An Opinionated Pragmatist Survives Stanford

Michele Kerr

Editor’s Introduction: Last month we read an article, linked from Minding the Campus, in the Washington Post about Michele Kerr, a graduate of Stanford’s teacher education program who had been pressured to withdraw when administrators found out she had a mind of her own. The Post article, “They Messed With the Wrong Blogger,” was written by Jay Matthews, an education columnist who sees Kerr as a pesky but instructive gadfly: “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.”

Michele Kerr is a single mother of a son in college who, discovering that she liked to teach, sought to gain her teaching credential from Stanford. Here she tells the story of her year in the education program and what she learned about how it reinforces its “philosophy.” She kept a blog during her days as a graduate student, and while she password-protected it to try to satisfy uneasy administrators, she also kept extensive, publicly available documentation of her interactions with the leaders of the program. This can be found at her website “Surviving Stanford.” Many of the documents are linked in Kerr’s article below.

NAS over the years has often criticized schools of education for intellectually weak curricula and ideological excesses. We have also criticized the body that accredits schools of education, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), for its silly and often destructive priorities. This has made us especially alert to firsthand accounts of how schools of education actually conduct their business and how their proceedings are affected by NCATE’s pressures. Upon learning of Kerr’s experience, we invited her to give her own account of what happened at the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) in 2008-2009.

As readers will quickly see, Kerr believes that much of the difficulty she encountered was due to the actions of a single administrator, Dr. Rachel Lotan, who Kerr believes was moved to act as she did by her eagerness to enforce NCATE’s notion that schools of education should have a distinctive “brand.” NAS is not in a position to corroborate Kerr’s opinions and analysis. We have, however, offered STEP the space to respond. Stanford School of Education Dean Deborah Stipek accepted the offer and her response can be found here.

An Opinionated Pragmatist Survives Stanford

I recently graduated from Stanford's Teacher Education Program (known as STEP), after facing down two administrative attempts by the director, Dr. Rachel Lotan, to derail my candidacy.

The first attempt was straightforward. At a meeting for accepted applicants, a STEP staffer asked me my plans. I mentioned my concern about Stanford‘s cost, given my general disagreement with progressive education. Based solely on this comment, Dr. Lotan tried first to discourage and then to rescind my acceptance. Even after her efforts embarrassingly came to light through a misdirected email, she continued to seek legal means to rescind STEP's offer. I sought help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and as soon as FIRE wrote a letter on my behalf, Stanford agreed I could matriculate.

The second attempt doesn't lend itself to an easy explanation. Near the end of the fall quarter, Dr. Lotan expressed "concerns about [my] suitability for the practice of teaching," based on charges that I was tardy to class, failed to turn in "authentic" reflection papers in a timely manner, and was the subject of classmate and instructor complaints.

Unmentioned in the "concerns" letter but much in play was an earlier reprimand to me for writing a blog (still password protected) that ostensibly violated teacher ethics. The blog focused on my strong disagreements with aspects of STEP philosophy. The "concerns" letter also didn't discuss my classroom management plan, which just a week earlier Dr. Lotan said had grossly violated the California Teaching Standards on professionalism.

Given the weak gruel of the formal complaint, some assume Dr. Lotan was employing genteel understatement and that I was really an obnoxious, argumentative troublemaker who alienated students and staff by attending the program simply to cause trouble. Others assume my academic freedom was broadly under assault: STEP professors were liberal ideologues seeking to drive out anyone with an opposing view. Both assumptions are, for the most part, inaccurate.

I was far more concerned with cost than ideology in choosing Stanford. STEP's ideology was a given, as it would be at any ed school. As Stanford professor David Labaree points out in The Trouble With Ed Schools, "the progressive vision is canonical [in American ed schools], serving as the definition of good teaching." Anyone who wants a teaching credential has to attend a program promoting progressive education. I had no intention of causing trouble. I resolved in advance to doodle madly whenever the dogma got too thick, to restrict my comments to facts and my own experiences, and to look for elements I could agree with and incorporate into my teaching. My resolute vow of silence would fail, of course, but I had faith that Stanford’s commitment to academic freedom would provide protection when I inevitably slipped up and offered my actual opinion. 

