Anonymous Education Bloggers Must Balance Freedom and Prudence

The Houston Chronicle reports on a number of teachers who blog, a trend that they describe as largely anonymous. Some teachers blog for “free therapy,” while others blog to defend public education, and still others use the medium to interact with other educators.

Of course, blogging about work is a complicated matter for those who work in the helping professions. Issues of confidentiality are paramount, which is why so many teachers who blog do not use their real name or divulge their location. However, simply avoiding names does not solve the problem. Some districts are considering implementing policies about online communication by staff:

Most Houston-area districts have remained silent on the issue of what teachers may post on their blogs, although the Katy school district issued a stern warning to employees last fall after some expressed concern about educators and students chatting online. link

Clearly, publicly badmouthing students, parents, or co-workers is unprofessional and ill-advised, even when blogging anonymously. However, blogs can be a healthy and responsible way to communicate online, provided that appropriate precautions are taken. The Chronicle article says:

“While the district does not have the authority to prevent district employees from subscribing to these types of applications from their homes or from exercising their rights to free speech, employees are held accountable for adhering to the state code of ethics for educators,” wrote Lenny Schad, Katy’s deputy superintendent for information and technology services. link

Whether or not you choose to blog anonymously, there are several factors to keep in mind:

  • Domain registration – if you own your own domain name, the WHOIS record can reveal your identity unless you use private registration
  • Social networking – if you use MySpace or similar online services, your network of “friends” or contacts can reveal your identity or location even if you don’t state them explicitly.
  • Comments – if one of your readers knows your true identity, they can reveal it by leaving a comment. For this reason, it may be wise to moderate comments, so you have to approve each one before it appears on your site.
  • Inbound links – if other blogs link to yours and use your name in the link, your blog can turn up in search results even if you never reveal your identity on your site
  • District policies – if your district has a strict policy against personal use of school computers, blog only from home
  • Permanence – most blogs are checked automatically by feed readers every few hours, and once something is published, it’s safe to assume that it can never be completely deleted

Social networking sites such as MySpace raise a host of other issues, such as the problematic nature of inadvertently linking to inappropriate material via contacts’ profiles. For that reason, I recommend blogging only on services that do not have extensive social networking features. Even if you do not blog about work, using your real name or work location on a social networking site will allow students to find you, which creates complications that are probably not worth dealing with.

Blogging, however, can be useful and enjoyable if done ethically and prudently.

“Bubble Kids” and Dilemmas of Accountability

PDK has an article entitled “Rationing Education In an Era of Accountability” in this month’s edition, which discusses two dilemmas of high-stakes testing and accountability:

Dilemma 1: Data can be used to improve student achievement, but they can also be used to target some students at the expense of others.

Dilemma 2: It is unfair to hold schools accountable for new students or for subgroups that are too small to yield statistically reliable estimates of a school’s effectiveness; however, the consequence of excluding some students may be to deny them access to scarce educational resources.

Jennifer Booher-Jennings illustrates at length how a sharp focus on getting more students to meet standard leads schools to ignore both students who will certainly pass the test, and those who are very unlikely to pass. Instead, schools are focusing all of their energy on the “bubble kids,” students who are on the verge of passing. Because efforts directed at “bubble kids” have the highest payoff in pass rates, schools are ignoring the value in helping low-achieving students make progress as well as helping above-standard students strive for even greater heights. In many schools, Booher-Jennings says, students of color and students in special education don’t even have a chance to become “bubble kids,” because there aren’t enough of them to count for AYP.

There appears to be no accountability system for this type of discriminatory behavior. If schools raise their test scores, they are praised, with little inquiry into the side-effects of those score gains. In fact, high-achieving students could lose ground, and low-achieving students could learn nothing at all, and the school would still be praised for its gains as long as more bubble kids met standard.

Conversely, there is a third dilemma introduced if we focus on average scores instead of pass rates: Schools may choose to focus on further raising the achievement of high-achieving students, since taking a student from an 85 to a 95 may be easier than taking a student from a 25 to a 35. Susan Roberta Katz illutrates the consequences of this approach, popular before NCLB, in “Teaching in Tensions: Latino Immigrant Youth, Their Teachers, and the Structures of Schooling.”

What is missing from this discussion is ethics. What is the mission of the school, and how can it be pursued with integrity? How does a focus on test scores interfere with our ability to ethically and equitably serve all students? Why are administrators pressured to raise scores, regardless of how this pressure affects students?

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