Ed Swan breaks the mold of typical education students at Washington State University-or any college for that matter. The 42-year-old self-employed landscaper is conservative, Christian, and unafraid to share his views-a combination that proved near disastrous.
Employing "dispositions theory," a new method of student evaluation advanced by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), WSU officials threatened in August to terminate Mr. Swan's enrollment due to his political positions. Mr. Swan had expressed opposition to pacifism, gun control, and affirmative action-ideas several professors said violated requirements that WSU education students promote a "positive climate," be "sensitive to community and cultural norms," and value "human diversity."
When asked to sign a contract stating he would either change or face expulsion, Mr. Swan contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). A FIRE letter warning WSU of its illegal political litmus test triggered a quick note of apology to Mr. Swan, in which Director of Student Services Linda Chaplin called the incident a "misunderstanding."
While encouraged by that outcome, FIRE president David French is concerned that Mr. Swan represents merely the tip of an unreported iceberg. More than 600 colleges of education ascribe to NCATE accreditation standards, which include a provision that all teacher candidates must work in a manner that "reflects the dispositions delineated in professional, state, and institutional standards." NCATE defines dispositions as "beliefs and attitudes related to values such as caring, fairness, honesty, responsibility, and social justice."
"What is social justice? My view of social justice may be injustice to you and vice versa," Mr. French said, calling dispositions theory one of the more dangerous developments in higher education. "In practice, requirements like that begin to require students to spout back and mirror the ideology of the teacher, which is often radically multicultural, radical on issues of gay rights, and frequently used to target Christian students."
Last February, WSU's student affairs committee advised Mr. Swan to undergo an hour of "professional development activity" with Melynda Huskey, the school's assistant vice president of diversity and equity and director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Allies Program. After the meeting, Ms. Huskey accused Mr. Swan in a written memo obtained by FIRE of ignorance and stupidity-this despite Mr. Swan's high grades and praise from instructors-and said he lacked the skills "minimal for teaching in a multicultural classroom."
But NCATE president Art Wise insists such an evaluation has no connection to his organization's accreditation standards: "No standard of ours allows for political indoctrination." Mr. Wise points out that schools from both sides of the political spectrum seek accreditation from NCATE, including Oral Roberts, Calvin College, Liberty University, and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. "Someone has fabricated a theory based on a single incident," he told WORLD. "It's ludicrous."
Brooklyn College history professor K.C. Johnson strongly disagrees. After receiving an e-mail from another professor at Brooklyn College soliciting dispositional dirt on one of his students, Mr. Johnson researched the advent of dispositions theory and condemned it in both an education journal and the New York Sun. "Because I commented to the Sun, the education department faculty at Brooklyn issued a public letter attacking me and demanding that I stay silent-which I ignored," he said.
According to Mr. Johnson, the idea of dispositions evaluations began gathering steam in the mid- to late 1990s and cracked the mainstream in 2002 when added to NCATE's standards. "NCATE is essentially the only game in town," he said. "So this was a policy change that had a dramatic impact."
Political pressure to change NCATE standards may be left to states. U.S. education department official Sally Stroup turned down a protest letter from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). She said that the inclusion of social justice in dispositions evaluations "is left to the discretion of the individual college or university," according to ACTA president Anne Neal.