Results of D.C. principal's controversial methods need to outweigh criticism

By Jay Mathews
Monday, July 12, 2010

Dwan Jordon, more quickly than any principal I have ever known, has made a name for himself in D.C. public schools.

On July 6, he was the hero of a front-page Washington Post story by my colleague Stephanie McCrummen. Jordon arrived at Sousa Middle School in 2008 and in his first year produced the biggest achievement gains of any D.C. middle school. He was a fiend for data, urging teachers to identify each student's weaknesses. The portion of Sousa students testing proficient in reading jumped from 23 percent to 39 percent and in math from 17 to 42 percent.

His name has also spread quickly through the ranks of educators because, after that great year and the hard work of his staff, almost all of his teachers left, something I have never seen. Some were terminated. Some couldn't stand to work for him. He said the old staff members had resisted his ideas, even though they worked. With a new hand-picked staff the next year, "all of us were focused on doing what was best for students," he told McCrummen.

Her story detailed the negative reaction to Jordon, but not enough to satisfy former Sousa teachers who commented on my Class Struggle blog and called me. Of six I have spoken to, ranging in age from 25 to 59, only one gave me permission to use her name. All, including Carla Riechman, were critical of Jordon. A former Sousa teacher who signed onto my blog as "PositiveNotes" said Jordon was "one of the most important and powerful people" in the school district, and capable of firing anyone who crossed him.

Riechman said Jordon demanded she teach her special education students far above their achievement levels. Other teachers said he warned them repeatedly not to speak ill of him to others, frequently threatened firings, kept vital information out of evaluations and castigated a teacher for careless exposure to potential molestation charges when she was helping boys study at lunch with another administrator's permission.

Jordon has said his actions were designed to improve instruction and rid the system of inadequate instructors. But two of the three terminated teachers who spoke to me have jobs in other D.C. schools, and one was rated highly effective. The third, Riechman, retired. Their stories reveal an odd dynamic between Jordon and the teachers union, each unintentionally helping the other.

I have long considered the Washington Teachers' Union a weak player in the battle over how to raise achievement for D.C. children, given its corrupt past, its internal divisions and its loss of political and administrative clout. But Jordon's turbulent first year affirms the union's power to save teachers' jobs. His rule-breaking, teachers say, made it easier for the union to reinstate them. The union, in turn, protected fired teachers from lasting harm but got them out of Jordon's school so he could hire people he wanted.

It is difficult to find a celebrated school reformer who has not violated administrative procedures, and sometimes actual laws.

Deborah Meier, whose success in an East Harlem, N.Y., high school has made her a national icon, benefited from the support of school administrator Sy Fliegel. Fliegel violated several staffing rules, such as one requiring that he post job openings at Meier's school.

Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, co-founders of the Knowledge Is Power Program, the nation's most successful charter network, admitted to defrauding an innkeeper when they placed more children than they had paid for into the rooms of the Embassy Suites hotel on Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington during KIPP's first field trip to the District in 1995.

Jordon has shown the same focus on results, no matter what. But his second-year scores, soon to be released, had better be good, or any powerful enemies he makes will have more than enough witnesses for a case against him.

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