Transfer of D.C. teacher Erich Martel seems like administrators' revenge

By Jay Mathews
Monday, September 6, 2010

My nominee for most effective whistleblower in the D.C. school system, Erich Martel, has finally gone too far in the eyes of some school administrators.

Four years ago, I wrote about a clumsy attempt to take his Advanced Placement U.S. history classes from him after he exposed officials giving diplomas to ineligible students throughout the system. In March, Martel offended again by creating anti-cheating materials -- such as two versions of the same test with the pages in a different order -- that his principal complained were "creating an expectation that students will cheat."

The principal, Peter Cahall of Wilson High School in Northwest Washington, told me then that he was not trying to stifle Martel, just urging him to consider another perspective. That apparently meant the perspective of a school on the other side of town. In June, as my colleague Bill Turque has reported, instructional superintendent John Davis told Martel that he was being involuntarily transferred to the Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School in Northeast because of his "significant educational philosophy differences" with Cahall.

I've never heard that one before. The new D.C. teachers contract says involuntary transfers can be made after consultation with the teacher for any reason except one: It cannot be done to discipline him. And D.C. schools assistant press secretary Fred Lewis was quick to say, "Mr. Martel was not transferred for disciplinary reasons."

Despite what the system says, it looks to me like taking revenge on an irritating employee. Martel, a member of the Washington Teachers' Union executive committee, is known for exposing official misconduct and inattention. In the spring, he told D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee that Cahall had allowed students with failing grades and many unexcused absences to take a senior trip to the Bahamas while school was in session, an accusation being investigated.

Martel has been teaching for 41 years, 25 of them at Wilson. Many students praise his AP classes. Phelps is a revived version of an old school, just beginning AP. Martel hasn't been given an AP class. He says he is fine with his new classes. To me, the transfer limits the impact he can have on students.

Davis acknowledged that the dispute over Martel's anti-cheating methods was one reason he was transferred. Another was his campaign against requiring teachers to cater to different learning styles.

I think Cahall is wrong in both cases. Anti-cheating measures didn't injure my youthful self-image. Much research indicates that appealing to different learning styles has no effect.

The third issue that led to the transfer, Davis said, was Martel's opposition to enrolling students in AP classes even if they don't want to take them. There, I am on Cahall's side. We don't let students decide whether they are going to learn to read. These days, a taste of a college-level course in high school is nearly as important.

Martel says AP benefits only the students willing to prepare consistently for each class. But I have seen AP teachers successfully motivate slackers with praise and persistence. I agree with Martel, however, that his reasoned disagreement with Cahall on AP is no cause for a transfer.

Martel says he is focusing on his students at Phelps, a selective school whose 2010 scores were above the D.C. average. He might eventually teach AP again. Let's hope he doesn't develop any philosophical differences with his new principal. Losing Erich Martel would be a blow to a district that should make maximum use of its best teachers.

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