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Please begin with an informative title:

When my daughter Jessica entered the same school system where I had spent my career as a teacher—my hometown school system as well—I was faced with the challenge of how to balance my role as her father with being a colleague of the teachers she encountered over twelve years. One incident from her years in high school has remained with me and speaks directly to the accountability era that has overlapped with my teaching career begun in the early 1980s.

Jessica’s first high school English teacher had been a member of the high school English department when I was chair (I left teaching high school after 18 years and entered teacher education just before my daughter entered high school). Throughout my career as a high school English teacher, I had focused on teaching writing in authentic ways—emphasizing student choice, the writing process, and holistic approaches to literacy. My pedagogical commitments did not match most of my colleague’s traditional views of teaching literacy—practices that essentially followed this pattern:

• Assign a classic text to class, a text that was standard for all students in that grade.

• Teach the students the authoritative interpretation of that text.

• Test the students on the text and assign a critical essay on the text, an essay that repeated back to the teacher the authoritative interpretation the teacher had taught the students (who primarily never read the text).

This traditional approach to text and writing has remained standard in the teaching of English (especially during the accountability era), and it exposes the essential flaw with coercion in education—and when my daughter came against this in her high school experience, I chose to speak with the principal (also a former colleague as well as teacher of mine) instead of confronting the teacher herself.

My daughter and her classmates had submitted their first essays, a culmination of the process I outlined above, and the teacher had marked those essays, returned them, and then proceeded to walk the students through the essay on the overhead, directing the students to revise their pieces in a uniform way to produce the essay the teacher required. When I carefully explained that I found the practice to be doing far more harm than good for students, the principal responded with a comment that I consider central to what is wrong with the school reform movement we face today; she said, exasperated, “Paul, if the students can’t do what they are told, how are they supposed to make any decisions for themselves?”

This principal, an educator and person for whom I have tremendous respect, sat there trapped in an ideology that resonates with most people in authority: Humans must suffer compliance in order to earn their autonomy.


You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).

My university colleague Nita Schmidt and I examined a central element in the accountability era driven by standards and testing—scripted teaching and learning. [1] While our focus was on literacy at all levels of K-12 education, we found that much of education policy and calls for reform was grounded in the same ideology expressed by my daughter’s high school principal above: Education aimed at individual freedom and democracy was somehow supposed to spring from an education system in which teachers and students were mandated to follow tight scripts, were labeled by mechanistic tests, and were ultimately to be held accountable for their ability to be compliant.

Speaking within the current accountability era begun in the early 1980s, Freire (1998) warned well before No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the recent acceleration of accountability under President Obama:

"The freedom that moves us, that makes us take risks, is being subjugated to a process of standardization of formulas, models against which we are evaluated. We are speaking of that invisible power of alienating domestication, which attains a degree of extraordinary efficiency in what I have been calling the bureaucratizing of the mind." (p. 111) [2]
Education reformers—such as Secretary Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee—as well as administrators, such as my daughter’s principal, are trapped within authoritarian paradigms (as distinct from authoritative paradigms inherent in critical pedagogy [3]) that reflect, ultimately, a debased view of human nature and the teaching/learning dynamic within a commitment to social justice, human agency, and democracy.

Like the principal’s sincere question above, one of the most powerful themes in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale resonates with me each time I address the fatal flaw of coercion in schooling and the lives of children. In Atwood’s dystopian novel, the main character June/Offred speaks to the reader from beyond two distinct lives—one lived much as we view twentieth-century living as normal and one as an oppressed handmaid whose sole reason for living is to become pregnant in order to repopulate the dwindling Caucasian race within a theocracy sprung from a somewhat nebulous human-made apocalypse.

June appears to have been a compassionate and decent person in her normal life before the rise of Gilead; the reader has evidence that June loves deeply her daughter, leaves the necessary killing of the family pet to her husband, and clings to her love for her husband despite some undertones that fidelity between any couple is tenuous at best.

Well into her reduced life as Offred, however, the reader encounters a June who fantasizes about stabbing another human being with knitting needles and feeling the blood run warm over her hand. This chilling scene, narrated by June/Offred herself, is matter-of-fact and feels disturbingly reasonable in the context of her oppressed existence.

