Scholars Group: Accrediting Agency Violating First Amendment

November 4, 2005

The National Association of Scholars, a group that advocates for traditional academic standards in higher education, is accusing the nation’s largest accrediting agency of teacher education programs of imposing standards that violate the First Amendment.

The association Wednesday filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the accrediting agency.

The complaint demands that the Education Department strip the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education of federal recognition as an accrediting agency unless it changes its standards for evaluating schools. The 51-year-old agency accredits 602 colleges of education – about half the country’s total.

Addressed to the assistant secretary for post secondary education, Sally Stroup, the complaint contends that guidelines handed down by the accreditation council to colleges of education encourage schools to assess students based on political beliefs.

The complaint targets a little-known standard by which schools are expected to measure student performance. The standard, called “dispositions,” focuses on the values of students who are trying to enter the teaching profession.

One of the values that the accrediting agency says colleges of education could demand in their students is a commitment to “social justice,” a term that the scholars association says is “fraught with contested ideological significance and subject to widely varying interpretations.”

The complaint states: “By listing ‘social justice’ among its recognized dispositions, NCATE is clearly encouraging and legitimating the adoption by teacher education programs of what appears to be a political viewpoint test for students seeking state teacher certification.”

“It would be one thing if they are just a private organization,” the president of the National Association of Scholars, Stephen Balch, said. “But they are recognized by the Department of Education as certified accreditors. They carry the imprimatur of the department and that implicates the government in what they do.”

A spokeswoman for the Education Department, Stephanie Babyak, said Ms. Stroup had received the complaint and would respond this month.

In response to the complaint, the president of the accrediting agency, Arthur Wise, said his group allows colleges to choose the dispositions they want their students to have. Commitment to social justice is just one conceivable disposition, he said. The purpose of the standard is to have schools assess students not simply on how well they master curriculum content but on their ability to get along with their future students.

The accrediting agency strongly encourages schools to match their assessments of dispositions to the schools’ guiding principles, which are known in the field as “conceptual frameworks.” The concept of social justice plays a major role in the conceptual frameworks at many colleges, including at Brooklyn College’s School of Education, which is accredited by the agency. Thus, the complaint argues, the accrediting agency in effect mandates the evaluation of students’ commitment to social justice at these schools.

To illustrate the danger of dispositions, the complaint points to a case involving the teacher training program at the College of Education at Washington State University in Pullman. A 42-year-old student, Edward Swan, after expressing conservative views to his teacher, was ordered to a sign a contract forcing him to adhere to the college’s disposition standards, which measure commitment to social justice, or face expulsion.

After receiving a complaint from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a higher-education civil liberties group, the university said the student was not required to sign the contract and said it would uphold speech rights of its students.

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Schools: Washington State University Cases: Washington State University: Use of Dispositions Theory to Enforce Ideological Orthodoxy