Redefining ‘Dispositions’

NCATE sends out bulletin hoping to clarify a policy that has done more bad than good

By: Annamarya Scaccia for the Brooklyn College Kingsman (Feb. 21, 2006)

In an effort to quell the controversy that handicapped Brooklyn Colleges’ Education Department last semester, the National Council for Accreditations of Teacher Education has revised the much criticized “dispositions” policy, which set the storm in motion.

NCATE first introduced “dispositions” in 2002 when they decided to change focus and add the idea of promoting social justice to their guidelines of evaluating a prospective teacher’s performance. This policy had come under fire when students at Brooklyn College filed a complaint, claiming that their viewpoints were unfairly judged under the guise of “dispositions.”

According to the recent bulletin, released in late 2005, NCATE has redefined the 2002 policy as “the idea of fairness and the belief that all students can learn.” “Consistent with their mission,” the memo continues, “colleges of education may determine additional professional dispositions they want their candidates to develop.”

This policy change was prompted by last year’s string of press accounts in the last year accusing the organization of allowing education professors to judge the social and political ideologies of prospective teachers rather than their classroom performance. As stated in the bulletin, NCATE writes that it expects schools of education to assess dispositions based on “observable behavior in the classroom” and does not recommend students attitudes to be evaluated, as has been the case in the past.

“There are two possible explanations for NCATE’s late 2005 memo,” said History Professor Johnson, who has openly criticized the policy in both Inside Higher Education and the New York Sun. “It overrules the 2002 provision…and therefore represents a policy change, and it rebukes education schools…that have documented cases of abusing the dispositions criterion to impose effective political and social ideological litmus tests on students,” he said.

The Kingsman contacted NCATE for a response but they were unable to be reached for comment.

The idea of evaluating teacher candidates based on their “professional dispositions” is a concept that has been around for approximately two decades, however it became imperative when in 2002, NCATE decided to change its focus. In the 2002 edition of their guidebook, the national accrediting agency defined “dispositions” as “values, commitments, and professional ethics that influence behaviors toward the students, families, colleagues and communities.” This, according to the guidebook, was to be guided by an attitude reflecting values such as “caring, fairness, honesty, responsibility” and especially, social justice. “Social justice,” as defined by the Brooklyn College School of Education conceptual framework, is the demonstration of academic integrity and advocates fairness.

“Using dispositions to assess a candidate’s ‘commitment to social justice’ is as close to saying that Education schools should assess a candidate’s political or ‘social’ beliefs as is possible,” said Johnson. “There is this assumption that without dispositions, these problems would not be dealt with.”

“A teacher’s position on the war in Iraq should not be a judgment for whether or not they are a good teacher,” he added.

The controversy was sparked in 2004 when several students complained about Education Professor Priya Parmar’s tactics of teaching, claiming that Parmar treated them unfairly for challenging her in-class viewpoints. Before the 2004 election, Parmar required her students to watch the Michael Moore documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” for her Language Literacy in Secondary Education course, prompting five students in her class to complain, stating that it presented a one-sided view of political issues and violated their academic freedom. The college, in turn, investigated the “professional disposition” of one of the complaining students and was told that their behavior ran counter to what the school expects of prospective teachers. Parmar has also been charged with teaching students that “white English” is the “oppressors’ language,” and unjustly failing two of the students who complained, claiming that they plagiarized their assignments.

Other cases, like the one documented at Brooklyn College, have surfaced throughout the year. According to a December 16 article in The Chronicle, both Karen K. Siegfried and Ed Swan were subjects of alleged bias for their conservative beliefs. At the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, Siegfried left the teacher training program due to a professor’s claim that she lacked the professional disposition necessary to be a good teacher and was intolerant of other cultures and new ideas. Swan, a student at Washington State, flunked the teacher’s evaluation four times and was allegedly told his opinion was of “grave concern.” He was asked to sign a contract pledging to take a sensitivity training session and complete two assignments before a professor would allow him to work in an elementary school classroom.

“Here at BC, we have not used dispositions to stop a student from being a teacher,” said Dean of the Brooklyn College School of Education Deborah A. Shanley. “We are not trying to convince anybody that what they believed all along is wrong. Our job is to give them the opportunity to hear different view points.”

“All of us have professional standards and all teachers have to demonstrate those standards…NCATE takes all those stands and puts it under the disposition umbrella,” added Shanley.

For students in the teacher’s training program here at Brooklyn College, a “dispositions of teaching” wavier explaining the assessment of dispositions is to be signed before beginning the course and a sheet breaking down the conceptual framework is given to prospective teachers. According to the “dispositions of teaching” document, the score on dispositions does not affect a student’s grade but will help professors work with students, if necessary, in improving “those dispositions required of successful teachers.”

The conceptual framework is designed by teachers to ensure students understand and execute to the best of their ability “collaboration, social justice, critical self-reflection and diversity,” as based on the guidelines provided by NCATE. According to Shanley, the dispositions implemented at Brooklyn College are more than knowledge or skill, but how one responds to children and their differentiating lifestyles while upholding the most respect for those they are teaching.

“We are trying to create a safe environment were students can come together with faculty and have conversations of multiply ideas,” said Shanley. “Everyone comes from a diverse point of view. It’s not one size fits all.”

Provost Roberta S. Matthews felt similarly, stating that “a program that educates future teachers should help its students understand and respect the varying points of view, cultures and aspirations of the children they teach.” “Dispositions have nothing to do with politics,” she added

In spite of the ongoing debate concerning the “disposition” policy, Johnson predicts that the new change will have a positive effect and lessen the chance of potential abuse.

“I haven’t heard of any recent cases [of dispositions abuse],” Johnson predicted. “[This] suggests that NCATE’s policy ‘clarification,’ coupled with the adverse publicity, is having a positive effect.”

The following correction ran in the following editon of the Kingsman: “In the February 21, 2006 issue of the Kingsman, paragraph 10 of the article ‘Redefining Dispositions’ was incorrectly attributed. The information obtained concerning Professor Priya Parmar was gathered from various news sources, including the Chronicle, www.fire.org and most notably the New York Sun.”

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