Thursday, December 18, 2008

Social work bigotry

A former student at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work is suing the school and several of his professors for discrimination, saying he was persecuted by the school's "liberal political machine" for being a conservative. William Felkner, 45, says the New England college and six professors wouldn't approve his final project on welfare reform because he was on the "wrong" side of political issues and countered the school's "progressive" liberal agenda.

Felkner said his problems with his professors began in his first semester, in the fall of 2004, when he objected in an e-mail to one of his professors that the school was showing and promoting Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" on campus. He said he objected because no opposing point of view was presented. He said Professor James Ryczek wrote to him on Oct. 15, 2004, saying he was proud of his bias and questioning Felkner's ability to "fit with the profession." "I think the biases and predilections I hold toward how I see the world and how it should be are why I am a social worker. In the words of a colleague, I revel in my biases," he wrote.

Felkner's complaint, filed two years ago, alleges that Ryczek discriminated against him for his conservative viewpoint and gave him bad grades because of it in several classes. It also alleges discrimination by other professors and administrators. Felkner said he received failing grades in Ryczek's class for holding viewpoints opposed to the progressive direction of the class.

Felkner says he was also discriminated against by Professor Roberta Pearlmutter, who he says refused to allow him to participate in a group project lobbying for a conservative issue because the assignment was to lobby for a liberal issue. He alleges that Perlmutter spent a 50-minute class "assailing" his views and allowed students to openly ridicule his conservative positions, and that she reduced his grade because he was not "progressive." The Rhode Island College School of Social Work did not respond to a request for comment.

Felkner, a self-proclaimed free-market conservative, told that during his final year, he wanted to do a project on "work first" welfare, which requires that recipients get jobs before they can get benefits. He said the school advocated an "education first" system, in which recipients get job training and don't have to work for benefits. "Basically it was a system that resulted in 2 percent of [Rhode Island's] recipients being on welfare for over 10 years. It was just not working," Felkner said. While at the college he had an internship with the governor's office on public policy to work on welfare reform.

The social work organizing and policy degree program requires a student to complete a project that works for "progressive social change." He was scheduled to complete his project in January, but he said the defendants' actions kept him from finishing and graduating. "There were two years worth of discrimination really, there's no better way to put it, because I had different views than the school does," Felkner said. "It's kind of insane to think that someone studying how to help the poor can't research welfare reform."

Felkner also alleges in his complaint that the school's treatment of him restricted his ability to express his opinions and that his bad grades damaged his professional reputation and would make it difficult for him to get a job as a social worker.

Kim Strom-Gottfried, professor of social work at U.N.C. Chapel Hill, said that faculty members should not impose their politics on students. "My bottom line is I think clearly as faculty we have to appraise our students based on required competencies and demonstrations of that, whether critical thinking or whatever, but there shouldn't be a belief litmus test for joining the profession or for an assignment," Strom-Gottfried said. "The questions I have in cases such as his - why would someone choose to affiliate with a profession that's so at odds with his beliefs and his value-base? That's always a question for me," she said.

Bruce Thyer, professor of social work and former dean at the College of Social Work at Florida State University, has written about discrimination against conservatives and against evangelical Christians in social work. He said discrimination hurts the profession. "I have seen students actively discouraged from pursuing social work because of their politically conservative views. I've also seen it happen with students who have held strong religious views," he said. "I think that the profession is a great and noble discipline and there are occasional episodes like this that cast a black eye, and it's really unnecessary." Thyer said liberal and conservative social workers have the same goal - to help people - and that the school overstepped its bounds in Felkner's case. "I think it's an overzealous faculty wishing to impose their own political views upon those of their students, and that's unfortunate because there are many areas in which liberal and conservative thinkers within the discipline of social work have so much to agree upon," he said. "Nobody's advocating, certainly not Bill Felkner, that people not be helped."

The college filed a motion for summary judgment this summer, but it was recently denied by the court. Felkner said the school is now seeking a settlement. He said he would still like to receive his masters in social work, and he is still working on government policy on social welfare programs in Rhode Island through the Ocean State Policy Research Institute, which he founded after leaving the school. "You can say what you want about the war on poverty and how it's going, but I think that it hasn't gone well and I think there are better alternatives, and I think it was a shame I wasn't even allowed to research and pursue those interests," Felkner said. "It's indoctrination."


