Imagine this scenario: You're taking some college courses, and you're not happy with your program. Do you blog about it? If so, how far do you take your criticism? Do you do so under your own name? Do you name the program, your instructors, your fellow students? Where do you draw the line? If you work with kids as part of your program, do you blog about them?
Blogging at The Washington Post, Jay Mathews recently brought to our attention a messy intersection: one academic program's definition of professionalism vs. one blogger's First Amendment rights. Mathews's post is, I think, a bit one-sided, but he outlines the issues pretty clearly:
wish the supervisors of the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) at that university’s School of Education had checked with me before they decided [Michele] Kerr’s views and her blogging were inappropriate for a student in their program. They appeared to have decided her anti-progressive views were disrupting their classes, alienating other students and proving that she and Stanford were a bad fit. Kerr says they tried to stifle both her opinions and her blog, and threatened to withhold the Masters in Education she was working toward, based on their expressed fear that she was “unsuited for the practice of teaching.”
Kerr’s eventual triumph over such embarrassingly wrong-headed political correctness is a complicated story, but worth telling. In her struggle with STEP, she exposed serious problems in the way Stanford and, I suspect, other education schools, treat independent thinkers, particularly those who blog.
STEP retains the right to decide if a student is suited to teaching, and can deny even someone as smart and dedicated as Kerr, who has a splendid record as a tutor, a chance to work in the public schools.
I don't have the space here to provide a play-by-play of the challenges Kerr and STEP posed to one another. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a controversial organization whose self-stated mission is to protect "freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience" within academia, has posted a selection of materials related to the Kerr case, including letters from Kerr, who writes online and posts to forums under the name Cal Lanier, and STEP administrators.
Kerr also offers a list of key blog posts and documents at her site "Surviving Stanford." Among her posts is this one, which details the days following STEP's discovery that Kerr was blogging:
Regular readers may have noticed that since my last post, my blog disappeared for six weeks and then came back with a new name and lots of edits. That's because the School That Must Not Be Named found out that I had a blog
The neutral news: I genuinely don't think they did it because they wanted to hurt me, or because they were singling me out. The program director went out of her way to stress that. They apparently have absolutely no idea about what's in the blogosphere already. They have no blogging policy and no idea that one might be needed. They were convinced that any discussion of students was in violation of FERPA, even though I use an anonymous name for myself and the students, even though I don't discuss their academic performance or grades or violate their privacy. I believe they are wrong. I can come up with tons of examples, including a fairly well known local blog written by a guy who my school uses as a supervising teacher--a guy who blogs using his real name, his school's real name, and clearly identifies students in negative contexts, which I never do, and in some cases even mentions grades. So the idea that my little blog with pseudonyms for me, my fellow students, my own students, is some grotesque violation is pretty absurd.
I told them this, told them that the absolute lack of conversation about the possibility that far more revealing cases (of which this is only one) means that either there's no violation of FERPA or that about a million teacher blogs are violating FERPA.
(FERPA is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.)
Kerr may have violated the spirit of FERPA, if not its letter--I'm qualified to say whether she's broken the law--when in a public forum she posted a video (which has since been removed) of one of her students. Typically, teachers and academics don't publish identifiable data about their students without students' express permission. If the video was considered part of a research project, Kerr likely would have needed to get permission to record and post the video from the university's institutional review board/human subjects committee.
Just as troubling, in the comments on the Mathews post, it becomes clear that Kerr has been removing forum postings that may be somehow incriminating or interpreted in a way that is unflattering. It's troubling because in an e-mail Mathews quotes, Kerr chastised her classmates for not publicly voicing their thoughts and owning their speech. An excerpt:
“I’ll continue being me, and those of you who feel uncomfortable can maybe learn how to speak up. Or not. Your call.”
Kerr's supervisors at STEP had more concerns than just Kerr's blogging about her experiences in the program, so it's not entirely fair to frame the conflict in terms of Big Bad Institution vs. Individual Blogger. In a letter to Kerr, they suggested that she demonstrate improvement in a number of areas in order to be considered suitable to practice teaching. Among the recommendations made in the letter:
- Work as a team with STEP faculty, staff, peers, university supervisor as well as cooperating teachers and colleagues at your placement site.
- Develop and maintain an openness to learning and self criticism.
- Assess your development as a teacher by seeking out and accepting corrective and critical feedback from instructors, colleagues, cooperating teacher and university supervisor.
- Analyze and reflect on your teaching and your curriculum to understand what contributes to student learning.
- Expand your knowledge of instructional methods and technologies and demonstrate their implementation in the classroom.
- Use observations of veteran teachers to improve your teaching and extend your learning.
- Avoid unnecessary personal and professional conflicts related to STEP.
- Submit assignments by the deadline (we acknowledge you have made progress and need to maintain your improvement with regard to this area of concern).
- Attend class on time (we acknowledge you have made progress and need to maintain your improvement with regard to this area of concern).
Joanne Jacobs updates us on Kerr's journey:
After filing a complaint, Kerr got a new supervisor with whom she got along very well. She completed the program and was hired by a high school in the area to teach algebra, geometry and humanities.
What are your thoughts?