Response from Columbia’s Teachers College, October 20, 2006

By October 20, 2006

Critiquing TC’s Conceptual Framework

Published in
10/20/2006

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Recently, Presidents Lee Bollinger of Columbia University and Susan Fuhrman of Teachers College received letters from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) stating that FIRE is “profoundly concerned about the threat to the freedoms of speech and conscience posed by Teachers College’s current policy of evaluating students and pre-service teachers according to a set of mandated -‘Professional Commitments and Dispositions.'”

FIRE — which has made similar charges against other education schools nationwide — levels a number of additional charges at TC, including that the TC disposition concerning “respect for diversity and commitment to social justice” [TC's language] amounts to “an ideological loyalty oath” [FIRE's language]. FIRE’s accusations are based on their reading of the Conceptual Framework that TC developed for last year’s site visit by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).

In a detailed letter sent to FIRE, TC President Susan Fuhrman affirms that Teachers College certainly does believe that responsiveness to the diversity of students’ background and previous experiences are essential for effective teaching, but demonstrates that FIRE has taken language from our Conceptual Framework out of context. TC does not assess or grade students on their attitudes or believes, President Fuhrman explains; the College is devoted to freedom of inquiry; it does not prescribe certain thoughts or beliefs for students; and it is committed to academic freedom and the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.

It is likely that during the next few days, the New York Times will publish a story that treats FIRE’s critique of TC as being related to some recent incidents at Columbia that also have prompted some controversies about freedom of speech. In fact, there is no relationship between the incidents at Columbia and the language of our Conceptual Framework.

The following is the full text of the response sent by President Fuhrman to FIRE:

October 11, 2006

Samantha K. Harris
Director of Legal and Public Advocacy
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
601 Walnut Street, Suite 510
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Re: Response to FIRE’s letter, dated September 15, 2006 concerning TC’s NCATE Conceptual Framework and Dispositions

Dear Ms. Harris,

On behalf of President Bollinger I am responding to your September 15, 2006 letter concerning Teachers College’s NCATE Conceptual Framework and Dispositions. The Conceptual Framework that Teachers College prepared as part of its preparation for NCATE accreditation describes our vision of teacher education, including the knowledge, skills, and dispositions which we feel are important for professional educators. Consistent with NCATE’s definition, we use the term “dispositions” to describe the standards of professional and ethical conduct, i.e. observable behaviors that fall within the law and involve the use of certain skills. Thus, we do not “require students to adopt fundamental outlooks with which they might not agree in order to conform,” nor do we assess or grade our students on their attitudes or beliefs.

The Conceptual Framework represents the present consensus vision and philosophy for teacher education at Teachers College — that is, of how to teach, but not of what values should be taught. We teach a concern for social justice, but do not legislate a vision of what social justice is. This is the vision of our programs and faculty. Please know that the Conceptual Framework leaves to “individual student conscience and critical reasoning” for them to determine what they choose to think, believe in or feel. As a result, the Conceptual Framework does not prescribe certain thoughts or beliefs for students. In fact the first set of dispositions in our Conceptual Framework is Open-mindedness and Commitment to Inquiry and Reflection.

The concerns expressed in the communication from FIRE take language and sections of the Conceptual Framework out of context and this leads to a misunderstanding of what constitutes a disposition.  For example, FIRE states that TC’s “dispositions require students to adopt fundamental outlooks with which they might not agree in order to conform to the present consensus vision on campus.” This is inaccurate. First, there is not and never could be a “consensus vision” among our more than 160 faculty members on matters of value content. Also, again, Teachers College understands dispositions as observable professional behaviors (as defined above), not as attitudes or beliefs. Our Institutional Report describes the process for assessing dispositions as follows:

“Dispositions are a critical part of candidates’ assessment during all field experiences, student teaching, and internships. Student Teaching and Internship Handbooks describe expectations for professional conduct in the field. Observable behaviors are part of the assessment in all programs.”

In another instance, FIRE states “According to the Framework, students who dissent -‘must recognize ways in which taken-for-granted notions regarding the legitimacy of the social order are flawed, see change agency as a moral imperative, and have skills to act as agents of change (emphasis added).'” Again, FIRE’s quote is taken out of context. We do believe there are flaws in the U.S. education system — as do institutions and individuals of nearly every stripe — and we provide our students with the skills to identify those flaws and make their own decisions about how to address them, if they so choose. Or, as our Conceptual Framework states: “The stance of critical inquiry is essential in our vision of education for social justice.”

Teachers College educates students to respond to the complexity of differences that they will find in their classrooms, including in large urban schools. Our curriculum encourages the development of socio-cultural consciousness both in students and faculty (Villegas and Lucas, 2002) and pays attention to the skills, knowledge, and orientations that urban teachers have (Weiner, 1999). This is based on our conviction that teachers who respect cultural differences believe that students from non-dominant groups are capable learners.

We believe that responsiveness to the diversity of students’ backgrounds and previous experiences are essential for effective teaching. Teachers College sets forth an expectation that students will acquire and demonstrate professionally competent skills not ideological beliefs that allow them to work with all students.

I am strongly committed to academic freedom and the principles of freedom of speech, and freedom of conscience. I am confident that Teachers College will continue to educate its students consistent with these principles.

Schools: Columbia University Cases: Columbia University: Ideological Litmus Tests at Teachers College