Blogs > Cliopatria > Dispositions Victory

Jun 8, 2006 5:38 pm

Dispositions Victory

While I was in Israel, several people emailed me with word of a stunning reversal by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. NCATE decided to nullify its post-2002 requirement that the dozens of Education departments around the country that list “social justice” as a goal to “include some measure of a candidate’s commitment to social justice” when evaluating the “dispositions” of their students. The organization acted only under the threat that its dispositions policy might prompt the Department of Education to revoke its ability to accredit Ed programs—and thereby put it out of business. A coalition of groups, including FIRE, NAS, and ACTA, had formed to testify publicly against NCATE at its reauthorization hearings.

I’m hoping that the NCATE move will bring to an end my involvement with “dispositions,” a term I first encountered on November 29, 2004, when the head of the Social Studies Ed program at Brooklyn e-mailed me. The e-mail asked me to supply negative information about one of my students, Evan Goldwyn, since:

We have some serious concerns about his disruptive and bullying behavior in the SOE classroom as well as aggressive and bullying behavior towards his professor outside the class . . . The School of Ed is trying to be more systematic in looking at what educators call"dispositions," that is behaviors necessary for being a successful teacher in the public schools. Being able to do excellent academic work, does not always translate into being a thoughtful, self reflective and effective teacher for youngsters.

Evan was a wonderful student—very smart, very hard-working, about whom my only real problem was that he occasionally didn’t speak up enough in class. I e-mailed back to say this, after which point my feedback was no longer desired. (Politically, Evan struck me as centrist or perhaps center-right, but hardly a strong conservative.) I also asked a colleague, Margaret King, to do some background investigation into the concept of “dispositions,” since I had an article deadline at the time.

Margaret worked her way through Ed literature to note the link between the idea of “dispositions” and using Ed programs to promote “social justice.” At that point, I had still never heard of NCATE, and assumed that “dispositions” was another tool brought in by Brooklyn College provost Roberta Matthews, who since her installation in 2001 has zealously redefined college personnel and curricular policies to implement her written mantra that “teaching is a political act.”

Meanwhile, I heard back from Evan and two other students of mine, Christina Harned and Simon Tong, that the Education course’s instructor demanded that they recognize “white English” as the “oppressors’ language,” and, without explanation, had the class spend its session before Election Day 2004 screening Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. The alleged “bullying” behavior came when several students complained to the professor about the course’s politicized content, prompting her to inform them that their previous education had left them “brainwashed” on matters relating to race and social justice. The three students, as well as a fourth, Scott Madden, who had a similar experience with the same instructor the previous semester, communicated this information to the dean of the Brooklyn Ed School. Five other students would subsequently file statements.

The students’ coming forward had negative consequences. One month later, Evan and Christina were accused of violating the college’s “academic integrity” policy on their course final projects, the development of five “diversity” lesson plans for a social studies class. The assignment explicitly gave students permission to cut and paste state guidelines from the internet, and stated they were only to list sources they would distribute to their hypothetical class. Evan was faulted for not providing sufficient footnotes, in an assignment that required no footnotes, Christina for copying two items from the internet (one of which was the definition of Jim Crow, which most people would consider coming under the concept of common knowledge) in one of her lesson plans. By this definition of plagiarism, just about every student at the college and most professors would be guilty at some point in their careers.

Brooklyn has a clear four-step procedure on plagiarism, which culminates in an appeal to the undergraduate dean. But for Evan and Christina, this process was abandoned. Instead, their initial meeting occurred with the instructor and the undergraduate dean, who refused them permission (on tape) to bring a witness, a tape recorder, or an attorney to the meeting and then pronounced them guilty. As I’ve noted in other contexts recently, if my Brooklyn experience has taught me nothing else, it’s that the blatant corruption of normal procedures rarely conceals benign intent.

Blocked at the college level, the students went public, giving interviews to Jacob Gershman, then the higher education reporter for the New York Sun. Gershman spent several months working on his article, mastered the dispositions literature, and did his best to speak to those on the other side of the issue. (Both the instructor and her supervisor declined comment to the Sun; the Ed dean gave a brief nasty comment about the students but little else.) The resulting story was a model of how the press can bring sunlight to the academy and explain some of its less appealing aspects to the public at large.