And I was right. I wasn't able to keep my mouth shut all the time, and I never suffered academically for presenting my ideas. I commented on the tradeoffs of heterogeneous (untracked, and currently in favor) vs. tracked classrooms, pointed out the risks of complex instruction with uninvolved students, expressed skepticism about the classroom management curriculum, and focused my Equity & Democracy analysis on using an African American student’s competitive instincts to help him succeed in summer school—despite weekly lectures on the evils of competition in American education. I observed that low income black and Hispanic students suffered the most when progressive philosophies failed to engage them. Instructors routinely called on me, and often confirmed facts I offered—even though, over time, their confirmation increased my credibility. Apart from my classroom management plan, I was never asked to resubmit an assignment, a relatively common occurrence for some classmates.

I did well academically, getting A’s in the classes with the most progressive outlook, including Dr. Lotan’s course on heterogeneous classrooms. Until Dr. Lotan's "concerns" letter, I received no emails or verbal complaints during the fall quarter from anyone about classroom interactions, tardiness, or late assignments.

Few of my classmates complained about me, according to Dr. Lotan. Those who did were upset at my views and the certainty with which I expressed them, not because of personal interactions. I made many close friends. Over half my classmates in the secondary school cohort supported me with information when I asked for help establishing my supervisor‘s disparate treatment.

At no point were my teaching abilities an issue. My assessments were always excellent. Even my first supervisor, who readily told the academic grievance investigator that he disliked me, gave me strong teaching reviews, and his were the least enthusiastic. Dr. Lotan assured me on several occasions that her concerns were entirely "communication-related." In no small way I owe my survival to support, both tacit and explicit, provided by the principal and teachers at my placement school, Sequoia High, which surely wouldn’t have been forthcoming had I not been performing well.

So if the easy culprits aren't responsible, why did I have trouble? In my view, the "concerns" letter and the problems it purported to document were a pretext. I believe Dr. Lotan didn't want to give the Stanford imprimatur to someone so woefully out of synch with her notion of a STEP graduate.

Education schools are required to brand themselves—the official term is "conceptual framework"—in order to receive the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education seal of approval. To gain NCATE accreditation, each ed school must develop its own "shared vision" that "provides the bases that describe the unit’s intellectual philosophy and institutional standards, which distinguish graduates of one institution from those of another."

Dr. Lotan cares passionately about the STEP brand, because she created it. STEP faculty sponsor (and Obama adviser) Linda Darling Hammond brought Dr. Lotan to Stanford in the late 90s to transform STEP's teacher education from a collection of courses with conflicting philosophies into an integrated, "coherent" program turning out teachers with "shared core values." STEP steeps its candidates in methods developed to enact progressive god John Dewey's vision of inquiry-based, student-centered learning: complex instruction, small school models, group work, and differentiated assessment. Ideally, STEP graduates will teach for a few years, return for a PhD, and then open their own charter schools. But even the lesser lights are expected to advocate for STEP teaching practices at their schools.

I was seen as wanting in this regard. Dr. Lotan pointedly observed a "discrepancy" between my application essay and my "actual" opinions; apparently, only progressives want to work with underprivileged students. My application was deemed worthy of first-round admission and a $9000 fellowship; Dr. Lotan saw it as a façade that had sucked her in to accepting the wrong kind of person. A month later, she said furiously, "You can get a credential anywhere. Why go to Stanford?" Reviewing my rejected classroom management plan, she wondered why anyone holding such views would waste time and money trying to become a STEP graduate, and worried that a hiring principal would blame her upon discovering the depths of my heresy.

I was reprimanded for my blog, even though neither Stanford nor STEP has a blogging policy and no restrictions for online discourse about teaching. Both Dr. Lotan and Associate Dean Eamonn Callan made it clear that they wanted to control my observations not only of my placement school, but of my fellow students and instructors. After I brought the blog down, renamed it, removed all references to Stanford, and password protected it, Dean Callan still demanded that a Stanford professor review the blog to ensure that there wasn't anything offensive about "students in the STEP program."

