They Messed With the Wrong Blogger

July 24, 2009

By Jay Mathews at The Washington Post

Michele Kerr (she tells me it is pronounced “cur”) is a hard-working educator and Web surfer who is often mean to me. This is probably a good thing. When I post something stupid, Kerr—using her nom de Internet, “Cal Lanier”—is on me like my cat chasing a vole in the backyard.

Her acidic humor is so entertaining, however, and her command of the facts so complete, that I have come to look forward to her critiques. She tends to eviscerate me whenever I embrace anti-tracking or other progressive gospel preached in education schools these days, but I learn something each time.

I wish the supervisors of the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) at that university’s School of Education had checked with me before they decided Kerr’s views and her blogging were inappropriate for a student in their program. They appeared to have decided her anti-progressive views were disrupting their classes, alienating other students and proving that she and Stanford were a bad fit. Kerr says they tried to stifle both her opinions and her blog, and threatened to withhold the Masters in Education she was working toward, based on their expressed fear that she was “unsuited for the practice of teaching.”

Kerr’s eventual triumph over such embarrassingly wrong-headed political correctness is a complicated story, but worth telling. In her struggle with STEP, she exposed serious problems in the way Stanford and, I suspect, other education schools, treat independent thinkers, particularly those who blog.

STEP retains the right to decide if a student is suited to teaching, and can deny even someone as smart and dedicated as Kerr, who has a splendid record as a tutor, a chance to work in the public schools.

Its leaders also can, the Kerr saga reveals, force a teacher candidate to stop blogging. Why? Because they have no defined policy on blogging. In Kerr’s case, they decided for themselves that she was stepping over some ill-defined line, and were careful to share their concerns with Kerr’s potential employers. In my view, that was so she would have less chance to land a job if they failed to deny her a credential.

At times, Kerr has made her Stanford tormentors look silly. There is, for instance, the email Kerr sent to her classmates after the program’s director, Rachel Lotan, said some of her fellow teacher trainees found her “domineering and intimidating” and didn’t want to sit next to her in class.

“For those of you who wish to continue requesting that you not sit with me in practicum, make sure you mention the reason so that Rachel can build her case for the next time we do our little dance. ‘Rachel, I do not want to sit next to Michele in practicum. It has nothing to do with her views; she’s just a domineering, overbearing bitch.’ DOB. We could print up cards or something. Don’t Sit Me Next to the DOB!” she wrote. “I’ll continue being me, and those of you who feel uncomfortable can maybe learn how to speak up. Or not. Your call.”

Lotan and Eamonn K. Callan, the education school’s dean for student affairs, disappointed me, and I suspect many of Kerr’s classmates, with their tone-deaf response. They said the email “could have the effect of silencing those who are wary of confronting” Kerr and that she “had not considered that her actions could have a chilling effect on other students, according to an email they sent to Kerr.

I tried and failed to reach Lotan and Callan, as well as some others, by email and phone to get their responses. I will post their thoughts on the Class Struggle blog whenever they get back to me. Lisa Lapin, assistant vice president for university communications, sent me this statement on behalf of Stanford:

“Although there are generally at least two sides to every story, we cannot comment on the particulars of this case because the confidentiality of a student’s record is involved. Nevertheless, on two matters of academic principle we can be clear. First, the Stanford School of Education has never attempted to dismiss or discipline a student, either for having a blog or for espousing any particular set of beliefs. We stand firmly in support of intellectual freedom and the right of all students to express their views.

“Second, teachers, including student teachers at STEP, have ethical and legal obligations (e.g., under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) to maintain the privacy interests of the students who have been entrusted to their care.”

How did these otherwise sensible and well-regarded academic professionals twist themselves into such an untenable knot? The story, according to Kerr and copies of correspondence she gave me, begins on March 14, 2008, when she attended an open house for admitted students.

She was almost 46, much older than most other STEP program admittees. Single, with a son in college, she had a long career as a business process management consultant, but began to tutor high school students struggling with difficult courses and standardized tests. She found she was good at it. Why not teach full time?

She was pleased that a program as prestigious as Stanford’s had room for her. She knew her views were not in line with the education school’s progressive sensibilities, but she said she was willing to adjust to whatever she found in the public schools, in order to apply her talent for reaching poorly organized, under-motivated teenagers.

At the open house, a STEP instructor asked if she planned to accept the offer of admission. Anyone else would have said yes. But Kerr, who calls herself “fatally truthful,” said the tuition would be difficult to afford and admitted she was philosophically out of sync with the program. She also said she had no intention of making waves, but it was too late.

To some it was like telling Another Mother for Peace that George W. Bush was going to be their next guest speaker.

Lotan called Kerr in for a 45-minute session on her doubts about the STEP policy orientation. Wouldn’t she be more comfortable elsewhere? Even when university ombudsman David Arnot Rasch assured Kerr the offer of admission was binding, Lotan couldn’t let it go. According to Kerr, Lotan looked for legal grounds to keep Kerr out, something Kerr said she discovered when another official mistakenly sent her an email that was meant just for Lotan.

