November 4, 2007

A twofer on Delaware student program and social justice, or "Let's not confuse institutional prerogatives with students' propensity to make mistakes"

I normally don't waste bytes just to point to someone else's blog and say, "What (s)he said!" In this case, though, Timothy Burke's engagingly garrulous entry on the University of Delaware student orientation controversy serves double-duty to describe the obvious about the University of Delaware program and also help explain my discomfort with official statements by colleges of education that they want students to foster social justice:

... with the Delaware residential life program, there's nothing wrong per se with asking straights when they first realized their orientation or when they came out as straights. That is, nothing wrong if that's a sly or mischievious aside in a personal conversation about sexuality, or a subversive question directed at a public figure who is intensely anti-gay, or as a way in an intellectual discussion about the history of sexuality to illustrate what the ten-dollar word 'heteronormativity' actually means. Turning the question into a set part of a pseudo-mandatory workshop (there's some confusion at Delaware about how strongly students are encouraged to attend) takes everything valuable out of it. It turns something sly into dogma.

Burke is putting this observation in the context of a nuanced discussion of the institutional context of resident student activists and the role of college as a place where young adults learn by being bold and frequently making mistakes. What makes sense for student activists or activists engaged in civic life often becomes self-parody when oversolemnified in an institutional context.

Such oversolemnification is all too typical in the debate over dispositions and social justice in teacher education. In several contexts, I have heard colleagues in social foundations or my institution upset at the attack on the demand that students display a disposition towards social justice... a term now closely associated with the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). Because NCATE referred to social justice in a glossary item that mentioned it as a potential disposition that colleges might assess students on, and because some colleges did some patently stupid things when students expressed dissenting political views, that term became a magnet for critics of college policies that appeared to infringe on students' rights to political expression. Respondents in education have sometimes interpreted that attack as a neoconservative attack on teacher education more broadly.

The truth is that the attack on social justice and dispositions is both a floor wax and a dessert topping. Some of those who have attacked teacher education's and NCATE's move towards dispositions have been social conservatives upset with the nature of teacher education. At a June 2006 hearing in front of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, critics of NCATE included the National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. But that's not the entire picture. Critics also have included the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (see FIRE's statement on NCATE and dispositions). FIRE's staff and supporters have included conservatives, but they have also included people from across the political spectrum, a group of those who are reasonably described as academic libertarians.

Academic libertarians focus on campuses as a site of debate, where the job of a university is to encourage a discourse of disputation. In this environment, assessing the alignment of one's thoughts with any template with ideological overtones strikes academic libertarians as obnoxious, an affront to students' freedom of thought. While many defenders of assessing dispositions point to the evaluation of behavior rather than thought and the interplay of that behavior with professional expectations, critics are skeptical, especially when some places (such as LeMoyne College) have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar... or the brains of their students.

The vulnerability of teacher education to such criticism is not just the visibility of a few outrageous idiocies by specific teacher education programs. To some extent, the coalition between social conservatives and academic libertarians has focused criticism in a way that often dissipates when the criticism comes from just one quarter. But the internet is also partly responsible, because that copper or fiber-optic cable is a double-edged sword, bringing visibility in both good and bad measure. In addition, teacher education is more vulnerable because of the historical disrespect for teachers in general and for teacher education within colleges and universities.

But there are a few other issues to consider, issues that schools and colleges of education control. One issue under the control of teacher education programs is the way faculty and administrators address the inherent tensions of trying to stuff a professional preparation program into a relatively short period, at most three or four years in an undergraduate program. We'd like teachers to leave college with a fantastically well-rounded liberal-arts education, professional information about educational psychology, historical and social-science perspectives on education, professional ethics, assessment, teaching the methods of their field, content expertise in their field, something about the practical matters of running a classroom, field experiences while learning everything else, and a capstone experience with a final internship and structured feedback and reflection.

