at other schools. One of those teachers who transferred from Sousa has also been rated as highly effective.
Eight former and current teachers contacted City Desk to voice their complaints about Jordon’s conduct before Sousa’s scores appeared on OSSE’s website Friday. Every one of them spoke of feeling humiliated, paranoid and subjugated. Some said they would have to retreat into the bathroom for privacy, since Jordon and his math and literacy coaches were known to prowl the halls and classrooms, watching and critiquing constantly.
“He would sequester teachers,” said one teacher (who, like all the teachers interviewed for this story, insisted on anonymity). “If he thought you had said something about him, he would sequester you in his room with four other people and say, ‘I hear you were talking about me with such and such.’”
Jordon was frequently compared to a tyrant or “Big Brother” of Sousa. Some teachers and staffers even say they went on stress and mental health leave, while others left in the middle of the school year, something that is almost unheard of in the school system.
“As a manager, you have to assess your personnel; but to set up your whole school as a meat grinder is not sustainable,” said another teacher. “When you see that many heads rolling, you just have to question what’s going on. You can get higher scores without burn and pillage approach to management.”
To give City Desk a taste of the experience working with Jordon, a teacher sent a copy of one of Jordan’s weekly bulletins, posted in the teachers’ lounge. In one section, Jordon is addressing the staff about quality of some teachers’ performances:
Some of you do not have a clue as to how to deal with adolescents. You are confrontational with them, you bait them, you react to their histrionics, thus adding fuel to the fire, and you incite them. Some of you have few skills as far as how to deal with this age group.
Some of our staff have gaps in their education. It is incumbent on you that no matter how many gaps you have, you must provide a quality education for all of our students.
City Desk asked Jordon about teachers’ less-than-flattering opinion of him. Jordon responded by e-mail, writing with a prosaic gloss,
Change is difficult and growing pains are bound to occur. But I value all of the successful teachers in our school; recognize each and every one of them for their successes; and celebrate their accomplishments. Without a strong teacher at the front of the classroom, our kids are doomed to fail. I look forward to working shoulder to shoulder with all teachers going forward.
But many teachers don’t look forward to working shoulder to shoulder with him. If this year’s DC-CAS scores have told teachers anything, it’s that real public education reform will not come from prophetic individuals who take it upon themselves to do the moving and shaking.
“[Jordon] thinks that because of some stupid test scores the kids learned better,” said one teacher. “But children need to learn human values and how to deal with people. And he doesn’t do that at all. He’s more concerned about himself than the children.”