‘Disposition’ Emerges as Issue at Brooklyn College

May 31, 2005

By Jacob Gershman at The New York Sun

Brooklyn College’s School of Education has begun to base evaluations of aspiring teachers in part on their commitment to social justice, raising fears that the college is screening students for their political views.

The School of Education at the CUNY campus initiated last fall a new method of judging teacher candidates based on their “dispositions,” a vogue in teacher training across the country that focuses on evaluating teachers’ values, apart from their classroom performance.

Critics of the assessment policy warned that aspiring teachers are being judged on how closely their political views are aligned with their instructor’s. Ultimately, they said, teacher candidates could be ousted from the School of Education if they are found to have the wrong dispositions.

“All of these buzz words don’t seem to mean anything until you look and see how they’re being implemented,” a prominent history professor at Brooklyn College, Robert David Johnson, said. “Dispositions is an empty vessel that could be filled with any agenda you want,” he said.

Critics such as Mr. Johnson say the dangers of the assessment policy became immediately apparent in the fall semester when several students filed complaints against an instructor who they said discriminated against them because of their political beliefs and “denounced white people as the oppressors.”

Classroom clashes between the assistant professor, Priya Parmar, and one outspoken student led a sympathetic colleague of the instructor to conduct an informal investigation of the dispositions of the student, who the colleague said exhibited “aggressive and bullying behavior toward his professor.” That student and another one were subsequently accused by the dean of the education school of plagiarism and were given lower grades as a result.

Brooklyn College, established in 1930, is a four-year school within the City University of New York. The college enrolls more than 15,000 students, and the School of Education has about 3,200, including 1,000 undergraduates.

Driving the new policies at the college and similar ones at other education schools is a mandate set forth by the largest accrediting agency of teacher education programs in America, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. That 51-year-old agency, composed of 33 professional associations, says it accredits 600 colleges of education — about half the country’s total. Thirty-nine states have adopted or adapted the council’s standards as their own, according to the agency.

In 2000 the council introduced new standards for accrediting education schools. Those standards incorporated the concept of dispositions, which the agency maintains ought to be measured, to sort out teachers who are likeliest to be successful. In a glossary, the council says dispositions “are guided by beliefs and attitudes related to values such as caring, fairness, honesty, responsibility, and social justice.”

To drive home the notion that education schools ought to evaluate teacher candidates on such parameters as attitude toward social justice, the council issued a revision of its accrediting policies in 2002 in a Board of Examiners Update. It encouraged schools to tailor their assessments of dispositions to the schools’ guiding principles, which are known in the field as “conceptual frameworks.” The council’s policies say that if an education school “has described its vision for teacher preparation as ‘Teachers as agents of change’ and has indicated that a commitment to social justice is one disposition it expects of teachers who can become agents of change, then it is expected that unit assessments include some measure of a candidate’s commitment to social justice.”

Brooklyn College’s School of Education, which is the only academic unit at the college with the status of school, is among dozens of education schools across the country that incorporate the notion of “social justice” in their guiding principles. At Brooklyn, “social justice” is one of the four main principles in its conceptual framework. The school’s conceptual framework states that it develops in its students “a deeper understanding of the quest for social justice.” In its explanation of that mission, the school states: “We educate teacher candidates and other school personnel about issues of social injustice such as institutionalized racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism.”

Critics of the dispositions standard contend that the idea of “social justice,” a term frequently employed in left-wing circles, is open to politicization.

“It’s political correctness that has insinuated into the criteria for accreditation of teacher education institutions,” a noted education theorist in New York, Diane Ravitch, said. “Once that becomes the criteria for institutions as a whole, it gives free rein to those who want to impose it in their classrooms,” she said. Ms. Ravitch is the author of “The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn.”

A case in point, as Mr. Johnson of Brooklyn College has pointed out, is the way in which the term was incorporated into Ms. Parmar’s course, called Language Literacy in Secondary Education, which students said is required of all Brooklyn College education candidates who aspire to become secondary-school teachers. In the fall semester, Ms. Parmar was the only instructor who taught the course, according to students.

The course, which instructs students on how to develop lesson plans that teach literacy, is built around themes of “social justice,” according to the syllabus, which was obtained by The New York Sun. One such theme is the idea that standard English is the language of oppressors while Ebonics, a term educators use to denote a dialect used by African-Americans, is the language of the oppressed.

A preface to the listed course requirements includes a quotation from a South African scholar, Njabulo Ndebele: “The need to maintain control over English by its native speakers has given birth to a policy of manipulative open-mindedness in which it is held that English belongs to all who use it provided that it is used correctly. This is the art of giving away the bride while insisting that she still belongs to you.”

Among the complaints cited by students in letters they delivered in December to the dean of the School of Education, Deborah Shanley, is Ms. Parmar’s alleged disapporval of students who defended the ability to speak grammatically correct English.

