FIRE Statement on NCATE’s Encouragement of Political Litmus Tests in Higher Education

By June 5, 2006

Summary

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is deeply concerned that the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) is using its power as a federally authorized accreditor of education schools to promote vague standards that facilitate and encourage discrimination against students on the basis of their political viewpoints. 
 
Specifically, NCATE’s recommendation that education schools evaluate teacher candidates using amorphous, malleable criteria—such as the candidate’s commitment to “diversity” or “social justice”—raises serious constitutional concerns. Because no objective consensus on the “correct” meaning of such politically charged terminology can reasonably exist in a diverse democratic society, these vague evaluative criteria too often become vehicles for pressuring teacher candidates to alter or abandon their core political, philosophical, or moral beliefs. Unfortunately, examples of precisely this type of inappropriate pressure abound at our nation’s colleges and universities. 
 
NCATE, like all accrediting agencies, has a close relationship with the federal government pursuant to federal law and wields substantial power over its accredited schools. This potent authority makes NCATE’s promotion of such vague standards for candidate evaluation all the more troubling because it lends a federal imprimatur to a pernicious form of viewpoint discrimination. In evaluating NCATE’s application for reauthorization as an accreditor, FIRE urges the Department of Education to consider the unquestionable importance of freedom of conscience for our nation’s next generation of teachers. The Department of Education should refuse reauthorization until NCATE ceases to promote vague evaluative standards that result in discrimination on the basis of political viewpoint.  

Discussion

NCATE’S STANDARDS ARE VAGUE AND DEEPLY SUBJECTIVE. 
 
NCATE maintains a set of Professional Standards for the Accreditation of Schools, Colleges, and Departments of Education (the “Unit Standards”), which forms the basis for NCATE’s decision whether or not to accredit (or continue to accredit) an education program. The Unit Standards are revised every five years “to ensure that the standards reflect current research and state-of-the-art practice in the teaching profession.” The most current version of the Unit Standards is the 2006 Edition.
 
Unit Standard 1 requires that candidates in an education program “demonstrate the content, pedagogical, and professional knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to help all students learn.” NCATE defines “dispositions,” in relevant part, as:
 

The values, commitments, and professional ethics that influence behaviors toward students, families, colleagues, and communities and affect student learning, motivation, and development as well as the educator’s own professional growth. Dispositions are guided by beliefs and attitudes related to values such as caring, fairness, honesty, responsibility, and social justice. [Emphasis added.]

 
NCATE’s Unit Standard 4 requires students and faculty to demonstrate a commitment to “diversity,” a term susceptible to highly politicized interpretations. NCATE also suggests that it is appropriate for schools to evaluate teacher candidates according to their commitment to “social justice,” another amorphous term. When education schools attempt to evaluate candidates according to their commitment to these nebulous ideals, students are often improperly judged on the basis of their political beliefs rather than on their academic performance.
 
NCATE’S STANDARDS DIRECTLY INFLUENCE SCHOOL POLICIES, RESULTING IN VIEWPOINT DISCRIMINATION.  
 
NCATE currently accredits 623 education schools, with 100 more seeking accreditation. Not surprisingly, NCATE wields a tremendous amount of influence over the schools it accredits and over schools seeking new accreditation. Schools take NCATE’s requirements and recommendations very seriously; many schools’ websites make clear that their evaluative criteria were adopted in an effort to comply with NCATE’s standards.     
 
For example, Columbia University’s Teachers College, one of the country’s foremost education schools, maintains an NCATE Exhibit Room on its website, which, as part of “Standard 4: Diversity,” states that teachers must “meet expectations for teaching for social justice.” The introduction to George Mason University’s Professional Disposition Criteria, which require a commitment to social justice, states that “the Virginia Department of Education and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education promote standards of professional competence and dispositions.” The University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Policy Regarding Student Dispositions, which mandates that teacher candidates hold certain beliefs regarding diversity, leads off with NCATE’s definition of dispositions. NCATE’s unquestionably pervasive and powerful influence effectively dictates evaluative policies at education schools around the country. 
 
