Test Gatekeeping

This was written sometime between March and April of 2009. As part of our practicum, we have to do an observation of a fellow student, write up an observation, and then write a reflective response to each other’s observation.

My fellow student observed me give an exam to my students and was surprised, but highly complimentary of my practice of “gatekeeping”. A student just doesn’t get to turn in a test. First I check the test, scan for unforced errors and blank responses. If the first, I underline some key term that should trigger a recognition, if the problem is just that they misread the question. If the second, I just hand it back to them and say “You know how to do this. Or you know how to start doing this. Go get it done.” Some students whine, some ask quiet questions, and some look at my underlined term and gasp out “Thank you!” as they run back to their seat and fix the problem.

My colleague asked if I would continue doing this throughout the semester. Would I always provide this support, or as the class progressed, would I let them go out on their own? I answered the question in this reflection.

Ten years later, this is one practice I haven’t changed even slightly. I make tough tests, and I make the students try hard, sending them back with advice, pointing out small mistakes, giving them a hint if they are lower level. And I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s amazing to see this again and be reminded of how consistent my philosophy has been–and that it does come from my years in test prep.

One change–when a student asks me to check it for them, I still give it a once over. I’m nice that way.

I decided to focus my reflection on your comments about my test “scaffolding”, my practice of reviewing a math test before the student hands it in.

I didn’t mention this earlier, but I have only actively reviewed every student’s test for the past two chapter tests–and even then, only done it both times for fourth period. This test, I actively scanned all students in both classes before they could submit.

I began doing it because I noticed so many struggling students leaving questions blank when I knew that they knew how to do the math. I have spent five years teaching kids to take tests and have seen emotional responses that defy all logic knock down performance considerably. Some examples:

  • “I don’t know how to do this problem. See? I KNEW I didn’t know how to do this problem. I TOLD myself I didn’t. I was right!”
  • “Should I try this? No, it couldn’t be that. If it were that, then it would mean I knew how to do the problem, and I know I don’t know how to do this problem.”
  • “Eh, I did enough work to pass. I’m done. I’m bored.”
  • “Oh, my god, I thought I knew how to do this problem but it doesn’t work! I know NOTHING.” (instead of seeing if, you know, maybe a minor algebra mistake happened somewhere.)
  • “God, I’m done. I’m done. Thank god. I’m done. I’m turning it in now. Thank god.”

None of these thoughts make it into the conscious brain to allow the student to see logically how goofy their responses are, how maybe they should calm down and try some other approaches, take their time and think through the math, check their work for mistakes, or, god forbid, remember what they learned in class. No, the responses all pass through the brain at light speed, leaving behind despair and antagonism, affecting students’ decisions without letting them know what’s happening.

As a math teacher giving an assessment, my primary responsibility is to determine how much math each student knows. If I have to make them hork it up like a fur ball or punch it out of them via Heimlich maneuver, so be it. But to the extent possible, I will not allow their emotional response to determine their grade and my knowledge of their performance.

Many math teachers believe that learning math involves a degree of emotional maturity. As students progress, the thinking goes, they must learn how to accept responsibility for their performance. Maturity involves taking responsibility for one’s learning.

I have parented a teenager, and this sort of thinking makes me laugh. If I allow these kids to turn in their lesser effort, I am doing them a favor. They aren’t punished by the lower grade. They are vindicated. See? They were RIGHT. They didn’t know the math. Stupid fool teacher, and more importantly, stupid fool parents for thinking otherwise.

By insisting they can do the work, I prove two things. First, I am the boss. I will not allow them to get away with a lesser effort, whether that effort is due to lack of interest, fear of failure, or total panic. Second, I am right. They can do the work. They will get a higher grade.

The struggling students aren’t the only ones who benefit from scrutiny. Strong and even mid-level students make unforced errors, and these students genuinely appreciate my checking. These are the ones that go “Ack!” when I point out the word “line” and they realize they’ve solved a linear function as an exponential one and say “Thanks!” with enthusiasm.

But struggling students see math as a war, and in their minds, their failure is a form of victory. Lecturing them about failure doesn’t work nearly as well as showing them that they already have the knowledge to avoid failure–or at least mitigate the disaster. I would far rather engage in a humorous tug of war with a student who wants to turn in a math test than I would lecture them about an F after the fact. For one thing, even the weakest students appreciate the reality of a higher grade. For another, I have proven conclusively that I was right and THEY WERE WRONG. This gives me the credibility advantage and gives us a shared reference point. “Yeah, yeah, sure you can’t do it. Didn’t we have this conversation last test? Sit back down and think. You can do it.” This is already happening with some students. Others are still in the argument mode, but we’ll get there.

