University policy draws fire from free-speech advocates

October 12, 2006

Columbia University’s Teachers College is being criticized by free-speech advocates, who are charging that the school’s “Conceptual Framework,” the document that shapes curricula and guides instruction and student assessment, amounts to an ideological litmus test.

The Conceptual Framework lists a number of “dispositions” essential for future teachers such as a “respect for diversity and commitment to social justice,” according to the school’s Web site. Students’ dispositions are evaluated by faculty members “at multiple decision points.” A spokesman for Teachers College, Joseph Levine, denied that students are graded on their beliefs.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an educational free speech advocacy group, asked the school to remove the social justice language from its framework because it “entails a commitment to, and belief in, a particular political and cultural worldview,” FIRE said in a letter addressed to Columbia’s president Lee Bollinger, and to the president of Teachers College, Susan Fuhrman.

The Conceptual Framework describes the school’s conception of social justice. “We see teaching as a…political act,” it says at the outset. It says that teachers “need to expand their reading of texts and symbols embedded in their social practices and institutions to uncover how they protect privilege and undermine democracy.” It continues, “We believe that for the change to occur, all educators need to believe that schools can be sites for social transformation even though they may currently serve to maintain social inequities.”

The president of Teachers College, Susan Fuhrman, responded yesterday to FIRE’s accusations.”We teach a concern for social justice, but do not legislate a vision of what social justice is,” Ms. Fuhrman said in a letter sent to FIRE. “Teachers College sets forth an expectation that students will acquire and demonstrate professionally competent skills not ideological beliefs that will allow them to work with all students.”

Mr. Levine said that Teachers College did not plan to remove the offending language from the Conceptual Framework.

A professor at Teachers College, Celia Oyler, said that this controversy is part of a national attack launched by “right-wing ideologues” on teacher education programs that “ask people to investigate social justice issues as part of learning to teach.”

“I always wonder about the values of the people who are not in favor of teaching for social justice. What could possibly be the real concern here?” Ms. Oyler said.

FIRE’s attack has drawn the support of civil rights and education groups. The executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, Michael Meyers, said the professional commitments and dispositions amounted to a “code of conformity” and an “expectation of philosophical conformity.”

The social justice controversy is not new in the field of teachers’ education. The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, the body that accredits teacher preparation schools, came under fire in 2005 for mandating accredited schools to seek students committed to social justice. The National Association of Scholars, a group devoted to strengthening scholarship and teaching, filed a complaint with the Department of Education charging that NCATE’s requirement was vague and often served as a political test. When the Department of Education held a hearing on the issue in June, NCATE agreed to eliminate the social justice language from its platform.

It did not, however, require accredited schools, including Columbia, to dispense with their social justice requirements.

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