Disposed to Mischief

Glenn Ricketts

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) has a new president. James G. Cibulka, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Kentucky, was named as the new chief executive of NCATE last July and succeeds the long-serving Arthur Wise, who retired after 18 years in the post. We wish Mr. Wise an active and productive retirement, and we hope that his successor enjoys a fulfilling term as NCATE’s president.  

Well, OK, lots of people retire and are succeeded by someone else, and it’s not a big deal for us. NCATE, however, happens to be the largest federally-recognized accreditor of teacher education programs in the United States, and its problematic, mischievously elastic certification standards have concerned us for some time, as have its vapid intellectual standards. Ask what’s wrong with American K-12 schooling, and a disproportionately large part of the answer comes down to schools of education that systematically mis-prepare would-be teachers for their careers. Ask why schools of education are so terrible, and NCATE looms as a significant part of the answer. NCATE is, with no real exaggeration, the enemy of those who hope to restore good, substantive teaching in America’s schools. By and large, it favors “process” over substance, trendy pedagogy over sound practice, psychological adjustment over cultivated self-control, and social messaging over objective knowledge. 

Given Mr. Cibulka’s background as an ed school dean, we don’t entertain high expectations that NCATE is about to transform itself into an embodiment of the aspirations of Horace Mann, who hoped for high quality teacher preparation and good schools for all. Nonetheless, we like to assume that everyone, including NCATE officials, has some capacity to learn. Accordingly we’d like to share our thoughts about educational standards with Mr. Cibulka, and offer some suggestions that we hope he’ll take seriously.

You may recall that our beef with NCATE arose in 2005 when we decided to take a close look at its accreditation standards, in particular a “professional dispositions” component which weighed heavily in the organization’s rating of the ed school teacher training programs it certified. According to Mr. Wise, the emphasis on “dispositions” meant that NCATE’s focus had shifted to the actual product of teacher training programs, and not simply the curricula or training experiences they offered. Under the new orientation, he explained to the Chronicle of Higher Education in December 2005, NCATE would now “make accreditation decisions on data revealing how much candidates had the knowledge and skills required to teach. This was a very big change.” 

On the face of it, there’s nothing amiss here, if that’s how we’re supposed to construe “professional dispositions.” Why not make sure that ed schools are turning out competent teachers who are actually able and eager to teach whatever it is that they’re supposed to teach?  To wit: Do they have command of their subject fields?  Are they able to communicate with their students? (Attention math teachers!) Are they suitably “professional” in dealing with colleagues, administrators, irate parents, etc.? Would they be willing to undertake extracurricular assignments, such as coaching the bowling team or advising the student poet society?  We certainly find nothing to object to in setting out such criteria for would-be teachers. 

But, alas, NCATE’s supplementary guidebook on its standards indicated that “dispositions” was a much broader - and for us, very elusive – category, encompassing “values, commitments, and professional ethics that influence behaviors toward students, families, colleagues and communities.” These were to be “guided by beliefs of, and attitudes related to, values such as caring, fairness, honesty, responsibility, and social justice.” These are pleasing words. Who wouldn’t prefer a teacher who “cares” to one who is indifferent or hostile? Where would we find the school eager to hire teachers committed to “unfairness”?   Is there a school of education somewhere that, until NCATE advised otherwise, emphasized that dishonesty is a valid career option? Irresponsibility? Injustice? 

Well, you get the picture. On the surface, NCATE had enunciated a series of bromides to which no one could possibly object, but which likewise appeared utterly meaningless. These are goo-goo standards—again, if taken at face value. They do nothing to measure or secure the professional suitability of prospective teachers. 

Or do they? Look again at those terms—caring, fairness, honesty, responsibility, and social justice—and imagine how they can be put to use by those who consider the measure of “caring,” for example, to be commitment to environmentalism; or who see “fairness” in terms of government programs for redistributing private property. “Social justice” is the most mischievous term of all. It is a phrase that has a complicated history and has been claimed by several competing philosophical traditions, but these days it is most prominently a slogan of the progressive left. In that vein it is closely bound up with the ideas about using the power of government drastically to limit personal freedom, private enterprise, free markets, and free exercise of religion in order to impose programs drawn up by elites who credit themselves with superior insight into the way society should be organized. The term “social justice” is a signal flare that declares that the starting point for all that follows is likely to be the premises favored by the activists of the political left. 

That in itself ought to raise alarms. What business does an accreditor, which draws its authority from the federal government, have imposing political litmus tests on schools of education and on the graduates of schools of education?

