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.

bolerquote

(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.

applebaumquote1

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.

applebaumquote2

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.

sigh.
gingerbread

Can I ask WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THIS GINGERBREAD MAN?

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On Sarcasm, Irony, and Teaching

Recently, Grant Wiggins posted a heartfelt post by his daughter who was totally gobsmacked by spending two days shadowing students. Apparently, they lead a life filled with boredom and pain, tortured by constant immobility and sarcastic teachers.

I was unmoved. It was, clearly, a minority opinion; Wiggins’ post went everywhere, and all sorts of teachers posted emotional paeans to the effect that they would change their ways this very minute. Others wrote, a tad smugly, that they had come to similar insights years ago and so no longer were that kind of teacher.

I kept my mouth shut, but when Wiggins posted a followup celebrating the fact that only two commenters spoke out in favor of sarcasm, I felt moved to comment.

Actually, I would have defended sarcasm in teachers, and wrote a long comment on the last post–and then deleted it, because really, why fight the zeitgeist?

But since you made a point of mentioning that only two commenters supported sarcasm, I thought I’d add my voice after all.

… I guess the definition is changing. I am not hurtful or unpleasant to my kids. I am definitely ironic in ways that I would describe as mildly sarcastic, and the kids enjoy it. And certainly, I use paws up, but claws not out sarcasm as a form of classroom management in ways that I am perfectly content with. Now, perhaps other teachers are incapable of non-hurtful sarcasm. Or perhaps everyone’s just a little too pure.

For example, “Ernesto, you appear perfectly enthralled with Sophia’s conversation. Must be fascinating. Sophia, perhaps you’d like to share?” is sarcasm. I do not, in fact, want Sophia to share. I want her and Ernesto to pay attention. If I say this with a bright and cheery voice, I am not being hurtful. But I am being sarcastic.

And sure enough, I got three responses that proved my point.

First:
Your example of “mild sarcasm” might be embarrassing or humiliating to certain students. Almost fits the definition of social bullying, as it is sort of making fun of and belittling Sophia. It would have served to shut me up completely in that class, leaving me fearful that any utterance on my part would open me up for more public embarrassment. Some students can let that “mild sarcasm” roll off their backs, but certainly there are those who would feel the sting.

Second: I have to respond to the sarcasm. I have a middle school daughter. She is a high honor roll student. She finds pride and accomplish in her academics, and places far more pressure on herself than I ever would. Last week she forgot her homework, not because she chose not to do it, but because like adults, she made a mistake. As she got into class and realized this she panicked. Her nervous reaction is to cover her mouth, 12 year old age appropriate. Her teacher gave her some comment that crushed her. Upon picking her up even her explaining to me her “humiliation and embarrassment” brought tears to her eyes. “I am not that student that just doesn’t do my homework or that student that thinks it is not serious” she stressed over even going into class the next day. What was accomplished by that??? On a much brighter note my daughter to the initiative to email the teacher and explain she wanted to apologize at the end of class for the misunderstanding but was “scared” to approach him! I was very thankful to see an email back from the teacher thanking her the email and encouraging her to never fear approaching him. It was not the lack of missing homework that had her that upset. She had already figured out with no grade under a 93 and HW only 20% of her grade she was in the clear for high honors. It was the comment and the weight of how that teacher made her feel. Please understand this teacher at parent teacher night seemed great. I feel he really does care about the students he teaches everyday. This is not meant to be a teacher bashing rather hopefully another perspective on what some may see as harmless in a classroom.

Third:
I had a Spanish teacher for 3 semesters that had a reputation as the worst teacher in our high school. (Of course, I do not compare you to her, but I want to give an example of how disruptive sarcasm can be to a learning environment.) Sarcasm was her only classroom management strategy. All the students were terrified of her. If you asked a question, she sarcastically said you should have paid better attention to the lecture. If she asked a question and you answered wrong, she’d simply raise her eyebrows at you and not help or offer suggestions as you struggled to find the right conjugation of a verb. There was no kindness, no empathy, no humanity. I knew only two students that liked her. They claimed you had to understand her sarcasm, but most students couldn’t. Many begged guidance counselors to be switched to another teacher. She was the only 4th year teacher the last year I had her and so few students took 4th year (because it was not required to graduate) that they had to make her the only 3rd year teacher this year so that 4th year Spanish could continue to be a class. The only reason I stuck through it was because I wanted to minor in Spanish. Classmates that before loved Spanish hated it with a passion after having this sarcastic teacher.

So. (In my response, please note that I teach high school students.)

The first commenter wants me to feel badly about Sophia, who is talking in class. Sophia may never open her mouth in class again! she says dramatically. Well, if Sophia is constantly talking in class when she shouldn’t be, then this would not be the worst thing. My experience suggests that the kids who talk a lot in class when they should be listening are not easily discouraged.

But in any event, why should Sophia be any less intimidated by a stern request to stop talking? Or would the commenter prefer that the teacher simply say “Everyone stop talking, please!”, without identifying any particular person?

