Silence From Teachers College

By April 16, 2008

When Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman told FIRE last May that the school would be taking another look at the language used to describe its evaluative criteria, naturally we took her at her word.

After all, we figured that Fuhrman likely became President of what is arguably our nation’s most prestigious education school by keeping the interests of her students front and center. Therefore, it only made sense that she would want to reform Teachers College’s troubling reliance on ideologically charged “dispositions” in assessing student performance after being informed of the problem with doing so. Here’s a quick recap, taken from our October 2006 letter to Fuhrman, about why using dispositions like the ones at Teachers College is so inappropriate:

Teachers College’s standards require students to demonstrate a “commitment to social justice,” a vague and politically loaded concept. At a college that claims to value freedom and intellectual inquiry, this is an unacceptable encroachment on a student’s right to think, believe, and express what he or she sees fit. Teachers College employs “dispositions,” which you define as “observable behaviors that fall within the law and involve the use of certain skills,” to evaluate students. These dispositions, “expected of Teachers College candidates and graduates” and “assessed at each transition point,” include “Respect for Diversity and Commitment to Social Justice.” (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) Standards, Element 4: Dispositions for All Candidates.) Hopefully it is clear that evaluating a degree candidate’s “Commitment to Social Justice” necessitates a normative conception of what social justice isand, concordantly, what it is notand thus prescribes an “official” ideal. Evaluating students according to their commitment to this official ideal is a stark violation of a student’s right to decide for him or herself what is and is not socially just.

FIRE has certainly informed Fuhrman of the problem with dispositions. We wrote her and Columbia University President Lee Bollinger (Teachers College is Columbia’s graduate school of education) in September of 2006, October of 2006, and May of 2007, and generated media coverage of our concerns about dispositions at Teachers College in The New York Times, the New York Post, The New York Sun, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

So President Fuhrman can’t possibly say she doesn’t know what’s at stake, as her letter to us from last May indicates. But after months of waiting for her to make good on her pledge to revisit her school’s policies, we hadn’t heard from her. So we figured another letter was in order, this time to every member of Teachers College’s Board of Trustees. A month later, we’re disappointed to still be waiting for word from President Fuhrman. Part of that disappointment lies in the fact that the answer to our concerns about dispositions is so straightforward, as we’ve said before:

FIRE asks only that a personal “commitment to social justice” or any other vague or politically loaded term no longer be required of Teachers College students, not that the school as a whole abandon its attachment to a certain model of “social justice.”

President Fuhrman, we’re still waitingand we have absolutely no intention of dropping the issue.

Schools: Columbia University Cases: Columbia University: Ideological Litmus Tests at Teachers College