Dispositions in Teacher Education: A Look at Social Justice

By Villegas, Ana Maria | Journal of Teacher Education, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview

Dispositions in Teacher Education: A Look at Social Justice


Villegas, Ana Maria, Journal of Teacher Education


In recent years, teacher education has been under severe, if not outright vicious attack. The role of dispositions in teacher education, particularly the disposition related to social justice, is one of latest contested arenas. Critics charge that the assessment of dispositions pertaining to social justice makes teacher candidates vulnerable to the imposition of their professors' ideological viewpoints. This vulnerability, they contend, is a violation of candidates' constitutional rights under the First Amendment and a denial of their academic freedom (Creeley, 2007; Damon, 2005; Hines, 2007; Leo, 2005; National Association of Scholars [NAS], 2006; Will, 2006). According to critics, social justice is an ambiguous and ideologically loaded term fraught with potential for abuse. Critics further contend that the social justice agenda is nothing more than "political indoctrination" in the service of the cultural left and that its use in teacher education not only infringes on candidates' constitutional rights and academic privileges but also detracts from the real work of giving teachers-to-be the knowledge and skills needed to teach their future students effectively (NAS, 2006). As critics put it, programs of teacher education that attend to issues of social justice and assess pre-service teachers' dispositions related to social justice are guilty of engaging in "thought control" (Leo, 2005) and "political screening" (Hines, 2007) using criteria derived from the "progressive political catechism" (Will, 2006).

In this article, I argue that attending to issues of social justice in teacher education is appropriate and that assessing teacher candidates' disposition related to social justice is both reasonable and defensible. The article is organized into four sections. I first discuss why social justice matters in teacher education and provide highlights of what teaching for social justice entails. Following this, I define the term dispositions and explain why programs of teacher education must attend to them, focusing specifically on teacher candidates' disposition related to social justice. I then describe strategies for assessing such a disposition at my own institution and make a case that the assessment practices presented are principled and fair. In the concluding section, I suggest that beneath the surface of the ongoing dispositions debate is an even more contentious battle to define the goals of public education, the role of teachers, the nature of knowledge, and conceptions of learning, teaching, and learning to teach.

WHY SOCIAL JUSTICE MATTERS IN TEACHER EDUCATION

The school is a multipurpose and complex institution. It is generally agreed that a central purpose of schools is to develop among students the knowledge and skills they will need to lead successful adult lives. While profound disagreement exists over the content of such education (Labaree, 1997), few would question the educative function of schools. Beyond providing children and young people with knowledge and skills, schools perform a delicate, although less frequently discussed, sorting function in society (Mehan, 1996). Some have argued that schools serve as efficient sorting devices, allocating individuals to particular locations in the socioeconomic hierarchy based on their academic performance (Parsons, 1959; Turner, 1960). Students who do well in schools are granted access to the higher-paying and more prestigious positions in the economic order. By contrast, those who do least well are generally confined to positions at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, and destined to a life of poverty. I do not mean to suggest that schools should sort students into social winners and losers. My point is simply that, whether we like it or not, schools do perform a sorting function. And teachers, whether consciously or not, play a critical role in the sorting process.

In the United States, the ethics of the education-based stratification system is contingent on one critical assumption--that school practices are equitable and fair. …

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