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Schools of Reeducation?

By Frederick M. Hess--Washington Post--02/05/06

For those who have been troubled by the tendency of universities to adopt campus speech codes, a worrisome new fad is rearing its head in the nation's schools of education. Stirred by professional opinion and accreditation pressures, teachers colleges have begun to regulate the dispositions and beliefs of those who would teach in our nation's classrooms.

At the University of Alabama, the College of Education explains that it is "committed to preparing individuals to promote social justice, to be change agents, and to recognize individual and institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism." To promote its agenda, part of the program's self-proclaimed mission is to train teachers to "develop anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-sexist . . . alliances."

The University of Alaska at Fairbanks School of Education declares on its Web site: "Teachers often profess 'colorblindness' . . . which is at worst patronizing and at best naïve, because race and culture profoundly affect what is known and how it is known."

Consequently, the program emphasizes "the interrelatedness of race, identity, and the curriculum, especially the role of white privilege."

Professors at Washington State University's College of Education evaluate candidates to ensure they exhibit "an understanding of the complexities of race, power, gender, class, sexual orientation, and privilege in American society." The relevance of these skills to teaching algebra or the second grade is, at a minimum, debatable.

Brooklyn College's School of Education announces: "We educate teacher candidates and other school personnel about issues of social injustice such as institutionalized racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism; and invite them to develop strategies and practices that challenge [such] biases."

One can sympathize with the sentiments at work. Moreover, in theory, academics can argue that merely addressing these issues implies no ideological bias. But in practice, education courses addressing "white privilege" and the "language of oppression" typically endorse particular views on issues such as affirmative action and student discipline. These codes have real consequences.

Ed Swan is pursuing a degree in teacher education at Washington State. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that he flunked an evaluation of dispositions last year. The teacher who failed him explained that Swan, a conservative Christian and father of four Mexican American children, had "revealed opinions that have caused me great concern in the areas of race, gender, sexual orientation and privilege." Washington State insisted that Swan agree to attend sensitivity training before being allowed to do his student teaching -- where observers could observe his classroom performance.

In 2005 Scott McConnell was informed by LeMoyne College's Graduate Program in Education that he was not welcome to return and complete his degree. His offense? He wrote a paper advocating the use of corporal punishment that was given a grade of A-minus. The department chairwoman's letter to McConnell cited the "mismatch between [his] personal beliefs . . . and the LeMoyne College program goals."

The conviction that teachers should hold certain views regarding sexuality or social class is rooted in a commendable impulse to ensure that they teach all students. But even if scientific evidence established that certain beliefs or dispositions improved teacher effectiveness, colleges should hesitate to engage in this kind of exercise. The truth, of course, is that no such body of rigorous, empirical evidence does exist.

In any event, there's good reason to be skeptical of claims that to be effective, teachers must have certain views or attitudes. Given that both kindhearted and callous doctors may be effective professionals, it's not clear why we should expect good teachers to be uniform in disposition. In fact, with the array of students that schools serve, it may be useful to hire teachers with diverse views and values. Ultimately, screening on "dispositions" serves primarily to cloak academia's biases in the garb of professional necessity.

Schools of education are not merely private entities. Rather, in each state, they are deputized by licensure systems to serve as gatekeepers into the teaching profession. Even the vast majority of "alternative" training programs are sponsored by a school of education.

The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education -- which established requirements that would-be teachers embrace "multicultural and global perspectives" and develop "dispositions that respect and value differences" -- has tried to backpedal recently by protesting that it didn't "expect or require institutions to attend to any particular political or social ideologies." Much more is needed. The cultivation of right-thinking cadres has no place in America's colleges and universities.

The writer is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "Tough Love for Schools."

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