Indoctrination and Dispositions

by Robert Pondiscio
December 1st, 2009

The University of Minnesota’s ed school has found itself embroiled in controversy after a newspaper columnist claimed the school is seeking to indoctrinate would-be teachers with radical ideologies–and might prevent those who do not toe the line from teaching.  As described by Katherine Kersten, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune,

The Race, Culture, Class and Gender Task Group at the U’s College of Education and Human Development recommended that aspiring teachers there must repudiate the notion of “the American Dream” in order to obtain the recommendation for licensure required by the Minnesota Board of Teaching. Instead, teacher candidates must embrace — and be prepared to teach our state’s kids — the task force’s own vision of America as an oppressive hellhole: racist, sexist and homophobic.

The “oppresive hellhole” language is Kersten’s own; it appears nowhere in the task force report.  Here’s the passage in question:

The story of the United States is often told in terms of the American Dream….Future teachers will understand that despite an ideal about what is considered common culture in the United States, that many groups are typically not included within this celebrated cultural identity and more often than not, many students with multi-generational histories in the United States are routinely perceived to be new immigrants or foreign. That such exclusion is frequently a result of dissimilarities in power and influence. 

Jean K. Quam, the dean of UM’s ed school responds in the Star Tribune that discussion of these issues is not indoctrination. “Our belief is that acknowledging these issues is essential to teacher and student success and that ignoring them will not make them go away,” she writes. “A teacher with expert subject knowledge but without skills to connect with students or to be flexible and inventive in the classroom is an ineffective teacher,” she says.  

All well and good, but one still might ask to what degree the University concerns itself with ensuring its graduates are teachers with “expert subject knowledge,” something that is typically not a huge ed school concern.  The UM controversy raises the issue of ed schools insistence on evaluating teacher ”dispositions,” a hot-button term for many.  In a 2007 Education Next piece, Kent State professor Laurie Moses Hines questioned the purpose of such assessments:

Whether the standard is mental hygiene or possessing the proper political and ideological disposition, the elimination of candidates who do not pass muster gives teacher educators the power to determine who gains access to a classroom based on the values the teacher educators prefer. While the courts have permitted certifying agencies to require “good moral character” of teacher applicants, as legal scholars Martha McCarthy and Nelda Cambron-McCabe note, they “will intervene…if statutory or constitutional rights are abridged.” Thus, while pledging loyalty to federal and state constitutions is a permissible condition for obtaining a teacher license, swearing an oath to progressivism is not. Given the evidence and the history, there should be real concern, as teacher educator Gary Galluzzo has said, that “students’ views and personalities are being used against them” whenever dispositions are assessed. Those committed to academic freedom within higher education should be concerned when professional socialization trumps freedom of conscience in teacher education programs.

As a purely practical matter, one wonders why “dispositions” are a criteria at all in determining who gets to teach, and if time might be better spent ensuring future teachers have mastered their subject and craft, and are well-prepared to be effective classroom managers.  It seems reasonable to say that far more ground is sacrificed by teachers who are overwhelmed and unprepared than by those who are not, er, correctly disposed. 

(via Joanne Jacobs)


  1. Look, “disposition” is an essential part of teaching — you can’t seriously question that. Conservatives use cases like the one you cite as an argument against ed schools and for alternative certification, but certainly TFA, KIPP, etc., have their own very specific ideas about what kid of “disposition” they want in a teacher. Michelle Rhee is pretty explicit about wanting to fire teachers whose disposition she finds inadequate, although she might not use that word.

    You might (and should) question whether there is *one* disposition that all teachers must have, or question whether there should only be one gatekeeper for entering the profession, but the idea that we should recruit, train, evaluate, etc. teachers without regard for “disposition” just does not reflect the way humans interact in the real world.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — December 1, 2009 @ 11:12 am

  2. A fair point and a good distinction, Tom. My assumption (and I think it’s a fair one) is that disposition in ed school context is a synonym for teaching for social justice. At least I’m not aware of any counterexamples. To your point, I don’t believe there is any one disposition that one must have to be effective. Context matters, obviously. But I am concerned that one must increasngly swear loyalty to certain core beliefs, whether it’s an ed school’s, KIPP’s, TFA’s or anyone else’s, as a precursor to employment. It seems unnecessary and manipulative at best and (depending on the job or organization) cult-like at worst.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 1, 2009 @ 11:28 am

  3. My assumption (and I think it’s a fair one) is that disposition in ed school context is a synonym for teaching for social justice.

