Stanford’s STEP Teacher Education Program, Social Justice and Dressing in Drag

Mission High School logo

It’s no secret that if you don’t toe the philosophical line in many teacher education programs, you encounter hindrances that range from brick walls to ambushes to professional punji pits. Sometimes it’s the administration; sometimes professors; sometimes peers. And sometimes all three work together to make sure you get the message that freedom of thought is fine – as long as you think the same way as the School of Education.

It plays hell with one’s career in education.

Occasionally we hear about a student whose worldview isn’t as malleable as the EduWeenies would like.

Michele Kerr is a 40-something who applied to Stanford University’s Teacher Education Program and was admitted. After letting it be known that she wasn’t on board with every element of the Program’s ‘social justice’ tenets, the problems quickly mounted. She was threatened with having her offer of admission revoked, including planning legal action to see that through. She was railroaded into being an enemy of the program, with administrators citing that students even felt uncomfortable sitting near her in classes because of her anti-progressive stances. The final straw was when the Program demanded a login and password for the blog on which she wrote anonymously about her challenges both with the program and the school environment in which she was training.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education [FIRE] – a champion of freedom in academia – stepped in. As they have so many times, they set the offenders straight and Kerr was guaranteed fair treatment. Adam Kissel of FIRE summarized the issue:

“Like STEP, too many education programs today are teaching by words and deeds that only one orthodoxy or ideology is acceptable in future teachers,” Kissel said. “This refusal to accept alternative views is no way to prepare teachers to cultivate effective citizens in our democracy. Fortunately, senior administrators stepped in to set things right for Michele Kerr.”

You can read FIRE’s press release about the case: Victory for Freedom of Speech at Stanford: Student Graduates Despite Ed School Efforts to Revoke Admission, Investigate Private Blog, and Declare Student Unfit for Teaching.

That an outfit even has to investigate an issue warranting a title like that should make you balk – and it’s more common than you think.

The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews should also be praised for swallowing that most bitter pill and highlighting Kerr’s case even though he’s on a different philosophical track. He gives a well-detailed account of Kerr’s saga in “They Messed With the Wrong Blogger.”

Too few people, both inside and outside of the education game, understand how common this is – and how pervasive social justice theories are in schools of education. But we’re not just talking about pointy-headed academics who regard 1968 as the high-water mark of American life; it shows up in everyday classes, too.

You know, like “frequently” discussing sexuality in your kid’s geometry/trigonometry class.

Taica Hsu is a 2006 alumnus of STEP. He teaches math at Mission High School, part of the San Francisco Unified School District, in the city’s Mission District. The setting:

“Mission High School has the distinction of being the first comprehensive high school in San Francisco and the first such school west of the Rocky Mountains. The first building was formally dedicated in 1897. Mission High School is proud of its rich history and we have our very own museum on campus which highlights the evolution of Mission High over the past 100+ years. Located in the heart of the Mission District in San Francisco, Mission High is proud of its ethnic diversity and we try to instill positive social values, acceptance and tolerance in our students.”

And “in [Hsu's] world, trigonometry points to justice.”

A MissionLoc@l article about Hsu’s classroom offers an inside view into how STEP students/teachers – and those in similar programs – approach education:

“On one wall, of his purple-painted classroom, posters proclaim the ills of war and social stratification. On another, algebra students’ projects statistically break down the injustices of homeless, drugs and teen pregnancy.

“My ultimate goal is to make students aware of the inequities in society,” he says. “I want to make them want to change their place in society.””

I’d rather they just learned math, but such trivialities are increasingly displaced by the pet projects of the education game’s social engineers.

“And in his class, where a rainbow flag hangs in the back of the room and the teacher wears a “No on 8? pin more than a week after the measure has passed, sexuality also comes up.

Gilberto [a student] had never met an openly-gay person before coming to Hsu’s class, he says. He thought homosexuality was “weird,” and he balked at the idea of having Hsu as geometry teacher.”

I’m pleased that Gilberto is more accepting and tolerant than he was on day 1 – after all, he’ll encounter people of all sorts throughout the course of his life. But Hsu’s efforts impinge on the authority of parents to address these issues at home. Simply put, I’d rather talk to my child about the merits and drawbacks of Prop 8 than have it woven into a lesson about trigonometric proofs.

Extracurricular clubs and events provide opportunities for students to go beyond rigid academic disciplines – and for Hsu to extend a social justice program that includes fostering a ‘them vs. us’ strain of victimization:

““He knows what it’s like to be discriminated against, just like us,” Gilberto says, with “us” meaning all undocumented immigrants. “He relates to us. He understands. So even though it doesn’t look like it, we both have something in common.”

Discrimination is everywhere – perhaps Mr. Hsu would allow me to come in and talk to the kids about Southwest London’s contempt for American, George W. Bush-supporting Republicans who enjoy country music and operate with a decidedly-rural panache?

It’s not all serious, thoughtful curriculum, though – sometimes he and the kids just dress up in drag:

“Hsu encourages awareness of queer issues on campus. He is the faculty sponsor of the gay-straight alliance, which hosts a drag show to honor the Day of Silence in the spring.”"

Surely Mission High School has so much time and so many resources for these forays because they’ve outperformed every other school in the SFUSD, routinely topping the charts in academic performance?

No. Mission High is one of the lowest-performing schools in the District, having received a rating of 1 out of 10 – with 1 being the lowest possible score – in the 2008 Academic Performance Index Report from the California Department of Education. The June Jordan School for Equity competes with Mission High for that last rung on the SFUSD ladder. And the problem isn’t that Mission High has a large population of non-native English speakers and English Language Learners [ELL] – Moscone Elementary, which, according to Mission Loc@l, has a majority population of ELLs, scored a 9 out of 10.