The latter issue, whether or not a teacher should “call out” offenders, is a subject of considerable debate in the teaching community. I am unsympathetic on this point—if you’re the one talking, you’re the one I’m going to tell to hush, one way or another. But in either case, the issue in that event is not the sarcasm, but the calling out.

The second commenter, the mom, doesn’t even describe the comment made, merely conveying that her daughter was devastated because she’s extremely sensitive. So I can’t really tell if the teacher used sarcasm or not. If the teacher wasn’t saying anything deliberately hurtful, then it’s hard to argue that the teacher should change. Sometimes you have to tell girls to get a grip and stop thinking it’s all about them. And kindly note the name of this blog before you tell me I don’t understand.

Notice that I am speaking here mostly of suburban kids with plenty of privileges—the ones who post on blogs or have moms who do. High poverty kids who are offended by an unintentionally hurtful comment are a different issue. But ultimately, all kids who are sensitive to basically normal interactions should be supported sympathetically but led to see that they need to take a breath and realize no harm was meant.

Third commenter is specific! And none of that is sarcasm!

Therefore, for starters, let’s define terms.

Sarcasmdef

ironydef

I am uncertain as to what “irony” is without sarcasm. We Americans definitely conflate the two terms. So let me try to define: ironic utterances intended as humorously warning rebuke.

Some people find “Sophia, perhaps you’d like to share?” to be a comment beyond the bounds of acceptable teacher discourse because it’s hurtful and unfair to speak in such a fashion to a student who is rattling away cheerfully while the teacher is addressing the class.

Those who oppose “sarcasm” (whatever that is) also tend to be bothered by exchanges like this:

“Fredo, are you intentionally trying to be irritating?”

“What!?! I wasn’t doing anything!”

“Exactly! Pick up your pencil and at least pretend to work!”

Or
“Jimmy, either stop tapping that pencil of your own accord or sit on your hands.”

Or

“Sandy, the sign says no grooming. Put the mirror away. You are naturally fabulous.”

None of these are sarcastic comments. None of them are respectful. All of them are comments that, in my class, get a laugh from the students (including Jimmy, Fredo, and Sandy). All of them identify a student who is in some way violating the rules of my classroom—or simply driving me crazy, in the case of Jimmy’s tapping.

I have run into two sorts of sarcasm opposers. One sort really opposes meanness and is only thinking of mean, hurtful sarcasm. I think all teachers would agree that hurtful language towards students is never appropriate. They have only the “mean” type in mind, and readily agree that much verbal irony does not qualify.

The second sort really opposes not just sarcasm, but all verbal expression that isn’t polite, respectful, and utterly indifferent to the student behavior. When you give them an example, they respond with an alternative. Emilio should be gently asked to go back on task. Jimmy should be allowed to tap. Sandy should be counseled on feminist empowerment. Or something.

This may be an issue of class. I do not come from a polite ring of the social strata, which may be why I don’t consider the occasional verbal riposte a source of endless psychological damage.

So to those people who simply think teachers shouldn’t be mean, we agree. Very few teachers would disagree.

To those people who think teachers should be intensely conscious that their every word might scar a super-sensitive teenager, we need to remember those super-sensitive teenagers will grow up. Grant teachers some leeway, and tell the kids to toughen up a bit, with sympathy and understanding. And most teachers will get a bit milder with the sensitive ones.

To those who believe all teachers should be respectful, firm, sincere in every utterance and unfailingly polite, I certainly agree that teachers who want to should operate in such a manner. But requiring that behavior from all teachers would suck the joy out of my classroom and I’d leave teaching if we were all expected to act like pedantic ninnies with high school students. I secretly wonder if such people are evidence that much of what makes America great is in the process of being castrated.

Yeah, don’t mind that last sentence. It was just me being sarcastic ironic.

Kyle, and What I Learned about College Admissions

In the fall of his senior year, Kyle Evans1, one of my top pre-calc students last spring, came to me for advice on his Questbridge scholarship application essay. I was scribbling edits, making comments, emphasizing a strong narrative, when I suddenly realized that the point of his essay was the struggles he’d faced freshman year as a homeless student. And now his family had just abruptly been left homeless again and was living in a single motel room.

Yeah, it was kind of a drag, he told me. Embarrassing. No privacy. Don’t tell anyone. He’d told the school counselor, but didn’t want the news getting about.

He maintained a 4.0 GPA that homeless freshman year, doing homework every night in the library. He ran cross country, although he would occasionally be benched for epileptic seizures. He transferred to our school his sophomore year, missing the first three weeks, which affected his grades and his progress on the math track.

His junior year, Kyle scored a 4 on the AP US History test; he couldn’t afford to take the AP English test and our school ran out of waivers. At this time, Kyle’s overall unweighted GPA is 3.7, weighted 4.2, putting him in the top 9% of the senior class. He took the AP Calculus test, but not the course, and I expect him to pass. He also took AP English Literature (the course and the test).

While his SAT scores were just above average, his ACT score composite was a 25 (super score 26), easily scaling the ACT Benchmarks for college readiness, even though he had no access to test prep courses. He achieved
a “Proficient” ranking in the rigorous California Early Assessment Program tests in both math and English. He received a 630 and 620 on the Chemistry and Math 2c Subject tests; while selection bias makes percentiles useless, any score over 600 denotes strong knowledge—and Kyle didn’t have a calculator for the Math 2c.