So when do I get around to allowing them to go cold turkey? With the stronger students, of course, the task will be easier. Over time, I will talk to them privately, mention SAT scores and the downside of not having a teacher check their work. Their own motivation will do the trick.

But with the struggling students, so long as it affects their grades, I will continue to force math out of them no matter how long it takes. My primary objective as a teacher is to be sure that I am capturing their math knowledge. Independence and self-direction are nice to haves, but they come second, in my mind.

However, if my test prep experience has any relevance here, over time, the struggling students will start to realize they know more than they think they know. By having test productivity forced out of them kicking and screaming, they’ll begin to accept that by golly, they do know math and will start asking small questions to clarify and taking on more responsibility. That’s the plan. When the struggling students are at the point of handing their test to me and saying “Hey, could you check this for me? I want to be sure I got everything”, I’ll start telling them to check their own work and count it a happy day.


Why Did I Go To Stanford If I Disagreed With STEP’s Philosophy?

(Note: I just noticed that I failed to register an old domain of mine, so I’m copying my old pieces about my Stanford woes over here. This essay (a series, really) was first written in the summer of 2009, I think.)

This question always makes me laugh. Yeah, that’s it! I should just go to a different ed school!

Which school would that be, exactly?

Check out David Labaree’s book, The Trouble With Ed Schools, paying particular attention to Chapter 7, The Ed School’s Romance With Progressivism

[Education professors] do have a vision. Most of us are convinced that we know what is wrong with education and how to fix it, and we are eager to make our case to all of the parties who shape the schools: teachers, administrators, parents, policymakers, lawmakers, curriculum developers, textbook writers, test designers, and the media. The vision of education we propose has been around for the last hundred years; it’s usually called “progressive education.”

From the late nineteenth century to the present, two strikingly different visions of teaching and learning have been competing for primacy in American schools. They have gone by a variety of names, some familiar and some more obscure….The most common labels, however, which capture most of the sense of these various category systems, are teacher-centered vs. child-centered (or student-centered), traditional vs. progressive, and, in what is the most popular terminology in education schools, traditional vs. constructivist teaching. For reasons of simplicity, common usage, and historical resonance, I refer to these visions by the names traditional and progressive.

For American education schools during the twentieth century and continuing into the present, the progressive vision has become canonical, serving as the definition of good teaching. In these institutions, the purpose of teacher education programs (for prospective practitioners) and teacher professional-development programs (for existing practitioners) is framed as an effort to dissuade teachers from adopting the traditional appropach and to enlist them firmly within the progressive cause. There are people in ed schools, like Chall, who choose not to employ the rhetoric of progressivism and even speak against it, but they are a small minority and they know their position is heterodox.

This is not a point about which there is any serious disagreement….*

David Labaree had Eamonn Callan’s job as dean of student affairs at the school of before he went on sabbatical. I emailed him once or twice asking for help, because I’d read his book. He declined. I don’t carry a grudge.

Labaree’s excellent book does not blame ed schools for educational failures; rather, he astutely points out that ed schools have little influence over educational policy because they are held in such low esteem. I agree with him, but would also observe that researchers are not allowed to explore other methods because they’d never get into a doctoral program without buying into progressive ideology.

But I digress. The operative issue here is that David Labaree is a Stanford professor, and he’s pointing out as a given that ed schools are dominated by progressivism.

So where was I going to go?

I wasn’t choosing between Stanford and a school more tailored to my own educational philosophy. I was choosing between $50K or $20K in loans for a dunk in the progressive Koolaid tank. The Koolaid tank itself was a given.

I knew what I was getting into. I had explored all the alternatives to ed school–alternative credential, emergency credential, no credential at all, moving to another state to get a credential more quickly then move back. All of them required nearly as much time as ed school, fortuitous contacts, or a hell of a lot of luck.

Even after I decided on the traditional route, it took me a while to apply to ed school. I assumed I would go to San Jose State, until I discovered that CSU campuses require 45 hours of public school work before the program started. That annoyed me so much I dropped the entire notion for several months and then, on the next to the last day of 2007, I realized that my son’s school, UC Santa Cruz, had to have a credential program. Hey, Berkeley probably does, too. And from there it was a teeny step to well, as long as I’m frantically putting together applications with a week to deadline, why not give Stanford a shot?

I didn’t compare their programs. I knew they’d all be identical on the big issues, and as a tutor/teacher who lives an active life in online discussion forums, I was totally up to speed on ed school cant. The only issue I considered was cost.