Obama to name Arne Duncan as education secretary

Sounds hopeful -- insofar as there is any hope at all for public school education

Arne Duncan, who aggressively closed failing schools in Chicago but also opened dozens of new ones, is expected to be named today as President-elect Barack Obama's pick to head the U.S. Department of Education, a transition source said. The 6-foot-5-inch Harvard graduate played professional basketball in Australia and is one of the longest-serving big-city school chiefs in the country. His nomination to Obama's Cabinet is expected to be announced today at Dodge Renaissance School. Barbara Eason-Watkins, the chief education officer in CPS, is expected to replace Duncan as CEO of the nation's third-largest school district, a City Hall source told the Sun-Times. Duncan, 44, did not respond to phone calls Monday night.

As education secretary, Duncan will be implementing the controversial No Child Left Behind law, which both he and Obama have criticized. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate committee that must confirm the education nomination, said in a statement that Duncan was a consensus candidate. "Arne has been a pragmatic and effective leader of Chicago's schools," Kennedy said. "He's brought people together to address difficult challenges and expand opportunities so that every child can succeed."

Last Thursday, President Bush's own education secretary, Margaret Spellings, praised Duncan as ''a visionary leader'' and said he would be a "great choice" for her job. Duncan's father was a University of Chicago psychology professor; his mother ran an inner-city tutoring center where Duncan played every day. His mentor, John Rogers, founder of Ariel Capital Management and a friend and fund-raiser of Obama, lured him away from basketball to run the Ariel Foundation and start a small school. By 2001, Duncan was a quiet, relatively unknown senior manager in the Chicago Public School bureaucracy when Mayor Daley tapped him to replace headline machine Paul Vallas as CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Duncan went on to head one of Daley's boldest and most controversial initiatives: Renaissance 2010.

With the mayor's blessing, and over protests from union and parent groups, he has closed 61 CPS schools, mostly for poor performance or underenrollment, but also opened 75 new schools, including an all-girls public school, an all-boys public school, and a "virtual'' school. Although designers of a proposed "gay-friendly'' school withdrew their proposal last month, Duncan didn't shy from supporting the idea.

Some say Duncan had the inside track on the appointment, signaled by the Election Day basketball game he played with Obama. Duncan and Obama both have Hyde Park ties and attended Harvard. Duncan's wife is the athletic director at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where Obama's two daughters attend classes. Duncan and his wife have two young children, one of whom attends a neighborhood CPS school. Duncan had well-connected boosters. Rogers is co-chair of Obama's Presidential Inauguration Committee. Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who plays pickup ball with Obama and Duncan, also was a supporter. Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker is a Duncan fan. Pritzker served as Obama's presidential campaign finance director and is current co-chair of his transition team.

To Duncan's education supporters, his selection seemed natural. "Arne is open to new ideas and he respects data,'' said John Easton, co-director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

Under Duncan, elementary test scores have slowly climbed, but high school scores have been problematic. While other districts focused on high school graduation, Duncan pushed CPS to be the first big-city district to track the ultimate bottom line -- whether CPS freshmen were enrolling in and finishing college, said Melissa Roderick, another consortium co-director. The first round of answers, one U. of C. researcher conceded at the time, was "appalling.'' Only 8 percent of CPS freshmen had a four-year degree by their mid-20s, early research showed. "It was on the front page of the paper and [Duncan] said, 'We have to deal with it,' '' Roderick said. "That's a courage I hope he brings to the U.S. Department of Education.''

Quality and quantity of teacher applicants have clearly risen under Duncan. He also has embraced alternative certification programs such as Teach for America, criticized by Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, considered a contender for education secretary.

Duncan has shown an ability to work civilly with foes. Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart has blasted Duncan for displacing teachers with his Renaissance 2010 shakeup but supported him on a teacher pay-for-performance experiment.

Some say Duncan has done little to stop the test preparation mania that has swept the nation in the wake of No Child Left Behind. He closed some high schools despite warnings that sending their students elsewhere, across gang boundaries, would lead to violence -- and data later showed violence followed such closings. "There have been good things and bad things about what's been happening in Chicago schools,'' said Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education. "We all need to look very carefully at what those things are.''



A good comment from blogwonks

Incoming Education Secretary Pledges to Teach Kids to Talk Good

Not to nitpick, but Arne Duncan, who ran the Chicago school system, is a Harvard grad and will be Secretary of Education in Barack Obama’s administration, was reading from a prepared text that, if you’re a stickler on grammar, will give you the chills.

“It gave my sister and I the opportunity…”

This makes I want to home school my kids from here on in:

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