To put this in a broader perspective, only 26% of students met all four ACT benchmarks, and Kyle’s ACT scores are in the 85th percentile. Just 14% and 23% of all California juniors who took the EAP met the proficiency standard in math and English, respectively.

What percentage of those students had homes their entire high school careers, I wonder?

For much of his adolescence, Kyle has dreamed of attending an Ivy League university. Given his compelling story, his metrics, and the rhetoric on undermatching, I thought this a reasonable goal. His counselor, who has been incredibly supportive, anticipated that Kyle would have a strong run, with a good number of top 30 schools to choose from.

His results: All the Ivy League schools said no, except Brown. Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and UC San Diego rejected him. In addition to Brown, he was accepted at UCLA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and UC Santa Barbara.

In no way do I think Kyle is being forced to “settle”; the four schools that accepted him are excellent.

I am, nonetheless, shocked and more than a little angry that so many top-ranked schools rejected him.

You’re thinking I’m overly optimistic, aren’t you? How to put this delicately: a kid can’t just be homeless and poor with high scores and good grades. He needs to be a great athlete in a desired sport, or a fantastic musician. On pure academics, “poor” doesn’t cut it unless the kid is black or Hispanic.

But Kyle is black.

So now consider his numbers again through the prism of race. On the Early Admissions test, 1080 disadvantaged African Americans met California’s EAP Proficiency standard in English; just 162 qualified in math. Five percent of African Americans, regardless of economic status, met the ACT benchmarks for college readiness; in California, just 600 blacks met that standard. Kyle’s composite superscore of 26 puts him in the top 3% of African Americans nationwide–again, of any income. In 2013, 2800 African Americans got a 4 on the AP US History test, while another 800 or so received a 5.

Academically and intellectually, Kyle has perhaps three thousand African American peers his age in the entire country. Culling that number down to economically disadvantaged blacks, he’s one of a few hundred.

I’m not convinced anymore that banning racial preferences solves anything, but the pretense gets tiresome. States can argue about whether to roll back bans, or Justice Scalia can convince his colleagues to declare such racial preferences unconstitutional. It won’t matter. Universities are going to continue to have different standards for blacks and Hispanics than they have for whites and Asians. They have to. There aren’t enough academically exceptional black and Hispanic students to use the same criteria by which Asians and whites are judged.

This year has seen several uplifting stories about exceptional African Americans gaining access to multiple elite colleges. But hundreds of whites and Asians with similar scores and achievements have no chance of getting into even one Ivy league school, or much of a shot at a top public university.

Besides, affirmative action bans only affect elite public universities. Private universities can use whatever standards they like, and they are clearly using different standards for blacks and Hispanics—as they are for legacies, athletes, and anyone whose parent writes them a check for a pile of money.

But the unstated reality always included, I thought, a passionate commitment to helping underprivileged blacks and Hispanics. And it turns out I’m wrong on that point.

Every year, each of the top twenty universities admit between 100 and 200 black students. This year, ten of those twenty schools couldn’t find any room for Kyle.

Some agree with Justice Clarence Thomas about “mismatched” students, that by accepting black or Hispanic students with lower qualifications, elite universities are actually causing academic harm to young men and women who would be better off in a college filled with lower ability students. While other research has called the mismatch theory into question, I think that all colleges are doing harm to many low-skilled students of all races, to say nothing of the value of a college degree, by refusing to demand that all their students demonstrate a baseline ability level.

But Kyle is, as I said, comfortably among the top 15-25% of all US students, regardless of race, and his academic profile demonstrates success in multiple subjects and metrics. I’ve spent a decade or more working with elite high school students who have been accepted to Stanford, Johns Hopkins, the top UC schools, and the occasional Ivy. I’m confident Kyle can perform.

Besides, Kyle’s abilities clearly weren’t a concern. Using the rejecting universities’ Common Data Sets2 , I’ve compiled the percentages of admitted students with section scores from the 60th to 90th percentiles, below 700 on the SAT or 30 on the ACT. Kyle would be in the middle or higher of a population that ranged from 20-60% of the admitted classes of schools that rejected him.

Achievement gap realities being what they are, most of the admitted black and Hispanic students would be in the lower half of that same population. So unless admissions change dramatically, every school that rejected Kyle accepted many black or Hispanic students (and, probably, a number of white athletes and legacies) with scores equivalent or much lower than his.

You could not have convinced me before this discovery that universities weren’t rigorously ensuring that they were accepting blacks and Hispanics by merit. Sure, they might start at a lower metric, but from that point, they took all the kids with the highest scores, right?

Well. Except for athletes.

Harvard has started to take basketball seriously. Stanford has three sports that disproportionately recruit African Americans (men’s basketball, women’s basketball, football). Elite schools would prefer that all their athletes be Richard Shermans and Dave Robinsons, but to field a competitive team, compromises must be made. Asian Americans believe, with a great deal of justification, that their candidates compete against Chinese nationals for a fixed percentage of “Asian” slots. Perhaps elite schools with athletic programs, conscious of how many “low scoring” slots they use up for black athletes, cut down the number of high-achieving non-athlete blacks they admit.