Speaking of Ms. Parmar, one student, Evan Goldwyn, wrote: “She repeatedly referred to English as a language of oppressors and in particular denounced white people as the oppressors. When offended students raised their hands to challenge Professor Parmar’s assertion, they were ignored. Those students that disagreed with her were altogether denied the opportunity to speak.”

Students also complained that Ms. Parmar dedicated a class period to the screening of an anti-Bush documentary by Michael Moore, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a week before last November’s presidential election, and required students to attend the class even if they had already seen the film. Students said Ms. Parmar described “Fahrenheit 9/11” as an important film to see before they voted in the election.

“Most troubling of all,” Mr. Goldwyn wrote, “she has insinuated that people who disagree with her views on issues such as Ebonics or Fahrenheit 911 should not become teachers.”

Students who filed complaints with the dean said they have received no response from the college administration. Instead, they said, the administration and Ms. Parmar have retaliated against them, accusing Mr. Goldwyn and another student of plagiarism in January after the semester ended.

Ms. Parmar referred a reporter’s inquiries to a spokeswoman for Brooklyn College. Linden Alschuler & Kaplan, Inc., a New York City public relations firm representing the CUNY school, later responded. The firm’s Colleen Roche told the Sun that Ms. Shanley, dean of the education school, spoke with students about their complaints December 21.

Though students said Ms. Parmar did not inform them about the new dispositions assessment policy, an e-mail obtained by the Sun from one of Ms. Parmar’s colleagues, Barbara Winslow, suggests that the aspiring teachers were in the process of being evaluated by the new standard.

Writing to three history professors, including Mr. Johnson, who had Mr. Goldwyn as their student, Ms. Winslow said the School of Education had “serious concerns about his disruptive behavior in the SOE classroom as well as aggressive and bullying behavior toward his professor outside the class.”

She wrote: “The School of Ed is trying to be more systematic in looking at what educators call ‘dispositions,’ that is behaviors necessary for being a successful teacher in the public schools. Being able to do excellent academic work, does not always translate into being a thoughtful, self-reflective and effective teacher for youngsters.”

In his reply to Ms. Winslow, Mr. Johnson wrote: “I’m very, very surprised to hear this. I have Evan in class again this term, and he is once again one of my best students — an active participant in class, unfailing courteous to the other students — basically, a real asset to the class in every way.”

Another professor who received the e-mail, who asked not to be identified by name, said he told Ms. Winslow he had no complaints with Mr. Goldwyn.

The third professor did not respond to a reporter’s inquiry.

Ms. Winslow, an assistant professor who also teaches at Brooklyn’s Women’s Studies Program, did not return calls seeking comment on her e-mail.

In his letter of complaint, Mr. Goldwyn defended his objections to Ms. Parmar’s conduct in the classroom, writing, “While Ms. Parmar has an obligation to express her own views in the classroom, she is not entitled to penalize those students who disagree with her — especially on issues, such as those we have covered in this course, that are highly controversial.”

Another student who submitted a letter to the dean called Ms. Parmar “an exceptional teacher” but said she alienated some students in the class. That student, Simon Tong, wrote: “Although I do believe in some of the teaching methods she has introduced, this does not change the fact that it has come at a cost. She felt it was necessary to expose this ‘white power’ but at the cost of offending those who were listening.”

Speaking to the Sun, Mr. Tong defended Mr. Goldwyn’s classroom behavior.

“Evan is not a bully,” the student said. “He is able to voice his opinion. He is very vocal about his opinions.”

The plagiarism accusations against Mr. Goldwyn and the other student involved their final assignment for Ms. Parmar’s course, which required them to develop a “critical literacy” lesson plan intended for “linguistically and culturally diverse students.”

Mr. Goldwyn, according to those familiar with the academic charges against him, was accused of failing to attribute a question he used in his lesson plan that was paraphrased from a Web site.

The other undergraduate, Christina Harned, a senior who expects to graduate in December, was charged with plagiarism for submitting a definition of Jim Crow laws in her lesson plan that she acknowledged she copied from the online Encarta encyclopedia. She said she was not aware before handing in the assignment that using the definition constituted plagiarism. “It wasn’t a term paper,” she said. “It was a lesson plan.”

Brooklyn College insists that the charges of plagiarism had nothing to do with the students’ complaints about Ms. Parmar.

“The claim that the allegations of plagiarism were retaliatory is baseless,” Ms. Roche said.

In January, the two students met with Brooklyn College’s dean of undergraduate studies, Ellen Belton, and were instructed to redo the assignments. Both students’ final grades for the course were lowered by at least one letter grade, according to the students. Ms. Harned, who says she has a cumulative B-minus grade-point average, received a C-minus for the course, and she said Mr. Goldwyn ended up with a D-minus. He could not be reached for confirmation.

