Stanford University punishes dissent when training teachers

By July 29, 2009

Michele Kerr has had a harder year than most aspiring math teachers. For her, the math was easy and the teaching was a snap. The problem was the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP).

Once administrators found out she didn’t fully share what she calls the "progressive" teaching philosophy that is pervasive at STEP and education schools nationwide, they tried to thwart her career.

In March 2008, Kerr attended an open house for admitted students and stated her concern about paying big bucks to learn a teaching philosophy that strongly differed from her own. Soon she found herself in the director’s office being told that she should reconsider attending STEP.

A misdirected e-mail revealed that STEP officials were planning to "strategize" with the program’s lawyer, apparently to revoke Kerr’s admission. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I direct the defense program, wrote Stanford’s president and received assurance that Kerr would be allowed to start school after all.

Kerr started a blog to record her thoughts and experiences. Paulo Freire’s "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" and John Dewey’s "Experiential Education" were among the many targets. The School of Education started investigating.

One day she was reprimanded for mentioning her students – anonymously – and identifying herself as a Stanford student. But nobody else was being investigated, Stanford had no rules about blogging and another blogger extolled by Stanford was revealing far more about his own students. To avoid further trouble, Kerr password-protected her blog and even removed all references to Stanford.

That wasn’t good enough for STEP. An associate dean hounded her for the password so that he could investigate whether she was breaking any rules. He made sure to communicate his concerns to the principal of the school where she had been working.

Kerr really set off a firestorm in November with her Classroom Management Plan, which stated, "My guiding doctrine in forming classroom community can safely be considered a complete rejection of progressive education doctrine." This likely led the director to start building a case for kicking her out of school.

In a formal letter in December, the director and associate dean made clear that they were following the guidelines titled "Regarding Suitability for the Practice of Teaching." They were amassing a laundry list of minor infractions that would give them reasons to deny Kerr her degree.

What were the crimes? "Intimidating" her classmates by standing up for herself when she learned that some of them had complained privately about her views.

After FIRE wrote the president again and Kerr filed grievances, senior Stanford administrators intervened and guaranteed her fair treatment. She got new supervisors and graduated successfully June 14.

But the story wasn’t over, for Kerr didn’t have a job. The associate dean may have poisoned the waters at her school. The new principal chose not to hire her despite rosy reviews from the math department.

A few weeks ago, Kerr finally landed a job teaching math and humanities. The school year starts Aug. 18. So far, it seems that her high school has a healthier tolerance for debate than Stanford University’s teaching program. The lesson for aspiring teachers who have doubts about the latest trends in education schools is that you can fight and win, but don’t expect many favors.

Schools: Stanford University