Dispositions or attitudes?

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In the May 31 edition of the New York Sun, journalist Jacob Gershman puts a face to a troubling trend in teacher education, describing a clash between a group of Brooklyn College education students and their professor Priya Parmar.

As the story is told, Parmar indulged in some of the ed school academic follies we've come to know and love, such as dedicating a class period to a screening of Fahrenheit 9/11 and indulging in occasional rants about standard English (the "oppressor language.") Several students objected to Parmar's politicized teaching, and the conflict supposedly motivated Parmar to investigate whether one student, Evan Goldwyn, held the right "dispositions" for teaching. He and another student were later accused of plagiarism; they allege that the charges were purely retaliatory.

Possessing the right dispositions is actually as important for aspiring teachers these days as knowing subject matter and how to teach it--at least according to NCATE, which accredits half of the nation's teacher prep programs. In its assessment criteria for good teaching, candidates get evaluated on three qualities: knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

And just what is a disposition for teaching? According to an NCATE glossary quoted by the Sun, dispositions "are guided by beliefs and attitudes related to values such as caring, fairness, honesty, responsibility, and social justice," a statement of such monumentally vague proportions that it's easy to see where the trouble comes in when institutions try to apply the statement to practice. Brooklyn College history professor Robert David Johnson sees the "dispositions" criteria for what it clearly is in this case: "an empty vessel that could be filled with any agenda you want."