The litmus test was no less ominous for being vague. Precisely what “attitudes” should be cultivated in teacher candidates? NCATE wouldn’t say, though the term “social justice” appeared almost uniformly in the “conceptual frameworks” of NCATE-certified teacher education programs across the United States. NCATE’s former president asserted that “social justice” should be accepted as a bland and benign description of something nearly all Americans uphold. “To most Americans,” he declared in June, 2006, “the phrase ‘social justice’ is positive and connotes values associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition.” This is a partial and misleading truth, in that Catholic, Protestants, and Jews all do have longstanding traditions of promoting social justice. But former president Wise conveniently skips over the last fifty years, in which the term has been strenuously appropriated by the secular left, as well as contested within those religious traditions he lumped together as “Judeo-Christian.” Social justice simply doesn’t mean the same thing to traditional Catholics as it does to Catholic liberation theologians; or the same thing to Protestant traditionalists as it does to adherents of the theology of the “living church.”   In the religious world, the phrase doesn’t name a consensus; it names a collection of hard-fought controversies. In the meantime, the secular left’s notion of “social justice” has become by far the most widespread and recognizable use of the term.

So President Wise was either wonderfully naïve or, perhaps, disingenuous. 

He did, however, acknowledge that some carping sourpusses apparently didn’t agree: “To critics of the phrase, it is negative and connotes a dangerous if unspecified social and political agenda of indoctrination.” Pace Mr. Wise, we ended up on the side of those cranky, negative critics (such as FIRE and ACTA) who believed that the latter reading of “social justice” was unfortunately spot-on.

Of course, we’d heard this record many times before: innocuous though “social justice” could sound to anyone unfamiliar with the current academic landscape, it usually carried a heavy wagonload of ideological baggage (See for example our study, The Scandal of Social Work Education). Now here it was once again, this time peppering ed. school mission statements, course descriptions, welcome-to-our-program greetings by the dean, etc., etc. The following declaration at the University of Alabama’s College of Education was typical, and didn’t quite put us in mind of the Judeo-Christian tradition:


[The program is] committed to preparing individuals to promote social justice, to be change agents, and to recognize individual and institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia and classism….it includes educating individuals to break silences about these issues, propose solutions, provide leadership, and develop anti-racist, anti sexist …. alliances.

It was pretty hard to read a representative specimen like this and not come away with the impression that the Alabama teacher education program, in common with most others, sought to administer a heavy dose of political activism, to be swallowed simultaneously with pedagogy.  What’s more, it was done with NCATE’s official sanction and all of the clout that it carried as a federally-authorized accreditor.

Several episodes publicized in 2005 seemed to confirm our apprehensions about the probable manifestations of “social justice” as a tool for assessing the professional suitability of teacher education students. At Washington State University for instance, a self-identified conservative Christian student ran afoul of “professional dispositions” when, as requested, he responded candidly to a set of questions designed to affirm that a prospective teacher “Listens to others’ perspectives in a respectful manner; exhibits an understanding of the complexities of race, power, gender, class, sexual orientation, and privilege in American society.” His forthright answers apparently weren’t appreciated. Among other errant notions, he disputed that “white-male privilege” even existed (As a self-employed landscaper struggling to make ends meet while simultaneously pursuing his teaching degree, he might well have experienced some confusion on that point).   Well, that did it. 

One of his professors indicated that his evaluations had caused her “great concern in the areas of race, gender, sexual orientation and privilege,” while another wrote him off as a “white supremacist.” Further, he was directed by the program’s supervisors to sign a “contract,” requiring him to attend mandatory “sensitivity-training” sessions and complete related written assignments to enhance his capacity for “cultural awareness” before he would be permitted to participate in a scheduled elementary-school practicum exercise. But he admirably declined to sign the contract and instead contacted FIRE, which promptly intervened and informed the University that such an attempt to coerce a particular viewpoint from a student at a public institution was unconstitutional. The University then withdrew its stipulations and allowed the student to proceed with the program, from which he eventually graduated. 

Not so fortunate was another aspiring teacher at the University of Alaska, who withdrew from her program after repeated disputes with her professors over controversial issues such as affirmative action and gun control. Her views, she was informed, did not reflect the appropriate “dispositions” essential in good teachers. In yet another case at Brooklyn College, an education school student who complained to the administration about a professor’s repeated characterization of “white English” as the conduit for perpetrating a “culture of power” was himself investigated by the dean’s office, once again to determine whether or not he possessed the appropriate “dispositions” for becoming a teacher. 

Since we very easily continued to find reams of ed school materials saturated with “social justice,” and as additional incidents such as these came to light, we decided in November 2005 to contact the US Department of Education, from which NCATE receives its own authorization as an accrediting body.  In a letter to Sally Stroup, Assistant Secretary for Post-Secondary Education, we argued that although NCATE may not have made the adoption of the “social justice” standard mandatory for the schools it accredited, its current policies nevertheless had the practical effect of encouraging and legitimizing the sort of ideological enforcement illustrated in the examples above. That’s because once any program did incorporate “social justice” into its mission statement or curricular goals – and we couldn’t find any that did not – NCATE’s oversight guidelines required that it be applied consistently. In other words, it became obligatory for the students in the program, as part of its formal framework. No, you’re not required to adopt “social justice,” but if you do, we expect you to stick to it as a condition for certification.  As far as we could determine, no one ever received a stern reprimand from NCATE for failing to adhere to the “social justice” component in its program. In any case, we contended that by granting accreditation to these programs, NCATE necessarily bestowed its approval on their specific practices and methods, including the constitutionally untenable ideological screening which aroused our concern. By authorizing NCATE as an accrediting agency, the Department of Education likewise conferred federal endorsement on its certification policies and their application on teacher education programs.