    I don’t think it is a fair assumption at all:

    Comment by Michael — December 1, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

  4. There also seems to be a difference between social justice and “social justice,” if you know what I mean.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — December 1, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

  5. I think all professions have dispositional requirements and each runs into problems with them. A colleague in an school of education at a different university told me about a prospective social science teacher they had who was a Holocaust denier and also concerned that the faculty in history education at his school were both Jewish. The school was concerned about this; the gentleman learned to say what he needed to say to be allowed to graduate, but the people involved had a very queasy feeling about him. I wonder how he would treat his Jewish students, and I wonder how he will teach history. I think these are valid concerns in evaluating a prospective teacher, and I think they reflect “dispositions.”

    As Americans, we should be reluctant to preclude people from opportunities based on their beliefs. At the same time, quite a few people in our society believe that one’s genes completely determine one’s outcomes in life, and that those are quite well correlated with ethnicity. I wonder if someone who believes that could really be an effective teacher?

    Comment by Kevin Miller — December 1, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

  6. I agree with Tom, disposition is an essential part of teaching. As educators we’re not just teaching subject material but also how to be active and positive citizens of our democratic country. One of the most important things students learn in school is how to be a responsible, respectful adult in society and without having an open mind disposition that is difficult for an educator to teach to students. I don’t believe there is one particular “disposition” or belief but rather the concept of “just because I believe one way doesn’t mean everyone believes the same”. I would hope that the people of the United States want our educators to be good role models and just as diverse as the US is. We want superior educators, we’re teaching America’s future. A person can know a subject inside and out but if they’re unable to relate to students they are not going to be a superior nor effective educator.

    Comment by jendreamer — December 1, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

  7. I’m agreeing with Tom on the matter of disposition. What is in dispute, however, is whether or not there is a dominant view in ed schools over what that disposition is or ought to be. Michael’s example notwithstanding, I tend to think that there is something very much like an orthodoxy at work on the issue — a true and only disposition, if you like.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 1, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

  8. Also, when a person goes for a job interview the beliefs they have that relate to the position applied for are most certainly taken into consideration. While an extreme example one wouldn’t hire someone to work at a family planning clinic who is a radical pro-life person. On another level I worked for many years as a Certified Veterinary Technician and during each interview both the potential employer as well as myself questioned each other’s beliefs on euthanasia. Why should there be any difference in “interviewing” a potential teacher? It can’t be left to decide after the credentials are there, what happens if that teacher is a substitute teacher and isn’t hired by one school for a certain subject but rather a district where multiple subjects would be taught to several different age groups.

    Comment by jendreamer — December 2, 2009 @ 12:51 am

  9. Michael’s example notwithstanding, I tend to think that there is something very much like an orthodoxy at work on the issue — a true and only disposition, if you like.

    Demonstrate it, then. I’ve seen nothing to indicate that your anecdote trumps my anecdote.

    Comment by Michael — December 2, 2009 @ 9:06 am

  10. I’m out of my depth here, but I understand that the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education issued guidelines in 2002 requiring ed schools to “include some measure of a candidate’s commitment to social justice” when evaluating the dispositions of their students. They dropped it a few years later after complaints about enforcing ideological conformaity. More anecdotes perhaps, but I think that’s a pretty good demonstration of the canonization of the idea. The real test would be how many ed schools have a disposition requirement that does NOT include social justice. I suspect the answer would be “not many.” It might even be “none.” Anyone aware of such data?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 2, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

  11. Read the task force recommendations and you’ll see this was not just about preparing future teachers to work with students of different races and ethnicities. There is a comprehensive “social justice” view of how the world works.

    Comment by Joanne Jacobs — December 2, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

  12. In my graduate program, 1 class was required in my content area and there were 3 required with the following titles: “Social Contexts of Education” “Teaching Diverse Students” and “Multicultural Education.”

    Where is the emphasis here?

    Comment by Matt — December 3, 2009 @ 11:14 am

  13. In practice, dispositions seems largely synonymous with political correctness. This is sometimes called “social justice” by folks with no inkling of the genesis of social justice within Catholic social teaching. This is adistinction with important operational implications since the Catholic version requires Catholic teachers (and ed school faculty) to organize to advance the those goals for educational equity which courts have legitimately advanced.

    As the Michelle Kerr episode illustrates, the stereotypical ed school notion of social justice is part of a “branding” scheme promoted through the NCATE accreditation process–regardless of whether student outcomes are what parents and civil rights organizations demand.

    Comment by Eric — December 3, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

  14. It seems Ravitch & Kors saw this coming:

    Comment by Eric — December 3, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

  15. Quiz. Which famous XXth Century American wrote these words?…

    “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

    And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream…”

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — December 20, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

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