Moving from athletes to alumni, certainly wealthy black graduates should be allowed to buy their kids in just as white alumi have for generations. Then there’s the network connections. For KIPP, there’s scholarship and admissions pledges. Many media-savvy charter networks have extensive communication and development staffs, determined to reach out and forge relationships with top schools to ensure access for their students. Benjamin Banneker High, where Avery Coffey attends, is a selective school with a 99% black student body. Hard not to wonder if a candidate from a school that routinely produces highly motivated, low income African American students receives more consideration than an equally or even more qualified kid from a Title I school in a California suburb.

Not that these universities would ever admit to this sort of favoritism. They’d probably bring up Kyle’s extracurriculars. He only participates in one sport, which is probably more than he should, given his epilepsy. He’s a member of the National Honor Society, which meant he gave selflessly to volunteer his time to the community—Kyle’s efforts on his own behalf don’t count, which strikes me as unfair. Or perhaps they’d bring up his GPA or transcripts—our diverse high school has a much more competitive environment for grades and access to AP classes than a primarily black or Hispanic school. Maybe my recommendation letter was off in some way. Or maybe Kyle’s application essay wasn’t perfect—if I have one huge regret, it’s that I didn’t insist on reviewing his final draft.

None of that should have mattered. Four things about Kyle should have stood out in stark relief: he’s black, he has high test scores, he has excellent grades, and he’s not just economically disadvantaged, but sporadically homeless. In college admissions as outsiders understand it, these facts should have trumped all other considerations.

Universities turned to more subjective metrics as a means of creating an alternative access method for those blacks and Hispanics with lower test scores. They looked for “potential”. Did the candidate get good grades? Was he a good person who participated in the community? Did she take every challenging course she could, whether or not she succeeded, proving her desire to achieve? Now they are using these same “soft metrics” against blacks and Hispanics who actually have high test scores, actual ability.

College admissions is becoming ever more of a game, and universities seem more obsessed with a student’s impact on their endowments, their budgets, their reputations. We are assured that universities just use affirmative action to “level the playing field” but apparently leveling doesn’t entail merit-based admissions process with a different, if lower, objective standard. Instead, universities are using the same process they have for whites: placate the well-connected, find the students that will make the school look good—and then pick whatever smart ones fit in around the edges.

They can get away with this because the media supports their facade of access, acting as little more than cheerleaders. Rarely do I see a reporter acknowledge reality, as David Leonhardt comes close to doing here by describing access as a “patchwork of diversity”. Usually, they don’t look at the quilting too closely.

Instead, they push the narrative with inspirational stories. Any focus on hard-core metrics like test scores is considered….impolite. Acknowledging remedial abilities just interrupts the narrative, raises the politically strained issue of fairness and equal treatment. On that rare occasion when a black or Hispanic actually has competitive numbers, as is the case with Kwasi Enin or ‘Tunde Ahmad, we see several billion versions of the same story as the media leaps gratefully for the opportunity to provide hard metrics that are within range of those a white or Asian would need.

But more common are happy profiles like this LA Times piece on four African American girls from Alliance William & Carol Ouchi High School who are choosing between UCLA and UC San Diego, focusing on their concerns that these elite campuses might be racist. A more rigorously reported story would have revealed that the school’s EAP scores suggest that none of the girls are ready for college-level work, that readiness might be a bigger problem than racism. I’ve been trying to figure out why the Gates Millennium Scholars Program rejected Kyle, but the media is no help, providing only puff pieces short on specifics, often little more than press releases.

Also typical are the sad stories, portrayals of unprepared or struggling students of color who came to an elite university with high hopes only to struggle or completely fail, or stories sounding the alarm about the low rate of black and Hispanic college readiness. This kicks off the usual reproach cycle: Arne Duncan comes in with bromides about higher expectations, conservatives complain about affirmative action and mismatch theory, liberals push public school integration.

Yet no one wants to draw the obvious line from the vague praise of hardworking high-schoolers with no objective metrics to the sad profiles of the unprepared college students, much less the general concerns about readiness. So all of these stories exist in their own separate universes.

Rarely seen are profiles of economically disadvantaged blacks and Hispanics who meet the ACT benchmarks or score over 2000 on the SAT, or who score a 4 or a 5 on an AP test other than Spanish Language. In a much-discussed profile of an unprepared black student at Berkeley, just a paragraph was given over to his friend Spencer Simpson, who was clearly thriving. As I mentioned, I can find no rigorous reporting on the Gates Millennium Scholarship program, providing hard data on the winners, asking for SAT averages and perhaps a query or two about their demographic and geographic distribution, so that kids like Kyle can know if it’s worth their time to apply.

