Why Stanford Tried to Boot Me

The new US News Ed Schools Ranking reminded me I hadn’t yet reposted the piece I wrote explaining what happened, from my perspective. I’ve edited it down slightly; you can read the original at the link. In case I didn’t caveat it enough, I’m interpreting Professor Lotan’s behavior, not asserting her motives as fact.

I was a little more bitter back then; the fuss that the dean made over my blog cost me at least one teaching position, and there are certain districts I’ll never be able to work at because of an unofficial blacklist (and I’m not the only one suffering from that). I’m mostly over it now. In fact, I now think ed schools are much maligned. I enjoyed my time at Stanford, and STEP, as we call the ed school, produces excellent teachers. But if my opinions on ed school have become milder, my beliefs about why I was targeted remain unchanged. Any prospective teacher who gets targeted is going to have a difficult time escaping. I’m proud I escaped, proud I went public. I like to think it made a difference, that ed schools are more cautious about enforcing ideology. Hey, let me dream.

But none of this was possible without FIRE. Thanks again Adam, Will, Greg, and the rest.

PS–The misdirected email—known to me as the “OMG letter”, was sent accidentally to me in response to my polite refusal to meet with Professor Lotan. The person in question thought it had been forwarded to her, when in fact I had copied her on the original letter.

PPS: NCATE is now CAEP.

Published 8/25/2009.

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 Professor Lotan said had grossly violated the California Teaching Standards on professionalism.

I wrote two grievances. FIRE wrote a letter to Stanford officials, making it clear the organization was watching my case closely. With FIRE’s support, as well as the backing of family and my fellow students, I fought back the attempt. After I graduated, I went public with my story.

Given the weak gruel of the formal complaint, some assume Professor Lotan was employing genteel understatement. 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. 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, but never suffered academically for presenting my ideas. Instructors routinely called on me, and often confirmed facts I offered–which, over time, 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, including Professor Lotan’s course on heterogeneous classrooms. Until the “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, Professor Lotan told me, in our meeting about her “concerns”. 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. 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, which surely wouldn’t have been forthcoming had my teaching been weak.

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.

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. I was seen as wanting in this regard. The director saw a “discrepancy” between my application essay and my “actual” opinions; apparently, only progressives want to work with underprivileged students. My application was originally 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 to violate. 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.”

The problem wasn’t really my performance, or even the blog, but rather the desired image of a STEP candidate.

I’m an opinionated pragmatist who is often cynical about education policy, and was quite effective in communicating my doubts. Had I been 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.”

My theory: Professor 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, my Stanford experience story has guaranteed me far more exposure than I’d have had if she’d just ignored me.

I doubt Rachel Lotan ever anticipated the trouble she had trying to get rid of me. 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. 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.

You might think this behavior would be captured through school grades and placement assessments, but the Guidelines make no mention of assessments or grades.

That’s the entire point of the “concerns” letter. Even if the candidate navigates STEP’s academic and clinical structure the ed school director can expel that candidate from the program using these guidelines. The “concerns” don’t even need to be documented, either verbally or in writing.

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 implied that these behaviors were the source of the concerns, when in fact most of them had never been at issue. But 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, the STEP program has rarely needed to resort to a “concerns” letter. 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, Professor Lotan handled dissent easily, often agreeing with my comments. As an administrator, she discussed my opinions dispassionately. I did not see her as a petty tyrant, and I thought she was a particularly good professor. But she always cycled rapidly from surprise to anger when I asked for documentation of her charges; 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. My interpretation: 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 embarrassment.

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 Professor Lotan’s deception and animosity in her original attempt to rescind my acceptance (the misdirected email), knowing that FIRE had taken an interest, Dean Stipek took politically sensible action. She removed everyone in supervising team–Lotan, Callan, the director of clinical placement, and my supervising teaching—from any control over my academic or clinical outcome. If I still had problems, I couldn’t claim pre-existing bias. 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, I believe, that Professor Lotan largely invented my practicum grade. 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 ill will?

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. 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. It’s easy to forget in all the drama of my saga, but that’s the outcome I was fighting for.

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.

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2 thoughts on “Why Stanford Tried to Boot Me

  1. Pingback: An Opportunity | Knowing History

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