WSU responds to evaluation criticisms

October 19, 2005

The College of Education at Washington State University is considering how it may change its policies regarding the evaluation of “good character” for students in the teacher-training program.

“The matter is under review by the college,” WSU Provost Robert Bates said Tuesday.

The college has been criticized recently, including this week in an opinion piece published in U.S. News and World Report, for evaluating student character in a way that could make personal political beliefs grounds for failure in the program.

At issue is language on an official form that refers to whether or not a student “exhibits an understanding of the complexities of race, power, gender, class, sexual orientation and privilege in American society.”

The college’s dean thinks the debate about the evaluation of students has been blown out of proportion.

“I’d like to put this in perspective,” said Judy Mitchell. “We’ve evaluated 1,364 students under our current standards over the past three years and 1,330 have been recommended for teacher-certification. Of the 34 who haven’t been recommended, some are still doing their student-teaching this fall and for the others, a wide variety of issues have contributed, ranging from health problems to a change in major.”

The faculty in the College of Education always has ongoing discussions about whether to change the process used in evaluations of student character. The current public debate will be considered by the faculty as part of its normal processes, Mitchell said.

For the past four years the College of Education has been evaluating students in terms of their “dispositions,” in keeping with the standards put forth by the national accreditation agency that oversees education programs across the nation.

“Our ‘disposition’ form is used as a chance to talk with students, to counsel them and help them meet professional standards on a variety of issues,” Mitchell said.

Only six undergraduates have received failing marks on their “dispositions” evaluations in the past three years, Mitchell said.

“And I think none or almost none of them were for the item in question,” she said. “The form covers many different matters.”

In addition to standards set forth by its national accreditation organization, the education college responds to state law that regulates teacher-preparation, including the evaluation of student character.

“I don’t use the term ‘character,’ I would say ‘fitness to teach,’ but the law uses ‘character,’” Mitchell said.

Mitchell doesn’t think the college’s policies contradict the First Amendment.

“This isn’t a free speech issue. Teachers have a wide range of beliefs,” she said. “The issue is whether you can teach all children fairly.”

The teaching profession is like the medical field in the sense that members of it are expected to help others and to do no harm to those they contact in their working lives.

“That’s why it’s important that student-teachers meet a variety of character standards,” Mitchell said. “The college will not abandon its concerns for professionalism.”

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