When Harvard brags that they’ve admitted more blacks than ever, reporters should be there asking what the average black SAT score was, or if their focus on basketball players has reduced opportunities for higher-achieving low income black students. When schools discuss their efforts to enroll more under-represented minorities, reporters should be there asking if high-scoring members of this population are being overlooked in favor of black or Hispanic legacies or athletes, or if their KIPP pledges led them to reject equally or higher qualified minority students lacking the charter’s promotion machine. When Kwasi Enin held a press conference to announce his selection of Yale, at least one reporter should ask Kwasi what schools accepted the 10 kids who were ranked ahead of him in high school.

I understand the reluctance to reveal just how few high academic achievers are found among students of color. But the media’s determination to focus on race first, objective metrics never, is allowing universities to do the same.

If there were more focus on high achieving students of color throughout their high school years, the ones with high test scores instead of just high GPAs, these young men and women would not only receive well-deserved publicity, but the universities would be served notice. The harsh truth is this: Kyle was rejected from all those schools because all those schools knew no one was watching.

Yes, I’m cynical. More than ever, I now know that the rhetoric we get from colleges, from the media, even from well-meaning high schools offering encouragement, is not much more than propaganda, unrelated to the gritty reality of building a media-approved freshman class that still keeps all the necessary connections well-oiled and satisfied.

But as the title says, this essay’s also about Kyle.

He’s a great kid–funny, quirky, chatty, upbeat. He was surprised and chagrined at his results, but not bitter. He committed to Brown, which had always been one of his top choices, and got a great financial package. His parents, who found an affordable apartment by the new year, have now sent all of their five sons to college, despite their financial struggles, and are relocating to Atlanta after driving Kyle to his future.

Kyle triumphed over economic insecurity to achieve academic success and acceptance to an Ivy League school, with the help of his loving family and a high school that gave him a good education and a supportive environment. But his success is due most of all to his development of great natural abilities and his determination in the face of considerable adversity—and no doubt, his positively chirpy good-spirited view of life.

So while I struggle with my own disillusionment about the college admissions process that seems not only opportunistic but very nearly corrupt, I still smile every time I remember that Kyle achieved his goal.

1 This is his real name.

2CDS Links: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Penn, Cornell, Dartmouth, Stanford, UC San Diego, Johns Hopkins

On Changing Fortunes and Administrative Attentions

At my first school, I was looking for jobs long before they gave me my layoff notice, knowing full well I wouldn’t be called back. I had no reason to think so; my classes were well-run, my reviews were good, administrators made no requests or complaints, and in fact the ostensible reason for my departure was staffing restrictions. It made no difference; I’d told friends as early as September that I would need to find a new job the next year, no matter what my evaluation said.

At school #2, administrators looked right through me. They’d send out notes asking for volunteers to teach after school classes in math or test prep. I would often indicate interest, get no response, and then see a new note asking again for volunteers. Meanwhile, the administrators approached other teachers, who often hadn’t volunteered, giving the extra hours to them whether they wanted the job or not. I got the hint, quit volunteering.

You’re thinking hey, duh, they thought you were a bad teacher. But that wasn’t it. I taught tough kids for all three years in question. I passed most kids with realistic grades, often convincing students with a long history of failure to try just one more time. Test scores were solid. At both schools, other new teachers were eviscerated by their students, unable to run a classroom without a supervisor on standby. Several classes were “collapsed” (ended) because the teachers couldn’t maintain control. My induction advisers thought very highly of me. I got along well with my colleagues. I wasn’t obnoxious, wasn’t a rabble-rouser. Like all new teachers, I tried to keep my head down. And yet, I knew those other teachers who struggled with discipline, who were trying to figure out how to teach, who had high failure rates and low scores, were well-liked by the administration while I was at best tolerated.

Besides, ineffective new teachers get lots of attention, as administrators coach, advise, warn, watch constantly. As I said, I was completely ignored. Administrators never said directly or indirectly that my teaching was a problem. They never once reprimanded me or in any way told me I had to change. I’m leaving things out to avoid criticizing anyone directly or indirectly, but nothing I’m leaving out would change this fundamental reality: I was a good teacher, the principals thought I was a good teacher, and yet no one on the administrative teams at either school particularly liked me or wanted to keep me.

I didn’t get a formal evaluation the first year at my second school, just a brief observation and a paper to sign near year-end, but “meets expectations” was checked. My second year had no preconditions, no warning of the need for dramatic improvement. Being no fool, I nonetheless looked desperately for jobs over the summer between the first and second year at that school. I did get a job offer, but unfortunately late in August, after the new year had begun, and I regretfully declined. In May of that second year of my second school, I resigned despite not having any job offers (I am eligible for rehire, if you’re wondering). A few months later, I accepted a job at my current school, where I’m in the middle of my second year.

Things couldn’t be more different. I floated away from both my yearly evaluations ten feet off the ground. If there’d been water, I’d have walked on it. They like me here. Last year, when I had a mild concern about an issue, I emailed the principal to ask if I could speak to him, something I would never have done in my last two schools, because I would have been ignored for anything short of a catastrophe. He responded with a meeting time. I stop and chat with all the administrators, who look at me and smile and even wave at me across the quad. I was moved to a bigger room with a Promethean projector, I’m teaching a lot more advanced math, and in a bunch of little ways, I get treated as a teacher considered to be of some value to the school.

