Teacher Preparation

Teacher-Hopeful Runs Afoul of ‘Dispositions’

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 31, 2006 4 min read
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Scott McConnell suspected that his philosophy of education—which highlights discipline, nationalistic views, and a rigid instructional approach—strayed a bit from that of the faculty in the graduate education program at the private Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. But he didn’t expect to get expelled for it.

In a paper, Scott McConnell spelled out his educational philosophy, which looks favorably on corporal punishment and eschews privileges for special education students.

That, however, is what happened last year after Mr. McConnell wrote a paper outlining his admittedly controversial views on education. Now, a New York state appeals court has ordered the Jesuit-run institution to reinstate him.

Free-speech groups hailed the ruling, after it was handed down in January, even though it was not based on First Amendment grounds but on the failure of college officials to follow the due-process procedures required to expel a matriculated student.

“Institutions that claim to believe in academic freedom cannot selectively protect only the speech they happen to favor,” Terence Pell, the president of the Center for Individual Rights, based in Washington, which provided legal counsel to Mr. McConnell, said in a statement.

Mr. McConnell received a grade of A-minus for the paper, but the dean of the education department, Cathy Leogrande, wrote in a January 2005 letter to the student that she had “grave concerns regarding the mismatch between [Mr. McConnell’s] personal beliefs regarding teaching and learning and the [program’s] goals.” He was not permitted to attend additional classes at the college.

Accreditation Standards

The college cited its need to ensure students meet its performance standards, including content knowledge and professional “dispositions.” National accreditation standards for colleges of education require that students demonstrate knowledge of the subject matter and professional dispositions, or values, including fairness and an appreciation of student diversity. Students should not, however, be judged on their personal beliefs, but only on their behavior in the classroom, according to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

“What is critical is to distinguish between ideology and behavior, and it’s very important that people’s behavior in the classroom be appropriate,” said Arthur E. Wise, the president of the Washington-based accrediting body. NCATE requires the schools it accredits to outline for students the “dispositions” they deem essential for successful teachers. “What particular philosophies or ideologies they may harbor in their hearts and minds are not relevant unless it shows up as improper behavior in the classroom,” he said.

The dispositions help colleges of education determine if students will make good teachers, according to Mr. Wise.

“The state requires that they must judge the suitability of the candidate, and that goes beyond simple content knowledge and teaching skill,” he said. “Classroom behavior must be aligned to fairness and the belief that all students can learn.”

Free-Speech Case Ousted

Other students have challenged the dispositions outlined by colleges of education. The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education cited in a press release this past fall “a new trend in campus censorship” in the “dispositions theory” used in teacher education programs to evaluate students’ commitment to social justice and diversity.

The organization has been involved in cases at Washington State University, in Pullman, and at Brooklyn College, in New York City, in which students were asked to abide by the departments’ commitment to diversity and social justice as a condition for continuing with the program.

In the Le Moyne case, Mr. McConnell said he was unaware of such a requirement. The student initially tried to sue the college for what he said was a violation of his First Amendment rights, but the case was dismissed because, as a private institution, Le Moyne is entitled to restrict student speech and behaviors, according to Daniel O’Sullivan, a lawyer for Shearman & Sterling who argued the current case for Mr. McConnell pro bono.

The Le Moyne College handbook states that a student cannot be expelled for expressing his or her views, and outlines detailed procedures for dismissal, which were not followed in Mr. McConnell’s case.

Mr. McConnell wrote in his paper that he bases his “philosophy of classroom management upon the pre-1960s learning when discipline was present in the learning environment.” Students, he wrote, should show the teacher respect, not the other way around. He also wrote that the classroom is for learning, not fun; that students with special needs should not be given special privileges; and that corporal punishment should be used when needed.

“The classroom culture would revolve strictly around American culture and state culture, and not multicultural learning,” Mr. McConnell wrote. “I would run the class like a dictatorship.”

Job as Substitute

The 27-year-old Baldwinsville, N.Y., resident, who served several years in the U.S. Army, has been a substitute teacher in Syracuse’s public schools, but was suspended from those duties as well after he was expelled from the college. He has since returned as a substitute in the district, he said.

“LeMoyne is not as diverse as they like to claim they are. … They don’t like students challenging their ideas,” Mr. McConnell said in an interview last week. He claimed that, because of his views, college officials tried to paint him as a racist and a potential danger to children. “They don’t know anything about me as a person, and if they would have seen me in the classroom, they would know that I’m the furthest thing from a danger to anybody.”

Le Moyne College officials would not comment on the ruling, but said in a statement that Mr. McConnell would be reinstated pending the outcome of an appeal to the state’s highest court.

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