FREE SPEECH — An older student recently in the education program at Stanford was a force to be reckoned with in a profession where unflattering blogging about peers and (organizational) superiors is a luxury usually deferred until tenure is achieved—if ever, reports columnist Jay Matthews for the Washington Post.

Michele Kerr (she tells me it is pronounced “cur”) is a
hard-working educator and Web surfer who is often mean to me. This is
probably a good thing. When I post something stupid, Kerr—using her nom
de Internet, “Cal Lanier”–is on me like my cat chasing a vole in the

Her acidic humor is so entertaining, however, and her command of
the facts so complete, that I have come to look forward to her
critiques. She tends to eviscerate me whenever I embrace anti-tracking
or other progressive gospel preached in education schools these days,
but I learn something each time.

I wish the supervisors of the Stanford
Teacher Education Program (STEP) at that university’s School of
Education had checked with me before they decided 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.

Its leaders also can, the Kerr saga reveals, force a teacher
candidate to stop blogging. Why? Because they have no defined policy on
blogging. In Kerr’s case, they decided for themselves that she was
stepping over some ill-defined line, and were careful to share their
concerns with Kerr’s potential employers. In my view, that was so she
would have less chance to land a job if they failed to deny her a

At times, Kerr has made her Stanford tormentors look silly. There
is, for instance, the email Kerr sent to her classmates after the
program’s director, Rachel Lotan, said some of her fellow teacher
trainees found her “domineering and intimidating” and didn’t want to
sit next to her in class.

“For those of you who wish to continue requesting that you not sit
with me in practicum, make sure you mention the reason so that Rachel
can build her case for the next time we do our little dance. ‘Rachel, I
do not want to sit next to Michele in practicum. It has nothing to do
with her views; she’s just a domineering, overbearing bitch.’ DOB. We
could print up cards or something. Don’t Sit Me Next to the DOB!” she
wrote. “I’ll continue being me, and those of you who feel uncomfortable
can maybe learn how to speak up. Or not. Your call.”

Lotan and Eamonn K. Callan, the education school’s dean for student
affairs, disappointed me, and I suspect many of Kerr’s classmates, with
their tone-deaf response. They said the email “could have the effect of
silencing those who are wary of confronting” Kerr and that she “had not
considered that her actions could have a chilling effect on other
students, according to an email they sent to Kerr.