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Teacher Ed. Community Is Striving to Interpret Candidate ‘Dispositions’

By Vaishali Honawar — March 14, 2008 6 min read
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“Dispositions” has been one of the most controversial words in teacher education since the beginning of this decade. Now, a position paper from the leading association representing the nation’s teacher colleges is calling for an open and critical conversation on the meaning and uses of the term.

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education first added dispositions to its standards in 2000. But criticism has since swirled endlessly around the political interpretations of the word, as well as the difficulties faced by teacher colleges in addressing and assessing teacher-candidates’ dispositions.

NCATE, which changed its definition of dispositions last year in response to some of those concerns, now defines professional dispositions as “professional attitudes, values, and beliefs demonstrated through both verbal and nonverbal behaviors as educators interact with students, families, colleagues, and communities.” The definition focuses on two dispositions in particular that it expects teacher-candidates to demonstrate: fairness and the belief that all students can learn.

But there still is a need for more discussion to clarify the complexity of the term for professionals and policymakers, some say.

“We are not at a point where we are absolutely certain about anything in relation to this,” said Mary Diez, the dean of graduate studies at Alverno College in Milwaukee and the chairwoman of a task force set up by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education that drafted the paper.

A Struggle

The position paper, which will be included in a book on the topic to be released next year, was discussed at AACTE’s annual conference last month. It points out that some schools of education “struggle with a fair, just, and effective assessment of dispositional development.”

Defining the Term

The executive board of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education announced last fall that it had revised its definition of professional dispositions. The new one excludes the controversial term “social justice.”

“Professional attitudes, values, and beliefs demonstrated through both verbal and nonverbal behaviors as educators interact with students, families, colleagues, and communities. These positive behaviors support student learning and development. NCATE expects institutions to assess professional dispositions based on observable behaviors in educational settings. The two professional dispositions that NCATE expects institutions to assess are fairness and the belief that all students can learn. Based on their mission and conceptual framework, professional education units can identify, define, and operationalize additional professional dispositions.”

SOURCE: National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education

“Clearly, an expanded, open, and critical conversation about the meaning and uses of dispositions is still needed,” write the authors, who compare the interpretation of the term by educators and policymakers to the proverb of the six blind men and the elephant they encounter for the first time. As each man “observes” the elephant from his particular experience, each comes away with a different idea of what an elephant must be like.

“There is a lack of a clear definition in the way [dispositions] are operationalized in the colleges of education,” said Holly Thornton, an education professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., who has extensively studied the topic.

“It does tend to be the nature of dispositions. It is not something concrete that you can touch or see. … Sometimes, institutions reduce it to something easy to document and measure, like behavior, or a good sense of humor,” Ms. Thornton added.

“While we all know what [dispositions] are, they are difficult to define to people’s satisfaction,” said M. Mark Wasicsko, a professor of education at Kentucky State University in Highland Heights and the director of the National Network for the Study of Educator Dispositions, which holds an annual conference on the topic.

Mr. Wasicsko’s group advocates a definition of dispositions around core concepts, including a positive view of oneself and of one’s students, and the ability to put people first. Aspiring teachers, for instance, respond in writing to a human-relations incident or classroom observations. That approach reveals candidates’ perceptions of themselves in relation to others and the greater world and also an insight into dispositions.

Ms. Thornton includes that model among four she describes in a 2006 paper as being among the most widely used by teacher colleges as a result of NCATE requirements.

Each model, she says, has its strengths and flaws. Besides the self-reflection model supported by

Mr. Wasicsko’s group, another, for instance, uses a collection of checklists, rating scales, and guidelines correlated to national and state standards. A third one is built around teacher professional characteristics and behaviors such as attendance, work ethic, and punctuality. The fourth model addresses the mismatch between teachers’ and students’ backgrounds, experiences, and languages, and the resulting attitudes of teachers.

‘Taking Responsibility’

Alverno College, often cited as a model, began as far back as 1972 to require candidates to demonstrate eight abilities in order to graduate from the Roman Catholic institution. The abilities are a combination of components including skill, behavior, knowledge, values, and dispositions, and include communication, analysis, social interaction, effective citizenship, and global perspective. Candidates are assessed in those abilities throughout their course of study.

Candidates, said Ms. Diez, need not only demonstrate knowledge of content matter and skills, but also show that they are able to reach out to all students. “It is less a checkoff and more a process of taking responsibility for what a teacher needs to do morally and help students learn,” she said.

Most teacher colleges today are grappling with how to address dispositions, Ms. Diez said. While “in less good situations” some colleges might, for instance, just have a behavior or character checklist, in others the assessment of dispositions is well integrated into every aspect of the program.

Besides the difficulties in actually addressing and assessing dispositions, teacher colleges have had to deal with accusations of political screening by some teacher-candidates as well as observers.

In a 2005 paper, William Damon, a professor of education at Stanford University, wrote that NCATE “intended the term ‘dispositions’ to signify ‘beliefs and attitudes’ that reflect a particular stance toward moral issues large and small.”

He warned that unless assessment for accreditation was based on clearly defined principles rather than “the fuzzy intuitions of whoever happens to be in charge of the process at any one time,” the assessment process could be used to eliminate anyone who didn’t pass certain political litmus tests and to indoctrinate those who were afraid of being eliminated.

Teacher colleges that have used dispositions as a reason for expelling candidates have found themselves at the wrong end of a lawsuit. In 2006, for instance, a student released from Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., over his views favoring corporal punishment and a rigid instructional approach was reinstated by a court.

Responding to criticisms from Mr. Damon and others, NCATE last year took out the term “social justice” when it revised its definition of dispositions.

NCATE’s new definition was also changed to make implementation a little clearer to teacher colleges. “We expect institutions to carry out assessment of candidates to reveal … that teacher-candidates are fair to all children,” said Arthur E. Wise, the accrediting group’s president. “We do say we wish to see evidence about this in behavior and in expressed attitudes and values.”

Consensus Emerging

Both Mr. Wise and Mr. Wasicsko of the National Network for the Study of Educator Dispositions say consensus has been building in the field over addressing the topic. According to Mr. Wise, that shared thinking is enshrined in the two dispositions that the new NCATE definition requires teacher-candidates to demonstrate.

Mr. Wasicsko says he, too, has observed unification around the core concepts his group espouses. “There’s a lot of coming together in the last two years at the [network’s] national symposium. I’ve started seeing people homing in on those concepts,” he said.

Even non-NCATE institutions are focusing on dispositions.

Other experts say, however, that there still is need for more research-based evidence on the topic. Although they credit NCATE for turning the spotlight on the topic by including dispositions in its standards, they also warn that a theoretical approach to dispositions is not the way to go.

Ms. Thornton proposes arriving at an understanding of dispositions through research, such as time spent studying schools and which teacher dispositions affect student learning.

“A lot of time has not been focused on studying this. We just don’t have a common research base. There hasn’t been an essential focus on what [dispositions] mean,” she said. “People use that term loosely, and personally.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 19, 2008 edition of Education Week

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