Bloggers Debate University of Minnesota’s Teacher Education Redesign, But Some Miss Key Evidence

December 1, 2009

The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities College of Education & Human Development’s proposals to mandate the beliefs and values of its students have generated widespread attention since Katherine Kersten first reported on them in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and FIRE’s letter expressing deep concern over the proposed requirements has served to further intensify the spotlight on the college’s plans.

An intense debate about the college’s proposals has ensued in the media and across the blogosphere. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has editorialized about the proposals, and Power Line and many other bloggers are appalled by the threats that the proposals pose to the individual liberties of teaching candidates. Some commentators, however, wonder just how bad certain “dispositions” requirements can be, making it seem that FIRE and other critics of the proposals are simply trying to keep schools of education from developing attributes like tolerance and understanding in future teachers.

These misconceptions about the scope of the college’s proposals can be attributed to a problem of either insufficiently thorough research or selective quoting, as some observers miss, downplay, or even ignore the main document outlining the college’s plans entirely and base their conclusions on an auxiliary document.

If one only looks at the proposal that the college’s Teacher Education Redesign Initiative (TERI) prepared for the Bush Foundation, one will find the basic outline of what are called “appropriate dispositions and commitments,” but not the full mandate of “cultural competence” provided by the college’s Race, Culture, Class, and Gender Task Group. As such, it’s easy to pull out the least objectionable statements from the Bush proposal and declare (mistakenly) that the problem is just made up.

For example, Blogger PZ Myers quotes this section from the proposal presented to the Bush Foundation:

We recognize that both academic preparation and particular dispositions or professional commitments are needed for effective teaching. Our school-based partners have told us that they would like to hire beginning teachers who demonstrate the commitment to focus relentlessly on student learning and take responsibility for the learning of all students without seeking excuses in the community, family, and culture of the students. They want teachers who can communicate and collaborate with each other and with the families and communities of their students. In response to our school partners, we will develop admission procedures that identify candidates with the potential to demonstrate these commitments as teachers.

This version of the college’s proposed mandate is so sanitized that it is hard to find fault. Who would find it desirable to admit prospective teachers who do not feel committed to “the learning of all students” they are teaching?

What really matters, however, is what the college actually means by this “commitment.” The defense by Myerswho stood with FIRE earlier this year along with many critics over the Oklahoma legislature’s chilling investigation of an appearance by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins at the University of Oklahomafails to address the source of most of FIRE’s criticisms directed at the college’s plans. One must go to the task group’s report to see just how the college plans to achieve its stated goals. Much of the discord that has existed in the debate over the program seems to stem from failing to do so.

As Adam noted in his post last week, the task group states up front the importance of “cultural competence” among its teachers. Although it admits the difficulty of defining such a term, it proceeds to lay out numerous highly specific examples of personal beliefs and values that all teaching candidates should be required to accept and affirm. Calling them “dispositions” or “commitments” does not change the fact that these are mandated beliefs, attitudes, and values in violation of freedom of conscience. “Cultural Intelligence” is to be tested, and students will be required to disclose their personal beliefs about identity groups, such as by identifying a “pervasive stereotype” through which they supposedly view another group. “Non-performing” students are to be subjected to a “remediation plan.” And the college intends to apply these very particular “professional commitments” to the admissions process, presumably to weed out those who don’t fit the mold and are predicted not to be able to conform.

Bloggers, please read not only the Bush Foundation proposal but also the Race, Culture, Class, and Gender task group’s final report before deciding that you know what is really planned for this program.

Schools:  University of Minnesota – Twin Cities

Cases:  University of Minnesota – Twin Cities: Political Litmus Test for Future Teachers