Because NCATE’s recommendations contain politicized and ambiguous terminology that virtually necessitates the evaluation of the political views of teacher candidates, their adoption has led to specific incidents of viewpoint discrimination against teacher candidates with dissenting views. 
 
For example, this past fall, FIRE defended the rights of 42-year-old education student Ed Swan, a self-described conservative Christian. Swan was given poor marks on “dispositions” criteria used by Washington State’s College of Education for expressing political beliefs, such as the idea that white privilege and male privilege do not exist. The disposition in question required that “[t]he pre-service teacher appreciates and values human diversity and shows respect for others’ varied talents and perspectives.” To be considered “at standard” with respect to this disposition, students had to “exhibit[ ] an understanding of the complexities of race, power, gender, class, sexual orientation and privilege in American society.” Before FIRE intervened on his behalf, Washington State threatened Swan with dismissal if he did not sign an unconstitutional contract obliging him to submit to even more ideological litmus tests. Upon receiving FIRE’s letter, the university dropped the contract and pledged to FIRE that it would no longer use its “dispositions” criteria in an unconstitutional manner.

 
Cases like this are part of a growing trend toward a lack of respect for the individual rights of belief and conscience among faculty and students at our nation’s institutions of higher learning. For example, FIRE had to intervene at Rhode Island College, where the School of Social Work required a conservative master’s student to publicly advocate “progressive” social changes if he wanted to continue pursuing a degree in social work policy. At Le Moyne College, a student was dismissed from the graduate education program for writing a paper in which he expressed his personal beliefs about the need for strong discipline in the classroom—a paper that received an A-. 
 
Numerous other education schools evaluate students according to viewpoint-discriminatory criteria:

  • York College of the City University of New York requires teacher candidates to “believe[ ] in social justice.”
  •  The State University of New York-College at Oneonta requires candidates to “provide evidence of their understanding of social justice in teaching activities, journals, and portfolios,” and requires that “candidates understand and evaluate the varied approaches to multicultural reform, and identify social action as the most advanced level.”
  • At the University of Louisville, “the knowledge base students will be exposed to in our [teacher education] program are designed to enable them to commit to principles that fight against racism and other forms of oppression, including those based on class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, physical ability, or national origin and language.”
  • At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, students are expected to “demonstrat[e] the belief that diversity in the classroom, in the school, and in society is a strength,” and to “select[ ] materials, develop[ ] lessons, and promot[e] classroom environments that counteract negative stereotypes and bigotry.”
  • Columbia University’s Teachers College “collect[s] baseline data on candidates’ performance as it relates to diversity and social justice,” and “the faculty are developing better ways of assessing whether candidates meet expectations for teaching for social justice.”
  • George Mason University “expects students, faculty, and staff to exhibit professional dispositions through a…commitment to democratic values and social justice,” a commitment that requires students to “advocate for practices that promote equity and access” and to demonstrate an “awareness of practices that sustain unequal treatment or unequal voice.”

Although these values may seem unobjectionable to some, their vague and easily politicized nature makes it easy for a program to punish, exclude, or coerce a teacher candidate on the basis of dissenting political views. Atheists and devout Muslims, socialists and libertarians, Democrats and Republicans may all agree that they believe in “social justice” but are unlikely to define it in the same way. Whose criteria, then, should a university use to define the term?

Conclusion

NCATE’s recommendation of the use of “dispositions,” and the use of a “social justice” disposition in particular, leads directly to the adoption of ideological litmus tests for teacher candidates at education schools. If NCATE wants to remain an authorized accreditor, it needs to wield its power responsibly and not appear to endorse a standard that leads to the establishment of a political orthodoxy within schools of education.
 
As the Supreme Court stated with enduring eloquence in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943):

[F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order….If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

NCATE and our nation’s education schools are improperly attempting to dictate the values and ideals that teachers must possess in order to educate students. FIRE urges the Department of Education to remember the absolute importance of the freedom of conscience as it decides whether to reauthorize NCATE as an accreditor of education schools. 

Cases: NCATE: Encouragement of Political Litmus Tests in Higher Education