In class, I was getting reasonably good grades. My teaching practice demonstrated considerable success at "understanding of the strengths and needs of a diverse student population, and a dedication to equity and excellence for all students." But that wasn't enough.

I'm an opinionated pragmatist who tilts off-center both right and left. I play opposition because I disagree, not because I‘m pushing my own vision. I might have been safer if I'd offered a countering view. Had I been, for example, a conservative Christian hoping to start an inner-city charter school dedicated to improving moral character through the word of God, Dr. Lotan could reassure herself that she’d turned out another teacher leader, however misguided. Instead, she had a candidate who renamed her dissenting blog from "Surviving Stanford" to "Hating Dewey."

So my theory is that Dr. Lotan felt I'd be bad for the brand, and worried she'd be explaining me away until one of us retired. If so, this was a foolish concern; my opinions are exponentially stronger than my ambition. Ironically, Dr. Lotan assured me more attention by her efforts than I ever would have gotten had she ignored me.

I also think it extremely unlikely that Dr. Lotan ever anticipated the trouble she had trying to get rid of me.

An ed school administrator ultimately determines whether a teaching candidate gets a credential. Prospective teachers can pass their classes and teach skillfully, but all that counts for nothing if the program director decides against recommending them. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing requires that a candidate "be formally recommended for the credential by the college or university where the program was completed," and the director has complete control over that recommendation. Or, as Dr. Lotan put it in a letter to my cooperating teacher, "Based on [the recommendations of cooperating and supervising teachers] and the recommendations of the STEP staff, I (as director) sign the official recommendation submitted to the State of California."

"STEP's procedures allow the director to threaten expulsion by invoking the "Guidelines for Reviewing Concerns Regarding Suitability for the Practice of Teaching":

Such substantive concern or violation of professional conduct might include, but is not limited to, inappropriate interactions with students, colleagues, school personnel, or STEP staff and instructors, disrespectful behavior or behavior that reflects negatively on the profession or the schools, or erratic participation in required courses or in clinical placement.

Notice that most of this behavior would, if severe enough, be captured through school grades and placement assessments. Poor grades or assessments would, presumably, be reason to reconsider the student's fitness for teaching. But the Guidelines make no mention of assessments or grades.

That's the entire point of the "concerns" letter. Even if thecandidate navigates STEP's academic and clinical structure, to say nothing of the required strict criminal background review, the ed school director can expel that candidate from the program using these guidelines.

The "concerns" don't even need to be documented. Dr. Lotan has no record of emails asking me to be on time to class—because there are none. She has no record of my first supervisor asking me to do more observations, because he never did. No record of him asking me to do my reflections within 48 hours. No record of instructors telling me I was a problem in class. Nor did it matter that many other students had done fewer observations, were sometimes late with reflections, were consistently late to class, or that several other students had been called before their instructors to be told that their discourse was a serious problem in class (which never happened to me). No standard prevents Dr. Lotan from arbitrarily invoking the Guidelines.

After meeting about the "concerns," Dr. Lotan then gave me a laundry list of generic requirements—only one of which had anything to do with the original complaint. This letter clearly—and untruthfully—implied that these behaviors were the source of the concerns. Now that they'd been written up, any purported violation of this laundry list could be used to move to the next step of declaring me unsuitable. 

From what I've been told, Dr. Lotan has rarely needed to resort to a "concerns" letter. I'm not Dr. Lotan's first victim. I'm her first survivor—as well as the first student to file grievances. Most candidates seem to get the hint without the strong-arming. I was just too stubborn—or too stupid—to comply.

In my cohort, one candidate was told to leave a few weeks into the year for an amazingly trivial reason. Three candidates passed all their classes, student-taught twenty hours a week for a year, took on thousands of dollars in loans, and were denied a credential within six weeks of graduation. At the same time that I, with excellent teaching assessments, was fighting a "concerns" letter, these candidates had no warning that in a few months, they‘d be denied a credential—although two of them were not deemed ready to take over their class in January, as is the norm. These candidates had entirely STEP-safe views, but in their own way, they threatened the program's well-being or the brand just as much as I did. Since Jay Mathew's article came out, I've heard from previous cohorts with similar tales of early expulsions.