Secretary Stroup’s response was less than satisfactory. NCATE’s use of the “social justice” standard, she assured us, “warranted further investigation,” and her office would ask the organization to provide additional documentation confirming that it was not in fact mandatory for programs seeking approval. She concluded, however, that so long as “social justice” remained optional, NCATE’s policies would be regarded as compliant with departmental regulations. Thus, the status quo would not be disturbed: NCATE would continue to encourage the use of “social justice,” as a professional standard while participating ed schools would eagerly continue to enforce it.

This would not be the end of the matter, however, since it happened that NCATE’s own re-authorization as a federally recognized accreditor would be up for review in 2006. We took up the opportunity, and wrote to the Education Department’s Office of Accreditation and State Liaison requesting the opportunity to challenge the organization’s petition at a normally pro forma public hearing, scheduled before the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity in early June. In a prepared statement submitted in advance of the hearing, then NAS President Steve Balch reiterated our objections to NCATE’s “social justice” standard, calling it an “ideologically freighted” concept with a “necessarily ambiguous and variable character.” This protean quality, he argued, left the term’s definition and application almost entirely to the discretion of NCATE’s client schools, essentially giving them carte blanche to require specific political viewpoints and ideological conformity from their students, with the accreditor’s continuing approval. The most significant problem, however, lay in the Department of Education’s authorization of NCATE as an accrediting body. Balch argued that “Because Department of Education recognition lends great authority to NCATE’s enforcement role, the Department is necessarily entangled in NCATE’s infringement of constitutionally protected individual rights.”   In this light, he concluded, the National Advisory Committee should withhold its re-authorization as a recognized accreditor until “social justice” had been removed from its certification standards.

To our surprise, NCATE president Arthur Wise announced to the committee that his organization would be doing just that. As expected, he declared that NCATE absolutely did not require its participant programs to include “social justice” in their mission statements or professional goals for teacher candidates. “Are you kidding!?” responded some of his bewildered clients who reacted as if Mr. Wise had pulled the rug on them, providing a curious glimpse of how theyperceived NCATE’s “voluntary” standard.   See for example, Bonnie Johnson and Dale D. Johnson, “An Analysis of NCATE’s Decision to Drop ‘Social Justice’,” (Journal of Educational Controversy, vol. 2, no. 2, Summer, 2007).  Anyway, Mr. Wise explained that “social justice” was being removed from his organization’s accreditation protocols because “the term is susceptible to a variety of definitions.” (If that’s the standard NCATE intends to apply to itself, we should expect a vast clearing out of NCATE’s whole approach to accreditation, which is cram-full of phrases open to a “variety of definitions.’ But of course, Mr. Wise meant no such thing. He was an embarrassed Adam looking for a fig leaf.) He also declared with a straight face that NCATE did not “endorse social and political ideologies. We endorse academic freedom, and we base our standards on knowledge, skills and professional disposition.” 



Very good stuff, all of this, and it would be churlish of us to complain about what we had heard and what transpired that day. What do you do when your opponent comes before a public body and capitulates entirely? There is, of course, the approach Aeneas takes with the aptly named Turnus at the end of Book 12, but these are more civilized times. And it was only a beginning.  Some hefty work lies ahead for Mr. Wise’s successor. Significant as NCATE’s surprise turnaround was, it hasn’t yet precipitated a stampede to discard “social justice” by the organization’s participant programs, where business continues essentially as usual. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Education, for example, informs new students that “Themes of equity and social justice permeate all of our work. Throughout our undertakings, we aim to foster personal dispositions that lead us to transformative actions in educational environments with students, colleagues, families and communities.” One finds similar standard issue at Auburn, whose mission statement declares the school’s vision “as one of transformation. We strive to be and to prepare agents of change.”

That’s pretty much where things stand at present, leaving us with a couple of questions to share with Mr. Cibulka:

1) Given their undiminished enthusiasm for “social justice,” will teacher education programs certified by NCATE continue to force-feed their students a specific political agenda, or will there be room for dissenters?

2) If the objectionable practices discussed here should re-appear, what will NCATE do about it? 

We were heartened by Mr. Wise’s ringing affirmation of the organization’s dedication to academic freedom, and we don’t doubt that Mr. Cibulka endorses that view as well. That being so, we also hope that he agrees with our belief that academic freedom and ideological litmus tests are fundamentally incompatible, and that teacher training programs which impose them are unfit for certification by his organization. We wish Mr. Cibulka well, we’re certainly available for consultation about the precise application of academic freedom in teacher training programs, and we’ll be watching attentively as he takes up the reins at NCATE. 


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