Four students, Ms. Harned said, dropped out of Ms. Parmar’s course during the semester. One of the students was a former mechanic from Bay Ridge, Scott Madden, who said he wanted to become a teacher because “I like explaining things.”

Mr. Madden, 35, said that after he disputed a grade he received from her, Ms. Parmar encouraged him to withdraw from the course. He said he changed his plans to take the course in the summer after finding out that Ms. Parmar was again teaching both sections of the required course.

“Basically, she’s a socialist, she’s racist against white people,” Mr. Madden said. “If you want to pass that class you better keep your mouth shut.”

In an interview with the Sun, Ms. Harned said she dropped out of the School of Education and switched her major to political science because of her experience in Ms. Parmar’s course.

“I’m blacklisted,” she said. “How am I supposed to move forward in a department I’m not comfortable in?”

That is the point of the new format, critics of the dispositions standard said.

“In its most pernicious form, then, dispositions theory is a tool for education schools to ensure that the next generation of public school students is educated solely by those teachers who have accepted the kind of extremist beliefs articulated by Professor Parmar,” Mr. Johnson wrote.

The national accreditation council conducted the School of Education’s accreditation review during the past academic year. The school reported to the council that it “has adopted an assessment of dispositions rubric as a result of a Fall 2004 pilot of the instrument.”

“This assessment has been implemented across the unit’s programs in Spring 2005,” the report said.

Ms. Roche, of Linden Alschuler, said last week that the “assessment of dispositions rubric” remained in draft form and could not be released to the press.

The report to the council stated that teacher candidates will “self-evaluate and faculty will evaluate the candidates on 8 dispositions at mid-semester and at the end of the semester.” Those who perform poorly in the assessment are given “counseling.”

“Candidates who do not meet academic standards and candidates who do not demonstrate acceptable performance after such counseling will be counseled out of programs,” the report stated.

An assistant dean at the School of Education, Peter Taubman, said there is “no punitive effect” on students for a low mark on dispositions.

Other education schools contacted by the Sun that have adopted the dispositions criterion have used it during their application processes.

A faculty member at the Master in Teaching Program at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., Michael Vavrus, said its admissions process asks applicants how they would decrease inequities in education. “A wrong answer might be someone with clearly a racial bias,” he said. Students who don’t provide sufficient answers would receive “conditional admission at best,” he said.

Officials of the national accreditation council said it provides a guide for teacher education schools but relies on the individual schools to develop their own specific definitions of dispositions. The president of the council, Arthur Wise, told the Sun that dispositions “deals with the softer side of teaching.”

“It recognizes the fact that a person may have content knowledge, may well understand pedagogy and may be able to use it effectively on command,” Mr. Wise said. “But the question is: How does the individual relate to children both individually and collectively?”

Advocates of the dispositions criterion say it is rooted in the psychological tests developed early in the last century by an American psychologist, Edward Thorndike, and compare it to personality tests that corporations often give to job candidates. Dispositions became more widely accepted in the last 20 years as educators sought to find ways to tackle teacher shortages and high teacher dropout rates, particularly in urban areas.

In recent years, advocates of multicultural education have seized on the concept of dispositions as a way to influence teachers’ attitudes toward diversity and social justice. In a May 2004 essay in the Journal of Teacher Education, a professor at Western Michigan University’s College of Education, Arthur Garmon, wrote that dispositions, such as “openness, self-awareness/self-reflectiveness, and commitment to social justice,” may be “important predictors of how likely preservice teachers are to develop greater multicultural awareness and sensitivity during their preparation program.”

A professor emerita at California State University Monterey Bay, Christine Sleeter, suggested in a March 2001 essay in the Journal of Teacher Education titled “Preparing Teachers for Culturally Diverse Schools: Research and the Overwhelming Presence of Whiteness” that education schools could “alter the mix of who becomes teachers” by recruiting and selecting “only those who bring experiences, knowledge, and dispositions that will enable them to teach well in culturally diverse urban schools.”

Officials of the accreditation council said their policy on dispositions was heavily influenced by a consortium of state education agencies in 34 states,the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium. In 1992, the body drafted a report containing model standards for licensing new teachers that included the idea of dispositions. The chairwoman of the drafting committee, Linda Darling-Hammond, is a leading advocate of multicultural education and the author of the book “Learning To Teach for Social Justice.”

For critics of using dispositions as a tool of evaluating teacher candidates, the connection between multicultural educators and the accreditation council has a strong influence over the way the notion of social justice is defined.

In an e-mail to the Sun, a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Virginia, Robert Holland, said: “The tight link between the accreditors and the multiculturalists indicates that social justice is being defined by those who despise the very ideal of an American common culture — considering it irredeemably racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.”

The Brooklyn College School of Education was awarded its accreditation.

Schools: Brooklyn College, City University of New York Cases: Brooklyn College: Possible Investigation of Professor’s Expression