As a professor, Dr. Lotan handled dissent easily, often agreeing with my comments. As an administrator, she discussed my opinions dispassionately. She only became angry when I challenged her Potemkin routine. I’ve concluded that she goes through the fake administrative nonsense—the meeting to warn me off from accepting STEP's offer, the "concerns" letter—for the candidate’s benefit. Dr. Lotan sees her right to grant credentials as absolute. I was supposed to understand her authority and bow out gracefully in order to spare myself added expense. Only an ungrateful lout would refuse to understand how hard she was working to ease me out in order to save me embarassment.

Dr. Lotan always moved rapidly from surprise to anger when I asked for documentation of her charges; I always told people that her only two weapons were moral suasion and intimidation. Alas, she ran into someone who was completely immune to those tactics, and years of easy victories left her without any backup strategy.

I can understand why people don't fight. When I filed my non-academic grievance with Stanford‘s School of Education, Dean Deborah Stipek didn’t respond to the merits of my complaint, or even investigate it. Given proof of Dr. Lotan’s deception and animosity in her original attempt to rescind my acceptance, Dean Stipek took politically sensible action. She removed Dr. Lotan, Dean Callan, the director of clinical placement, and my supervisor from any control over my academic or clinical outcome. If I still had problems, then they would not be Dr. Lotan’s doing. If I didn’t have problems, then all was well. I had no further problems. My life at Stanford improved spectacularly, and I will always be grateful to Dean Stipek for that second chance. But she never reviewed my charges for merit.

My academic grievance, filed to challenge my practicum grade, had a different outcome. I documented the utter lack of consistent standards at STEP in case I needed to protect myself against expulsion. I provided numerous examples of discrepant treatment by supervisors throughout STEP, proved that I had actually met standards that few supervisors bothered to use, and provided evidence that Dr. Lotan largely invented my practicum grade, which reflects our clinical practice. The grievance was rejected. The investigation ignored the crux of my complaint and had no comment on STEP staff's ignorance of its own documentation, failure to treat all students equally, and questionable grading procedures.

The academic grievance results hint at what might have awaited me without that misdirected email. Would Dean Stipek have waved her magic wand to improve my life if I hadn't had proof of Dr. Lotan's ill will? Will she do the same thing for other students if Dr. Lotan is more careful about revealing her actual motives?

I contacted Jay Mathews, the Washington Post's education reporter, during Dr. Lotan's attempt to rescind my admission. When Stanford allowed me to start school, I asked Jay to hold off writing about my story until after I graduated. I was determined to go public at that point, even with the risks this would entail. Many principals might see me as a troublemaker. Furthermore, I have a long history of online discourse with a brutal, if funny, persona that I knew would be revealed; many people might confuse that persona with my milder and kinder (no, really!) real-world self. But surviving my year at Stanford required an odd combination of personality traits, and a less polarizing version of me was unlikely to come along and make a better poster child. Happily, I was able to find a teaching position and will spend this year teaching geometry, algebra, and humanities. It’s easy to forget in all the drama of my saga, but that’s the outcome I was fighting for. 

I hope my story highlights the vast disconnect between the societal need for good teachers and the incentives of the ed schools that produce them. The public wants good teachers. Ed schools want teachers who will go forth and perpetuate their brand. They are aided in this goal by the school accreditation process and given cover by the teacher credentialing procedure, which gives the program control and the prospective teacher little means of appealing. And they are tacitly encouraged by many school administrators and teachers, who often espouse the brands themselves.

Stanford may be a private institution, but teacher credentialing is a matter of public policy. Those of us who have the skills and desire to be teachers need more protection, regardless of the degree to which we embody a desired image. Ed schools have a clearly defined academic and clinical framework to prepare teachers. If they aren't happy with an accepted student who successfully negotiates this framework, they shouldn't be allowed a trap door.

Image: "Halls of Learning" by Josiah Mackenzie // CC BY-SA

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