Berkeley made it easy by rejecting me. (They’d had me once already for my Master’s in Information Systems. It wouldn’t surprise me if Cal’s ed school contacted the School of Information and said “Hey, what about her?” and SIM said “Are you suicidal?”) So the highly-ranked inexpensive school was out, leaving UC Santa Cruz, an excellent but not top-tier school on the other side of the hill, and Stanford, which has the first or second rated school in the country.

I gave serious thought to UC Santa Cruz. I liked the staff, who didn’t call me and imply that my decision to work through the year cast doubt on my fitness for candidacy. For half the Stanford price tag, I could rent a second apartment in Santa Cruz to crash in if I didn’t feel like making the drive home.

But Stanford. I’m the only college graduate in my immediate family (my little sister will be second, my son the third). My undergrad degree was from San Jose State. My first Master’s was from Berkeley. With Stanford, I’d have diplomas from all the Bay Area Division I schools, which had to be good for a set of steak knives or something. Plus. Stanford. Koolaid or not. Price tag aside. If I had to go back to school at my age one more time, wouldn’t it just feel better to be going to one of the best schools in the country?

Again, note that all my dithering was about the cost. I knew about ed schools. I knew I disagreed with the ideology. I knew it would be a frustrating year. The only question was how much I was going to pay for the experience.

The last straw in favor of Stanford tipped when (I am not making this up) I got a ticket the day after my first meeting with Rachel, right after breakfast with my son at Zacharys, a classic Santa Cruz joint. I was just about to make my call to David Rasch, the ombudsman, when I got pulled over by a cop for going 30 in a 25 zone.

Wham. Like Dory in Finding Nemo, the memories all flooded in. Two years at Berkeley had resulted in a Master’s, yes, but also four additional speeding tickets and easily 50 parking tickets which, of course, I always forget to pay, so went something like $200 a pop. My insurance had only just returned to something approaching reasonable after all those speeding tickets.  If I went to UC Santa Cruz, I’d be driving over the mountains every day. I’d always be late. There’d always be a cop looking for an easy ticket. UCSC’s parking is even worse than Cal’s. My loans might only be $20K, but I could count on close to $5K more in ticket and insurance costs alone. To say nothing of the aggravation.

Stanford wasn’t only elite. It was close by. In a suburb. With a suburb’s attitude towards parking. And speeding. Then, just minutes after the ticket, David Rasch tells me not to worry about retaliation; if I want to go to Stanford, I should go.

So don’t ask why I went to STEP when I disagreed with its philosophy. Ask, rather, why anyone should have to drink so much Koolaid just to be a teacher.

And while you’re at it, ask how come speeding tickets without accidents still hike up your rates.

*I stopped quoting there because Google books limited my page views and I loaned out my copy to someone at STEP. I can’t remember who. Fellow STEPpies, if you have it, could you look up page 133 and send me the text? Or tell me that you returned it already and I’m blaming you when it’s really my disastrous disorganization? And everyone else: look! I am a nice person who loans out books to colleagues.

Ed School Writing: Can Opinions Subjugate? and the Gingerbread Man

This is an interesting piece in retrospect, because of the collapse of the culture wars. You can see my skepticism of the argument: people who I considered extremists were arguing that it was fair to shut down the speech of anyone they considered the “dominant ideology”. If anyone met any one of the adjectives “white”, “male”, “heterosexual” (god, such a quaint word these days) or “Christian”, then the teacher should shut these students down aggressively, not allowing them free speech or support. Both then and now, I find such thinking incomprehensible and repellent—and certainly, my opinion isn’t a popular one six years later. What was once an extreme view is now pretty mainstream. These days, the woman who thinks homosexuality a sin would probably be expelled, not just shut down by her professor. And far too many people would think my objections evidence that I also have evil thoughts, as opposed to a strong belief that opinions can’t subjugate.

Moving from the specific to the general: many ed school critics would see this piece as evidence of brainwashing, of the sort of timewasting crap that ed schools perpetrate instead of time well spent covering best practices (thus ignoring the pesky reality that teaching has no best practices).But what I’m struck by most of all, rereading and remembering the day, is that we weren’t told what to do. Those of us who thought that was nonsense weren’t shut down, at least by that professor. The class objective was for us to think about what we’d do as teachers when a student said something that shocked us, when we had to make decisions about what dialogues to encourage, which to shut down. Or, as Kate Walsh says disapprovingly, STEP didn’t try to train us, but rather prepare us for teaching challenges. I did think about it, prepared, and have found that preparation invaluable over the years–without ever once changing my opinion about Applebaum and Boler. And yes, managing student discourse is an essential teaching practice, one I really hadn’t given much thought to before this class.

