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Outspoken education historian leaving USF

Sherman Dorn’s move, in part, is due to life changes.

Sherman Dorn’s move, in part, is due to life changes.

TAMPA — A respected critic of state and national education policy is leaving Florida.

Sherman Dorn, a University of South Florida education professor, accepted a leadership position at Arizona State University, starting in July. He will be director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Dorn, 48, is an education historian of the past 70 years, a span that started with a significant growth in high school graduates that plateaued in the 1970s. He came to USF as an assistant professor in 1996 and currently chairs the Department of Psychological and Social Foundations, which will cease to exist in June as part of a reorganization at USF.

During his time in Tampa, he wrote several books, including Accountability Frankenstein: Understanding and Taming the Monster and Creating the Dropout: An Institutional and Social History of School Failure.

He became a go-to source for state education reporters. When Gov. Rick Scott ranked Florida's public school districts, Dorn called it a "Lady Gaga strategy to get attention."

In a story about graduation rates, he likened them to mortality rates — not useful to help students who dropped out, but good for future discussions.

Dorn served as president of USF's faculty union from 2007 to 2011. In 2010, he criticized university president Judy Genshaft, saying she overstepped her bounds when she fired Sami Al-Arian, a tenured professor, who in 2003 was arrested on federal charges that he was the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a government-designated terrorist group.

"I didn't always agree with what Genshaft was doing, and I absolutely thought some of it was inappropriate," he said. "But in my time here, I never felt my academic freedom was threatened."

He currently teaches undergraduate- and graduate-level courses in social science and humanities perspectives on education. In class, he debates on topics such as how and why students in public schools are taught to take on the issue of the day, including the war on poverty or drugs or prejudice. He says it befuddles him that children aren't taught about the war on global terrorism.

Through shermandorn.com/wordpress, his blog, he brings a witty and informed opinion to debates among those who study education. He believes in holding schools accountable, but is a skeptic of high-stakes testing, including the FCAT. He supports accountability, but thinks testing got warped somewhere along the way.

He has criticized school vouchers, which use taxpayer dollars for private school scholarships for about 60,000 low-income children in Florida.

"If you take money from the public purse, you should be held accountable," said Dorn, whose own children went to public schools in Tampa.

Glen McGhee, the director of the Florida Higher Education Accountability Project, a networking group based in the Florida Panhandle, didn't always see things as Dorn did, but said his departure would be a loss to USF.

"Sherman has been a tireless advocate for improving teacher education in Florida," McGhee said in an email. "Most of all, I have prized his historical focus when dealing with a wide range of educational issues, providing depth to what would otherwise be superficial discussion."

Though Dorn said the current reorganization was a factor in his decision to leave USF, he also called his new post in Arizona a career opportunity.

He also said his decision was spurred by life changes. His two children went off to liberal arts colleges in Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., and he wanted to be closer to family, including his mother, who lives in California.

"I will miss my colleagues greatly and am curious to see what happens after the reorganizations."

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

Outspoken education historian leaving USF 03/07/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 7, 2014 4:28pm]
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