To put the problem bluntly, if you can do all that for all students in undergraduate teacher education, I also want a pony. The telling choice is what you give up in professional programs, more than in almost any other type of education. That's not even considering the newer demands in areas such as special education, where "highly qualified teachers" now have to demonstrate content expertise in every curriculum area. So the curriculum discussions in teacher education inevitably revolve around the desire to somehow stuff more into less. If someone could extract the essence of half of our curriculum and put it in a pill, I know a bunch of education deans who would be very happy.

In the midst of this perennial stretch, teacher education stakeholders and institutions talk about accountability as outcomes. Outcomes? Sure. We'll be responsible for what happens with our teachers. So what does that mean, in an era when tracking graduates is a bit tough? Well, we'll certainly be responsible for the passing rates for graduates on state exams, and their meeting our state standards, and ... hmmn... something else. Someone must have suggested dispositions (the history of that would be a great dissertation topic!), and the idea met multiple needs. Stakeholders in the NCATE orbit were reasonably satisfied that teacher education programs were at least addressing accountability. Within teacher education, dispositions met several needs, and it could be used both to justify keeping some things in and removing others out of the curriculum, depending on how one phrased one's goals and preferred dispositions.

Dispositions have also neatly coincided with a psychological approach to education. Kurt Danziger has explained how the history of psychology is intertwined with the bureaucratization of public schooling in the early 20th century U.S. That psychologization continues, far beyond the knowledge of educational psychology that is the bread and butter of my department colleagues. (As my fellow historian Erwin V. Johanningmeier has noted, there is some considerable irony in the fact that one of the most well-known educational psychologists, David Berliner, has written more about the social conditions of schools in the last 15 years than educational psychology.) I am not sure if any professional field outside education or social services would ever frame their competencies as anything close to dispositions -- do business, legal, medical, engineering, or architecture programs have anything similar? Part of the difference is the much shorter formal apprenticeships that teacher education has, but some is due to the role of psychology within education.

Both the University of Delaware residency program and the existence of dispositions border on a therapeutic approach to education, implying that part of the job of college is the reconstruction of behavior and personality. I am not one to believe in the fairy tale that education only touches the intellect; college is a life-changing experience, no matter the outcome. Yet there are reasons to be very cautious about how we engage in the deliberate process of social engineering that is inherent in education.

To some extent, I am sympathetic with part of the idea of dispositions: it is extraordinarily hard to assess the fit of a student with professional expectations, and at some level one has to find proxies for professional competence while people are still in the program. The notion of assessing dispositions is an attempt to find some proxy for that fit apart from course grades. And given the relative flexibility of dispositions, some colleges of education do a much better job of treating them reasonably than other teacher education programs. But there is a foundation of psychological assumptions behind them, and the same flexibility that allows reasonableness also allows LeMoyne and its ilk.

Given that set of psychological (and almost therapeutic) assumptions, a set of dispositions geared to social justice is an oxymoron. Any definition of social justice I have seen talks about the social context, the broader structures of society. To imagine that one can accomplish social justice by changing the personalities of teachers ignores the theoretical arguments involved in social justice. To change the broader structures of society, you have to change the broader structures of society, and teacher goodwill doesn't really enter into it (though teachers' acting ethically towards their students does matter, just in a different sense). Mandating that students demonstrate a disposition towards social justice is likely to be a sloppy description of an institutional mission at best and an effective generator of cynicism at worst.

There is some other stuff that needs to be said here, about how an ethic of teachers' being at the heart of social justice is a potential form of exploitation. (Brief form: those who think KIPP schools are the solution for education and those who want teacher education programs to revolve around social justice have the same assumption about the broader role of teachers.) But this entry is far too long as it is, and I should just finish with this: I desperately want the world to have more justice, and I work towards that end, but I am a better teacher if I model those beliefs than if I try to get my students to parrot them.

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Posted in Academic freedom on November 4, 2007 3:04 PM |