“I really can’t believe this response,” the official said of Kerr’s decision to accept admission and decline another meeting with Lotan. “Are you forwarding her response to the lawyer?”

Kerr sought help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit group based in Philadelphia that specializes in university free speech cases. FIRE staffer Adam Kissel wrote a letter to the president of Stanford. The senior university counsel answered, saying Kerr would start the program in June.

Over the summer and early fall, Kerr had no run-ins with STEP staff. There was no question of her academic abilities. She had scored a 780 in verbal and 800 in math on the Graduate Record Exam. She got good assessments in summer teaching and high grades in her summer courses. She began student teaching second-year algebra students at Sequoia High School, just north of Stanford in Redwood City.

But in September, Kerr’s blog, “Surviving Stanford,” which she had routinely referred to in her STEP classes, became an issue. Kerr is an expert in online communities and privacy, and thought she understood the rules. On her blog, she praised Sequoia and never identified Sequoia students directly or recognizably.

She did, however, discuss her disagreements with STEP’s progressive agenda. Although STEP had no anti-blogging policy and Kerr had broken no written rules the staff could identify, she was reprimanded by Callan and Lotan, who also notified Sequoia. The high school’s principal didn’t object, although she told Kerr she wasn’t thrilled, Kerr said. STEP’s displeasure was so great that Kerr finally took down the blog temporarily, renamed it, eliminated all references to Stanford, and gave it password protection so that only she and a few friends could read it.

That wasn’t enough for the STEP folk. Two months later, Lotan wrote that she was concerned that Kerr was “unsuited for the practice of teaching,” beginning a process that could have ended in Kerr being denied a teaching credential. Lotan complained that Kerr was late to some Stanford classes, and in turning in assignments.

Kerr learned to her dismay that a student could be denied a credential for any reason–even those that have nothing to do with teaching. Kerr’s supervisor told her in late November, without warning, that he was unhappy with her work and gave her low ratings in professionalism, she said. According to Kerr, he said she had lied to him, and made it clear her chances of getting through the program successfully were in jeopardy.

Kerr fought back, demanding proof of the charges. Kerr said the supervisor withdrew the accusation of lying. Lotan admitted that she had no idea if other STEP students were similarly tardy or why some didn’t want to sit next to Kerr.

Meanwhile, Callan discovered that Kerr had continued blogging. He demanded the password. Kerr refused, saying that the blog didn’t identify Stanford and was outside its jurisdiction. Callan wrote a letter, copying Sequoia’s principal, accusing Kerr of “serious breaches of confidentiality,” without specifying what Kerr had done. Kerr denies that she wrote anything even remotely inappropriate.

“If blogging is so unacceptable, why doesn’t Stanford have a blogging policy with guidelines?” she asked. Kissel, at FIRE, wrote another letter to Stanford that the hostile reception to Kerr’s views and blog “risks violating both its legal obligation to protect student speech under California’s Leonard Law, and its own policies regarding expressive conduct.”

Kerr filed a grievance with Deborah J. Stipek, the education school dean. That finally ended the game in her favor. Stipek did not grant any of Kerr’s complaints, although she agreed to look into drafting a blogging policy. Her main action was removing Lotan and Callan’s authority over Kerr, and giving Kerr a new supervisor, Megan Taylor.

“She was amazing,” Kerr said of Taylor. “I learned a lot from her, and trust me, I don’t say that often.”

A new principal at Sequoia, aware of the controversy, declined to give Kerr a permanent job, Kerr said. She later received an offer to teach geometry, algebra and humanities at Oceana High School, on the Pacific side of the low mountains of the San Francisco peninsula.

Despite her struggles, Kerr says she is still glad she went to Stanford. “Yes, the year was an ordeal, but my fellow STEP classmates are amazingly talented, passionate people—and they aren’t all idealistic dreamers, I’m happy to say. While I disagree with STEP’s ideology, the staff is smart and dedicated. I had outstanding discussions with many instructors and professors, and I respect them all. Even Rachel. She’s just a ruthless political animal who believes she was protecting her program from enemy infiltration.”

Kerr says she isn’t blogging at the moment, although comments from her alter ego, Cal Lanier, still pop up on the Web. She didn’t want me to identify her as a teacher blogger in the headline of this column, for fear it would spook her new employers. She said she will not blog about her job, and advises all teachers to be cautious.

She said she feels “teacher blogs are an open area crying out for guidelines—and not just at Stanford…The mere existence of a blog is considered trouble—even though there are literally thousands of teacher blogs out there.”

Many of the teacher blogs I read are interesting enough to get those fine educators into trouble, if administrators lose their perspective, as some at Stanford did. That’s a shame. Students could learn from the kind of arguments Kerr and I have. There is much to be gained from challenging ill-examined assumptions, in class, in this column and in the ed school value systems that made Kerr’s pursuit of a teaching degree such an ordeal.

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Schools: Stanford University Cases: Stanford University: Education Program Tries to Keep Outspoken Student from Enrolling, Demands Access to Private Blog