Do I think STEP wanted us to take Applebaum’s side? Well, I think they tried to restrict their admissions to people who already agreed with Applebaum. However, from a pedagogical standpoint, I am fully on board with the class objective, even though I would have taught it quite differently. Once again, there’s more to ed school than its critics understand.

But even now, I can’t justify the gingerbread man.

And now, day one of Equity, Democracy, and Education. AKA Social Justice.

I am keeping an open mind on the subject, as our section leader seems pretty unshockable. We discussed H.G. Wells Country of the Blind and applied it to the classroom. Is the sighted man who is handicapped by living in a blind society the student entering an alien culture, or the teacher entering an alien classroom? I could brief both ways, but ultimately see Nunez as the teacher who refuses to use all of his power to subjugate the culture, even though he could (not everyone agreed that he could).

We touched on David Tyack’s “Constructing Difference: Historical Reflections on Schooling and Social Diversity” but spent much more time on Barbara Applebaum’s Social Justice, Democratic Education and the Silencing of Words that Wound. Really, where do they get these titles?

Applebaum is speaking out in support of Megan Boler’s affirmative action pedagogy, which for some reason we weren’t assigned.

Boler argues that teachers can and should shut down the students who are members of the dominant culture if they don’t express sympathy for oppressed classes.


(except when they’re gay, she says later)

Applebaum agrees with Boller. Actually, what happened is that a white, Christian student of Applebaum’s said that she’d have no problem working with homosexuals because she “loved the sinner, even if she hated the sin.”

Applebaum, by her own admission, lashed into this student.


So after the fact, Applebaum realized she might have abused her authority, oh, just a friggin’ TAD–even if it was in a good cause, like shutting down a purported bigot who did nothing more than explicitly say that she wouldn’t discriminate against gays. But instead of just saying so, she spends an essay rationalizing her behavior in the name of affirmative pedagogy.

“Speech that supports and is supported by dominant ideology becomes, at the moment of its utterance, the reproduction of power.”

In short, an opinion can subjugate and subordinate.

The teacher asked us if we agreed. I said “No, of course not.”

Someone said, “You don’t think opinions can subjugate?”

“Absolutely not–and please, don’t let my opinion subjugate anyone here.”

I could tell from the body language in the room that some (but not all) of the class disagreed. But we let that all pass by.

At one point, Applebaum tries to analogize her Orthodox Jewishness to homosexuality. The Christian student didn’t call her a sinner, because it was less acceptable to be anti-Semitic. P points out how odd it was that, in an article focused on power relationships, she didn’t acknowledge that the student might not have called her a sinner because as the teacher, she might have more power.

Several students pointed out that her goal was to show that there were acceptable and unacceptable forms of bigotry, and so it didn’t matter if her analogy was apt because her larger point was on target. (Sez you, thinks I.)

A good number of other students argued that her entire determination of who is “powerful” and who isn’t is extremely problematic. I was much cheered to see that this was an actual debate, but I fear that all these skeptical opinions may be subjugating the dissenters.

By far the most aggravating aspect of Applebaum’s article, by the way, is her open bigotry towards Christians, who she refers to as “religious” people–ironic, given that Applebaum is an Orthodox Jew.


So since Applebaum, an orthodox Jew, is presumably “religious”, who does she mean here? The class agreed with my observation that she doesn’t really mean “reasonable people” but “reasonable Christians”. And of course, to people of Applebaum’s ideology, Christians who aren’t “reasonable” are of the evangelical ilk. But she doesn’t say say “non-evangelical, reasonable Christians” because it would lay her bigotry out there in the open.

The teacher agreed that she was explicitly saying that dominant cultures must be held to standards that oppressed cultures must not.

So presumably, Muslims can be religious bigots in America. Back in the Middle East, though, their teachers should be shutting them down cold and oppressing them in the name of affirmative action pedagogy.

After that, we were given a blank gingerbread man–ironically, the paper was white so the point was lost. Then we had to label the figure with the goals we think are the purpose of education.



The Nihilistic Cruelty of “Fish Is Fish”

Cracked identifies five classic children’s books with horrible hidden messages, which reminded me I hadn’t transferred my reaction to Fish is Fish to this blog. I wrote this the day it happened.

Some people think I’m mocking Stanford with these stories. Not usually; certainly not in this one. While I don’t mention his name here, the elementary teaching program director is Ira Lit, who took over responsibility for me after my grievance. He was incredibly helpful; I will be forever grateful to him. And he wrote a wonderful book on the results of a voluntary desegregation program called The Bus Kids, which I highly recommend.

Written June 27, 2008

After lunch, we were read aloud to by the head of the elementary school program.