I’m the same teacher, using the same methods. My kids still sit grouped by ability, I don’t lecture much, I don’t use textbooks often, I build my own curriculum, I have the same commitment to student success, I still weight tests heavily and don’t care much about homework. Jeans, teeshirts, and neon-colored sneakers, then and now, are my daily attire. For those people wondering if my certainty, my er, confident attitude is somehow the problem (and of course, it could be), I am—on the surface anyway—unhumbled by the low regard with which I was held. I’m the same. The bosses have changed.

My conversations with other teachers suggests that tenure doesn’t end the tale of changing fortunes. One teacher was a step away from dismissal procedure when the principal left; her replacement gave that same teacher a glowing review and extra duty. Another English teacher was so despised by his administrator that she refused to assign him any subject classes, giving him a full day of “responsibility center” duty–the place kids go when kicked out of class. He, too, weathered the storm until her departure and is now happily back teaching English. More than one teacher at my last school consoled me when I confided in them, wondering why I was ignored and so apparently unwanted, and they all had similar stories: non-re-elected twice, fired mid-year once, now I’m permanent, everything’s fine. The advice is the same: if you have tenure, hunker down. If you don’t, go back to Edjoin and start all over again.

This isn’t a sad tale of bad principals. Rather, perfectly competent administrators occasionally act on their biases by replacing or discouraging good teachers. Nor are these good teachers reliably replaced with other good teachers; every staff has seen an excellent teacher rejected or chased off, to be replaced with a well-meaning newbie with little talent—who is let go in a year or two as well.

Think of it as a luxury, a job perk. Most of the time, principal preferences are perfectly aligned with good practice; they evaluate new teachers fairly, give struggling teachers a chance to improve, thank the gods gratefully for good new ones. They secretly hope that their weaker permanent teachers will behave badly, since it’s much easier to get rid of teachers for misconduct than bad teaching.

But every so often, they can just shrug and turn up their noses and say “yeah, just not a good fit.”

I came from the real world before I taught; I understand that the entire job market is fraught with difficulties, that everyone everywhere is bound to capricious employers. But teaching careers can be utterly derailed, permanently, by administrator whim.

A second year teacher who’s been let go not for being a terrible teacher, but just a “bad fit” will face suspicions while interviewing. All principals understand emotionally that their counterparts act on bias, but when they hire, they often operate on the received wisdom is that principals only reject or discourage objectively “bad” teachers.

Tenured teachers are suddenly, often randomly—at least it seems that way—targeted by an administrator. They will do their best to hunker down, but if the administrator wants to go through the hassle of firing them, will often just leave. They might be terrible teachers. They might not. They’ll leave if they can, because otherwise they’ll find it nearly impossible to work again. Of course, if they’re older, it’s worse. Age discrimination is rampant throughout the working world; older teachers have all these problems plus they can’t set their own salary and are far more expensive. A teacher forced out because of one administrator’s dislike is going to have a brutal time finding a new job. Better to leave first, where at least the story will be “currently employed, looking for better”.

For this reason, the recent study showing that DC’s IMPACT evaluation system resulted in voluntary attrition or higher performance does not, as its proponents say, show that tough evaluation systems lead to improved teaching. What it shows is that teachers who could give principals what they wanted did. Teachers who couldn’t, left. The mistake lies in assuming that principals wanted good teaching. They might have. They usually do. But not always.

Some advocates of education reform, such as Whitney Tilson, hold that administrators should have absolute control over staff—that a “bad teacher” is any teacher the administrator doesn’t want, regardless of the reason. If the teacher doesn’t fit the new vision, it’s time to move on. However, this argument doesn’t have many takers, precisely because everyone understands that a terminated teacher will have a difficult time finding a new job, and that outcome is only desirable if the teacher in question is terrible. But experience and anecdote tells me that this isn’t always true.

I don’t have any policy changes to advise. I do think, however, that should the Vergara lawsuit succeed, we will see principals getting rid of teachers not because they are objectively poor teachers, but because those principals don’t see them as valuable. I don’t think that random administrative preference will provide us with the teaching force our country needs.

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.”

“Phew.”

At least it wasn’t just me.

The Panda Problem

Our school was having visitors that week, and I needed a show-off problem in case they dropped by my room. The circle square problem caught my interest. As posted by Dan Meyer,

Given an arbitrary point P on a line segment AB, let AP form the perimeter of a square and PB form the circumference of a circle. Find P such that the area of the square and circle are equal.

The math behind this problem was perfect. I was in the middle of systems and just been through transformations with my algebra II/trig classes. The math was a bit challenging for A2/Trig, but it would yield so much insight into the math they were working on. Then I figured my pre-calc classes would have fun with it, and I’d get more insight into the lesson if I ran through it more than once. So I did the same problem for all my classes that day, but with a different approach.

But what problem? I decided to show my students both the abstract, general version of the problem, and the one I’d doctored up to make more accessible. In my A2/Trig class, I showed the abstract form first; in precalc, the doctored one first. All my students saw both problems and given the opportunity (which most took) to recognize the difference.

