U. of Minnesota Takes Heat for Proposal to Gauge Future Teachers' Sensitivity

December 02, 2009

The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities has come under pressure to reject a faculty panel's proposal to require students in its education school to doubt the United States is a meritocracy and to demonstrate an understanding of concepts such as "white privilege."

Conservative pundits and a prominent free-speech advocacy group have attacked the education-school panel, called the Race, Culture, Class, and Gender Task Group, which has said future teachers should "understand the importance of cultural identity" and "be able to discuss their own histories and current thinking drawing on notions of white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and internalized oppression." The panel also has said prospective teachers should promote social justice and have an understanding of U.S. history that takes into account the "myth of meritocracy in the United States."

Jean K. Quam, dean of the university's College of Education and Human Development, said today in an interview that the proposal was just one of several being offered up by various faculty panels as the college moves to overhaul its teacher-education program to better prepare students to deal with today's classrooms. She characterized the proposal as "a brainstorm of ideas" that the education school had yet to act upon as it develops a sweeping plan to change teacher preparation in the coming academic year.

"We would never impose requirements of how people are required to think or act as part of their teacher education," Ms. Quam said. "We are trying to broaden the way that they think or act and not narrow that view."

An 'Affront to Liberty'

But in a recent letter to the university's president, Robert H. Bruininks, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education argued that the education school had signaled its intent to adopt the proposal in a recent application for grant money and was already advising applicants that such changes may be under way.

The letter from Adam Kissel, director of the group's Individual Rights Defense Program, called the proposed requirements for prospective teachers "unconstitutional and morally unconscionable" and "a severe affront to liberty."

Some conservative pundits have criticized the proposed requirement using even harsher language. Chris Baker, the host of a talk show on the local radio station KTLK-FM, recently referred to the education school as "the University of Minnesota Adolf Hitler School of Education" and said the school was "one step away from advocating gas chambers for conservatives" and having students with views that did not comport with its ideology "culled from the herd and eliminated."

The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research this week published an article urging readers to pressure Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Timothy Pawlenty, a likely Republican candidate for president in 2012, to remove teacher training in that state "from the grips of ideologues."

Ms. Quam said the education-school panel had come back with "some pretty strong language about what it wanted to see." She added, however, that she supported its underlying goal of preparing prospective teachers to deal with students from diverse backgrounds, and noted that about 70 languages and dialects are spoken by students in the Saint Paul school system alone.

The controversy over the Minnesota proposal echoes a recent debate over whether it is appropriate for colleges of education to require prospective teachers to display certain professional "dispositions" showing an ability to work with diverse students — a requirement that schools view as ensuring teachers are effective, and critics regard as thinly disguised ideological litmus tests. In response to such criticisms, the governing board of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education voted in 2007 to stop suggesting that teacher-preparation programs take their students' views on "social justice" into account.