The book, “Fish Is Fish”, tells the tale of a tadpole and minnow who were friends until the tadpole started growing legs. “Fish are fish and frogs are frogs”, the young frog tells his friend, and leaps out of the water to live on land.

He came back for a visit, telling his old friend about the amazing sights he’s seen on land: people, cows, and so on.

The fish becomes obsessed with seeing this new world, and finally determined that he would visit–legs or no legs. He leaped out of the water and instantly started to strangle. Fortunately, the frog found him and rescued him by pushing him back into the water.

Back in the water, the fish looked around and decided he liked his beautiful world. After all, Fish is Fish.

So we were read to, and then invited to opine about the learning lessons from the story. My fellow students thought the story showed about the limits of teaching. The frog had failed to properly instruct the fish on the new world and the fish’s place in it. Others offered that an important part of learning is to understand the necessary tools.

I stood all this for as long as I could, and then raised my hand. “I’m sorry, but I thought it was an incredibly bleak tale. The fish learned that some of his friends will move on and become ‘better’ people with more power and knowledge. But he can’t do that. He’s left behind. Even if he takes incredible initiative and shows extraordinary bravery, he’ll only find death if he tries for more. But fortunately, his superior friend, the evolved one, can rescue him from his stupidity and chastise him. The fish has learned that he should stay where he is and not strive for more.”

The elementary program director nods. “Yes, that’s not an uncommon reaction.”


At least it wasn’t just me.

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.


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.

Diane Ravitch at Stanford

I went to see Diane Ravitch give a talk and then discuss education policy with Linda Darling Hammond and Eric Hanushek at the Memorial Auditorium. For the record, I think Ravitch is generally right about what’s wrong, but completely wrong about how to make things right. Hanushek is wrong about both.

Olive, I think you should know this: you’re a horrible actress. Cheech, Bullets Over Broadway

Lord, Ravitch is a horrible speaker. Has no one ever told her? [Not, I hasten to add, the way Cheech told Olive, although by the end of her speech I felt some sympathy for the method.] I googled every combination I could think of, but could find no mention of Ravitch’s flat affect, monotonous delivery, and unstructured, wandering content. Yes, yes, she’s a writer, not a speaker. But if she were forced to face critical audiences more often, I’d like to think she’d up her talking game. “Here’s a hoax… And then another hoax….but then the greatest hoax of all is is….Another hoax….And then there’s the hoax….but the biggest hoax….” I am not, in fact, sure what the biggest hoax was. Many different candidates emerged throughout her speech, in no particular order and no emphasis in her voice to signal a winner.

She could strengthen her message and convince more non-worshippers if she focused her message. Everyone and her mother is complaining about teacher evaluations, but few people have really zeroed in on the farce of the “public” charter, and here Ravitch is at her best. Charters are allowed to select and limit their population, something few public schools are allowed to do. (For my money, magnets are as non-public as charters are).

Recently, education reformers have gone on the offensive, attacking private public schools, attacking the “attendance restrictions” of geography, arguing that many public schools are just as “restrictive” as charters—just in a different way. But this is nonsense. Many formerly wealthy districts have been transformed because the residential population has changed. Certainly, districts that are cushioned on all sides have a degree of protection, but that comes down to luck, not law. So a formerly wealthy, predominantly white school like Willow Glen High School in San Jose is now a Title I school with a majority Hispanic, non-English speaking population, while Leland and Lincoln,both also in San Jose, are cushioned on all sides by other schools and so have far fewer low income students on the fringes of their districts. But if property values change, then those schools, too, will be forced to take all comers because that’s what public schools do. And, if the population changes too much and the richer residents don’t like it, then the solution should not be “create a charter with public funds to keep out certain elements” but “pay money for private school”.

Ravitch is at her best attacking the quasi-private nature of charters. She’s also making a good point in blaming leadership, not teachers, for “failed schools”—and by this she means not schools with low test scores, but schools that aren’t safe by measures of violence or abuse. She is a tad cavalier about dismissing test scores, but her point that scores are largely irrelevant in assessing school quality given the community is one that deserves more discussion. Finally, I thought she made a telling point in observing that she is not simply arguing for the status quo, since after ten years, reform clearly owns much of that status quo.

She’s at her worst when offering solutions, which is nothing more than a liberal’s wish list. Really, Diane? You were in the Bush administration. You were the darling of the reform movement for over a decade. And suddenly, the only answers you can come up with are smaller classes, preschool, and free health care? Smaller classes don’t work, although dramatic reductions may offer some small improvement for low income students. Preschool, likewise, has revealed few to no improvements in academic outcomes, although resource-intensive interventions that cost a fortune barely managed to move the needle once, some fifty years ago. Access to health care likewise has not been shown to improve outcomes much. We can debate the impact around the margins and cost-benefit ratios, but Ravitch’s current answers are just as problematic as the answers she offered a decade ago.