Lesson objectives:

  1. Give students an insight into the general case, by comparing it to an applied case.
  2. Gain a deeper understanding into geometric relationships.
  3. Understand that “systems of equations” were more than just two lines (A2/Trig).
  4. Improve modeling skills, “making math out of words”.
  5. Gain a deeper understanding of transformations (A2/Trig) as well as the link between graphic and algebraic representations.
  6. Solve the problem and understand what the solution means.

I read through all the comments and links in the original blog post, finding two of them extremely helpful in formulating my thoughts. First, Dan Anderson’s work on Desmos was invaluable, not because I understood the sliders (I don’t) but because I hadn’t considered the problem in terms of function transformations until I saw his work, even though he didn’t address it directly. Then I found this essay by Tim Erickson to be the most helpful as a framework for considering the problem, even though I didn’t use any of his suggested approaches. He also provided me with the observation I used to close the lesson (and hadn’t thought of on my own). I wouldn’t even know how to solve this using calculus. I combined Erickson’s Queen idea with the cowboy ranch thing mentioned here and came up with the Empress of China and pandas.

pandaproblem

You’re thinking oh, god, a cutesy problem. Well, yes, but it’s an ironic cutesy! Plus, come on, the pandas are adorable.

Whenever I’m doing a complicated project for the first time, I overwrite the handout. That way if I forget something before the release I can point the kids to text. So the Algebra II/Trig handout goes into considerable detail because it’s covering the actual lecture. I was also moving a little more slowly with the A2 kids, as I wanted them to understand the process of understanding an abstraction. I made my teaching literally visible to help them see what they, too, could do to unlock a difficult problem.

By contrast, in the PreCalc class, I tossed them in with only one hint: there were three equations.

I wanted a manipulative, both to literally help kids make concrete sense of the problem, but also to demonstrate what manipulatives do. It’s just a line. It’s just the word “webbing”. But now, look. It’s the actual thing. See how this thing, even if you don’t really use it, clarifies the next step?

So I needed some gold webbing, and it can’t be a coincidence that I settled on paper clips. (The big question is why didn’t Dan Meyer think of it?)

I wanted something I could reuse, and that the kids could reuse, unclipping the chain for one test and then putting it together again, creating several different versions if needede. In truth, I didn’t think they’d use the manipulatives much, but the idea of them, as well as one walkthrough, would probably get the more concrete thinkers moving. Plus, the kids got a kick out of the chains.

I spent $4 in paper clips, which would have only been $3, but I kept losing track of how many I’d chained together, so I went back to the dollar store and bought some colored clips to use every 20th clip. I did one at school for proof of concept, then went home and did five more while watching TV. Which probably wasn’t a good idea, because the couch ate several chains before I got wise and put them on the floor.

paperclipchains

Then I had to figure out how to bring them back into school without getting them all snagged. A bamboo skewer worked as a rod and the tiny ponytail bands that can’t handle my hair kept them from sliding around.

Intro to the problem in both cases took no more than ten minutes; the kids were up and working by 15 minutes in. I have whiteboards all around the room, so the kids are up sketching and thinking in groups of 4.

I wish I’d captured the Algebra II/Trig work, but I forgot. Several of these groups actually read my handout, and selected 60-40 as their first modeling scenario. The precalc kids had the same suggestion, but everyone jumped right to 50-50. It didn’t make any difference, but I would have liked to have shown the different thought processes.

pandageometrywork

All the kids unclipped the chains, made squares or circles on desks or with hands and giggles and quickly grasped the algorithm for moving from perimeter to area of a square. To my pleased surprise, all but a couple groups also uncovered the process from circumference to area of a circle. Those who didn’t had the first step down, but were hung up on dividing by pi. I told them to get over it; they’d be taking the square root of pi before they were through.

When all the groups had identified the three equations needed, I stopped and went to Desmos.

pandaproblemgraph1

This is a recreation of the conversation as it went in A2/T; the precalc conversations were the same except transformations (we haven’t covered those yet).

[See note at bottom]

“So before we go on to treat these equations as a system, let’s consider each equation. The graph above shows all three of the equations, without treating them as a system. Mandy, what do you see?”

“Um. Two parabolas, and one line?”

“Fair enough. Now, everyone look at the graphs and think of transformations: vertical shifts, horizontal shifts, stretches, compressions. You have your parent graph notes. Take a look at the parent graphs for lines and quadratics.”

Serge: “Hey, I see. So the quadratics are stretched.”

“Vertically or horizontally?”

“Horizontal,” says Dani. “The denominator changed and got bigger, from 1 to 16.”

“Good. What about the line?”

Shane: “It’s reflected over the x-axis, and shifted….vertically? Up?”

“Or horizontal to the right.”

“Good! So now, back to the stretch. Are they stretched the same amount?”

“No.” Judy. “The…which one is red, the circle? No, the square. The square is stretched…less, vertically. It’s going up slower.”