It isn’t necessarily Hsu’s fault – we have no idea how his efforts contribute to those scores. What we do know is that STEP and its graduates would do well to re-evaluate their priorities if they want to institute the fairness and commitment to academic achievement that they purport to uphold.

Or they can marginalize the Michele Kerrs of the education world, mix homosexual marriage rights with Euclidean geometry, dress in drag and retreat from abysmal test scores. Our students won’t be prepared for college, but at least they’ll be ready for the Folsom Street Fair.

13 Responses to “Stanford’s STEP Teacher Education Program, Social Justice and Dressing in Drag”

  1. Is there some place I could actually see excerpts from her blog or a cache of her blog? I can’t understand how this story got this far without citing a single passage from her blog.

    In general, I’m not sympathetic to these stories. Stanford is a private institution — if she is out of step with that program there are plenty of other places for her to shop. I think if it were a public institution you’d have something to stand on, maybe.

    But if you look at the mission statement of STEP the idea is that a person with a STEP degree is going to share certain ideas and commitments. If they don’t, the degree ends up not meaning anything. If you really do believe in markets, that’s significant.

    But all this is meaningless without citing the excerpts that caused this mess. Could you get them?

  2. mine says:

    you’re an idiot.

  3. mine says:

    OH. MY. GOD, wrong blog, wrong comment – i’m doing too many things at once, please forgive & delete. i DEFINITELY don’t agree with your conservative perspective AT ALL and contend that training our young people to approach life and academics with a justice-minded consciousness is in fact our greatest joy and responsibility.

  4. Alan Hong says:

    mine, if we want, say, equal rights for women, we should treat women the way we treat men, in that, both genders should be respected the same way and neither should be less valued simply because “she is a woman” or “he is a man”. It’s that we continue to “promote” the idea that we must be tolerant of people who are different from the “norm” that these issues exist. Education, I think, should teach kids how to think and reason out for themselves why everyone, say, deserves equal rights. I don’t think just pushing these ideas help.

  5. “EduWeenies”? Such terminology renders it difficult to take your points seriously.

    One virtues of private education is the right to enforce conformity to a distinct approach to knowledge. Religious institutions, for example, can require a statement of faith of their professors, and openly espouse faith in the classrooms in ways that would make their school terribly uncomfortable for secularists. As long as Christian education is worth defending–and I believe it is–private universities that want to enforce a particular progressive orthodoxy deserve the same defense.

  6. Great article i am only sad it wasn’t written sooner. this kind of thing has been going on for ages and until the school system gets over the weird things that make people individuals then education as we know it will become stagnant.

  7. DeeAnn Hoffmann says:

    As an educator with children in this public school system, I want my own children to learn geometry and English not someone elses idea of what tolerance is and what normal is. I will teach those things at home according to my faith and beliefs. I teach honesty, respect, and how to be a responsible productive citizen is our society, but I would never be so arrogant to think that I should teach another’s child how to believe. I will teach them how to think; then they can decide what to think.

  8. Why are you not posting as often as you used to? :(

  9. DeeAnn, you express the quintessential philosophy of every teacher-parent I know. The “leaders” and politicians that run our bureaucracy have the typical “I know better” attitude that frustrates us. I believe there are more of us than we know and mentoring the newbies is an excellent way to exert our influence and “pass it on”.

  10. Lindsay says:

    I happen to know Mr. Hsu, and know for a fact that students learn more Geometry in his class than in the high-scoring Christian high school at which I used to work. Heaven forbid that his students acquire these skills in a context of relevance and mutual respect.

    Also, thanks for your sarcasm, but I’m sure he actually would welcome you to his classroom with grace and openness. You could learn a thing or two from his students anyway.

  11. Concerned says:

    Mr. Tahor:

    I believe in freedom of expression. Thank you for highlighting your concern for this; however, I also would have appreciated if you took the time to personally investigate your topics beyond other people’s articles– if you are worried about one-sided educators, might it be important to aim for objectivity and holistic research in your educational article as well?

    If you took a look at Kerr’s several blogs/forums prior to the media outbreak (many have now been edited… see before and after: you may realize that there is also more to this issue than meets the eye. First, you would have realized that although her ideas may deviate from the program, she also discussed specific students on her blog and also posted videos of students – something that is unethical and illegal according to FERPA and STEP’s student privacy policies. Also, if it is true that her posts have now been edited… doesn’t that make you wonder whether this issue is more multifaceted than one can assume after reading an op-ed? Furthermore, perhaps this might make the Washington Post op-ed (a source for your article) unreliable?

    In addition, I would have appreciated if you observed Mr. Hsu’s classroom before making assumptions. I am not sure if you were aware, but Mission High School’s CST scores in Math exceeded the school’s growth goal; in particular, their Algebra scores (the subject Mr. Hsu was teaching last year) jumped the greatest amount. Might this indicate rigor and high academic expectations and curriculum?

    I appreciate your concern for protecting speech. It is important to critically think about ideas and philosophies, I completely agree with you on this- freedom of expression is an important value in our country. It is, however, our civic responsibility to do our homework before doing so.

    Thank you.

  12. “I happen to know Mr. Hsu, and know for a fact that students learn more Geometry in his class than in the high-scoring Christian high school at which I used to work.”

    Prove it. Show us the data.

  13. I am a teacher and I find all too often the teachers own agendas come through in their teachings. Lets not forget how impressionable our your children are – their minds are just developing and they are very susceptible to suggestion and innuendos. A teacher could make it “cool” to do almost anything which is why it’s very important for parents to play an active role in their child’s day.

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