I first saw Linda Darling-Hammond speak the day after Obama won in 2008. I’m no more a fan of her ideas now than I was then, but she is much more effective when she’s playing from the middle, with Ravitch on the outside. And until now, I never realized that she has a great speaking voice, which was a pleasant change from Ravitch.

However, both LDH and Ravitch troubled me by their eager adoption of the “teacher quality” meme. They both push “teacher professionalism”, an idea I find flatly offensive. We aren’t “professionals” now? Be specific please. How, exactly, are teachers unprofessional? LDH asserted that teachers can’t get paid more if they aren’t “more professional”, but that it’s hard to get them “more professional” if they aren’t paid more.

The only translation of “more professional” that makes sense in this construct is “higher standards”, read “smarter”. She would, I suspect, deny this. LDH has said many times that she wants teachers to train for two-three years. Please, god, no. Ravitch, too, called for a more “professionalism”. It’s hard to tell, really, how much if any her views have changed since this testimony, when she said that ed schools like Stanford’s “committed themselves to an unending campaign for reform, without bothering to establish canons of knowledge about subject matter and about effective practice to guide future teachers” and that leading education professionals “feel no such need to know the latest education research”. She did recently repeat her adulation for the Finland model, so I assume she is also in favor of increased years of education (Please, god, no) and an extremely selective population.

This “elite speak” from progressives like LDH suggests that they want teachers more “like them”, a more well-bred, well-spoken crew than the current bundle of apparent ragtags they’re stuck with. LDH and Ravitch want a “more professional” teacher workforce in part because it will give them better ammunition to fight against Teach for America and other alternatives. How can anyone argue in favor of just planting new college graduates in front of the classroom if the existing teaching force is “professional”—unlike the existing teaching force which, by implication, is not?

I find this constant harping on “teacher professionalism” to be very troubling. Who, exactly, would LDH and Ravitch leave out to cull the field?

At one point Ric Hanushek asked Ravitch how teachers could be professionals and still be part of a union—implying clearly that “union” and “professional” couldn’t exist in the same sphere. Ravitch responded that unions protected teachers by giving them due process, but that she didn’t support seniority rights.

This was a hugely telling moment. Neither LDH nor Ravitch made the obvious rejoinder: professionals and unions happily co-exist in many occupations. Pilots, musicians, nurses, film technicians of every imaginable specialty are all unionized professions.

I am not particularly pro-union, and believe that teachers would have sufficient due process protection without them, as all government workers do. What I object to is the implication by both Ravitch and LDH that our current teaching force needs “improving” in some nonspecific way that seems to involve paying lots more money to ed schools to get “trained” in one particular way.

Linda Darling Hammond also implied more than once that our math scores are lower on international measures because of unspecified “problems” with way we teach math. I would have loved for her to be more specific. I suspect, however, that her colleague, Jo Boaler, a major player in the “math wars”, on the reform side, has some ideas. To which I say, again, please god, no.

Eric Hanushek wasn’t given much time, and what I found fascinating was his ability to keep Ravitch focused on issues she claimed weren’t that important. Ravitch said repeatedly that international comparisons weren’t meaningful, yet a substantial portion of the debate time was spent on what TIMMS and PISA told us. Point to Hanushek, since he had limited speaking time, and was nonetheless able to focus the conversation on the big issue of his new book.

I was pleased to see the moderator, Peter Schrag, bring up Texas’s NAEP inclusion issues when Hanushek played up Texas. Hanushek flatly denied it, saying that Texas had addressed those issues. Not since 2011, anyway. It was clear Schrag wanted to go further but without facts and figures ready, the format made it impossible to do without wasting time. No matter. Knowing to bring it up was a big plus. However, he hadn’t done his homework on Ravitch’s claims and so didn’t do much to challenge her.

The final speaker, Channa Mae Cook, gave a nice five minute talk and should have been given more time.

I’m glad I went. Every so often the simple act of sitting and listening, without stopping the tape to google a fact, change the channel or live-tweet a quote or reaction, can give me different insights than I’d get from reading an article or watching a taped show while doing five other things.

Ed School Writing: Equity Autobiography

Yes, in ed school they make you write an autobiography about a time when the teacher trainee (generally white) felt like a minority, out of place, not welcome, and how this can help us empathize with our students. This was back in my “progressives are nuts” days, and I’m a bit more vehement than I would be today. Nonetheless, I think the main outline of the point, at the end, is true. And the story of my life is definitely true, so it may as well be documented somewhere.

I grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. At the time, expats didn’t live in the big universal cocoons that are so common these days.. The quality of the “compounds” varied by class, although no one really mentioned it: Raytheon engineers got one big compound with all the best amenities—the biggest pool, an indoor movie theater, a store that sold only American food. Lockheed engineers must not have been paid as well, because they had several smaller compounds with varying facility quality. But my dad worked for the airlines as a mechanic, as did most of the TWA employees, so we didn’t have centralized facilities. We had little enclosed groups of houses all over the city—and beyond. I lived for four years in the Red Sea Apartments, an isolated bloc of 8 apartments just a few hundred yards from the Red Sea and desert all around us—unless you count the Saudi Army base (nothing more than tents with a fence around it) 30 yards away. Right out on the sand bar were two stranded ships. My father and I went out to the closest one on a raft and snuck aboard. I took papers from the captain’s cabin, dated from 1956; the language seemed to be Dutch. I also took a shelf that my mom and I refinished; we both still regret losing track of that antique. We’d also go crabbing at midnight; my parents would round up all neighborhood kids and we’d saunter out at low tide in the dark. One kid would pin a crab with the beam of a flashlight while another would hold it down with a stick and holler until my dad came and flipped the crab into a bucket.

Then we moved to Old Compound, the original TWA compound situated right next to the airport. Old Compound was great because we lived next to the pool and very near the only TWA employee movie theater. Alas, the movie theater was open air, so following a complicated movie plot became rather daunting when a 707 revved up its engines to taxi or takeoff. Still, we liked it.

We didn’t have our own stores, so we just used the Saudi ones. This was long before segregated facilities came into play—only after Desert Storm were women and children forced to use separate entrances, my father told me. So we went into Saudi shwarma stands to get those divine sandwiches, and we went into the Suq for all our local shopping. Of course, we couldn’t have church in a Muslim only country, so services were held in the US Embassy. In the early years, we jockeyed around the donkey carts and oil sheiks’ Mercedes in the Chrysler, a gorgeous magenta car with amazing features like air conditioning and power windows. My dad got that Chrysler for next to nothing from a Saudi prince because it had a fuel leak that the prince’s mechanics didn’t know how to fix. My dad fixed it, and for several years we had a car well outside our usual station in life. We asked Dad excitedly if that prince would ever be king and my dad laughed and said no, Sultan was fifth in line. Today, Sultan is nearly 80—but he’s also the Crown Prince. One more to go! [Update: he died in 2011. Sigh.]

Living in Jedda meant that the power would go out without warning—but that just meant it was time to party. The parents would go to one house and drink Siddiqi (moonshine, it’s the Arabic word for “friend”) and the kids to another. In 1975 the country suffered a drought and everyone’s water was cut off. We only got two hours a day—and they never told you when those hours were. So we kept the water faucets on full blast at all times; when we heard the faucets erupt, even if it was 2:00 in the morning, we’d all get up, shower, fill up the water kettles to boil more water (you didn’t think we drank out of the faucets, did you?) and fill up as many pails as possible so we could flush the toilet.

(Eighteen months later, we came home to California, which was having a “drought”. My brother and I speculated that in the US, of course, they probably published a list so everyone knew when their two hours would be. Then they told us that in California, “drought” meant you didn’t always flush the toilet and watered the lawn every other day. Then they had to explain “lawn”. Badumpdump.)

We had no phones. We did have TV for a couple hours of day, when we’d breathlessly watch reruns of “The Fugitive” and “Medical Center” (even way back then, children, those were old shows). But the last five minutes of those shows were always cut off by the tape of the “awah guy”, as we called him, starting the call to prayer (listen to the call for prayer and tell me the two syllables aren’t “awah”). I still laugh when I think of us anxiously watching a 20 year old show, hoping that the plot would be resolved before the “awah guy” came on. We had no bacon, no pork, no booze that wasn’t homemade. We had no milk or ice cream, but stupendous butter, an Irish brand called Kerrygold. We had bugs in a lot of food, but we learned to accept that bugs were a big step up from worms, and merely gave thanks that worms were less frequently found.

My parents were nothing if not unorthodox, and many of our vacations were spent in far off lands. In 1969, we lived in a Portuguese fishing village for a month. This was not a vacation spot; my dad just knew a mechanic whose parents owned a cottage. The locals thought we were very odd, but the fishermen kindly invited my dad and my brother out with the fleet. My brother caught two fish. I was outraged, as I was the eldest, and demanded equal treatment. The fishermen were perplexed, but obliging, and so Dad and I went out the next day so that I could catch two fish, too.

