The Trouble with ‘Dispositions’

September 21, 2005

This morning, FIRE launched its second press release in two weeks detailing controversies surrounding the so-called dispositions evaluation of teaching candidates. Two weeks ago, we addressed the Brooklyn College School of Education’s attempt to censor Professor K. C. Johnson after he criticized overtly ideological elements in the school’s own dispositions program. Today, FIRE has set its sights on Washington State University. Already embroiled in controversy after financing and planning a disruptive and threatening protest of a controversial play, the university (this time acting through its school of education) has used “dispositions” theory to punish a self-described conservative Christian student for frankly (and provocatively) expressing his views in class.

“Dispositions” evaluations are intended to give education schools broad latitude to determine whether a teacher candidate will be, well, a “good teacher”—someone who relates well with others, can take instruction, deal with adversity, manage a classroom, etc. Unfortunately, the incredibly broad and vague criteria (such as evaluating a student’s commitment to “social justice” (Brooklyn) or “diversity” (Washington State)) give schools license to inject ideology into student evaluations. And that is exactly what happened at Washington State:

Meanwhile, across the country, Washington State University’s treatment of Swan was providing a chilling example of why “dispositions” concerned Professor Johnson. When one professor specifically invited him to “write what you really feel” and “feel comfortable in class,” Swan did so. He noted, for example, that he is a “conservative Christian,” believes that “white privilege and male privilege do not exist,” and opposes gun control. Swan then received negative evaluations on “dispositions” commanding him to be “sensitive to community and cultural norms,” “appreciate[e] and valu[e] human diversity,” and “sho[w] respect for others’ varied talents and perspectives”—expressly because of his beliefs.

These poor evaluations led Washington State to subject Swan to diversity training and order him to sign an agreement to abide by all the “dispositions” to his professors’ satisfaction, under penalty of dismissal.

To be clear, it is certainly not appropriate for teachers to inject controversial and potentially offensive racial, religious, or political views into, for example, a fifth grade math class. There is, however, a method for determining whether an education student is likely to do that—the student-teacher program. In other words, schools of education have a mechanism for evaluating how a prospective teacher actually does his or her job.

Education students come from a wide variety of ideological backgrounds, some with fairly radical perspectives, some moderate, and some with no particular ideology at all. The existence of an ideology, even an ideology offensive to many in the education school (or the wider culture), is not “evidence” of potentially poor teaching. I can easily imagine the Washington State University education school approving of ideological viewpoints that are far outside the American mainstream, especially a particularly radical embrace of “diversity” (as that term is often defined in the modern academy).

The point is really quite simple: ideology cannot function as a proxy for actual merit. Ed Swan has performed very well in all his classes. His only problem has been his ideology. It is not proper for a state university to condition its degrees on acceptance of the state-approved ideology. In the words of the Supreme Court:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

Schools:  Washington State University Brooklyn College, City University of New York

Cases:  Brooklyn College: Possible Investigation of Professor’s Expression