Atwood’s narrative, although speculative fiction [4], dramatizes for us the essential failure of coercion as a central element of education. As Kohn has warned, authoritarian discipline and self-discipline [5] produce compliance, not challenging students:

“The idea that we ought to help children become more challenging, more willing to stand up to authority, will seem both curious and objectionable to adults who view kids as too rude, loud, and rebellious already. The central mission of many books (and workshops) on the subject of classroom management is to create a more efficient environment for the teacher to pursue her agenda, and that generally entails heading off inconvenient challenges from students. Of course, this tells us more about the desire for compliance on the part of the people who write and read these books than it does about what children are like.” [6]
Further, we cannot discount what Atwood and Kohn suggest about assumptions concerning human nature at the center of our commitment to education for compliance: Gilead in Atwood’s novel is a Christian theocracy, a government grounded in a belief in Original Sin. As Kohn notes above, authoritarian and scripted approaches to children reveal a faith among those in authority that children (and all humans) are essentially flawed and must be corrected. And therein lies the ultimate paradox of the U.S. as a culture claiming to believe in individual freedom and democracy but institutionalizing its contradictory faith in debased human nature.

If humans are truly born with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then we as a people who embrace human agency and freedom must have faith that humans are essentially good, not slaves to Original Sin. To be a people committed to democracy and individual freedom, we must not embrace a public education system driven by coercion and compliance.

The accountability movement, then, is focusing on “fixing” the people while never considering the failure of the systems:

• When students drop out of our schools, instead of assuming there is something wrong with the children themselves, what are the conditions in our schools and our society that are compelling these children to drop out?

• When student test scores are low, instead of examining the students, what are the flaws in the tests themselves, in the process of testing itself?

• When educators cheat on standardized testing, instead of assuming those teachers to be self-serving and “bad apples,” what in our system of accountability is driving professionals to these behaviors?

• When poverty proves time and again to be the primary determining factor in student outcomes, instead of trying to remediate the children living in poverty, what are the social forces creating lives of poverty for those children and their families?

As Atwood’s novel shows us, to abdicate our faith in human agency to some authority is to abdicate our humanity. June as a free human is kind and loving—oppressed and coerced, she is debased and murderous.

The public discourse about education and education reform, then, must confront the contradictions being championed by the new reformers, all speaking from lives of privilege and authority:

• People in authority who promote coercion—“no excuses” charter schools, standards, testing, rubrics—are in fact stating that freedom and autonomy are for the elite only, not for those Others who must be compelled to comply. [The paradox of authoritarian ideology is that humans are flawed and must be corrected, but that begs the question, Who then can be the authority if all humans are flawed?] Human freedom, then, is not a basic right of all people, but something earned within the guidelines and purview of the ruling elite.

• If we are genuinely people committed to democracy and individual freedom, and if we genuinely believe universal public education is essential for that democracy and freedom to thrive, then we must reject education policy and practices that are committed to coercion and not human agency.

U.S. public education and current calls for education reform are committed to maintaining the authority of the elite—not ensuring a thriving democracy, not honoring human dignity and agency.

We are raising birds in cages and demanding that they earn the right to fly.

We are raising pit bulls to fight and putting them to sleep for their violence.

We are forcing children to sit down, shut up, do as they are told, and then wondering why they can’t think for themselves. . .

We need to look in the mirror of public education and see ourselves for who we are, not what we claim to be.


[1] Schmidt, R., & Thomas, P. L. (2009). 21st century literacy: If we are scripted, are we literate? Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

[2] Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Trans. P. Clarke. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

[3] Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

[4] Atwood, M. (2005). Writing with intent: Essays, reviews, personal prose: 1983-2005. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers.

[5] Kohn, A. (2008, November) Why self-discipline is overrated: The (troubling) theory and practice of control from within. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(3), 168-176. Retrieved 20 August 2009 from http://www.alfiekohn.org/...

[6] Kohn, A. (2004, November). Challenging students . . . And how to have more of them. Phi Delta Kappan. Retrieved 15 November 2008 from http://www.alfiekohn.org/...

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Originally posted to plthomasEdD on Wed Jul 27, 2011 at 08:01 AM PDT.

Also republished by Education Alternatives and Community Spotlight.

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