In 1975, we went to Kenya. Not for my parents the tour bus. No, my dad went around looking for an affordable guy who could show us around. He did not speak the language, but he figured that anyone who did speak English would be eager for some money, and so he found Joe, the kind of guy that people like my dad always find. Joe took us all over the country in his car, from Tsavo to a little northern town at the foot of Mount Kenya. He found wildlife of every sort everywhere, when we least expected it—once he slammed on the brakes, said “HUSH”, backed up around a nondescript bush and there, yawning sleepily, was a lioness, all alone. She eyed us warily, but did nothing. I still have the pictures from my little Kodak 110. While we usually stayed in lovely lodges and hotels, the northern town by Mount Kenya was having a convention, and everything was filled up except this ancient boarding house. We slept three to a bed, my brother, sister, and I, praying that the cockroaches would find a sibling first. In the morning, my mother and I were brushing our teeth in the communal bathroom when a seven-foot-tall man with coal-black skin and ferocious face markings walked in, smiled at us in the cracked mirror we were all using and pulled out a pick to fix his hair.

We went to Greece, shepherded by my father’s Greek mechanic friends. We went on a ski trip in the French Alps—no, we didn’t speak French—and I boycotted skiing because beginning skiers had to ski down a hill through the town to get to the bunny slopes, which were only half as steep as the town hill. No, thank you. We went to Germany, Italy, England, Scotland, Wales, and, most frequently, Lebanon (once taking a cab ride from Damascus to Beirut because all the flights were full). “Intramural sports” meant competing with schools in different countries, so I went to basketball tournaments in Dubai, softball tourneys in Bahrain, and track meets in Egypt—for a treat, our team went out for camel rides. My camel, which I shared with a fellow runner named Kevin, escaped from his owner and went gallumping through the Giza pyramids, with what seemed like all the camel merchants in the world chasing us, yelling enthusiastically.

And then, in 1977, we came back home. I enered Sequoia High School for my sophomore year just four days after arriving in the country we’d always considered the Land of Plenty—they had television ALL DAY, telephones everywhere, bacon, milk, Captain Crunch, McDonalds, and oh, my lord, ice cream in your own refrigerator. Fruit you didn’t have to bleach. Water right out of the faucet. Unimaginable luxuries that didn’t have to be smuggled in.

I was miserable. I hated school, hated our new house, hated our lives. I’m not over-dramatizing. In our family history, everyone agrees that coming back to the US when we did was a huge mistake—it led to our parents’ divorce, and while they are both happily married to others now, their split caused significant financial stress. My dad left for Saudi Arabia again after five years, which meant we lost him from our daily lives for more than a decade.

I took several years to fully adapt to living as an American in the US, despite being of the so-called “dominant” culture. I took another ten years or more to figure out that my life in Saudi Arabia and my parents’ cheerful determination to see the world had kept something obscured from me. In Saudi Arabia, everything was weird. There was no normal. None of us kids particularly enjoyed feeling out of place in north Kenyan towns or Portuguese villages or even Saudi Arabia itself, but we accepted it as part of living our weird life. In America, I would always tell myself, things would be normal.

My brothers and sister were, in fact, fairly normal. They retain aspects of their unusual childhood, but in most ways, they fit nicely into their worlds.

I expected this as well. I spent much of high school and college wondering why I felt alien. I was in America. Shouldn’t things feel more normal?

Alas, the truth was hidden from me in our lives overseas. I—well, it must be faced. I’m odd. I wasn’t odd because my parents moved to Saudi Arabia and took their kids on a fascinating, if unsettling world tour. I’m odd because that’s who I am. I’m always going to be a statistical anomaly whose life won’t exactly fit in. It’s not a bad thing, and I’m certainly not alone. And that’s the great irony—while there are people whose lives fit comfortably enough in the norm, there is no real “normal”. People on the edges, like me, are just a bit more aware of where the edges are and what it’s like too far from the center.

I was supposed to write about an autobiographical instance of a time when I felt different and discuss how this makes me aware of minority cultures, equity, and democracy in the classroom. As a member of the “dominant culture”, the thinking goes, I need to empathize with those who aren’t part of that culture and reach out and understand the differences.

Whenever others talk about this “dominant culture” that oppresses and locks out others who aren’t of that culture, I am reminded of my anticipation of America and the “normal” life that I thought awaited me when I returned. I understand the difficulties of belonging to a minority, and I accept that many people see the majority culture as dominating and unwelcome. Nonetheless, I think those who feel excluded, as well as those who speak on their behalf, see a “normalcy” to dominant cultures that will give them what they lack. They see a promised land, a sense of belonging, of access that is denied them. In fact, what they want, like the “normal” America I wanted, doesn’t exist for anyone.