“Very nice. What’s that mean, Julian?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, stop. Think. Take a look at the equations, everyone. Right now, we’re using x in both, right? So the graphs show what happen to each if we cut the webbing exactly in half. If we look at our equations, we take the perimeter, square it, and take one-sixteenth of that value, right?”

“We divide it by sixteen,” said Ann. “Oh, that’s the same thing.”

“So what do we do with the circumference? Remember, what’s pi again?”

“3.14.”

“So if I multiply that by 4, I get around…”

“Twelve.”

“Right. So if I start with equal values and square them, which is going to be larger? The one I divide by 16, or by 12? I’m taking a sixteenth of one squared perimeter, and a twelfth of the other. Which is bigger?”

Pause. “Come on, think. I divide a number by 16, or I divide it by 12.”

Ah, now they get it. “Twelve!”

“So what does this mean? How can we use this knowledge? What does it mean about the relationship of perimeter to area?”

Pause again.

“So if I have a circle and square with the same perimeter, which shape will have the bigger area?”

“Circle.” This they’re sure of.

“Okay. So let’s think about our task at hand. We need to make our areas equal. What does that tell us about their perimeters?”

Now they get it, and I hear the knowledge in their voices as they talk over another. The square has to have the larger perimeter. That means it has to have the bigger piece of the chain.

And then I send them off to solve the algebra. I remembered to capture pre-calc work—in a few cases there are errors that I later corrected.

If I were half as orderly as this student, I wouldn’t ever lose my glasses, car keys, or Promethean pen. Except–alas–they’d made a mistake on the first attempt. I pointed it out, they went back and fixed it, but I forgot to take another picture.
sampleworkchecklist

I gave a fair amount of algebra assistance in the A2 class. For the pre-calc kids, I just said “Don’t distribute. Ever. Get a calculator when you realize you need a co-efficient.” From that, most of them called me over to confirm that they were ready to use the calculator. I corrected algebra and encouraged, but the kids weren’t sitting around passively. Active working and thinking the whole time..

In A2/Trig, I ensured everyone started by solving the linear equation for C, then solving the entire equation for P (the perimeter). In Precalc a number of groups figured out the substitution before I got there, solving the line for P and the entire equation for C.

Once everyone had solved for P or C, or I’d talked them through it in a few cases, back to Desmos.

“We looked at the three graphs. Now let’s consider it as a system.”

PandaProblemgraph2

In all cases, the classes literally gasped. Some context—most of my kids don’t have graphing calculators. Many students had just realized now, for the first time, that “solving graphically” meant something other than graphing two lines manually and finding the point of intersection, that it meant saving a hell of a lot of time and algebra.

Did I point this out? No. I missed it. Only yesterday, when typing this up, did I suddenly flash back to the gasps and realize what they meant. Arggggghh. I don’t think graphing calculators and solutions should make an appearance until the algebra is beyond the kids’ abilities, because most of my kids need strong algebra skills far more than they need advanced math analysis. But I still should have made the point.

For homework, the pre-calc kids had to take a whack at the abstract version; the A2/T kids had to answer some questions.

The next day, I closed the lesson out first by restating the objectives. Systems come in all forms. Transformations can help us make sense of relationships.

And then, the geometry, which the kids clearly found fascinating. In each class, I pointed out that circles are more efficient at closing space than squares are, and before I could ask the question, students—many of them strugglers—pointed out that squares could be grouped more efficiently. Even better, several strong students pointed out that we could probably calculate the difference between the individual square’s “lost” area and the space you always see between four circles. (And yes, that’s going to another fun problem in the future!)

Finally, the perplexing reality: giving Ping and Sing their own private space lost them a huge amount of space! If they’d left it as one big piece of webbing, the two would have had a palace.

pandaproblemgraph3

“You’d think the carpenters could just make one big circle and give Sing a bunch of picture frames or something.”

At the various blogs I read, many math teachers sniffed at the idea of turning this into simple problem-solving. Well, I like problem solving; I want my kids to be strong at the algebra and modeling necessary to solve this problem. But I also found many links to important concepts through the simple “problem solving”. This activity provides connections a seemingly simple problem, which they grasp, to transformations, systems, and geometric figures, which they often just treat as “things to be learned to survive math class”.

From idea to execution was just over 24 hours elapsed. Actual time spent building the lesson, about 6 hours—3 of them on paper clips. Next time, I’ll do it later in the year for A2/Trig, and haven’t yet decided when to do it for Pre-Calc. The handouts need some tweaking, and I need to start working more graphing calculator work into my pre-calc classes. Definitely a keeper. Thanks, everyone, for the mind food.

[Note: Dan Meyer pointed out something in the comments that led me to re-write this slightly. I didn’t make it clear in the first write up that the first graph display was of the three equations–NOT a system. I added what I actually said in class, that these equations assumed that the two strands were equal. The purpose here was to show the kids why, in fact, the areas would NOT be equal if the strands were. I did cover that in all three classes, and completely forgot to write it up, since I was focused on the transformation aspect.

The second point Dan raises, that the line is not using the same data is a good point. I was focusing on showing the equations together, but the x and y aren’t the same and in the second image, that’s not correct. I’ll do it differently next time.]

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.