Gershman’s article stimulated a firestorm. Fox News’ David Miller brought the issue to a national television audience. At Brooklyn, the local branch of CUNY’s indefatigable faculty union, the PSC, scheduled a special “academic freedom” meeting—operating under the premise that “academic freedom” gives professors authority to punish students for challenging their in-class viewpoints on controversial contemporary issues. PSC president Barbara Bowen demanded that CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein issue a public statement condemning the Gershman article—assuming that “academic freedom” is irreconcilable with freedom of the press. Goldstein, of course, demurred, and it quickly emerged that no other Ed program at CUNY was following Brooklyn’s peculiar conception of “social justice” education.

Gershman’s story helped trigger a more national examination of the issue, bringing to light cases even more grotesque than Brooklyn’s. Washington State’s Education program developed its own “dispositions” form, which it applied in Owellian fashion to a conservative student named Ed Swan. Education professors contended that anyone who opposed affirmative action lacked a “disposition” to promote “social justice,” and therefore shouldn’t be a public school teacher—even though Washington voters, in 2000, had approved a referendum outlawing the use of race-based policies in education. In effect, Washington State sought to exclude a majority of the state’s voters from becoming schoolteachers, solely on the grounds of their political beliefs.

Swan went to FIRE, which, as only FIRE can do, initiated a highly effective public relations campaign on his behalf. On campus, two professors from political science took up the cause, correctly noting the irrelevance between a student’s political views and his or her ability to teach. Under mounting local pressure, Washington State backed down.

By this point, NCATE was on the defensive for trying to hide an enormous change in teacher education policy through a little-noticed modification in its 2002 “dispositions” guidelines. NCATE president Arthur Wise tried to blame the individual programs, commenting that Brooklyn’s behavior was “aberrant”; Brooklyn, in turn, claimed that it had no choice but to screen students ideologically in order to maintain accreditation. The system was perfect: both NCATE and the individual school could (unconstitutionally, in the case of public colleges and universities) purge students of unacceptable political beliefs, but retain plausible deniability for being responsible for the action.

This bureaucratic sleigh-of-hand failed to survive the next press inquiry into dispositions, a major article by Robin Wilson of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Wilson detailed some of the outlandish “social justice” rhetoric through which NCATE was now requiring Education programs to screen prospective public school teachers. As a result of the article, NCATE ordered education schools to assess students’ dispositions based solely on"observable behavior in the classroom,” and added that it did"not expect or require institutions to attend to any particular political or social ideologies.”

This statement appeared to end the matter, but then Wise started to backtrack, suggesting that “social justice” still represented a litmus test for teachers. So FIRE, ACTA, and NAS mobilized. Each developed impressive statements urging the Department of Education to strip NCATE of its powers. And NCATE, realizing that its attempt to use dispositions theory to create an ideologically homogenous generation of public school teachers could badly backfire, retreated.

The entire affair demonstrates two important points. First, there’s nothing necessarily harmful in outside commentary on academic affairs—even if, as is often the case, that outside interest also has political or ideological motivations. The Gershman article was a great piece of journalism. Absent the outside pressure from FIRE, NASA, or ACTA, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that Education departments would have modified their dispositions policies. If outside criticism is flawed, or makes unsustainable arguments, of course it should be condemned—just as if criticism from inside the academy suffers from the same shortcomings. But the press or activists have a right to comment about higher education, and in today’s ideologically one-sided academy, often can provide a necessary balance.

Second, individual students can make a difference. Lots of advocacy groups, professors, and individual activists contributed to NCATE’s retreat. But, in the end, this victory belongs to Evan Goldwyn, Christina Harned, Scott Madden, and Simon Tong. Their willingness to make their opinions known, and their courage in sticking to their guns despite highly inappropriate actions by the college administration, set the stage for the issue going national. In this respect, the actions of four students at Brooklyn College will improve the experiences of thousands of Education students nationally in the years to come.

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Michael Pitkowsky - 6/8/2006


When you were in Israel did you hear about this crazy libel case between two professors? It is too much.

Robert KC Johnson - 6/8/2006

Ralph's comment is a very good example of the non-ideological nature of this problem. There are a few--not many--NCATE-authorized Ed programs that are clearly rightist--Oral Roberts and BYU are the best-known examples. And there, the dispositions requirement for "social justice" could have been used, say, against students to supported gay marriage or abortion rights.

Oscar's certainly correct that there are some good Ed people andvery good Ed students--I also am currently involved in a TAH grant, and have had a similar experience. But overall, I'm pretty dubious about the value of Ed programs. I spend a few days a year teaching in Brooklyn high schools (I do an LBJ tapes lesson), and it's hard to see the relevance of much of what Ed schools teach to the practical day-to-day experiences of most teachers.

On the homophobia point, there's nothing in the NCATE change that prevents Ed (or social work) schools from dealing with such matters in an academically appropriate fashion. But there should be limits to profs' powers. For instance, I strongly support gay marriage. But I see no reason why a student who opposes gay marriage should, for that reason alone, be prevented from becoming a public school teacher. On the other hand, it's perfectly appropriate to point out to them that anti-discrimination laws mean that if you discriminate on the job, you'll be fired.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/8/2006

You could be right, Oscar, but if you are things have changed. At Duke, we -- um -- practiced writing on the blackboard. In one course, we learned that multiple choice questions should include fairly limited numbers of choices, but in a final exam in another course, we had 100 items in column A and 125 items in column B. I can't recall having really learned _anything_ except maybe that I should let my picture in desegregation demonstrations appear on television while I was student teaching.

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/8/2006

Hugo I must dissent. My attitude used to be exactly yours. An Education deggree was suspect and likewise for Ed students.

However, that's more than a bit unfair. Much of the old disdain expressed by the "scholarly" fields was actually born--or at least highly encouraged--by the good old days in which women flocked to Education schools for lack of other alternatives. Your joke about the light bulb probably emerged years back in a bull session that included much talk of MRS degrees. In short, there's some misogyny in the history of the disdain.

What began to change my mind was my experience here at Eau Claire.
There is actually rather good cooperation between the history department and the school of education on my campus. Furthermore the quality of the education students in my classes is simply unarguable. Many have been good; some remarkable.

My Teaching American History grant experience has also introduced me to many exellenct intelligent graduates of education programs. Many needed to know more history, but most have been intelligent and inquisitive. I can't say how much the Education courses gave them, but I'm inclined to think more than nothing.

I understand the concern with some of the ideas that have evolved in the study of education. I share it. But I think you need to look more carefully before you make another crack.

Thomas Brown - 6/8/2006

Nice summary. The equivalent of dispositions still exists in pretty much all social work programs. The rationale is that a social worker will be unable to serve, say, a gay client if the worker is homophobic. A problem in my institution's program is that down here in our small town in the Deep South, a majority of the students come in with some degree of homophobia. That's just one example.

Hugo Schwyzer - 6/8/2006

If we did away with schools of education altogether -- and abolished the federal Department of Education that dear Jimmy Carter foolishly created -- we would be better off.

And we can all get together and tell our best jokes about how many Ed.D.s it takes to screw in a lightbulb.

Seriously, KC, this lefty Democrat salutes you for a terrific post and your role in this.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/8/2006

I read about all of this with some sense of irony. In 1961-2, I took Duke's "education block" of courses for for certification as a high school teacher. They were an almost total waste of time and money. There were three courses and, in the latter part of the semester, required the satisfactory completion of six weeks of student teaching in a local public school. As it happened, I was actively picketing two local movie theaters at the time because of their segregation, while I was student teaching in a local white public school. Things got tense when pictures of me appeared on local television and one of my students started drawing a caricature of me in his notebook, with the caption: "Nigger lover." My supervisor threatened to suspend me from student teaching, which would have meant that I would lose credit for the whole semester's work and, thus, fail to graduate at the end of the academic year. My "social justice" threatened to disqualify me as a public school teacher.